LOVE'S A VAGRANT
NEWTON PRIMARY SCHOOL in south London is overcrowded in the daytime, more so at 7 pm when grown-ups keen to better themselves replace the children. Descendants of immigrant stock, apparently ignorant of the popular canard that they exist only to create ghettos for themselves, have swollen the numbers signing up for Advanced C++ or Archaeology up to the Cambrian. So much so that certain classes must now share spaces and risk cross-fertilisation: Tax Law’s severities being modified by the broader brush of Comparative Theology.
This social contiguity brings logistical problems. Newton is one of London's densest boroughs and for years the evening emptiness of the school playground had seemed so tempting. Until, that is, the borough realised its potential and rented out the tarmac temporarily, first come first served, to harassed nightclass drivers who didn't care to park half a mile away.
But only early-birds profited. James Partridge, late as usual, could find no berth for his ageing Ssangyong and was further enraged to discover a large SUV wastefully bestriding two slots. Slowing as he drove past he noted a familiar registration. The cow! Typical! Perhaps the patch of grass he'd used before at the Nelson Mandela block of high rise flats would still be unoccupied.
Even so his inconveniences would be worth it. His interest centred on the Newton Quadrennial Festival for which the borough had granted disproportionate rehearsal facilities at the school. Twelve years ago local councillors in the "deprived" sometimes "troubled" borough discovered that inadequate public affairs could be excused or at least disguised under the slogan Newton Has Aspirations. Festivals were then currently fashionable and lottery money had financed the borough's first faltering steps at selling culture to its taxpayers. That festival, which added up to little more than a water-colour competition and some half-hearted DIY folk songs, had failed but failure only seemed to encourage those who distributed lottery largesse. A second festival had included a sprinkling of rock and had launched the brief career of a group then called Mahogany Newt, later gratefully extended to The Mahogany Newtons. Eighteen months later half the Newtons perished in a fiery Transit crash on the M11 but not before their evanescence had been recognised nationally. More cash became available for the third festival, currently in preparation, and this time the organisers had bravely added poetry. James Partridge, nominally an actor, had rarely risen above drinking beer and saying nothing in that mythical pub, The Rover's Return, but had kept body and soul together by employing his sonorous voice on poetry CDs and, even more marginally, on late-night BBC Radio 3. He had high hopes of the Newton Quadrennial.
Rehearsals for Love Poetry A&M, the two-handed recital Partridge was co-partnering, occupied the whole of the school's canteen and after chairs and tables had been stacked on the serving counter there was enough "depth" in the cleared floor area to cause positioning squabbles between the two actors and their director. As he entered through the kitchen door Partridge was already assembling just such an argument only to find events had moved on.
"An easy chair would be better," said Jill in a voice as ungiving as glass.
"Two plain kitchen chairs," said Tancred. "No distractions. We agreed that on day one."
"But this verse of Duffy's luxuriates in the senses. A hard chair would be at odds."
"Five minutes later and you'll be switching to Synge and his funeral. How would a Parker-Knoll fit that one?"
"So spend a bit more lottery money. The committee can afford it. Starkness is so... male"
"While Jim P. must make do with a kitchen chair?"
Jill gestured dismissively. "He wouldn't care tuppence. You're so sexist Tanc, you're no support at all as a director. I thought gays were supposed to be sympathetic."
"Two simple wooden chairs. For sitting on and interacting with. Plain and interchangeable. Poetry doesn’t need complicating. It’s usually complicated enough."
"Shit on you, Tanc."
"Does the stage still satisfy you, Jill? Would you prefer agency management? Or the armed forces?"
Both sensed Partridge's arrival and turned. He raised his hands in surrender. "Don't mind me. Furniture's not my scene. I'm more into dialogue."
"Soundbites, more like," said Jill.
Tancred stared at the ceiling.
In a rare period of silence each froze into the sort of photographic pose displayed on theatre frontages, hinting at feasts of statuesque acting. Between Jill's parted lips the tip of her tongue peeped out, Partridge's faint smile was definitely wry, while Tancred as director, keen to identify his higher calling, still looked upwards but now hands on hips. Corny but unmistakably authoritative.
Gradually the poses melted back into reality as the chairs were forgotten.
"You're an educated man, Tanc," said Partridge, "How the hell do I pronounce Isoult?"
