‘The little boat of my intellect now sets sail, to course through gentler waters, leaving behind her a sea so cruel. And I will speak of that second region, where the human spirit is purged, and becomes fit to climb to Heaven.‘ * And so began Dante’s journey through Purgatory.
Earlier this year, in February to be precise, I was working on a play in North London for another theatre company. It was a show about demonic possession and mental health issues. It featured a hoard of bizarre unearthly characters and, at the heart of the piece, there was a frenetic underworld scene. It was during these rehearsals that Briony Margaret Frances O’Callaghan approached me about a show she was developing called ‘Mortgage’. (Briony was rehearsing in the demonic show too.)
“It’s sort of about the Divine Comedy,” said Briony. “Well a bit of it. It’s set in a lunatic asylum. There are ghosts and cross dressing. My character’s called Beatrice Gunta Mortgage. She was raised by goats and is the worst stage manager in the world. She skins actors alive! Would you like to be in it?”
“Sounds fun,” I replied.
“Email me your CV. There’s no audition as it’s my company.”
“Are you directing?”
“No, it’s a collaboration. It’s being directed by a guy I’ve worked with before. His name’s David Glass.”
And with that we went back into rehearsals. A world of darkness, ultra violet light, cellos and a huge black coffin like shoe.
The demonic play comes and goes. Interesting feedback and a few nice pics on Facebook. There are goodbye hugs and thank yous as well as me pulling a muscle in my back.
During all this Briony says, “Derek, there’s been a slight change of plan. David’s a bit tied up with productions and meetings and stuff, so we’re going to him. The first two weeks of R&D aren’t in London any more. They’re in Italy. Have you got a passport?”
So next we were in Italy. Siena to be precise. It’s all a bit of a whirlwind really. I’m introduced to Hester Welch, David’s Assistant Director who seems to be doing a hundred different things all at once without fainting. I am also introduced to Valerie Glass, David’s wife, who looks all stunning and chic. There has been a whistle stop tour of the chic cafes and ice-cream parlours of Siena and tomorrow we start rehearsals for Mortgage, but tonight we are in for an extra treat.
I am seated in the front row of the Teatro Dei Rozzi about to watch a scratch performance of ‘The Brides’ by Collettivo Teatro Siena & David Glass Ensemble, directed by David Glass. It seems they do scratch performances a little differently in Italy. The theatre seats approximately six hundred people. The scratch is sold out. The audience, on mass, look expensive and immaculately dressed. There is a feeling of elegant anticipation in the stalls. Sitting on one side of me is Briony and on the other side is theatre producer Natalie Richardson.
On stage the lights brighten to reveal thirteen women in lacy slips and couture bridal gowns who are all waiting expectantly to be fufilled by their beloved groom but only candy floss haired Death is there to keep them company. It is beautiful, exquisite, feminine and poised, to begin with. Then they turn feral and at one point the Brides get their tits out, start screaming dementedly in Italian and, clambering off the stage, run into the audience. They are very loud.
“What are they saying?” I shout at Natalie.
“Cut off all men’s dicks!” Natalie bellows over the wailing bridal harpies. “Are you looking forward to working with David?”
In the rehearsal room David Glass says, “Show me your Kabuki.”
I show him a rough approximation of how I think a Kabuki performer performs because I haven’t got a sodding clue.
“Interesting,” says David. “Dance for me,”
Music plays and I dance. The little voice in my head says, ‘you’re fifty-one years old and you must look like a right prat! I tell the little voice to ‘fuck off’. I’m rather enjoying it all. Hester is taking photos. Some are put on Facebook. They collect a few likes. I keep dancing. I feel oddly liberated.
David says, “You’ve hurt your back.” He is gently feeling my left side around my rib cage. “I think you’ve torn part of your internal oblique muscles. It would be painful. We’ll come up with some stretches and exercises to ease the pain and work on regaining your flexibility.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“And now,” he says, “ we must talk of Artaud and cruelty.”
Briony and I stand at the centre of the rehearsal space. We have been joined by Silvia Bruni, one of David’s Italian Brides. Silvia is one of the most passionate people I have ever met. She is full of stories and wild unkempt hair and anecdotes and energy.
David begins to speak. “You are alone. You are standing, caught, pulled taught, between the earth beneath your feet and the Heavens which ascend above you…” Music plays. Heavenly, sublime, ascending cords and harmonies. “You are alone. You are alone. You are alone.”
And, quite simply, as an Ensemble, Briony, Silvia and I being to cry. The rehearsals of Mortgage have truly begun.
There are workshops, and ice-cream, rehearsals and pizza. There is a little time set aside for sightseeing and a lot of time needed for coffee drinking. We perform our showing. Some of the beautiful Brides are there and so is beautiful Val. Briony, Silvia and I are nervous. The showing begins. I can’t pronounce my characters name ‘Doctor Sisyphus Esculapio’, ‘Doctor Sissyfuss Escupachio’, ‘Doctor Siddius Epicashioo’. I can hear David laughing. Then Silvia’s wig, rather dramatically, falls off. The showing is over. Everyone is pleased. There is a pizza supper waiting for us all, a farewell treat from the ever loving Brides.
We are now back in London, Canary Warf and at the Theatre Deli.
David says, “We have no Silvia! Let us work with other people.”
