What Boris Johnson’s advice to theatregoers did for me

In a Southend Oxfam shop last week, I found a decadent 70s paperback of Clark Ashton Smith’s Lost Worlds collection. In the 1932 story The Empire of the Necromancers, the Silver Death plague ravages the land of Zothique, and necromancers make the zombie survivors “labour in the vaults and serve their necrophiliac lust”. Within days, Ashton Smith’s lurid dreams would seem prophetic.

Is our prime minister, Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-the-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Girly-Swot Big-Girl’s-Blouse Chicken-frit Hulk-Smash Noseringed-Crusties Death-Humbug Technology-Lessons Surrender-Bullshit French-Turds Dog-Whistle Get-Stuffed [email protected] 88%-lies Get-Brexit-Done Bung-a-Bob-for-Big-Ben’s-Bongs Cocaine-Event Spiritual-Worth Three-Men-and-a-Dog Whatever-It-Takes Johnson, up to the coronavirus crisis? Or will he be to Covid-19 what the swiftly substituted Neville Chamberlain was to the second world war, remembered only for the futile statement: “I have in my hand a piece of toilet paper!”

On Monday at 5.15pm, Turds issued the following genuine proclamation: “Absolutely what we are doing is giving very strong errrr advice that public venues such as theatres should errrr you know no longer be visited errrrr though the proprietors of those venues are taking the logical errrrr steps that you would imagine, you are seeing that change happen already.”

In short, Turds told people not to go to theatres, but didn’t say he was actually shutting them, giving no indication of where the financial liability for venues, or performers, voluntarily closing themselves into bankruptcy lay, lumbering most with no option but to keep going until they were actually ordered to stop. Backstage, 93 shows into my 150-date tour, at Canterbury’s Marlowe theatre, the virus was finally taking shape for me personally in real terms. The patient and professional stage crew, surely pondering their own immediate futures, prepared for all possibilities; theatre management thrashed out options; and box office staff, as baffled as me by Turds’s spam-fisted pronouncement, dealt diplomatically with calls from punters due to take their seats in two hours.

Conspiracy theorists speculated that Turds’s vagueness was an attempt to shield his donors in the insurance business and the theatre-chain ownership community from financial liability for closures. Ultra-conspiracy theorists imagined Turds saw an opportunity to wipe out vast swathes of creatives, who tend not to vote Conservative anyway, a theory undermined by his apparent sacrifice of the pensioners who put him in power. Others, more realistically, assumed Turds was just winging it as usual. In Iran, the virus has afforded a momentary freedom to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, from a prison that Turds’s typically lazy incoherence condemned her to.

In the end the sold-out show had to go ahead, to a theatre maybe half full, and it was one of the best I have ever been a part of, as the room took on a hysterical identity of its own that I merely had to direct, and not actually cultivate. Afterwards, standing on the stage, everyone working that night had a sense of the evening’s significance, and relative strangers exchanged words of kind comfort as the lights faded and the doors locked. I will never forget it.

On TV, in the hotel bar, Turds looked like death, and not even death warmed up, just death left on a cold pavement and then urinated on by passing dogs. Turds hadn’t seemed this terrified since the morning he won the Brexit referendum, a vote he had clearly intended to lose, having backed Brexit merely for personal career advancement. After two decades battling the imaginary EU phantoms he himself conjured in the Daily Telegraph, Turds now has to fight something real, which can’t just be bullshitted, belittled and bullied into submission. Dominic Cumming’s conveniently fabricated culture war against manufactured traitors is the luxury of another Turds. An actual virus, embodied as a Lovecraftian entity beyond good and evil, with the face of Yog-Sothoth and the voice of Lawrence Fox, is upon him, and death does not recognise puns about Pliny and Horace.

I did the maths. I was in a better position than most. In a worst-case scenario, where I didn’t work for 18 months, we’d be OK, unless Turds’s fudged vagueness somehow made me responsible for refunds for shows I never got paid for. For a while it looked as if liability confusion meant I might be contractually obliged to tour the virus-ravaged country anyway, performing jokes to empty theatres, the logical end point of a snobbish stage persona that affects to find the audience approval irrelevant.

Within days of the virus gripping Italy, the online adult content provider Pornhub had offered free pornography to isolated Italians; in Britain, in a gesture that identified the key cultural difference between our nations, the National Trust declared its gardens open at no cost. We could do worse than cede the management of Turds’s virus-ridden Britain to decisive staff drawn from the arenas of online pornography and heritage property management, the latter also able to provide exotic locations for the former.

On Tuesday morning I wandered Canterbury waiting to find out if that night’s show was cancelled. I went to the museum to see paintings by the war artist Laura Knight, and the actual Bagpuss, but corona had closed it. In the street people were unusually friendly. I talked to a nice old woman who had been to Folkestone to see Ben Fogle – I had often wondered who would go to Folkestone to see Ben Fogle – and to a hilarious Turkish chef, who insisted that eating chilli sauce in excess would crush corona, surely a future member of Turds’s top team.

The phone rang. Most venues were pulling shows in March and April at their own personal cost and refunding or rescheduling, despite there being no promise of Turds’s support. I was cancelled in Canterbury. Doubtless we all had little moments last week where the reality of what we are about to go through as a species bites. Mine was just then, when I threw my smelly old standup stage jacket in the back of the van in the Canterbury car park. When would I wear it again? Was it even worth getting it dry-cleaned?

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