Asked to advise, Tancred became warner, more animated. "You're talking about the Binyon piece, of course. More particularly: is there a difference between Ysoult and Yseult?"
"At least Isolde's got another syllable." Partridge showing off.
Tancred said, "I need to know Binyon's exact dates. They'll clue me in on whether the spelling is historically justified or just a flight of fancy."
"I could mangle the lady’s name but it's fairly prominent," said Partridge, slipping into declamatory mode:
Isoult, Isoult, thy kiss,
To sorrow though I was made,
I die in bliss, in bliss.
Tancred nodded. "We've got to get it right. The line cries out for emphasis."
"Full welly, indeed"
Jill scented male conspiracy. Had detected it from the first rehearsal when they'd divided the selection of extracts chosen by an elderly Oxonian whom Tancred was keen to indulge. "More masculine speechifying," she snorted. "I've said it before and I'll say it again, why don't I get more gender-specific stuff. Half a dozen stanzas from our Poet Laureate plus Edith Sitwell at her most obscure are hardly enough. The Laura Riding's good, I admit, but mainly I'm making bricks without straw."
Neither Tancred nor Partridge cared to answer. Jill was right; the male bias was obvious. Tancred had driven to Oxford to raise the point but the old man had proved intransigent, rambling on about "an ineluctable rhythm" in the poems and their sequence. A rhythm that was beyond Tancred despite a year of eng. lit. at Durham before the theatre lured him away. When he persisted the Oxonian shrugged, told Tancred he could do what he damn well liked but any changes and he would withdraw the use of his name. Because the name brought kudos, if rather faint, Tancred gave in. None of which had been disclosed to Jill, of course.
"Bricks without straw," repeated Jill. "When am I due more straw?"
Tancred sighed. "We've done our best, Jill. You've got your Rosalind, and I've put it at the end where it matters. It may not be straw but it's a sextet of Bach trumpets."
Briefly the sharp grooves round her mouth softened and the eagerness for dispute disappeared. From her distant look Jill had to be recalling:
Love is merely a madness, and I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not punished and cured is that the intimacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too. Yet I prefer curing it by counsel.
Orlando: Did you ever cure any so?
These weren't the final lines with which the Oxonian had ended his ineluctable rhythms but Tancred reckoned the transposition was worth the risk if it placated Jill. Not forgetting Partridge as Orlando, of course, who had found himself signing off the recital on this piping minor note and had required a soothing pint or two for his agreement. The manipulation was, nevertheless, an act of genius Tancred told himself.
For Jill would never know.
Scouting as a freelance for the National Theatre Tancred had watched Jill play As You Like It in an upstairs room of a pub in Acton. He stood at the back, in the dark, and left before the end. At the time, more than a decade ago, Jill had a growing reputation in period drama on TV and had accepted this near-amateur production as a way of adding classics to her CV. Tancred had arrived with fairly high expectations and was astonished more than appalled at Jill's terrible performance. For one thing she was slightly too old for Rosalind, for another her recent appearance in a television adaptation of Marie Correlli's The Sorrows of Satan had been poor preparation for Arden's lighter antics. Luckily, days later, Jill was picked - by a casting director ignorant of events in Acton - as Beatrice in a BBC production of Much Ado which had led to qualified critical triumph. Her over-wrought Rosalind could be discreetly forgotten. But not by Tancred.
In bribing Jill to swallow the male prejudice of Love Poetry A&M he not only transposed Rosalind's words to the end of the recital but insisted the change was obvious and logical. "After Hamlet it's the part I love to direct most. OK, you'll only be doing a tiny part of the play but you'll enjoy yourself." Tancred paused to swallow much saliva. "You know you're a natural Rosalind."
Afterwards he reflected on the difficulties actors face saying lines they didn't believe in. The blank look Jill gave him showed Acton had scarred her, that she knew how awful she'd been. And how much she wanted that memory to be untrue. But how would she respond?
At first by becoming serious.
She said thoughtfully, "It looks gay and easy. But Rosalind is several different women. Women within women."
Was that a contraction of her throat? Some swallowed saliva?
She added, "I've had difficulties I must confess." - taking comfort from near-truth.
"But I’ve enjoyed the challenges," she said, Shakespeare merrily.
