THE BARD OF TYSOE (‘Uneven Stephen’, to his few friends)
Stephen is of indeterminate middle- to old-age. He looks like a tramp trying to dress like a teenager (and failing). He writes to survive; but is unsure why people – or how many of them – read his ‘essays’. He is less clever than he believes; and uses long words to impress – as well as a defence mechanism. He walks with a limp (and a stick); and his politics also lean leftwards – alarmingly so. His style is all over the damn’ place, though. He is not a woman… – although he can, of course, be played by one (see footnote).
THE BARD OF TYSOE is sitting at a dining table in a small, rural semi-detached cottage. It could be anywhere aspiringly middle-class. It is dark: therefore very late; or too early. There is a cold, half-drunk mug of coffee on the table, within the half-drunk’s arm’s reach. It smells – as does he – of brandy. He is surrounded by play-texts; creased theatre tickets; a dictionary; a thesaurus; the complete works of Shakespeare; boxes of pills; and small squares of almost-illegible (even to him) scribbled notes, in different-coloured inks.
The only light emanates from a small desk-lamp and the iPad he is staring intently into, glasses halfway down his protuberant nose. All that can be heard is a clock ticking; and the sporadic, half-hearted, three-fingered pounding of the well-worn keyboard in front of him. Occasionally, he mutters, as he attempts to write. Frequently, he swears. Eventually, a percussive rhythm is established: and he speaks the words aloud as he types.
The daft thing is… that I knew what I was walking into: that I knew that walking through those doors would mean having my brains beaten and scrambled like an oversized egg (an ostrich egg?); my heart eviscerated, then macerated, before being cleverly reassembled and reinstated, yet soggy: a grown-up version of those wonky papier-mâché bowls we made at primary school. I mean – for goodness’ sake… – I’d not only been there before; but I had personal experience from – if you see what I mean… – the other side of the curtain. (Beat.)
My other half (“partner” sounds so officious…) has cared for girls like Joanne; has witnessed their attempts at self-harm; has felt repeatedly powerless against the destructive dragon of Government insult – no Saint George rode in on a white steed to save fair Sure Start… – felt pained and drained by it all; yet, somehow, responsible… – and I had (therefore) shared in its overwhelming catastrophic affect; held hands with the profound loss of hope and meaning. (He tries to sound actorly.) “My dad was a teacher”, too. (Back to his usual voice.) A council estate comprehensive. It was his voice I therefore heard saying: (His tone of voice changes again.) “The real thing is knowing what’s right, and what’s best. And the difference between the two. They can’t teach you that.” It sounded like something he would – does – say.
(Pause. He wipes a tear from his right eye with his hand; smearing his glasses. He removes them; wipes them clear; puts them back on.)
That was why, (His voice cracks a little.) after gritting my teeth through all that pain (no, (Beat. He smiles.) not saying “nneerrrrr…”, thank you…!) – (His face and voice return to the previous state.) not wanting, sat on the front row, to distract; to even make contact… – why, finally, all those tears flowed. And wouldn’t stop. (Beat.) “I cry too easily,” I’d said to the lovely, patient, lady next to me. But this wasn’t easy – how could it be…? This was so true to life, so real. This was hard as fuck… (sorry) – because this happens every day. A thousand times. Every. Single. Day. And, even though we know who is to blame… – (Beat.) what is it: cowardice; lack of thought; prejudice; better-the devil-you-know; laziness, even…? – even though we know who, we won’t get rid of the buggers. We won’t. And we don’t.
Some of us tried. God knows. (Look at my Twitter avatar: and read the small print.) But not enough. (Not enough people. Not enough effort.) And, now, even those we thought could at least pull together some rusty foil and a donkey – I know: shit Don Quixote reference (just to show I ‘get’ theatre, okay?) – are pulling themselves to pieces, instead. Thank god for contemporary theatre: it – when it’s this good – understands; it ‘gets’ us – shows that we’re not alone. Not like poor Joanne. Sadly, it too flits in and out of our lives. I, personally, need it on a twenty-four-hour-seven-day-a-week-fifty-two-weeks-of-the-year-for-eternity loop; (Beat.) or at least on speed-dial.
