Monday, 30 March 2009

The Quality of Mercy is Not Restrained

"The performance of Hamlet by the Streatham Amateur Dramatic, Dance and Opera Society, is nothing if not splendid. And it is not splendid."

This quote is taken from a book by Bill Bryson called, ' Notes From a Small Island.'
I have added my own interpretation, for I am certain that Mr Bryson has not yet had the pleasure of seeing the Streatham Amateur Dramatic, Dance and Opera Society in full flow. I do believe that I have almost regained my composure, now that the premiere of Hamlet has been consigned, like garlic, to the file of "not to be repeated."
And so, like a trembling, frightened child who is nervous of the dark, and who is made to climb unlit stairs, unaccompanied, to the haunted attic room above, I too will overcome the stuff of nightmares and revisit the Prince of Denmark's lusty chambers.

The premiere of Hamlet was a surprisingly well attended event. There was quite an array of press-ganged friends and relatives. Ivan was there, to lend support, along with my sister-in-law Rosemary. I observed that the bar was doing a roaring trade and people were imbibing rather too freely. It is my opinion that this kind of behaviour can too often lead to acts of rebellion, regret and ultimate loss of dignity.

The performance began, and I am most gratified to report that my scenery was much admired. Hamlet lisped his way through acres of speech, gamely ignoring commas and such-like, so that his was a seemingly endless, toneless and incoherent ramble. Mottleglot towered over little Hamlet in her guise of Queen Gertrude. She paced the stage like an angry, caged gorilla and as good as flattened Hamlet against a wall. Not only that, but she also caused my scenery to wobble, which distressed me greatly. It was then that I heard the beginings of suppressed laughter in the audience, and you know what can happen with bush fires.

The first appearance of "the ghost of Hamlet's father," was widely anticipated, and in a strange way, did not disappoint. Barry, our director, had insisted we play dramatic music to precede the entrance of the dummy/ghost. This was to be followed by a quiet moment, while the dummy/ghost made its grand entrance. However, as the tension began to mount, silence and anticipation were met by a sullen creak and then an irritating squeak. The pulley mechanism sounded like it was in need of a good oiling, and that a screw had come loose and a piece of machinery was about to fall off ... now I come to think of it, that is quite a good analogy for this production. Stanley, our stagehand, yanked the rope through the pulley and the ghostly vision was propelled jerkily towards centre stage in a most unspiritual way, where it was left to hang, swaying beside a wide eyed Hamlet.

There was, what we call in show business, a pregnant pause. I do believe that the audience was in shock, or at the very least they were unsure how to process the scene that lay before them. A man in the audience broke the embarrassing silence by calling out, in a Punch and Judy-esque voice, "that's the way to do it! "  The laughter which followed was uncontrollable and the flames were fanned, when someone else added, "oh no it's not!" to further gales of laughter.
"Oh yes it is!," said another, then "oh no it isn't!," by all and sundry ad infinitum. It was anarchy I tell you, fuelled by too many visits to the bar. It was several minutes before Barry was able to calm the audience down and restore them to their previous state of torpor. Further calamity then ensued as the pulley jammed, and so "the ghost of Hamlet's father" was left to dangle, centre stage, for the entire duration of the play. While I was standing in the wings watching this debacle, I caught Barry's eye. I tried very hard not to look at him as if to say, "I told you so." As I have pointed out before, I do not like to gloat over the misfortunes of others, it is not an attractive quality.

Things went from bad to worse. There were scenes I simply cannot bring myself to recall. All I will say is there is one scene in particular that is played for laughs and involves two gravediggers, one played by Sylvia Dorking-Pastures and the other by Mottleglot. It is not an understatement to say that the intended humour went down like a lead balloon. Dear, misguided Sylvia could no more resist over-acting, than a dog can resist chasing people on bicycles. Mottleglot is not one to be toyed with, and Sylvia paid a heavy price for drawing attention to herself.  Sylvia sighed gustily (while leaning on her spade), wiped her forehead ( with a grand arcing gesture) and tried various other unneccesary, yet diversional tactics. Mottleglot was seething and "accidently" backed into Sylvia, sending the poor thing flying into the open grave below. As I have already pointed out, I am not one to gloat, but Mottleglot then neglected to recall the earlier mishap of the evening, turned too sharply, and walked headlong into the all too corporeal crotch of "the ghost of Hamlet's father."

The audience were almost beside themselves laughing at this point, when Mottleglot pinned each person in the front row with a laser-like, icy glare. This effectively stemmed the tide of hysteria that threatened to overwhelm the audience. No-one dared to laugh while Mottleglot was onstage (that one could wither the stoutest spirit at 50 paces). I fear that the Streatham Amateur Dramatic, Dance and Opera Society and their audience, were not singing from the same hymn sheet that night. Nonetheless, we pressed on regardless, professional to the last, and when, finally, the curtain fell, the relief was palpable.

We all gathered in the bar afterwards and Barry's aged mother, without hint of irony, declared to anyone that would care to listen, that ours was the definative production of Hamlet. The cast who had gathered around her did not bat an eyelid. Delusion can be a wonderful thing. 

Talk has now turned to the next production. Someone has quite seriously put forward Battleship Potemkin. I wisely refrained from suggesting that Mottleglot would be a natural to play the part of the Battleship.

It is decided, next we are to assault Lady Windermere's Fan.

Yours wiltingly 

Griselda Primrose

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