Chris Bruno drops in to sees Nick Dear's Frankenstein at the National Theatre... and ruminates on perceptions of the 'freak'
It’s the first rainy day since I’ve been in London, just about three weeks now, and even though it’s Thursday, I can’t get that old Carpenters tune out of my head. It’s been a curious one, this second time round revisiting Raspberry in a new city, a new venue and with new eyes.
Reconnecting with the Raspberry family after months of being away has, curiously enough, been much like reuniting with close blood relatives you haven’t seen for a while. Almost immediately, you fall back into the natural state of things and it feels like no time has passed and yet, somehow, you’re keenly aware that it has, offstage – and on.
Time away from anything causes reflection, whether you want it to or not. And nothing brings that more into focus than when you have the good fortune to revisit a role. Because everything you built the first time round still exists in your DNA somewhere and reemerges as soon as you scratch the surface, you have the luxury to allow the deeper layers to come forward and show you things about the character and the play that were probably always there but the path wasn’t clear enough before for you to see them. And yes, before I bore everyone to tears with my introspective melancholy, there is a method to my madness…
'Make me a freak like me so that I will have someone who will love me.' Okay, I’m paraphrasing here so please don’t run to Nick Dear and tell him I’ve misquoted him. On Monday night, I was lucky enough to score a return ticket – one of the few perks of being a lonely visitor in a metropolitan city - to a preview performance of Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' at the National Theatre, London.
The show stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller; alternating roles each night as The Creature and Dr. Frankenstein. I know that most of you will not have seen the show as I write this, so fear not, this isn’t a spoiler alert. Suffice it to say, as Cumberbatch's 'Creature' is nothing short of brilliant - filled to the top of his scarred, bald head with wonder, passion, rage, curiosity, acceptance, confusion, longing; I could go on and on - sometimes all at once. Cumberbatch’s beautifully crafted and intelligent performance made me fall in love with The Creature from the first moments of the play - as he explored himself, completely naked, and his surroundings for the first 20 minutes of the play - physically and vocally, with an intensity and specificity I’ve never seen on stage or in film.
As I sat mesmerized by this amazing, chiseled figure of a man, I wondered why I felt so connected to him. And as I saw him walking round the stage – legs straight, gait widened, crashing to the ground and rising up again, bum first in the air and inching his way back up, it hit me: I was watching ME! This Creature, presumably teaching himself how to move through the universe for the first time, was walking like me!
My second thought was, “Wow! Impressive. He must have studied people with CP.” My third (the three coming in rapid succession) - and the one that has stayed with me and is in part, the reason for this blog, was “That’s what the audience sees when they see Raspberry!” It seems rudimentary, I know, and obviously, I have always been aware of it in the larger sense, but hadn’t given it all that much thought in relation to me or to Rita.
With such an earth-shattering beginning, I had high hopes for the rest of the evening. Sadly, and again, without giving too much away, the script betrayed Cumberbatch’s brilliant performance and more importantly, my initial feeling of identification gave way to disappointment. Once again, the audience was forced to listen to the same tired narrative about the 'freak' being too hideous for anyone to love – save for a female creature made just for him, who is just as hideous as he. And, “Why, oh, why can’t anyone see past my hideous deformity?” (which, incidentally, was not at all convincingly hideous, but strangely sexy, in fact.) Big surprise there, eh? And that’s not even the thing that is likely to cause the biggest groan in disability circles. See it and judge for yourself.
“Rita is much, much neater.” Eight months away, coupled with the sad fact that non-crip theatre still views us as outsiders, even within a story that was written to illustrate what happens when a man ruled by his head creates a man ruled by his heart and leaves him to survive in a world that shuns him. At least that’s how I’ve always interpreted the story.
Spasticus and his band of Merry Pranksters (Thanks, Mr. Kesey) are purpose-driven - for Rita and for the audience. Ultimately, Rita’s task and the audience’s are one and the same: When you leave this place go out singing, go out thinking, go out feeling, go out - not simply knowing - but believing you’re beautiful. See it and judge for yourself.