Yes: I know I keep rabbiting on about “theatre as therapy” – but, as someone wiser than I said, earlier today (A brief smile flickers across his face.) (thank you, Ms Wilkey): “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” (Beat.) (I’d never heard this before. And it’s spot on. So credit where it’s due…. (Beat.) Don’t carp: it’s not pretty. It doesn’t suit you.) (Beat.) And, although I fall into both camps… – rather, I hope, than between two stools… (ugh) – yes, the comfort that comes from knowing your worldview isn’t quite as unique as you’d sorta hoped (but really, really, really didn’t want it to be…) isn’t half as thrilling as being further disturbed. (Beat. He looks up: as though gazing at someone across the table; and smiles, lovingly and humorously.) (This is the point where “my other half”, reading this, says that I “was disturbed enough already”. Hence that “further”…! Natch.)
(Pause. Returns to previous state.)
I don’t want to sit easily within my comfort zone. Not that I have had a physical one for quite some time. And it seems my psychological one is creeping along in that one’s shadow, anyway. And not that I know how to sit comfortably, anyhoo. (Beat.) That I sat still for over an hour, in discomfort and discomfit (not that that’s a real word – unless you’re Milton – and, sorry, John, even if it was, it’s not the same as what you may have meant: it just sounded clever in my head… – funny how these things always sound stupid once I open my big gob…). (Beat.) What was I saying? Oh, yeah: that I sat still for over an hour was testament to so many talented women… – yes: I know that sounds patronizing; but I have balls (last time I looked); (He looks down, wistfully.) and, try as I might, I can’t seem to break free of my genetic determinism. (If I’d have just said “genes”, you’d have thought I was trying to throw in one of my stupid puns. So I tried to show just how multifaceted, how bloody clever I was, instead. A lose-lose situation. Just hopefully not for my dangly bits.) (Beat.)
“What does it show?” you ask. (Yes, I can hear the sardonicism: more-than-half-expecting me to put my foot in my mouth again.) Well, I’m no physical contortionist – as those of you who know me will attest… – but I do love to muck around with words: tying my readers up in knots. (No: not like that.) (Beat.) What it shows – I reply… – is that, in some quarters – hoping not to offend… (which I’m bound to do: me being little old little autistic me… – that’s my excuse, etc.) – is that women are, for me, on the whole (please, please don’t go there…) so much more insightful; so much more honest; so much more caring; so much more creative in expressing these things than the typical (whatever that may mean) man. (Note I said “typical”. A typical masculine, feminine-ending, get-out clause.)
Seriously. (Beat.) From where I sit, women have got matters – validity, especially – much more sussed than we men have. (I know I’m stereotyping, here: but this is a sodding review – well, it was meant to be… – not a faux-academic paper on feminism. I’m not qualified for that.) (Beat.) Sadly, though, since the worlds (real or imagined) of Graves’ The White Goddess, their (women’s) position of superiority… – no: I honestly believe, at least creatively, thoughtfully, heartfelt-fully, they are waaaay beyond equality (the word you were probably expecting): they are, sadly, just not recognized for it as much as they should be… – we men (and you can put that in finger-quotes if you so wish) have used our greater physicality to subsume them. (Beat.) But not for much longer.
To be blunt: I don’t want the world to be comfortable, either. (Beat.) Both meanings. (Do I have to spell it out? No. Thought not.) (Beat.) Selfishly, I don’t want it to be comfortable for anybody – having also played my own part in requiring such help as Joanne; such aid… – aid that often never comes; or comes in the wrong size and shape; or time….
(Pause. He gathers his breath, and looks up: as if expecting a thought, or maybe even a magical being, to suddenly appear.)
“I don’t want it to be comfortable for those that are already comfortable” is what I should have said: having fought so hard for myself that it was obviously to the detriment (no doubt) of others – my only weapons (I believed… I believe…) being intelligence and intransigence. (Beat.) But, nearly always – or I wouldn’t be facing these doors in the first place: would I…? – even these, fired at close range, double-barrelled, have not been enough. And when I had called on what I used to be able to rely on – had found myself alone, staring into an abyss, filled with an intolerable echoing vacuum – all I really had were doors like these. So I had no option but to walk through them.
The first time, I hadn’t known what to expect. At all. (Of course.) And that’s how it should be. (Of course.) (Beat.) That big gob of mine was smacked about so hard that I lost my focus, a little; forgot to lip-read; thus missed a few of the jokes. (Beat.) I got the punchline, though. Straight to (and through) my heart, my guts, my head. It hurt so much I had to go back for more. So, in between times, I read the script. More pain. (“More masochism, you mean!”) No lesser impact. (Beat.)
