Morning began with a surprise in my inbox:
I was passed your details by a mutual friend. Would you be interested in some acting work? It involves performance tomorrow (Sunday) in Trafalgar Square.
Please let me know either way ASAP.
Thayne, eh? I thought. Trafalgar Square, eh? I continued to think. Paid work, eh?
Who is our mutual friend?
Let me know arrangements.
Email discharged to the ether, I clicked open an message whose subject header boasted it could enlarge my penis. An overwhelming shadow of misanthropy fell upon my soul when reading the poorly spelt message. But before thoughts turned suicidal (Thames jump, Thames jump), and seconds after reading the erection email, Thayne replied:
Meet at 1600 (today) in Trafalgar Square for briefing.
Do you have any military costumes?
I didn’t bother sending a reply. I didn’t own any military costumes. And I didn’t like Thayne’s presumption that I might. Who owned military uniforms?
The filling sandwiched between Thayne’s mid-morning emails and Thayne’s meeting in Central London was a poor one (cheap tuna?). I laid on the sofa and watched a film about three American GIs that returned to Italy, thinking that they were all the father of one teenage beauty. It was candyfloss for the brain. I lay and watched it, motionless, from opening credits till end (commercials and all).
On the train to Charing Cross (next to Trafalgar Square) I wondered how to identify Thayne. I also wondered what the job might be, how much I’d be paid and why I hadn’t asked these questions before accepting his electronic offer. And Thayne hadn’t identified our mutual friend, despite my polite questioning. It could be an elaborate set-up for a mugging, I thought. Thayne might be a mugger. I checked my pockets for phone and wallet.
I shouldn’t have worried. It was easy-peasy to find Thayne. And when I did, he didn’t mug me, even though he held a broad sword. He was the guy dressed as a Roman General outside the National Gallery (North end of Trafalgar Square – find a picture on the internet). I’d never introduced myself to a Roman General before, but I thrust out a hand and told him my name, as I would anyone else – even slave.
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Thayne. He spoke with high lisp and private school accent. “Never mind about you, you’re here. Where are the others?”
Thayne raised a hand to shield his eyes, even though the sunlight flittered insipidly, as if it couldn’t be bothered to shine properly. I looked over Trafalgar Square. I could see no other Roman soldiers. There were many neon-clothed tourists, a scattering of skin-heads and some students cocking about in the fountains – but no Roman soldiers.
“I can’t see any Roman soldiers,” I said and Thayne nodded.
No other Roman soldier turned up. Out of the five actors that arrived, three wore modern camouflage fatigues. One guy wore the uniform of a Napoleonic-era combatant. And one bloke had a full-on Nazi outfit (greyly resplendent with Iron Cross). It took forty minutes for the entire party to show. And the Nazi guy was (ironically, considering the German’s reputation for precision) the last to arrive.
During the wait, I sat upon one (of the many) stone walls that make Trafalgar Square a square. I asked Thayne’s back six times what the performance was and how much I’d get paid for it, but each time he dismissed my questions with a SSSSSHHHH released from the side of mouth and a weak-wristed flap of hand.
Thayne insisted the group form a line before he spoke. This we did. I stood between the Nazi and a modern soldier.
“Tomorrow, we will perform in front of thousands of people.” My eyes widened. “We shall fight here. A stage will be erected for us.” He gestured at the raised end of the square upon which we stood. “The audience shall watch there.” He pointed to the centre of the square. “The leaders of the march have allotted us two performance times. Performance time number one will be at two o’clock. Performance time number two will be at five o’clock.” Thayne nodded pompously (much like a Roman general, I imagined). “Remember, we won’t be presenting our fight literally. No. We are artists. Our act should move towards the abstract, the expressionistic. I don’t want to see anybody throwing any punches. I don’t want anyone kicked in the head. I want symbolism. I want creativity.” Thayne took an affected glance along the line of men. “Beautiful costumes, talent. Kay Richardson. Where is yours?”
