One Man in his Life

Last week I turned into an old man. Now, before you start going on about how young I look and kicking up a fuss about 23 and a quarter being the new 21 and a half, let me be very clear that this week I seem to have turned back again.

It was all very peculiar.

It started the day I lost my hearing. No – that’s an exaggeration. I didn’t lose it. I knew where it was. I just couldn’t lay my hands on it at the time. It would be more accurate to say that I’d left my hearing in my other trousers – where it was presumably listening to the jangle of pound coins. Suffice it to say, I didn’t have it on me.

All I could hear, from either auricular orifice, was an all-enveloping throbbing – presumably attributable to the circulation of blood through the earlobes. Something was clearly blocked. It may have had something to do with the cold I’d been sedulously nursing all through the summer months, then again it might not. I cannot say. I am no otorhinolaryngologist. Then again, I can barely say otorhinolaryngologist. All I can say with certainty is that it felt like I’d been chewing on cotton candy with my ears.

With the sort of tragic inevitability which would have made old King Oedipus say “I saw that coming!” and roll whatever was left of his eyes, that was the night I had tickets to the theatre. Not, as it happens, to see the aforementioned family-friendly Sophoclean saga, but rather to watch the RSC’s latest production of Julius Caesar.

‘Watch’ in this case being the operative word. With my ears less receptive than a much-mocked brand of mobile telephones, I was unlikely to be doing much hearing worthy the name of honour. And thanks to the coughing brought on by my cold – which, I was told with some force by an usher, was very much not as quiet as it seemed in my head – those around me were unlikely to be hearing much either.

Which is how I found myself sitting in row L of the Noel Coward theatre with a pack of Werther’s Originals in one hand and a hearing aid in the other. The latter to work around whatever unseen gunk was blocking up my sinuses, the former to prevent me coughing it up all over row K.

“This is great!” I shouted to my companions while unwrapping a mint. “I can hear everything.” I settled down more comfortably in my seat. A sudden blackness filled the auditorium. I looked around, confused. “Why have they turned the lights out?” I asked in a stage whisper like Brian Blessed laughing into a vuvuzela. My neighbour turned around and switched the hearing aid on for me. The play had started.

It may come as a surprise to you to learn that theatres stock hearing aids. I have no wish to indulge in generalities, but the Noel Coward theatre most certainly does. For a simple deposit of pound coins (also, infuriatingly, left in my other trousers), you can be given the magical power to control the volume of other people’s speech. A remote control for live theatre, if you will, with the ability to amplify the action on stage. Except, by virtue of the strategic placing of the microphones, it also amplifies the coughing in the front row. Thus making a professional production by one of the foremost theatrical ensembles in the land sound like a scratchy VHS of a school nativity play.

But there is nothing like the sight of someone less fortunate than ourselves to remind us of how lucky we really are. When the great Julius Caesar, striding imperiously across the stage in Act I Scene ii, calls out to Anthony

Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,

my heart bled for him. Have this hearing aid, I nearly cried. Borrow it for as long as you need. I’ll come back for it on March 16th.

But by the time the thought had crossed my mind, Caesar had crossed the stage and duly vanishèd. When next I saw him on the way to the Capitol in Act II scene iii, he was otherwise engaged and it seemed rude to interrupt.

Not having had to do any rendering unto Caesar, I was able to make full use of the hearing aid for the remainder of the show. And while wearing it did on occasions make me feel like the oldest of old men, that was as nothing to the sensation experienced when it finally came off. The world slowly began to seep back in, and polystyrene packaging once more filled up my eustachian tubes. Suddenly deprived of the ability to raise the public decibels at will, I felt like something out of the climactic scene of Dorian Gray.

Aged beyond all recognition, I shuffled towards the cloakroom to return the headset. Once confronted with the attractive young attendant, I accused her of mumbling and loudly asked her to speak up. I refrained from telling her that things had been better in my day, but it was quite a struggle.

Gloomily resigned to a premature senility, I left the theatre and fumbled at the wrapper of another boiled sweet. I wedged it between two of my remaining molars and squeezed until I heard a satisfying crack, letting my tongue feel the jagged edges of the two fractured halves. I smiled resignedly, well aware that the smooth, buttery silkiness would never last the long walk home. Oh well. Such are the Werthers of young sorrows.

What the Uncle Saw

We are all of us, I think, familiar with the image of the benevolently patronising uncle. I know I am, having filled the role to glowing acclaim in three separate productions of nieces and two moving renditions of nephews.