Now I knew all the words; and you’d have assumed, knowing “what I was walking into”, I also knew what to expect. But this is, of course – “as those of you who know me will attest…” – why I try never to go to a play just the once. Yes, I’m deaf. (See above.) Not dumb, though. But even with every single one of your umpteen senses working overtime, you’d still have missed something. (It could be that “punchline”, of course.) And I know I always miss lots of things: because – even over nine visits (He smirks.) (sorry: no links, tonight: so no explanations…) – every repeat visit, each new bruising, sheds new light; brings new detail to the fore. (Beat.) And, when you’ve got a script this stunning (sorry, that’s a crap word: but, currently, it’s all I have…): performed by someone whose every single facial muscle is connected to their most raw, honest emotions through some magical circuit not possessed by us mere mortals; someone who can change convincingly into another’s skin at the flick of a switch; whose voice ranges – emotionally, aurally, tonally, subjectively, geographically… effectively… – wider than the chasm between truth and politics; whose eyes shed glistening tears in harmony with yours… – when all that comes together: you really, really, really want to be there. (Again.)
(Pause. His face, which had seemingly flickered constantly with a mixture of hurt and happiness, now fills with utter confidence. The words come spilling out.)
Yes – oh ye of little faith! – miracles can not only repeat, but grow in power. Lightning strikes twice in your heart and brain: and the pain is more than doubled. The thrill: even more so! (He lowers his voice a little.) (The pain of not being there a third time is one of vacancy. (A crescendo begins….) This pain is one of presence. Of beauty. Of truth. And therefore vice versa. Of being hollowed out; and refilled: with all the pieces not quite fitting any more. Thank god. But it is a thrill.) (Beat. We have reached the top of that build.)
I described it as “electroshock therapy”, after my first time. How do you beat that…? Well, don’t ask me, for heaven’s sake. I was ‘only’ watching. Ask the Muses who made it happen. See if they know. (Beat.) Call it a confluence of sorts. A celestial alignment. Five writers, on bloody fantastic, almost indescribable, form. (His voice drops almost to a whisper…) (That would be multiplicative, rather than summational. He said. Showing off again. With all those long words. (…and then rises again.) “I bet he ate a bloody thesaurus for breakfast.”) (Beat.) A director with more coercive, collegiate magic than all of Hogwarts. (No: that – what you’re thinking… – is not my sodding idea of contemporary sodding theatre, thank you very much.) Designed, lit, directed, managed, produced by a team of genies; a team of geniuses.
(His voice returns to normal.) The Q&A opened a little chink. (Helped, subtly, by The Numinous One.) (Beat.) But these were no rude mechanicals. (Titania, cloned, maybe?) To be honest, I don’t want to see too much of what goes on behind that curtain. My road to enlightenment is rather long. (I’d “rather” like it to be infinite, as well. But that’s not how it works.) And I have not yet taken many steps. (He smirks again.) (And, with a gait like this, it’s gonna take a while!) (Beat. His voice returns to normal again; the confidence draining. The light dims in parallel.)
That Q&A also helped salve some of the pain – in the right sort of way. But rubbing such ointment on your bruises just reminds you that, why, how, they exist. At first. Sadly, I know they will eventually fade. But, until then, I’ll keep rubbing. It’s good for the soul. And – being brutally blunt – it’s a relief to have pain that’s externally inflicted. In fact, it’s cleansing – good for what’s left of your soul… (if you had one in the first place… – unfortunately, those who are comfortable prefer to remain so; they relish being undisturbed…).
(Pause. He looks at his left wrist. His voice is suddenly urgent.)
Bloody hell: is that the time?!
(We hear the sound of a switch being flicked. The lights instantly fade to darkness. Through a window we may not have noticed before, the first light of dawn very faintly outlines him standing, then limping off stage.)
This would almost certainly read and sound a whole lot better were it written by Deborah Bruce, Theresa Ikoko, Laura Lomas, Chino Odimba, and Ursula Rani Sarma. It would be more cohesive and appealing were it then directed by Róisín McBrinn, assisted by Laura Asare; designed by Lucy Osborne, and lit by Emma Chapman; had its sound designed by Becky Smith; was stage-managed by Breege Brennan; and produced by Emma Waslin and Helen Pringle – all mixed in with a little dose of mischief from Erica Whyman and the RSC (whose staff – especially at The Other Place – are, quite possibly, extremely accommodating and helpful wizards).
Sadly, though, I fear not even the awe-inspiring vocal, emotional and physical talents of the goddess that is Tanya Moodie (photographed here by Katherine Leedale) could rescue it from its certain failure as pastiche. You never know, though: she’s so incredibly gifted that she could probably make this rubbish break your heart into a thousand pieces….