The lie direct! For Tancred had checked. Much Ado had proved to be a solitary success. Jill had played no Shakespeare since.
Thus she was permitted her outbursts. They carried no threat.
But James Partridge was unaware of the background to this deal. Although he broadly supported feminism in acting at least, he was supremely irritated by Jill's nagging references to an unfair world. For him poetry had arrived in his late thirties. Analysing its structure for his recordings had taught him a good deal about poetry's aims, methods and sentiments. Poetry itself had compensated for the poor financial rewards it dispensed. Jill's complaints were not poetic and didn't inspire poetry. He'd pondered a crushing rejoinder based on bricks and straw but had been hindered by thoughts of farm animals. Too crass even for Jill.
He said, "Surely there are male poets who are sympathetic? That piece by Oliver St John Gogarty which we haven't yet allocated:
Tall unpopular men
Slim proud women who move
As women walked in the islands
Temples were built to Love,
I sing to you.
You can't grumble there. It seems to acknowledge woman's superiority"
It was one thing for Jill to fence harmlessly with Tancred but Partridge was a professional enemy. Endowed with undeserved advantages - still able to play youthful leads, if only in commercials. Jill didn't intend being fair or rational.
"Yet the only time we rehearsed it you did it down-stage. Which defeated the object."
It had been an instinctive move at the time and Partridge needed a strong lie to defend himself. "I was opening the gate to you. Didn't you see that?"
"Chivalry, you say. Backing into the limelight, I say."
Partridge sighed histrionically. "Pity we're doing love poems. Whingeing comes much more naturally to you. Perhaps we could find space for:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With old odd ends, stol'n forth of holy writ
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.
After all, it characterises many a love affair."
Her voice rose. "Many of yours, you wretched poseur. Richly deserved, too. There's no great credit these days in scraping Dick Three's barrel."
"One way or another isn't that what we all do?"
"Children!" said Tancred (aged 26) to Jill (48) and James (44). "We're out of here in three-quarters of an hour. Let's do a little theatre. Jill, dear, let me see you use the chair for the Dowson.”
As if a switch had flipped. Jill's angrily slitted eyes opened into brightness, her body became purposeful. She stood behind the chair supporting herself on the back, then to the side as if the chair were an acquaintance, finally sat down, leaning back, legs irregularly apart, an expression of mythical weariness. Adjusted this latter position, eyes downcast, arms lying bonelessly on her thighs. Spoke quietly out of history:
I would not alter thy cold eyes,
Nor have them smile, nor make thee weep:
Though all my life droops down and dies
Desiring thee, desiring sleep
I would not alter thy cold eyes
Both men watched stilly. Tancred drew in an audible breath. "Quite, quite different. Last time you were...
Partridge broke in, was permitted to do so. "... slightly sorrowful. But this is adoration. Pure and simple. Well done."
"Just that," said Tancred. "Jim, quickly now, the Lawrence."
Partridge sat upright on the chair, deliberately anonymous:
Grief, grief, I suppose and sufficient
Grief makes us free
To be faithless and faithful together
As we have to be.
Immediately Jill raised her hand and Tancred nodded. She said, "Jim, there's so much in it. Contradiction and human awfulness. Are you sure one physical position can cover all that?"
Excitedly Partridge responded. "I knew straight away I was wrong. Right after the second 'grief'. How about this, Jill?"
Now he dropped his shoulders for the final line "As we have to be." and his co-thespians clapped enthusiastically in unison.
With three minutes to go before the superintendent arrived to turn off the lights, Jill asked for Tancred's "gay guidance" on a version of the Carol Ann Duffy that, through one of Jill's gestures, might over-emphasise the feminine:
... you stood waist deep
in a stream
pulling me in,
so I swam.
You were the water, the wind.
Tancred thought for ten seconds, perhaps fifteen, an eternity. Finally replied, looking away from her. "No, play it straight, Jill. It has to be universal."
Out went the lights.
In the dark, from the other side of the playground car-park Partridge watched Jill open the door of the huge SUV.
"Selfish old bitch," he said, almost loud enough to carry.
St Geniès-de-Fontedit. July – August 2017
Carol Ann Duffy extract from Forest, Rapture collection, © Picador.
All other extracts from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892 – 1935, chosen by W. B. Yeats. © Oxford University Press.