One of the regrets of my life is that I’ve not been able to travel the world, to see the Terracotta Army in situ guarding a Chinese paranoiac who makes Pol Pot look like Daddy Pig; to walk the secretive mountains of Montana and Kentucky; to ride on the magic rusting and dilapidated Nilgiri mountain railway of Tamil Nadu, surrounded by spectacular views and beautiful people; to gape at the geological wonders of New Zealand. I still hope to win the lottery in order to have someone chauffeur me round Italy for a month; the world’s richest food, deepest wines, spectacular countryside and several rather fine paintings – all together in one place.
Still, I’d at least been to France and Spain by 1966 as part of my university course, and considered myself quite the latter-day Marco Polo, having hitched from Cherbourg to Morocco and back for a 12-pint bet; yet I’d never been further north in my own land than Edgware. Then Southampton University Drama Group took a couple of productions to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Four of us (one of whom was John Nettles – whatever happened to him?) set out in a Mini from the Highfield Campus and drove the 430 miles in around 12 hours, puttering mostly up the A1 with the benefit of no more than 21 miles of motorway. And even fewer toilets.
For ten days the players and stage crew slept on the floors of a massive condemned tenement by the university with no electricity and only a couple of cold water taps. We played moderately successfully to audiences of around 20 in Morningside Village Hall. Fifty years ago the Fringe was manageable, almost cosy, and you could see most of what was on offer over the three weeks if you worked at it. The University of Southern California staged a glorious Pal Joey, a hilarious Archie and Mehitabel, and Le Boeuf sur le Toit whose visual tricks and trompe-l’oeil I still can’t work out. These were just students like ourselves, only far better financed. And taller. I saw each production three times. Yet the performance I recall most I saw only the once, and it wasn’t USC but the now long-forgotten Oxford Theatre Group, in a bog-standard hall, sitting on those canvas and tubular metal chairs, no raked auditorium. And this was if not a First Night, then a First Week of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead.
I went purely because I’d studied Hamlet and the title was intriguing. Tom Stoppard was unknown to me and 98% of the rest of the audience. I don’t know what I expected, but I was left laughing, exhilarated, high as a kite, wondering just how much of what I’d heard I’d really understood, but as certain as only a 20 year-old can be that This Play Would Do Well. That that particular 20 year-old had some insight was proven a couple of nights ago, over fifty years on, when I saw the National Theatre’s live-screened performance and ended up laughing, exhilarated, high as a k….etc. Yet it was, astonishingly, only the second live performance of it I’d seen. And now there was more to the play than I’d been aware of for so many years.
Maybe it comes with age, but this time I suddenly felt the vertigo, the panic and the claustrophobia that lie behind the lunatic situations, the brilliant wordplays, the flashing logic ad absurdam, the plethora of blink-and-you-missed-me ideas. The terror behind the laughter. In 1966 I’d been entranced by the conceit that neither character knew for sure his own or his friend’s name; by the cleverness of the way the “real” Hamlet would suddenly intrude into this play and then sweep out again, leaving increasing lack of understanding in his wake; by the genius of a verbal tennis match that suddenly springs up for a few minutes, words volleying shimmering from stage left to stage right, with immediately understandable rules and the playing skills of McEnroe and Connors; by the clarity of the complex exploration of the laws of probability, and the gleeful invention of the sandwich.
But now Death seemed a fourth character, introduced and re-presented time and again by The Player (a magnificent David Haig), initially humorously but then preying with increasing fear on the minds of two amiable lads whom we’ve grown to like. Everything must contain blood, it’s compulsory and most things end in death. There’s a speech about being in a box and whether you’d mind being in one, unless you were dead in which case you wouldn’t mind, but then minding wouldn’t have occurred to you anyway as you’re dead in a box…. etc which is, I now think, not so much clever and amusing as a young man’s choking attempt to come to terms with death’s finality. Even the death of the Player isn’t the reality they take it for. But at least, unlike the blood-soaked carnage of the end of Hamlet, their departure, here on-stage, is a gentler going into that good night. “Now you see me. Now you…..”. The way you’d like these recent new friends of yours to leave. And you and I ourselves, of course.
I think I’d better get to Italy.