Theatres are opening again in the UK. I have booked tickets to take our grandchildren to one as a pre-Christmas treat. We have got so out of the habit of making future plans that I don’t really believe it will happen, but it’s got me thinking about where my own love-affair with theatre began, when I was the age of the youngest of our grandchildren.
Among the few photographs that have travelled the world with me since that time there’s one where the bare boards of a school hall in small-town South Africa have become, for the moment, a village square in medieval England. My mother, looking furious, sits with her feet in the stocks alongside a man she clearly despises. Not in the photo, but vivid in my memory, the village children (my brother and I among them) danced around, mocking them. The play was called The Tail of Fire, set in 1456, when superstition was rife after the sighting of Halley’s comet. It’s a light farce but quite revealing about crowd behaviour and what people will believe in confusing times — even our current times, when science can explain not only a comet but a virus and a vaccine. When the curtains go up there’s a young couple in the stocks, put there as a punishment for daring to want to marry against the wishes of their parents. Then the comet appears and everyone goes into a panic. Does it herald Doomsday? It must be a warning from God about sinful behaviour, but whose? A drunken woman seizes the moment to revenge herself for years of being looked-down-on by the self-righteous parents of the young people. She’s not the only one with a grievance against them so she spurs the villagers into releasing the young lovers and putting their arrogant parents into the stocks instead. The woman in the stocks, unable to believe her sudden impotence, demands that the village priest intervene: ‘Do something, man! What is the church for if not to be militant?’ But the sudden upturning of established rules goes to his head — instead of releasing her he takes the young pair off to be married.
My mother could not have been more different in real life from that woman left fuming in the stocks, but it didn’t bother me that she had to pretend to be this awful woman. It was a story, made exceptionally vivid by being acted out in front of us, by real people.
The magic caught me young, and has never deserted me. It is probably the reason why it came naturally to me to make up stories myself.
The Bloemfontein Reps was set up before my brothers and I were born. Our parents were founder members. When I looked back at the dates, I understood for the first time that they had done this in the wake of personal tragedy — the death of their first child at sixteen months, followed by a still birth. They never burdened us children by talking about what those years were like for them, but it’s clear to me now that they knew they had to find some positive creative outlet, and they found it in making theatre happen. Astonishing for such a small community, the Reps put on five plays a year for over 30 years, pausing only during the War. Throughout our growing-up years supper in our house was early because either Mom or Dad had to be off for a rehearsal. They took turns to be home in the evenings while the other was either acting or directing. Three evenings a week, for five weeks, then three nights of performances, and both of them had full-time day jobs as teachers.
Mom had a key role on the Play Reading Sub-committee — she was officially the chair but probably much of the time the only member. Among the pile of books she brought home from the library each fortnight there were always a few plays, recently performed on Broadway or the West End and now released for amateur productions. She must have read hundreds, and passed the ones she thought were worth something to those who were next in line to direct a play. Along with them came books on every aspect of stage-craft — lighting, costumes, set design, make-up. Everything had to be learnt, and then taught to the stream of newcomers who had never done anything like this before. The first play I took part in was Terence Rattigan’s Adventure Story, put on in the (once) Grand Theatre, with about ten exciting scene changes. My mother was Queen Mother to King Darius of Persia, about to be defeated by the Greek Alexander. I, aged six, was a princess. We looked out past fraying velvet curtains to a vast auditorium. Backstage there were holes in the roof and pigeons roosted in the rafters, dropping little white piles onto the floorboards below, but none of that diminished the sense of drama. I see my mother still, regal and dignified, telling Alexander the Great that he was being Very Foolish.
Play scripts fascinated me, imagining the people in them becoming live, speaking these words. I liked the set descriptions, spelled out in those 1950s plays down to the last occasional table and lampshade. I watched — as if seeing it happen on stage — the plot unfold, tensions and arguments contained in the careful stages the playwright had thought out. Most of all I loved being backstage. At ten I was in my mother’s production of As You Like it, a page boy watching from the wings the extraordinary goings on of the adults. I don’t remember finding the language difficult, and the small dramas behind the drama were as interesting as what the audience finally saw. On the Saturday night after the last performance there was a party for everyone involved, always held in our house if Mom or Dad had been in the play. After I was sent off to bed I would lie awake listening to the sound of Mom playing the piano, while increasingly uninhibited voices sang ‘The Foggy Foggy Dew’. Bursts of laughter as people retold stories about things that had gone wrong, that frisson of near-disaster that is hilarious afterwards.
Human dramas, packaged and labelled — but not always safely. In these acted-out stories of adult relationships I was being exposed to issues I would never have found in books thought suitable for children or young teenagers. I am remembering the terror of watching Siggy Tiger (in real life the friendliest of men), threatening a young girl with rape. The stage is the interior of an isolated farmstead, the girl a deaf-mute whose father and all the neighbours (my mother among them) dismiss as an idiot. A coarse neighbour catches the girl alone, and knows she can’t call out for help. Did I even understand what he was planning? I was a skinny 12 year old, still far from adolescence, but though I might have had no words or even concepts for lust or sexual dominance, I certainly understood the air of menace. It was visceral.
More than 60 years later I searched the internet for a copy of the play, and for one afternoon I sat in the British Library, experiencing it all over again. I saw now what passed me by, aged 12, that the play is less about the rape itself than about the power of malicious gossip. In that narrow-minded community, the blame was pinned on the local doctor, the girl’s only friend and protector. He alone had seen in her a full human being, trapped in silence. He had taught her to communicate by gesture, elicited her devotion, till caring turned to love. When she was discovered to be pregnant, he was the obvious suspect.
I emerged into the light, still lost in it.
As a young child I knew my mother was unusual. My father was a legend in our small-town community, selector of the South African cricket team, and a radio personality on a series of quiz shows. Mom was quieter, but I never had any doubt that she was his intellectual equal, and could do many things he could not. She could recognise any literary quotation. She could do fiendishly difficult crossword puzzles. She knew all the botanical names of plants. She could play on the piano any song anyone suggested, making up accompanying chords without written music. But what I realise now, belatedly, is that theatre was not just another thing she could do, it was her real creative vocation. She discovered in herself the talents of a serious actor, and reviewers would often refer back to parts she had made her own years earlier, still remembered. Even more, she was a director, drawing out of her inexperienced cast capacities they hadn’t known they had. As a child I had the smallest glimpses of this. I would watch her at home working out moves for a play she was about to direct. She set it all out on a chessboard, with a diagram of the stage and where all the furniture would be. The chess pieces were the characters. She arranged them where they needed to be for the point of greatest emotional tension, she said, then worked backwards.
She has been gone over thirty years, but her presence continues to grow. From my memory and other people’s, from programmes in the scrap books of friends passed on to their children, I have tracked down over 90 of the plays she herself was involved in. Most are forgotten now, but to my great good fortune the British Library has them. I have read them all, and through them I am getting a glimpse into the inner life that she carried, so quietly, so powerfully.
Adapted from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life, due out on 28th September, 2021.
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The play with the deaf-mute girl is Johnny Belinda, by Elmer Blaney Harris (1940), based on a true story on Prince Edward Island. The Tail of Fire is a one-act play by Thomas Baden Morris (1951). Both were prolific playwrights, now largely forgotten.