Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 22

Time Out

Alwyn hadn't always been a travelling player; he'd owned the Horsham Repertory Company until its financial collapse a few years previously. Actors had fewer and fewer choices now TV had stolen audiences, and touring Shakespeare to schools was an embarrassing comedown for him. As if to compensate for his drop in theatrical status, Alwyn delved ever deeper into the Bard's texts, arriving at obscure interpretations and cryptic intentions.

In The Tempest, for example, he was adamant that each character represented but a single aspect of the human psyche. Alwyn as Prospero was 'intellect'; Hal as his usurping brother was 'iniquity'; Edgar's Ariel was 'cunning ingenuity'; Terry's Caliban in slime-green greasepaint would embody 'brutishness'; Jeremy's demure Miranda was 'innocence'; Rolando as Trinculo and the drunks represented 'humanity and wit'.

In Renaissance art (Shakespeare was a Renaissance man) purity, honesty and truth were portrayed as naked men or women – hence the naked truth. Thus, as Ferdinand who personified those qualities, I would be naked. This, Alwyn insisted, was called for in the script when Miranda says at her first sight of Ferdinand, "I might call him a thing divine, for nothing natural I ever saw so noble." Natural, he insisted, meant the same as in naturists – nudity. About fifteen years later the BBC thought so too with a naked Ferdinand in their 'Made for TV' Shakespearian series.

Foolishly enthralled at the prospect of portraying 'A Thing Divine', I asked Alwyn if I had a future in acting. He choked on his biscuit. "You aren't an actor!" he spluttered. "You're always the same – yourself as you want the rest of the world to see you!" I wasn't hurt so much as shocked at how little he understood the subtlety of my acting.

"Remember The Executioner?" he added heartlessly. I hoped he'd forgotten my attempt to show the 'decent side' of an ugly, evil, killer in Grand Guignol. The fact that he was correct didn't sugar the pill. So what if I preferred to play heroes? And why did he keep me on if I was so useless?

"Someone has to play the virile good-guys," he said without malice. "The others aren't butch enough - and you're competent; which is more than can be said for most people who call themselves actors."

Having rebooted my ego, he told me that at Horsham Repertory he'd also taken on a masculine young man for the same reason. The fellow eventually found his vocation in films and, according to Alwyn, was about to become very famous. His stage name was Michael Caine. [It was an accurate prediction as not long afterwards Caine's performance in Zulu launched him on the road to stardom.]

In Caine's autobiography, he writes about his theatrical initiation with the irascible Alwyn D. Fox, along with the sad fact that Alwyn died alone in a Hammersmith hostel for penurious old men, bragging till the end that he had 'discovered' Michael Caine.

I often wonder what happened to Edgar. For a while I felt guilty at failing to maintain contact, but I've never kept in touch with anyone – always made friends then moved on, severing ties. Once people's paths diverge they develop differently and the bonds that secured the friendship dissolve.

The Shakespearian Festival was held on a Saturday in the courtyard of a restored medieval farmhouse a few miles south of Bristol. The audience would perch on flimsy tiers of wooden planks on three sides, with the stage protruding from the fourth. For the posters, Alwyn had submitted a photo of the cast that included an arty glimpse of my buttocks. The festival program was two, one-hour excerpts from different plays by local amateur dramatic societies in the morning, and another two in the afternoon, to be followed in the evening by our full-length version of The Tempest.

Both morning and afternoon performances were pretty awful. Saggy stockings and pantaloons; fluffed and forgotten lines and such a confusion of bodies it seemed that every member of each drama group had been permitted to tread the boards. It didn't matter. The audience was mostly composed of relatives and friends determined to enjoy themselves, and it meant we didn't have to worry about comparisons.

Edgar, ethereal in silvery tights, flitted athletically around his master, triggering excited murmurs from the expectant audience. Caliban, scarcely human, writhing under the onslaught of Prospero's curses, earned spontaneous applause. They were hooked! It was going to be a success!

