I was once forced to go see an Alan Bennett play entitled Kafka’s Dick. It was with my writers’ group. Why on earth had this group of fusty, elderly people – most of them, I have to say, considerably older and fustier than I – chosen for their annual outing a play about a literary gentleman’s body-part? They may of course have assumed Dick was a close friend of Kafka, that strange novelist, more famous for accidentally becoming a beetle overnight.
It was just dire – and I do appreciate Alan Bennett’s gifts. I particularly enjoyed his Talking Heads sequence on TV. There was a lot of giant scenery that didn’t seem to represent anything but kept being twizzled round; I couldn’t follow at all what was going on, and to cap it all there was this tortoise – a mechanical tortoise that seemed to be under the actors’ feet all the time. I have no idea what the significance of the tortoise might have been vis-a-vis the plot, which I also had no idea about, but I spent the whole play in a fret in case one of the actors might accidentally take a step backwards and tread on it. Metal shards and clockwork everywhere. Because if that happened I might laugh; and might not be able to stop laughing.
I was sat next to Dora, who was faded gentry. In the interval I confided in her my difficulty with plays – live plays, that is. I can read a book and be totally involved. People have to wave their hands in front of my face to bring me back – from Hogwarts, or wherever. I can watch a play on television – that’s fine too. But I fail completely when it comes to either radio plays or live performances.
Radio plays – I can just always imagine the man with the cocoanuts pretending to be the horses’ hooves; the man with the tiny door that creaks, pretending to be the full-size door of some haunted castle, and the man shuffling around in a litter tray pretending to be footsteps on a gravelled drive.
Live plays – it’s the fact that the actors are real. They look as if they’re on television, way down in the distance (we always seem to get the cheap seats right up in the rafters – and that’s another thing – vertigo) but they’re alive – I know they’re alive – and I can ‘hear’ them pretending. The acting just doesn’t work, when they’re really there. And I’m terrified someone will forget their lines and there’ll be an awkward silence, and then a little voice from somewhere below their feet, stage-whispering the words. I can’t bear it.
“It’s because you didn’t grow up going to the theatre,” Dora said, kindly. She means I’m working class, I thought. She can tell.
Unfortunately, it’s not just plays: it’s anything on a stage. Ballet – I mean, it’s beautiful, magnificent and wonderful, but it’s people in tights and tutus prancing about and… And yet on telly, I can watch a ballet till the cows come home.
As for opera. Well to be honest I can’t abide opera whichever medium it happens to be infesting. It has the same effect on me as football; an instant grab at the remote control. It’s something about the voices, all that trilling and bellowing, just can’t get into it. And yet I love classical music.
However, what I do enjoy about going to plays, is the company of my friend, N. I used to work for N but now I mostly see her once a year. Since neither of us is a natural conversationalist we tend to go to a play, which gives us something to talk about over coffee afterwards. The enjoyment is not so much in the play as in the silent, shared amusement a really badly-acted play can generate.
We tend to go to the University theatre, where the plays are performed by drama students. The one before last was a Greek Comedy, the Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. N muttered something about having received a telephone message from the theatre the previous day, warning her the performance might not be suitable for children. Obviously not everyone had thought to check their answerphones, because there were quite a few of the little dears in the audience, some as young as eight or ten. As to the play – my entire memory is of the enormous stuffed pink phalluses that popped up from under every short, frilly Ancient Greek male skirt at intervals. And the student-actors kept falling over – hay-bales, their own feet – any excuse to perpetrate even more comic stuffed-phallus-popping-outing.
We didn’t look at one another, but at coffee afterwards there was quite a bit of spluttering.
The one before that was the same student faculty attempting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Behind a wobbly cardboard tree, centre stage, we could see part of a largish, green-tighted thigh and a wisp or two of purple net. After a while we realised that other fairies were concealed behind other woodland furniture, pretending not to be there. As these large young ladies emerged from their leafy concealment and began to flutter about, N leant sideways in her seat and murmured –
“Some fairly substantial fairies.”