It's four in the morning, late on in January, I’m writing this blog on a tired Olivetti, London is cold but i like where I’m living, there’s music at the Oval House on every evening (well Tues to Saturday to be precise)
And Jayne.... Bloody 'ell.
Lenny Cohen i must be feeling melancholy. Curiously enough i always find him really uplifting. Must be an age thing.
Here i am sans the English Capital again, in what after another lovely time at Theatre Royal Stratford East is starting to feel like a second home. Of course its pretty much the same for crip turns as abally bo dyes. You wanna work then get thee to London Dick! Or i suppose if you wanna get Dick then... ooh matron!
Two days in to the remount of Raspberry at the Oval and I’m loving it all over again. I’ve rewritten it a wee bit and the marvellous Mr Dougall (Director) and wondrous Keith Macintyre (Designer) have restaged it slightly against the Ovals stark brickwork. So far its just great to be able to do it again and reknew my acquaintance with the irascible, outrageous, pathetically needy, wonderfully giving, killer clown that is Spasticus. The audiences feel really different.
On the last tour once we’d left Scotland - where crip led work in the key theatres we played, The Traverse, Dundee Rep and our spiritual home The Tron, tends to attract a broad audience – we were. with a few honourable exceptions playing pretty much to the tried and the tested “ghetto” audience. A failure in imagination on the part of our marketers and bookers. I don’t know but down here its starting to feel quite different. More like doing a fringe show where initially at least you tend to pull in a pretty random audience.
I wonder if this is down to the striking poster campaign which can be found in a tube station near you as we speak. We did the same in Glasgow and it worked wonders up there and it seems to be having the same effect in London.
Or whether it the allure of the old reprobate himself. Whatever’s doing it, its just great to get the sense that you’re reaching a whole new audience, it maybe takes them a bit longer to get it, but when they do they’re bowled along by the music, the gags and some great performances.
A couple of years ago you wouldn’t have got great odds on staging a feisty, entertaining musical that places crip culture at centre stage and that people want to see and enjoy. Now would you believe it you turn your back for a minute and two come along at the same time.
Both shows a million miles away from the patronising tosh of Glee and the rest of the industries feeble attempts to represent us in all our richness and complexity. You couldn’t make it up...
Those of you who’ve been following Raspberry in these pages for the last two months, know the character of Rita is played by an American; specifically an American from the bustling, cacophonous, overcrowded metropolis that is New York City.
Obviously, then, reserved is not a word I’d use to describe myself. More like “opinionated with a big heart.” So performing in cities, large and small, around the UK, I’ve often felt as though I stick out like the proverbial sore thumb – but in a good way.
Touring creates this funny kind of bubble. You spend months at a time with a handful of people. An instant family whose make up at first seems wholly implausible and foreign. Before you know it, you feel as though you’ve known your new family forever and find yourself asking how you could have ever lived your life without them in it. A completely unnatural construct that any artist will tell you is vital to the creation of the art itself.
So when the outside world invades this bubble - as it inevitably does, and sometimes sadly - must, those experiences often take on a surreal quality. Particularly so, for this assertive New Yorker 6,000 miles away from the comfort of 9 million other opinionated inhabitants of the Big Apple.
There was Dundee. Ah Dundee, where the fiercely independent (dripping with sarcasm) Sally Clay was denied access to a music club because she’s blind. Security were afraid the fine young and pissed Scots of Dundee would trip over her white stick! You can’t make shit like that up!
And there’s little ole’ me standing with the rest of the Raspberry posse shouting, “In America, Sally Clay would own this club after tonight!” Yes, I admit, Americans have a well-deserved rep for being a bit on the litigious side (although, I myself have never sued anyone).
Saunas and steam rooms have become my friends on this tour, particularly in Halifax and Liverpool, where I sit writing this blog. Or more precisely, middle-age men have become my friends in them. They congregate there, to discuss and debate everything from childcare to immigration to gastrointestinal distress.
You would think in such situations, I’d heed the words of my grandmother - something about being seen and not heard. I never could master that particular skill, so I found myself sitting amongst what must have been some of the broadest, hairiest, baldest and to my surprise, loveliest, blokes in England.
