Playing Bottom: an alternative Easter message.

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Image: A Midsummer Night's Dream

The play by William Shakespeare

So, it’s nearly Easter. Listening to breakfast radio the other day I heard of a feud between rival amateur dramatics societies somewhere in England. (Bear with me: this is relevant). One group planted saboteurs in its rival’s audience to disrupt their production by heckling.

No, don’t laugh! I expect this was deadly serious for the folks involved. But forgive my cynicism if I wonder out loud whether the whole thing was a setup to gain publicity for an upcoming performance of Jack and the Beanstalk. I expect it would be sold out after its mention on a high profile national news program, and I for one wish them well with it. I’d tell you where it is (or was) if I had caught the venue, but I was too busy spluttering into my cornflakes. Anyway, the incident spurred me to write this essay and as it has an Easter connection this seems an apt time to post it.

I will come clean at once and admit that apart from playing 13th sheep, duly mystified by the unnatural happenings in a primary school nativity play, I have only once been on stage with a speaking part. In my first year at secondary school I played 1st Roman Centurion in the Easter play. I forget the production. For some reason I have it lodged in my mind that it was some variation of Shakespeare.

Being no actor (as Mr Jones, our English master and director, made a point of telling me) the part allotted me was mercifully brief and utterly disastrous. Mr Jones directed me to listen for my cue, stride purposefully on stage and arrest the accused party. Don’t ask me what he was accused of: I doubt I ever knew and have long forgotten anyway. As it was an Easter production possibly the miscreant was Jesus, though I don’t recall actually nailing the poor blighter to a cross.

“Centurion, arrest that man…”

Grousing at being coerced into what I didn’t want to do in the first place I grudgingly donned my centurion’s getup and waited sullenly in the wings for the rest of the class to play their pieces. Uninvolved in the principle action, I got talking to a friend, another centurion who was supposed to accompany me on stage to effect the arrest. Unforgivably bored by the playwright’s genius and finding greater interest in some puerile joke of our own, as boys will… yes you guessed it: we missed our cue.

“Centurion, arrest that man,” said the principal actor. Thinking about it now, I suspect the play was some biblical plot entirely concocted by Mr Jones himself. Whatever, nothing happened. The stage froze as though someone had shouted “CUT…”. The audience grew restless. We centurions didn’t even notice. I think maybe we were amusing ourselves rehearsing a more interesting fight scene with our wooden short-swords.

“CENTURION, ARREST THAT MAN,” bellowed the principal again, glowing red with embarrassment before his audience of a hundred or so parents whose onerous duty it was to attend.

Thus prodded, we centurions rushed on stage, took Jesus in a severe headlock and unceremoniously hauled him off into the wings protesting all the way at the excessive realism of our performance. “But we’re acting,” we responded, astonished that Jesus had the temerity to complain. “You’re supposed to make it look good.”

“Not that good!” Jesus whined, massaging his stretched neck. I don’t suppose it occurred to him he was lucky this was England in the 1960’s, not Palestine in the year zero. I daresay but for Mr Jones’s intervention we bloodthirsty centurions would have gleefully sharpened the six inch nails and carried the thing through to its logical conclusion.

All this was clearly audible to the audience, who sat stony faced and silent (miserable lot!). I forget whether Jesus ever forgave we centurions. I suspect we all fell out permanently, but out of common courtesy I offer Jesus my apologies now for any permanent injury to his neck.

Curtain down, play over, our excuses cut no ice with Jesus or with Mr Jones. Having ruined the reputation of the whole class, we centurions remained in deep disgrace for the rest of that term, and in my case at least never recovered from the excruciating shame of it all.

So it was that when, a year or two later, Mr Jones pressed hard for me to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I refused outright, and being both disastrously shy and determinedly belligerent in those horrible teenage years I stoutly maintained my refusal even in the face of thundering authority. I was no actor; I knew it, and Mr Jones knew it, and I was more than glad to tell anyone so who would listen. I remain to this day rather proud of that particular teenage rebellion.

Bottom’s revenge:

Thankfully, I was relegated to backstage duties and after a period of disgruntled, monosyllabic teenage skiving found myself out of the loop altogether, merely part of the audience watching rehearsals with no part in the production at all, which suited me just fine. But I was later to regret my stubborn strop.

The boy appointed Bottom in my place (I forget his name; I’ll call him Johnny) was no better actor than me. At some point he was directed to lift a pint of ale and glug it down enthusiastically. Johnny did his best, but I guess a whole pint was too much for him. It took a while. The rest of the cast stood about woodenly on stage waiting for Johnny to swallow his pint of cold milkless tea and play his next line.

“No, no, that’s no good,” boomed Mr Jones from the hall in front of the rehearsal stage. “Leave the glass empty for now, Johnny. Just make some swallowing sounds as you pretend to drink. Positions, everybody: we’ll do it again.”

This time, coming to the point of the scene, Johnny lifted his empty glass, tipped it to his lips and said loudly, “Glug glug, glug glug, glug!”

The whole class in the rehearsal hall erupted in laughter. Johnny was a hero and Mr Jones, to his credit, agreed to keep the glugs in. It went down a storm with the audience on play night as I recall. But I was kicking myself. I could have done that, I thought, and been the hero of the class. But of course, now we’ll never know. Maybe my teenage Bottom would have been as disastrous as my earlier Roman Centurion.

Bottom gets a walk-on part:

So, I’m no actor, but I do count myself a novelist and fictional characters need background and personal interests if they are to appear real to readers. That breakfast radio item caught my ear because I wrote a fictional AmDram society into one of my novels when (at least in later editions) I gave one character, an unhappily divorced woman more than a bit prone to jealousy, an interest in amateur dramatics. This tied in with another character who needed a stage crew to help him set up an unconventional wedding for the love of his life, and as a by-product, in fond memory of Mr Jones’s long-ago production, Shakespeare’s Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream got a walk-on part.

I did worry that someone might be offended by my humorous take on AmDram, but that Jack and the Beanstalk story might have been made for the purpose. I’ll keep it in reserve for a light hearted moment in My Next Novel. Just think yourselves lucky you will never be exposed to my dreadful Bottom!

Ever thought of writing your own novel? I’ll be glad to answer queries in the comments below.

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