Act One, scene 2. My entrance. A half-drowned prince dragged himself onto the stage, drawn on by Ariel's eerie song. Seeking its source, he stood, staggered, gazed around… "Where should this music be? I' the air or…"

At that moment, a group in the centre of the audience stood and shouted that I was an obscenity and an insult to the god-fearing… or similar absurdities. In utter silence, two helmeted policemen marched onto the stage, grasped an arm each and frog-marched me off. The festival was over, and it began to rain.

At the police station Alwyn's impassioned plea for 'Art', and my honest anguish that I had caused offence, convinced the arresting officer to merely bind me over to keep the peace – or something equally kinky. The last thing I want to do is shock people. I want them to be amused, entertained, aroused; but never shocked, disgusted or upset.

It helped to learn later that it was an organised protest from a tiny religious minority and the rest of the audience were furious with them, not me. But it remained a very nasty experience because I knew if the police suspected I was queer they'd toss me into a cell with rapists and murderers.

[It appears audiences are becoming more prudish. In a production of King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford in April 2007, Sir Ian McKellen's Lear was naked in the last act. This provoked outrage among theatregoers who are happy to see murder and mayhem on stage, but want warnings posted in the foyer if an old man bares his pubes as the script indicates. Whereas in the sixties, I saw Robert Stephens play Lear at Stratford, when Simon Russell Beale as Edgar finished the play naked… with no audience outrage.]

The following morning, we received a mention in provincial papers and learned that pulpits rang with denunciations of the permissiveness attacking the foundations of society. It wasn't good publicity. Cancellations from several religiously inclined schools and the withdrawal of permission to stage The Apollo of Bath, forced Alwyn to reschedule the two remaining schools so we could pack up a week early for the Easter school holidays.

As we sat glumly considering our misfortunes, a telephone call from the drama department of the university invited us to perform Tempest in their theatre that evening for a satisfactory fee. Relief swamped us. All that work hadn't been for nothing and we drove across to set up. The theatre was intimate; circular with terraced seating encircling the acting area except for a narrow passageway on one side for the actors to enter through curtains. Students helped us construct a roof to represent Prospero's cave. It couldn't have sides otherwise half the audience couldn't see what was going on.

Theatre-in-the-round was new to all of us and it was difficult to know which way to face or even where to walk. Stage right and left had no meaning, nor did upstage and downstage. Eventually we decided to simply pretend we were actually on an island, play it as it came, and ignore the audience who would be so close the front row would have to rest their feet on the acting area. At least in such an intimate space there'd be no problem with projection. Even with our backs to the audience they could still hear the slightest whisper making it an even more realistic experience. We had a walk through and reckoned we'd be OK.

And we were. The place was packed, and the mainly youthful audience loved every bit. It was exhilarating to act in what felt like an island of light in the midst of darkness. 'Prospero's Island' became as real to us as it did to the audience and I wished it could always be like that. There's no doubt the height of a normal stage above the audience and the proscenium create a distance between audience and actors that is often unbridgeable.

They stamped their feet and clapped at the end, erupting onto the 'stage' to shake hands and discuss the play, acting, the future, what it was like to be a professional, how to find work, what it felt like to be naked in front of an audience and how terrible it was that the play had been stopped by wowsers. We literally had to drag ourselves from their enthusiastic grasp to change, or in my case put something on, pack the van, and depart. I couldn't imagine a more uplifting finale.

Exhaustion is the constant companion of itinerant actors, with afternoon and evening performances, travelling, setting up and dismantling the stage. My problem is that I have but two speeds – flat out or stopped. I'd been flat out for weeks and, while still loving the acting, had become drained, filthy-tempered and depressed by grey skies, cold, damp, ugly people and the prospect of at least three months more of the same dispiriting weather until summer – if it ever arrived!

My moody outbursts had become as embarrassing to me as everyone else, so no one attempted to dissuade me when I stopped the van in a village fifty-miles east of Bristol, wished them a happy Easter and said I'd see them in four weeks. Hal could drive the rest of the way.

