Peter Lewicki photo
Every year, about a month before high school exams, Xavier hired a theatre in the centre of town and performed a limited run of his one-man re-telling of the notoriously difficult 18th-century novel assigned by the exam board every year. The other eleven months he spent following his national cricket team around the world, staying in some sick hotels. The novel was about marriage chasers and posh living but the language was as thick as tarmacadam and the students didn’t have time for that shit. Cue: a top-hat, cloak, thigh-high boots, a flyweight white shirt and lots of make-up which transported him not only spiritually but also geographically, which he liked. Students who had not bothered to read the text poured in sure as spikes on a gate to see the show, during which, down time, the properly-aging Xavier launched himself alone into the strict courtier’s mores; mannered and protracted, he threw his arms around every night just like a juggler his sticks. It is an incredibly boring novel but a national treasure. The show was average but necessary.
Of the many thousands of students who’d attended down the years, one, Hatzumake, became so entranced by this sole presence on stage giving a performance that was almost the same every night, twice on Wednesdays, that she found herself stealing from her mother’s purse to go the next night; and the next; after which she told her mother and her mother was very happy with her daughter’s honesty and sudden theatrical interest, for she herself had been an actress once and had often wondered whether her daughter might follow her steps, as it were. Instead, Hatzumake was a dentist; and the next; and the next, after the matinee. She became well known by the staff at the theatre and had met Xavier personally when he sat her on his knee during an intermission some time ago. She was staggered every time; the man was lightning at his job; full houses for four weeks of the year and then off to wallop the Wendies and Wistralia. In short, for the last fifty years Hatzumake has gone to every performance, the one month of the year before exams, for the chance to see Xavier bring forth his unbending blend of historic histrionic narrator who quick-changes into each shadow and basically lays out everyone’s reason for being there, like a classy Spark Notes but in three dimensions. The house lights were on throughout so the audience could write stuff down.
By now in his eighties, with thousands of performances behind him, never needing to work again having cracked it as the noble participant/observer, Xavier snapped one night before he went on stage. He is only a man after all, but one who has made a lot of money pretending to be someone else, like a criminal would do. He cannot and will not play the role that night nor likely ever again, even if it only is a month-a-year, same as ever, 50 or so shows all in then cab it to the airport. I’ll swap it all for an allotment! he shouted, my cricket team is shit, they never win, and I am getting old, fat and lazy in front of strangers. Enough! Xavier cried as the five-minute bell rang in the Bauhaus-style lobby which was full of teenagers on their phones talking about food. I’ll not leave this Green Room tonight, he said having calmed a little, from behind the locked-door. A hastily-convened meeting of the management decided to offer Hatzumake the role, for tonight at least. She was their theatre, she’d seen every show performed in the last half century, she’ll know the words. And she said Yes when they asked her and before you can say whodunnit Hatzumake was dressed as a nobleman and Xavier sat in his underwear, door wide open, lock smashed. He heard a kind of performance he could never have imagined; one of pauses and ellipses, even moments of complete silence. Here was a different protagonist indeed, one with an eye on the new to bring in even more students, yet steeped in theatrical history having watched Xavier every day, all her life. She was also an autodidact, and as such, an avid exponent of the nation’s post-war theatrical manifestos; a lurch towards the unknown, the unanswerable, and the plainly absurd.
Hatzumake brewed under lights. After three or four performances theatre directors from throughout the continent jetted in to see the newcomer’s unaccountable non-bombastic-slew-of-limbs-and-screeching-out-of-lines. Here indeed, they all agreed, was a major shift in the lie of the stage, like when Shakespeare picked up the ball and ran with it back in the day. Xavier despised her success, it was as if generations had turned their backs on him all at the same time, front-row members he recalls in pretty bows or more recent, sharp-lined haircuts, beautiful breasts, equally panicking before exam day; they had all turned away. He went to South Alfrica to watch his team lose and died of a drug overdose in his hired car; there was a service. Hatzumake had the world at her feet, which works in theatre because the actor is raised above the spectator in the early rows, and on the town’s raked stage those up front felt so low as to be beneath this prophet’s soles of which they caught a glimpse and saw the glitter and the rubber set to last around thirty years, plenty of time for Hatzumake to have her own Xavier moment and no, she didn’t know if there was anyone who might take over because she had somehow, with no acting skill whatsoever, stumbled onto a new approach to the stage. There was ambiguity in 18th-century glances. There were questions followed by long silences. There were characters butting into others’ speeches – this was impressive in the now ‘one-woman’ show with the same thickly-accented text, instantly from which doubt and cynicism rose like boils on a traitor’s back. As a theatre-going critic sat among a thousand teens on their phones I have to say the Hatzumake’s change of direction has shoved theatre off its tracks. I am made to feel uncomfortable by her oppressive silences and seeming loss of concentration, which gets me wondering whether … but then what if … and then feeling stupid when obviously they hadn’t … What a professional. Hatzumake forever believed Xavier was a dirty bastard for sitting her on his lap and was happy to hear of his means of death, all of which she constantly channelled.
Daniel Roy Connelly’s poetry pamphlet ‘Donkey see, Donkey do‘ was published by Eyewear in June 2017. His first collection, ‘Extravagant Stranger: A Memoir‘, was published by Little Island Press in July 2017. He is a professor of creative writing, English and theatre at John Cabot University and The American University of Rome.