The Herald, Scotland 16 November 1999
Bring on the clowns
“Tell your friend to put his pants on and step outside.”
The policeman’s torch had flashed from the crotch of Mr Peter Grimes, who was sat in the front of my car, to me, who lay half asleep (and half naked) under a duvet in the back.
Let me explain the situation. No, please.
Theatre types’ come in all shapes and sizes. There are the grand dames and sirs who wear spangly shawls and silly shorts and hang out at awards ceremonies, where the champers is simply Elizabethan, darling. There are the shaven-headed Britpackers, so cutting edge they can surreptitiously blend into arts centre designer furniture, scaring the living daylights out of potential punters when they suddenly move. Usually to Prague. There’s… no. We all know the stereotypes.
Two grown men in a dark street, in a 1977 canary yellow VW Polo (my grandfather’s). Parked within spitting distance of the Prime Minister’s Islington residence. Allo allo allo. “But I have a wife and three kids,” blusters Mr Grimes in his thick Dundonian accent, as I step barefoot onto the cold pavement. I’m sure Officer hasn’t heard that one before.
“Mr Spencer Hazel, yellow Polo, registration number…” Once my vital statistics have been radioed through to HQ, I offer our second line of defence: “But we’re only working on a show.” I hear the distant sound of cell doors slamming. Clunk. While we wait for Ms Marple on the other end to work her way through my files, I spill the beans to our friendly officer. Mr Grimes had come down to London to discuss a theatre project we were going to be working on; I was living in my car across the road from where I was rehearsing with another company, because I couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else; Mr Grimes had come back to ‘my place’ for a coffee and had decided to stop over.
Now, if I could offer any advice to ladies or gentlemen of the night, or anyone else who has dubious dealings in motor vehicles it would have to be this: have some play scripts on you, even if everything else comes off. At the first mention of theatre, the stern face of the law relaxes. It’s suddenly a most plausible story, no questions asked. Of course: two clowns, one car, dead of night, theatre. Had I said that we were a psychiatric nurse and a canoeing instructor (which is also true), I wonder how different the reaction would have been. Are we considered to be members of the same species?
Two months on, and Hazel & Grimes’ Circus, by Edinburgh-based Boilerhouse, sees its premiere this Wednesday. It’s the greatest show on earth! That is all the plugging I’m going to do, because let’s face it, we’ll all be watching the football instead. Or seeing something at the pictures, or going a few rounds with Super Mario or, well just about anything, really. Fact is, as a nation we’re not that interested in theatre anymore. It doesn’t seem to be part of the fabric that makes up our day-to-day living. It exists in a world of its own, with laws unto itself. To most of us, 19th century Russian aristocrats watching trees grow is about as engaging as listening to a self-obsessed performance artist express the suffering of… being a self-obsessed performance artist.
This is where I get a bit angry-youngish-man. As long as theatre shows little to no interest in the outside world, why the hell should the outside world be interested in it. Theatre needs to start taking note of its time. It needs to find those things that need to be spoken, and it has to find the language of its time to speak them (that doesn’t include new writing in the style of yesteryear). As it is, place the bulk of British theatre next to the internet, genetic engineering, MTV, cows in formaldehyde, and 3D Doritos, and it doesn’t take Lara Croft to figure out which sticks out like a kipper tie at an Underworld gig.
Theatre can be the best thing going. A group of people coming together and bouncing some ideas around. Having a few laughs. Shedding a few tears. Seeing things about themselves and where they live in ways they’ve never been shown before. We live in this big frigging beautiful circus. There’s so much that can be said about it and its people. So many perspectives we could show.
If, however, we continue heading off into this wasteground of marginalization and irrelevance, there won’t be anyone out there to share it with. Dinosaurs become extinct. Theatre must evolve at the same pace as its competition, if it doesn’t want to carry on being considered a lost world populated by strange tribes.
By now the policeman’s quite chatty. He used to want to work in theatre, but ended up getting a proper job instead. We laugh. I think Mr Grimes and I have got ourselves off the hook. Officer asks if we hadn’t seen him coming? I point to the car and, placing my now frostbitten foot firmly in my mouth, say, “No, as you can see the windows are… quite… steamed… up…” Clunk. It’s a really good show, by the way. Treat yourself. Go on.