Someone had told me Morocco was the place to go in winter, so there I was headed, having bought Thomas Cook Travellers Cheques, a rucksack, and sleeping bag. When I turned up at the village railway station, however, the line had been closed. Every 'uneconomical' branch line in Britain was being shut down, the lone attendant informed me, leaving only profit-making routes. I was stunned. They were destroying the greatest railway network the world had seen, replacing it with a mish-mash of motorways that ended at the outskirts of cities. We could drive from Birmingham to the edge of London in an hour, but it took another hour or more of virtual gridlock to drive the remaining 20 miles home. Only insanity could have inspired the squandering of beautiful land on millions of acres of multilane highways, overpasses, gigantic interchanges, vast parking spaces for huge restaurants and service areas, with no thought for the obvious consequences.

I think it was pressure from car manufacturers. The British auto industry was still churning out cars, but the warning signs were clear to everyone. The Rootes Group, Nuffield, Standard, Rover, Jaguar and other smaller marques were being throttled by union demands. Manufacturers hoped better roads would create demand and boost profits. There was demand all right, but not for too expensive and unwieldy local cars, and the mighty British automotive industry is history. Predictably, all cities were soon experiencing traffic jams, pollution, noise, ring-road construction, and endless expense.

I've always considered it a citizen's duty to point out mistakes to those who want to govern, therefore, I wrote to the Minister of Transport, advising Mrs. Castle it would cost less to upgrade the rail network and provide free public transport over all of the British Isles, paid for by increased freight, than to continue with her crazy motorway plans that would only end in ineradicable urban congestion. She signed her reply, which was polite, and I imagine the British Government are now wishing they'd heeded my warnings as the country grinds to a halt and poisons itself with exhaust fumes.

Hitch-hiking was the only alternative, and within minutes a Humber Super Snipe, driven by the relatively youthful owner of Thorensen Line – a new ferry service plying between Southampton and Le Havre – took me to Southampton. We chatted amiably, and he generously organised a free berth for me on that night's crossing.

While waiting for the ferry I saw Fellini's '8½' in a small 'art' cinema. I thought it insane then, and a recent screening on TV confirmed this opinion. As we floated down the harbour, a hovercraft enthralled everyone by attempting to burst our eardrums as it roared past. How modern! How fucking awful!

My cabin companion, a taciturn wine importer from Lancashire, was too polite to refuse to take me to Bordeaux when I offered to share the driving. Two more lifts the following day took me to the foot of the Pyrenees south of Pau, where I slept in a dry culvert.

At daybreak a hike of about 20 kilometres up the pass through magnificent mountain scenery brought me to the border. The French guards shook their heads in amused disbelief and waved me through; the Spaniards thought I was a Basque terrorist or worse; were suspicious and unfriendly; inspected everything and manhandled me unpleasantly before grudgingly granting entry to their fear-filled realm.

I had no knowledge then of the politics of Spain, but this was an unpleasant foretaste. I hadn't even heard of the Civil War and didn't realise Franco was a dictator. The monetary exchange rate, however, made up for the unpleasantness and as everything seemed incredibly cheap I splurged on a third-class train ticket to Jaca, where I spruced up in the station and stepped into a world of perfectly coiffed, handsome, slim, olive-skinned young men with sculpted lips and firm jaws, dressed impeccably in neat dark slacks, white shirts, and shiny shoes.

It wasn't the 'fashionable' style of France, but the more enduring 'classical' simplicity that renders the wearer perfectly dressed no matter what the occasion. In my jeans, scuffed desert boots, and black shirt I felt like a tramp. Worse, their faces were smooth, unlined, calm and yet lively. They greeted each other with genuine smiles and when they laughed, which was often, their eyes flashed. The shock on seeing my reflection in a shop window has left lasting trauma. Deep vertical lines of tension scored my brow. My mouth a thin hard line. I looked anxious, stressed, old, and ill tempered. I would not have wanted to know me.

The Guardia Civil were everywhere in their evil shiny hats with the back turned up so they can stand against a wall and spy. The mere sight of them made me nervous – and that was before I knew of the horrors that secret service had perpetrated. Despite my miserable mug, everyone was friendly and open until the Guardia came into view. Tourists in Jaca were as common as hens' teeth, so I was not charged for my meal of bread, sausage, tomatoes, and well-watered wine. I bought a pair of rope-soled shoes, neat trousers and a white shirt, then attempted to hitch to Madrid.