We got into a heated (pun intended) debate about immigration. We each said our piece and I emerged from the steam with a smile. If I had not spoken up, it would have been just another day in the sauna with a bunch of proper Yorkshire blokes. As if!
Manchester was a strange one. We played to sold out, enthusiastic audiences, one of whom was my soul sister in America, an actress/flight attendant who switched a trip to Paris for Manchester with another flight attendant so she could see the show.
Enter the volcanic ash cloud over England. All flights cancelled. My only connection to home was now grounded. Murphy’s (or Sod’s, as you say) Law. Oh well, the show must go on, right? The show begins, I look out into the audience and see my soul sister sitting third row center! That night the cast learned lots more about their feisty Yankee Raspberry. Be careful what you wish for!
Manchester will be forever etched in my memory, though, by the posh haircut Rupert gave me in the car park of the Premier Inn! In true NYC-girl form, I badgered him for weeks to come out of hiding—and I’m glad I did.
My hair is fab, albeit shorter than I had expected, and I think he may have even gotten a few requests the next morning from curious onlookers who saw the final results. Thanks Rupert—and Manchester!
No tour would be complete without a bit of drama, or in my case, trauma. Lesson learned: if you’re a spazz with knees that don’t bend, use extreme caution when being dumped from a rickety metal trolley onto a cold metal bench face first. If you’re not careful, you could end up spending the day in A&E trying to explain how you think you’ve broken your foot and why you can’t possibly go for an x-ray because you have a show in a few hours.
“Just wrap up my foot and I’ll come back tomorrow.” “Well, alright love, but we’re 99% sure your foot is broken and if you don’t get it sorted, you’ll have problems for life.” No irony, there, eh? And so much for positive thinking.
I did go back the next day, had an x-ray, and didn’t break my foot. The best part? My first experience with the NHS was pretty damn good. Take that, America! And speaking of feet, to the lovely guy in Glasgow who felt cheated when he discovered after the show that I wasn’t “faking” but am really disabled (despite the fact that two of the other members of the cast have disabilities), I apologize that my droopy big toe was just that, and not a piece of brilliant acting. We can’t all be Daniel Day-Lewis, now can we?
With just five more shows to go until I say goodbye to Rita for now, my thoughts are down to two: to my Raspberry family – Alan, Andy, Deb, Garry, Gordon, Jamie, Jem, Jess, Liz, Liz, Sally, Stickman and Tanya.
Thank you all for sharing your immense talent, spirits, generosity and love with me. It has been a joy working with you and I’m truly honored to call you my friends.
And finally, on this, election day eve in this fine country, this assertive New Yorker is going to offer her humble opinion one more time. I’m keeping my fingers and droopy toes crossed for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems!
Lots of Love,
“Arseholes, b_st_rds, f_ckin, c_nts and pr_cks” - now aint that one of the greatest first lines of a song ever written.
The fabulous Mr Dury leaves the listener in no doubt of what he thinks. As well as all the fabulous people you meet on tour you also meet a few like that.
So I’d like to dedicate it to the bouncers on the door of the Underground night club in Dundee who refused the lovely Sally Clay entry ‘cause she was a fire risk. They said unsuspecting punters would trip over her (fluorescent!) white stick.
To slightly paraphrase another Dury song “oh there aint half been some stupid b*stards aint there.” These few Neanderthals apart the good folk of Dundee were welcoming and hospitable though i never did get to meet Dennis the Menace.
We’re on the first leg of the English section of the tour and Derby and Halifax have whizzed by and I’m writing this in the wilds of Manchester in typical tour fug of lack of sleep and too much pop.
Two great nights at The Contact Theatre. It’s really good to visit a place and feel wanted. So good for the company to see all your carefully prepared marketing material and promotional bits and pieces really placed well. You feel like they really want you to be there. This in turn is reflected by excellent tickets sales and a buzz about the place.
Sadly on the small scale touring circuit there are still too many venues that you go to where you know they’re just ticking some cultural diversity box. They really don’t quite get it; don’t quite know how to market it: “Oooh tricky. They’re not a comic or a tribute band” and just quietly wish it would all go away. It’s such a waste!