Seconds passed before I realised that Thayne wasn’t joking. His gelled (Caesar-style) hair was almost blown Mohican by a burst of Thames-fresh wind.
“I didn’t have one,” I told him.
Thayne stared along his nose at me. The Nazi said that he had another uniform spare.
“I shall bring something tomorrow,” said Thayne. “Do not fret.” He flashed a smile. It lasted for no more than a second. “Gentlemen, I shall see you here a little before two, tomorrow afternoon.”
Thayne took a sharp 180 degree turn and moved into the crowd milling outside the entrance to the National Gallery.
Our line began to break. I shouted ‘Oy, Thayne!’, but he was already lost in the mass of art-interested tourists. I turned to the Nazi. The others had begun to shuffle away. I excused myself from their company and asked the Nazi what was happening.
“What, now? I’m going for a pint. Want to come?”
His first suggestion for location was the ICA. I vetoed that. Instead, we found an empty, old-style boozer called ‘The Sherlock Holmes’ in a back-street behind Charing Cross station. Polish barmaid aside, there was nobody around to take offence at his Nazi apparel. And, anyway, London’s a liberal, cosmopolitan place. We sat at a circular table in the dark, woody pub (big mirror behind long bar), sticky red carpet. The Nazi bought the drinks. Some peanuts too.
I took a sip of the lager. Cool it was, and it seeped into my body like some golden, hoppy elixir.
“When I asked earlier ‘what’s happening?’, I meant the performance, not what you were doing next,” I explained to the Nazi.
He laughed and introduced himself as Richard. I shook his hand and told him my name.
“Kay,” I said.
“Kay Richardson?” he asked. I nodded. “Thought so. Weren’t you the guy that lived on a stage for a week? Some living art, was it? That was you, wasn’t it?” I nodded; it had been me. “Yeah. I thought that was a smashing idea. You were in The Guardian, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “And the local news.”
The Nazi nodded and told me it was a smashing idea (again).
“How come you didn’t starve?” he asked, popping a peanut in his mouth.
I told him that the audience (groups of tourists generally – they paid to walk through the theatre and watch myself and friend sleep and stuff (a live Big Brother, we called it)) would bring food for us. A group of Americans bought us pizza, I said.
The Nazi nodded and smiled and told me that he’d wished he’d had such a smashing idea. I steered the conversation back to talk of our soldiery performance.
“What about tomorrow?” I said.
The Nazi spoke:
Thayne ran this company that produced short anti-war performance material. Because of his politics, he received much funding from guilty liberals. We were to perform in one such piece. We, the actors, would dress in military uniforms and fight for twenty minutes. The repetitiveness of the piece, coupled with the fact that nobody dies, should illustrate the absurdity of war. Thayne had recorded some original music to be played over the fighting to emphasise this. We’d get a hundred quid for our troubles. Thayne didn’t believe in rehearsals, nor scripts. He thought it strangled creativity.
“Nice one,” I said. “So what am I supposed to do?”
He shrugged and finished off his pint.
I arrived at Trafalgar Square at ten to two the next day. There was an impressive throng of protestors. Some held banners. Others had shaved their heads. The BBC News had reported that there would be an anti-war march. I hadn’t realised that they referred to my forum. Tens of thousands were expected. Trafalgar Square was almost half-full – there were thousands. I pushed my way to the North side. Where we had lined yesterday, there now stood a few raised wooden pallets, covered in carpet. On top of this was a microphone. Speaking into the microphone was a red-faced, stupid-haired angry man. He shouted about Palestine.
A hand sharply gripped my shoulder. I was pulled from the front of the crowd and up onto the side of the stage. Thayne stood pointing at his watch (looking rather incongruous next to the Roman get-up).
“You’ve got three minutes to change,” he said and chucked me a weighty Sainsbury’s bag. “It’s gladiatorial. I couldn’t find military.”