The only cars were small Seats (rhymes with Fiat); the Spanish version of Fiat. Hardly anyone could afford them and the few that passed were full. Trucks belching diesel fumes were jammed with passengers as well as goods. The road, a narrow strip of seal, bordered by dust. Six hours convinced me hitch-hiking was not an option, so I endured third-class in a Rapido – the slow train that stops at every station. Wooden seats, surrounded by fat mothers shouting, "Jose, Maria, aqui!" as they peeled boiled eggs, tore open bread rolls, and gossiped while their scrawny, wrinkled husbands drank wine from basket-covered bottles and smoked foul-smelling cigarettes.

Windows didn't close, rain swept in, wind howled, I froze and gratefully accepted food from one of the suspicious but sympathetic women, obviously wondering why a 'rich northerner' was not only travelling third-class, but making such a trip unprepared. I had to be on the run from something. Proudly, she refused payment.

Evening in Madrid. As cold as London but not raining. Streets full of handsome young people strolling, sitting in cafés, chatting. Beautifully presented young men sent testosterone surging and the sexual frustration that had been building for weeks threatened to explode.

I bought a coffee and roll in an almost empty bar – chosen because of the handsome waiter who winked at me as I passed. After a friendly chat in heavily-accented English he asked where I was staying, told me I'd be arrested if I slept in a park, and offered to put me up so he could practise speaking English, because he hoped to go to London the following year to earn real money as a waiter.

His room, at the end of a dark corridor, was cold, drab-green and tiny, furnished with a bed surmounted by a plastic crucifix, one hard-backed chair, a small table, and a hand basin in which we washed thoroughly before leaping into bed.

We talked for hours and I learned that most of the 'beautiful young men' would be living as poorly as he. They wandered the streets day and night because they hadn't enough money to do anything else. Their well cared for clothes were probably the only respectable ones they had, and in their hearts they were sick with misery at the hopelessness of their prospects.

My young man's mother lived in a village in the north. He sent her as much money as he could spare to support her and his sister. His father had 'disappeared' ten years previously. "The Guardia," he whispered, looking around furtively as if expecting them to pop out from under the bed. It wasn't funny. I also learned that the crucifix was for his landlady – he despised religion, and like so many young men in countries where girls are constantly chaperoned, was happy to satisfy natural desires for bodily contact with other young men. As we parted in the morning I thrust a few thousand pesetas into his hand. "For your mother!" I insisted through vehement protests. He couldn't refuse that.

Anglo-centred education had left me ignorant. Spain meant only Armadas and inquisitions. We hadn't been told about the horrors of British colonialism and the terror regimes of Calvin and Knox. The British were superior beings in every way. Yeah, right, but they weren't as friendly, generous and hospitable as some of the Spanish people I met.

Madrid was astonishingly beautiful. Grand boulevards, parks and magnificent architecture placed it among the most beautiful cities I'd seen, and yet I'd never heard its praises. Foolishly, I wore sandals. While idly absorbing the lively, cosmopolitan ambience of Plaza Del Sol, I was accosted by a woman who, covering the eyes of her two young offspring, hurled abuse. She was followed by three nuns who hissed that I was an affront to decency; pointing at my bare toes.

Shocked at the intensity of their disgust I hastened into a side street and swapped sandals for shoes.

What a difference a few years makes. Spain has thrown off the yoke of religion and is now among the most liberal of countries, allows gay marriage and adoption, and films containing nudity are common. Meanwhile, Australians seem to hanker for a return to Medieval theocracy.

For uncountable hours I peered through soot-smeared windows, numb-bummed, aching and cold as the train rattled slowly south. If I'd realised how far Morocco was I would never have set off. On the map it looked like nothing, but it was a voyage to the end of the earth. The railway takes the shortest route between points so usually missed villages by miles.

In Seville, while changing from a regular train to a type of old bus that ran on the rails, the platform was full of angry-looking women dressed flamboyantly in hundreds of petticoats. I'd also not heard of the Easter Feria, and wouldn't have wanted to see it if I had. Religious festivals depress me. What do they celebrate? Their misery? Stupidity? Always repressive religion. That people living in grinding poverty should waste their money on frippery is insane. Families sometimes spend their lives in debt to pay for the finery of their child's first communion. A decent religion would ban such nonsense.