And so a parade of friends come along to visit the rehearsals for a day and have a play in a play. Norma is there, chatting about marriage and part time jobs, only to find herself saying goodbye to existence as she entered the lunatic asylum as a patient. And then comes along handsome, handsome, handsome and talented, and did I mention handsome, Sebastiano who plays with bandages and wheelchairs and becomes another demented doctor. Kailing (who was in cello shoe play too), ex-gymnast now dancer, is there using her movement skills to be born again as if from an egg, a fetus, living, growing, maturing, then falling into decline and finally to die. And there is Simon. Simon Gleave. Quiet, composed, deeply playful and with a very infectious smile.
“Ah,” says David. “Simon.”
We need wigs and red dresses so I call an old friend of mine, Martin Ramsdin. A man of many wigs to many west end shows and also one very special lady, Horror Hostess extraordinaire Bunny Galore. Martin has wigs, a red dress, and very kindly, he also has the time to help.
There is an informal showing at Theatre Deli in Liverpool Street. David, Briony, Hester, Simon, Martin, Val and myself are there. Friends turn up to watch. There is an introductory speech by David, laughter as we perform, a chat with the audience after, and then it is down to the pub for more talking over pints and smiles. There are more Facebook likes.
And so to Exeter for the final week of research and development. Hosting us are The Bikeshed and The Exeter Phoenix where I bump into one of my old art tutors from my days in Exeter, Jem Southam, who is now one of the UK’s leading landscape photographers! Jem looks at me and says “Out of all the ex students I’ve bumped into you’re a veteran. You go back a long long way.” I feel old. The moment passes.
At the end of the week it is an intimate showing to a select few, and low key celebration with veggie pasta. ‘Mortgage’s spine has been created. The heart of her story found.’ This part of the journey has come to an end and, for me, it is a very early Sunday morning train back to London and home.
The summer is full of birthdays and auditions, meeting up with old friends and fighting the weeds in the garden, low budget filming and going to the gym. Then David emails me with a question. Would you like to be in my production of ‘Bleak House’? I email back. Yes.
Bath Spa and ‘Bleak House’. Simon is there, new friends are made and relationships forged (Gavin, Zoe, Amiee P, Amiee K, Charlotte, Penny, Tommy, Jade and Jake and Matt too. I love you all!). Some of the Italian Brides, Silvia, Rita and Margherita fly over. Producer Natalie is there helping and being encouraging – at one point she’s mopping up the stage and shouting compliments as she does so! What a lady! Briony pops down, Hester comes along and my Richard travels down for the day too. Brilliant photographs are taken by Robert Golden. The David Glass Ensemble’s ‘Bleak House’ makes it’s debut at Bath Spa along with a surprise guest appearance of Simon’s bottom! Silvia, who, to show her appreciation after watching one performace, bit my ear really hard!
‘Bleak House’ comes and goes. There is applause, Facebook likes, amazing comments, emojis, and friendship requests. There are goodbye hugs and laughter. Back home I slept like a baby.
Now it is October. The autumn sky is bright and clear. Once again we are meeting up to talk of Dante, Purgatory and ‘Mortgage’. Once again we go into rehearsals this time at The Omnibus in Clapham, whose Artistic Director is Marie McCarthy. I worked with Marie years ago. She is standing at the theatre door as I arrive. “I thought it was going to be you!” she says, laughing. Joining us is Ellie Rose, as Assistant Producer. Ellie does five and a half week’s worth of ‘getting up to speed’ in less than twenty minutes and doesn’t miss a beat!
David is so busy, spending half his time working on ‘This Changes Everything’, half the time on ‘Mortgage’ and the third half on whatever else is going on in David’s expansive diary and mind. There are workshops held on the Theatre of Cruelty and new Facebook friends are made.
And so to October 28th 2017, London, The Pleasance Theatre, and a two hour tech, six pages of dialogue to be learnt on the day plus a performance to be performed that evening.
David says, “Don’t expect laughter. There may be some, there may not. If there is, give it space. If not, that’s fine too.”
We are second in a one off double bill this evening. The first half is a man in a coffin. He is singing operatic poetry, in German, about being dead. When he finishes he gets a lot of whooping applause. Now it is our turn. Friends and colleagues are there. My Richard and David’s Val. Briony’s Mum, Hester’s boyfriend. The whole cast of Bleak House have turned up too.
And as we get to beginners the fire alarm begins to wail. In the bar the audience think it is part of the performance. All very immersive, evacuating a theatre before seeing a show about a woman who has just burnt down a theatre. The audience leave for the assembly point laughing and chatting. We leave the theatre space cursing, barefoot, dragged up and somewhat bewildered. It is a real evacuation. Someone had burnt a slice of toast in the restaurant below the theatre, setting off the alarm.
The all clear is given. The audience are ushered back into the auditorium. The lights brighten. The performance begins.
On leaving Purgatory Dante wrote, ‘Reader, if I had more space to write, I would speak, partially at least, about that sweet drink, which would never have sated me: but because all the pages determined for the second Canticle are full, the curb of art lets me go no further.’ *
The performance ends. There is laughter, applause and a bow. Afterwards we drink, we talk, we celebrate.
And so Mortgage Beatrice Gunta is here at the precipice of a new life, a new existence. With the guiding hands of The David Glass Ensemble & Created a Monster, and all the wonderful, talented and eclectic people mentioned in this one tale, plus, of course, Dante himself, yes, with all these people supporting her, Mortgage is now waiting to be purged. To be healed. She is ready to climb to the stars. Reborn, Mortgage is about to ascend to the Heavens…
* Quotes from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri a translation into English Prose by A S Kline
With thanks to Max Horberry-Gracia for the photography.