Monday, 19 March 2018

Birthday # 59

It was my 59th birthday on the first of the month and a friend was to treat me to Macbeth at the National Theatre. The country was like Antarctica, trains were few and where running, jammed. I got to Kings Cross on the 28th of February on the only train of the day to make it there from Peterborough. I needed to get to my niece Danielle's place at East Dulwich, and queued to buy a ticket.

'You want a ticket to East Dulwich?' the bloke at the counter asked, mystified. I might have asked him for a sedan chair.

'Er, yeah...' 

He explained patiently that I could 'use my debit card like an oyster.'

I hadn't a clue what he meant by this and asked for elucidation. So, for other provincial innocents: you tap your debit card on a yellow blob at ticket barriers, and are granted instant access to trains. You don't need a ticket. If you lost your debit card, presumably the finder could happily tour London at your expense for hours until you noticed it was missing.

I got to East Dulwich and waited in a cavernous, open-plan bar for Danielle to come and meet me, foolishly ordering a glass of well-chilled Pinot Noir in a glacial pub on the coldest night since the woolly mammoth died out. Then we had a home-made Thai curry for dinner and I thawed out.

*****

I was far from the happy 59th Birthday Boy this March 1st. There is something stressing me out at the moment which I have to keep quiet until it's resolved and there are times when it occupies me to the exclusion of all else. So I set forth rather reluctantly for the National, wearing a T-shirt, a shirt, a pyjama top, a jumper and a heavy jacket, enabling me to roll to East Dulwich station and fetch up in the National Theatre foyer encased in a ball of ice. I explained to Lorraine the reason for my preoccupied demeanour, we drank an extortionately expensive (but palatable) glass of wine apiece, then took our seats.



This was without rival the worst production of a Shakespeare play I have ever sat through. I spent the first half wondering where the hell we were, and who all these people could possibly be. The set was a black nowhere, dominated by what looked like half a black railway bridge adorned with tall, black dish mops. All this stood before a backdrop of shattered black bin liners. Black, black and more black. Subtle, huh? Everyone wore layers of shabby combat gear except King Duncan, who looked like an Italian pimp in a red suit, black shirt and red shoes. Pretty much every UK regional accent was employed as if the National operated a quota system, some mad notion of 'diversity and inclusion'. What in this bleak nowhere was there to covet? Why were Mr and Mrs Macbeth so eager to rule over  it?



Lady Macbeth read her husband's letter as the Olivier's revolve trundled her on. She appeared to be living in a bleak cell painted institution buff, full of mismatched plastic folding chairs and open suitcases spilling clothes and shoes. Other such modules appeared, each as cheerless as provincial train station waiting rooms, making a total bollocks of Duncan's line about  the castle having a pleasant seat. It didn't: it was a shit hole. The Macbeths gave their dinner party in an ugly canteen with two formica- top tables and grub in billy cans. This scene did actually come to life, despite Banquo's ghost meandering round like a sleep walker, because the embarrassment created by Macbeth's behaviour and his wife's attempt to make light if it was genuinely sphincter-winking and after the departure of the guests, the fear the couple exuded was palpable. I felt it was, anyway. Lorraine was underwhelmed as we went to the bar at the interval, where a glass of wine and a stewed coffee cost eleven quid.



After the interval, Macbeth's motivation for butchering Duncan finally became clear: it was to nick his trousers.





The evening's proceedings dribbled on. In a drab room with a grubby sofa and tatty rug, Ross - here a female thane with a Yorkshire accent - broke the horrible news to Macduff of the massacre of his family. I found this quite moving: how many people in Ireland, Syria, Libya and God knows where else have received similar intelligence in such ordinary surroundings, when everything familiar suddenly drains of colour and significance... or maybe the interval wine was getting to me.


At length it was over, and we got up and stretched as if a boring meeting had finally broken up. After a journey through what looked like Siberia, I got back to East Dulwich, sank a bottle of wine, and so to bed.

*****

The following evening was delightful. Danielle and I had a few drinks at a cosy pub, and she treated me to dinner at a lovely Chinese restaurant, bless her. After, we drank a great deal more wine at home. The following morning she said she felt rough but texted me as I was on the train home to say she felt better and had been to the gym. Only then did I reflect that I'm forever 28 years her senior.

*****

Bonding with my niece's cat, who's as appalled at the threat to free speech on university campuses as I am.





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