Algeciras was warm, but Morocco would be warmer, so I took the first ferry to Tangiers. Disembarking visitors were accosted by boys offering cheap tours, hotels, hashish, sex. I pretended to understand nothing until they gave up. Tourists who agreed to a guided tour usually found themselves loudly and publicly abused at the end until embarrassment made them hand over far more money than the brief look around had been worth.

Every human type bustled through the narrow streets of the old town, and promenaded in the Grand Socco. Berbers, Arabs in woollen jellabas and yellow babouches, their women in blue or green gabardine, hoods up and a gauzy cloth covering nose and mouth. Every possible mixture of race bartered, sold, carried, chatted, inspected, and conducted animated business.

All roads led to the Petit Socco, the lively hub of small commerce. Behind the square, Hotel Chairen advertised double rooms at four dirhams a night. As I pondered the expense a large, pale, red-headed young man from the U.S.A. who had been pestering me on the ferry, tapped me on the shoulder and offered to share the room. He'd been following me! Foolishly I agreed. Dumping my rucksack in the sparsely furnished, airy, clean, green-painted room, I took off alone to explore.

Snake-charmers, metal workers, cloth merchants, food stalls, carpet makers, leather merchants, shoe makers, water sellers… all peddled their wares in open-fronted shops in the Kasbah. Glimpses of courtyards, flashy brass pots, barred windows, Arab music, strange and enticing odours… This was real! It wasn't a film set or tourist trap. This was how the locals lived!

Young women sat chatting in cafés, jellabas parting to reveal elegant legs in sheer stockings and high heels. Delicately they lifted yashmaks and puffed on cigarettes stained with lipstick. In other cafés men sat around hookahs, drinking tea, eyeing passing traffic. So many different styles and types of clothing were on display I felt at home in jeans, shirt, and scuff sandals. Several people spoke to me in Arabic, asking the time, offering goods for sale. My aim as a traveller is always to pass for a local, so although my Arabic was non-existent, at least I didn't look out of place. The Yank was out when I returned, so I stripped and sprawled on top of the bed, surrendering to heat and exhaustion.

I awoke to a nightmare. The room was almost dark and something large and heavy was squashing the air from my lungs. Fruitlessly I attempted to heave off the moist, flabby object before realising it was the Yank – naked and snorting with the effort of holding me still while thrusting his erection against my belly. Pummelling his back only caused him to increase the pressure on my windpipe. "You're a filthy slut!" he snarled. "Lying there naked to tempt me. I know you want it so you're going to get it!" Not being well-placed to refuse his offer I lay limply till he'd deposited a gob of North American semen and, wheezing slightly, clambered off and returned to his bed, passion spent.

I wasn't damaged. It had been unpleasant, but perhaps he was right. I should have realised he might return and imagine I was trying to seduce him. Some guys have no idea of their basic unattractiveness. I'd given him the brush-off on the ferry – perhaps this was revenge. Arousing uncontrollable lust in others certainly gives a fillip to the ego, but I felt soiled so washed myself thoroughly in the hand basin, scrubbing somewhat ostentatiously at the 'contamination'. Self-esteem restored, an exotic Arabian night awaited.

Pimps prowled the Petit Socco, offering women, girls, men, boys, or whatever took one's fancy. A kid of about fifteen – pale skin and rich curly chestnut hair took a fancy to me. Goodness knows what his parentage was. He wouldn't have looked out of place in Scotland. He was selling hashish and sex. When I turned down his offer of a girl, he suggested a boy, then offered himself and followed me around, pleading with me to go with him for sex. It would be free because he really liked me and wanted me.

Flattering, but who would be waiting at his place to strip me of my belongings before committing rape and murder then selling me into slavery? An Australian I'd met in London had foolishly gone with such a fellow in Egypt and ended up raped by half a dozen men from whom he'd contracted hepatitis.

With this cautionary tale in mind I resisted the young fellow's charms, absorbed the atmosphere and felt alone, starved of affection, stupid, ugly, tired, and sad.

I, the proud loner, was suffering an overwhelming urge to sit with a friend in a café; to wander hand-in-hand and share the experience of Tangiers at night.

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