I'll have grounds
More relative than this — the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.
Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605
A while back I was reading the minutes of an ADMS meeting. I looked across at Tracey and said, "You know there's a production of Farndale Ladies coming up."
"Yes. I know."
"So you know my next question."
"I can guess."
She didn't really have to guess.
For more than three years now, my illness has separated her from doing something that was an intimate part of her life. Our lives. She had performed in and choreographed, sometimes co-directed ADMS productions for several years, right back to Les Mis in 2002. This was on top of her job as solicitor and several University administrative roles.
That was until December 2009. Suddenly, she faced the unexpected role of carer for a man diagnosed with a brain tumour of the worst type. Without hesitation, she gave everything else up and took that on. Everything.
I knew she deeply missed the intimacy of the theatre and the camaraderie of our friends ("our" because I was heavily involved as well) in getting these productions together. The unpredictable course of my illness gave her little choice.
There's immense grief in the certain prospect of losing one's partner and it's intensified by losing so much else as well.
I felt this grief as my own private guilt. It ate away at me just as the lack of theatre fellowship and constant touch with strong friendships was the source of sadness she hid from me.
Or tried to. But you don't think I knew? Of course I did. No matter what is happening with me now, I wanted this to change.
"So will you do something for me – and you'll audition, at least?"
She was very hesitant, but she knows the rare occasions I dig my heels in, and this was one.
"All right. I suppose. But...."
"But me no buts." It's an old line but none the worse for being said with utter sincerity.
"But," I said, "there is a condition, and you have to agree to it."
I'm not used to putting conditions on anything in Tracey's life, nor she on mine, and normally she'd respond with a gesture that's the second-rudest on the scale, but she knew this was vital.
The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society is the classic amateur group which runs community theatre in its own little domain. Its performers and production staff are not quite hopeless but on the borderline, and therefore the resulting performance is a triumph of mediocrity over any sort of potential they might muster collectively. Yea, a triumph of forlorn incompetence over noble ambition.
But, as Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "The play's the thing." The play within a play. So it is with this one, but unlike Hamlet, there are no consciences to prick; just a lot of ribs to tickle.
It starts with us, the theatre audience, looking at backstage Macbeth with all the frantic preparations for a grand performance of Macbeth going on. Badly. The set is as good as the handyman can make it, and from our opening view of the Macbeth backstage, it looks only marginally less inspiring than when turned round to face us. That's revealed in a terrible set change we aren't supposed to see, but bad lighting cues give us a grim picture.
And so we are no longer backstage, but are faced with the grim spectacle – the Farndale Ladies' performance of scraps of
In reality, it is not an easy play to perform well. You'd think it should be, because if there are any genuine stuffups, our actors playing Farndale ladies playing Macbeth might hope to get away with the audience thinking these are part of the Farndale script.
I doubt it. Likewise the actors have to be scrupulous in playing their roles as credible Farndale ladies and laddies bitching at each other one minute, and melodramatic, painfully unconvincing Shakespearean performers the next.
Mercifully we are not treated to the entire Macbeth script. You'll readily guess which bits are chosen for the onstage performances.
Done without proper discipline, the whole play will look like a hastily thrust together Year 10 High School end-of-year show. Performed well, it is an excellent blend of split timing, character acting and utter farce.
So, what was the promise I was so keen to extract from Tracey?
By the time the show goes on in the Town Hall in a week and a day, we will have lived with the ups and downs of this unpredictable cancer for 1197 days. There is no knowing its course. It can change dramatically, even before I complete the sentence I am now typing. Changes have been as sudden as that several times now. We have no illusions.
"Whatever happens to me during the course of this show, you must keep to the stage traditions you and your family have lived with your whole life. 'The Show Must Go On.' If they cart me off to the hospital just before a performance, you've got to do the right thing by everyone, including me. You put your mind to the job and get on stage when you're needed. You promise?"
She hesitated a long time.
"Yes. I will."
Tracey will read this only when it's on the blog. I want you all to be my witnesses. This is what I want.
The play now has the services of a great Macduff/witch. Unfortunate things happen to her as a Farndale witch. In view of my footnote, I hope it stays that way – just as it is in the script. At least MacDuff doesn't cop a dagger by mistake. Well, let's hope so anyway. With Farndale, you can never be quite sure....
|Photo at rehearsal courtesy Terry Cooke|
Tracey comes from a family of stage performers, and was on stage singing and dancing at age 5. Both her mother and father have long careers in Australian national theatre as performers. Her brother Jimi is a leading guitarist and blues performer internationally.
Tracey has her own history of 'going on' under difficult circumstances. She took on the role of Mrs Lovett in the Playhouse production of Sweeney Todd when, very sadly, the lead was diagnosed with cancer. Tracey learned the part in the three weeks before Opening Night. Don't ask me how. Sondheim songs are a nightmare to learn.
Then in a Matinee performance, Mrs Lovett was, as usual, thrown into the oven, but the mattress was out of place and her back was badly damaged. She went on to do the night performance anyway – I don't know how. It ended once again with her being tossed into the Lovett pie-oven furnace.
In a rush dinner after a matinee performance as narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, her chair collapsed and her back was injured. She went on half an hour later for the evening performance, and the audience had no idea she could barely stand.
So don't anyone try to tell me that a performance should be cancelled on my account!