In the early days of the run, I should say, the audience was not particularly difficult to please. The material was new and provocative, the comic routines still fresh and entertaining. A brief routine structured around the waggling of an eyebrow was wont to set the children’s table at a roar. The simultaneous waggling of both was enough to precipitate an impromptu comfort break.

But over time, as is the way in this business, the material grew stale and the audience’s attention began to wander. And so, in an attempt to reignite something of the old flame, I would feign an interest in whatever visually appealing bauble was closest to hand. All too often, I would languidly dangle some captivating though pointless trinket in front of their eyes, supposing my bored expression would be blurred and out of focus behind the object of their desires.

But there came, in turn, for each of my five nephlings, an age at which their gaze looked beyond the watch or mobile telephone or extension lead dangling between our faces, and their eyes visibly uncrossed in order to look more sternly at my true expression. And a cloud of disapproval began to spread across their faces like a spoonful of cocoa in milk, outraged that I should be putting on a performance for their benefit. That what had been the undisrupted focus of their interest was for me but a trifling plaything with which I deceitfully and maliciously sought to distract and entertain them.

I do not try this any more. The wails of a young audience are apt to induce sympathetic resonance on even the toughest of heartstrings. But my maturity as a performer has also taken place because I have learned what it is like to be on the other side of the extension lead. I have myself learned how it feels to see, in the fuzzy hinterland behind the immediate object of my attention, expressions of patronising malice seeking to entertain and distract me only long enough as serves its purpose.

And it is not a pleasant realisation. In fact, if there is one lesson I could give my five nephews and nieces – assuming they will ever look me in the eye again – it would be to teach them to beware. To teach them that a quick glance past the colonnaded facade is often enough to spot the mould stains on the inner landing and the wet rodent footprints on the kitchen countertops.

The truth of this was driven home to me last week when a friend introduced me to the work of the English dramatist Joe Orton. “What the Butler Saw”, a comedy now running at London’s Vaudeville theatre, is a play which held a mirror up to the 1960s society in which it was written. Before breaking the mirror over its knee and stabbing 1960s society in the eye with a shard.

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But the opening minutes give no sign of this underlying brutality. The first act begins at a brisk and fluid pace, bristling with the sort of epigram that led to Joe Orton being called “the Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility.” This feels like the traditional English farces of old – all vicars, knickers and snickers – with overly strained visual gags and ludicrous plot contrivances to match. The appreciative crowd goes into the interval expecting no more than a highly conventional, if slightly dated, example of this British theatrical form. The bauble has proven alluring enough to entirely overwhelm our depth of field.

But it is in the second act that the zoom lens of our concentration slowly begins to readjust its focus. The laughter which bursts from our lungs at the sight of Omid Djalili wildly brandishing a revolver collapses in our throats as we see his blood-stained costars, and needs to be defibrillated in our mouths as the situation becomes ever more horrifyingly entangled. Without relenting for a second in pace or freneticism, farce has become tragedy. This is Kafka as adapted for the stage by Mel Brooks.

And then we come to the dénouement. A conclusion which involves not so much a mere Deus Ex Machina as a veritable mechanised Pantheon. Every convention normally employed by farce to achieve an aesthetically satisfying resolution is remorselessly lampooned. The genre itself, which for two hours or more has held us in a state of willing disbelief, is now being pulled out from under our feet. The facade has crumbled and the concealed graffiti is beginning to peek through the cracks.

And the joke is on us. For investing emotion in the characters; for expecting rationality from Art; for seeking to erect a dividing line between farce and tragedy. The bauble has been snatched away and the sneering, impatient face of Joe Orton is now only too plain to see. How foolish of us to suppose that the happy endings we graft on to the end of our theatrical farces should be any less contrived than our daily attempts to create order out of chaos.

Joe Orton was not a happy man, and this is by no means a happy play. The very finality of its concluding scene is a reflection on the artificiality of such decisive endings. Discrete passages of life are not marked by the abrupt descending of a curtain, and any work of art which attempts to show otherwise is perpetuating an irresistible collective delusion.

What The Butler Saw, in 100 odd minutes of dialogue and 88 very odd pages of text, shows us the true futility attendant on the attempt to lead a structured life. Chaos is inevitable, and the attempts we make to master it are so ludicrous as to be simultaneously farcical and tragic. It is not an easy play to digest, but at the same time it is all too easy to swallow.

And while I would highly recommend it to any of my readers, don’t think I’ll be taking any of my nephlings any time soon.