I nodded and jogged behind the stage. There was no backdrop to prevent the thousands watching me strip. I even noticed a few point already, and the red-faced speaker turned to me as I passed. No, I decided. Here was not a good place to change. Conscious of Thayne’s angry Roman eyes, I ran into the Nation Gallery and deposited myself in the men’s toilets that were fortuitously positioned just in from the main entrance.
Pulled out of the plastic bag in a shit-smelling cubicle off the National Gallery entrance hall was a small length of leather, a string vest and a helmet only large enough to cover my scalp. I wasn’t surprised, nor upset. I had already surrendered myself to wearing ridiculous clothes. It wouldn’t be Kay Richardson appearing on stage in leather boxer shorts, string vest and tiny helmet. No. It would be the Roman Gladiator, there to do in the other soldiers (albeit in abstract form).
I thrust my original threads in the carrier bag, and jogged back to the stage. The others were already streaming onto the performance area. With a whack on the bottom from Thayne, I joined them. We lined behind Thayne, who took position at the microphone. After waiting for the applause to wither, he spoke:
“We amass here today, unified in our protest against War. Some of us will march, others will write letters. I, and my actors, will perform. My name is Thayne Catchpole and I present ‘War – what’s it all about?’
He turned to us and nodded. He raised a thumb to a thin chap that stood with headphone behind a mass of black machinery. The stage shuddered with the sudden opening of Thayne’s music. I hadn’t enough time to absorb its formless electronic beeping. Instead, I was being lifted off my feet by Thayne and the Nazi. I imagined myself a missile, sent to kill civilians. I raised my hands to a peak above my head. The two dropped my faux-explosive form to the floor and I made an exploding noise and lay on my side.
This motion was repeated five times, while the other performers ran around in front of us, a-screaming and a-hollering. I tired of acting a missile, so upon the fifth occasion of exploding, I refused to be lifted again and instead crawled through Thayne and the Nazi’s legs. Thayne tried to grab me, missed, and a laugh erupted from the (until then) silent audience. As I crawled through these legs, I imagined myself as a British infantryman in the fields of the Somme, crawling through the muddy craters of No-Man’s Land.
Crawl over, I stood up and watched the Napoleonic guy and the modern soldiers mime the discharge of a gun. I thought it rather impressive (aesthetically), but the audience didn’t offer direct response. The mild murmur of chat had overtaken their initial slack-jawed silence. And so it was with some relieve that the Thayne’s electronic dirge stopped to mark the end of the performance. Thayne was forced to speak “and that’s it” into the microphone before the audience wetly applauded.
At the post-mortem at The Sherlock Holmes, we were all disappointed. Thayne was inconsolable.
“They spoke over the music,” he sobbed into his pint. “I had to ask them to applaud. I could swear, you know. I could swear.”
“Shakespeare did the same,” said someone, vaguely.
The five pints that sloshed between first performance and second did little to improve our mood. When we trudged back to Trafalgar Square, the crowd had grown twofold. Why? Because the march was due to set off immediately after our repeated piece. It took the combined rhetorical power of the whole group to persuade Thayne to approach the microphone.
“This is something about war. You’ll think it crap, no doubt,” he said and the music began.
We started with the missile mime. After this, the whole group joined in an extended tableaux of a machine gunner shooting a group of children. Reader, I was the gunner.
The audience’s chatter during this scene obscured the electronic music. Thayne stood up from the pile of dead children and crossed to the microphone.
“You ******* bunch of philistine *****,” he screamed before the Nazi and I pulled him away. “You think you’re all so right on with your fucking marches. What about the Art?”
The performance ended.
Dressed back in our civilian clothes, nobody recognised the five ashen-faced actors dragging the tear-stained Thanye back to The Sherlock Holmes. I stayed long enough to receive my hundred quid (two fifty pound notes – I hadn’t seen such objects in years). The Nazi gave me his number and told me to get in touch.
On the way home, I bought two bottles of Claret. There was a documentary about Stephen Sondheim on BBC2 and I planned to get drunk.