I have a certain sympathy because the circuit has had the stuffing knocked out of it over the years by Arts Council funding policies. They demand that small provincial venues book fringe work, yet they don’t necessarily equip the venues to market the work.
At the same time there is an insistence that they must put bums on seats - thus actually encouraging safe options. But hey guys we’re all in this together. At least make an effort!
Marvellous to see master poet Peter Street at Contact not to mention turns from Corra and Waterloo Rd. My dears we’re gaining a celebrity following! And such a treat to see the film Tanya Raabe made with Fittings blasting out on a big screen in the foyer.
This film reflects Fittings long time strategy to engage with all areas of the spaces we tour to; animating the foyers and engaging with the public in as many ways as possible.
Tanya is working as Fittings Associate Director. She spent time with the company in Glasgow sketching and recording the process. Her drawings have now been turned into an animation, which accompanies the show on tour.
It’s a great piece with really striking images that capture perfectly the collaborative creative conflict that is a good rehearsal. Take a look at them on dao or on Tanya’s My Space site.
Off to Liverpool today for gigs in Runcorn and at The Bluecoat.
See you there.
'Spasticus meets Dennis the Menace'
“I love it! That memory will stay with me till the day I die” Thus spake one ecstatic audience member at the Traverse, Edinburgh, last week as a crowd of mainly non-disabled people sang along to ‘I love to be a Cripple, not a Raspberry or a Ripple but a downright dirty Cripple!!’” Marvellous!
Brothers and Sisters it is indeed a wondrous moment when so many take up the opportunity to get a little bit of cripple inside them. My date book has never been so full.
Raspberry’s on the road and causing ripples. A host of reviews from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Looks like everybody loves the songs and the passion of the performances. Whilst the story grabs some - for others it's the same old, same old. Interesting.
When we played it in development at Oran Mor 18 months ago it was described as Agit-Prop and I just said, “no not really, that’s just how it is” and that’s my response now.
People know all the language, the correct way of doing things and think they grasp the philosophical debate. But I’m not sure how many really understand what we’re getting at and that in some ways not a lot has changed.
With my DaDaFest International Artistic Directors hat on, I’m dealing with a major arts Institution at the moment. We’re discussing an event they hosted which I had doubts about.
Every time I raise these doubts I get a check list of procedures they went through to ensure the product ticked all the correct boxes. And I’m saying fine - but I still thought it was crap and then I get another list!
It reminds me of the lyrics from the ‘Hedgehog Song’ by the rather wonderful Incredible String Band – yes I am that old – “Well you know all the words and you sang all the notes, but you never quite learned the song, she said.”
'Twer fab to have sell-out houses at The Tron and The Traverse, and this, and great audience responses, have honed the show and warmed the cockles of a very talented, hardworking and passionate company.
Off to Dundee today – the home of Jute, Jam and Journalism. Maybe Raspberry will get a feature in the Beano.
Spasticus meets Dennis the Menace. Now I’d buy a copy of that!
As us old turns say “See you on the Ice”.
Christine Bruno gets excited as she gets the part of Rita in Fittings new musical 'Raspberry' - by internet audition 6,000 miles away!
Six degrees of separation is a funny thing… you never realize it’s working its magic as it’s happening. But when you look back on the sequence of events that lead up to the event in question, it seems so obvious you ask yourself how you could have missed it. The world is small - and getting smaller every day. The world of theatre? Even smaller.
When the amazingly talented Liz Carr approached me last spring to direct the current incarnation of her one-woman show, It Hasn’t Happened Yet, shortly after a two-hour conversation on our way home from a day of frolicking with kangaroos and penguins in Melbourne. OK, we weren’t exactly frolicking with the roos… more like in danger of two crips being stampeded by the ravenous marsupials as we innocently each clutched a bag of pellets.
I could never have imagined working with her would lead me to Raspberry. If someone had told me a year later I’d be sharing the stage with these amazing actors and musicians six thousand miles from my postage stamp-size apartment in Greenwich Village, I would have told them they were confusing me with someone else. But such is the stuff of theatre -and at the risk of sounding melodramatic - dreams.
Before working with Liz, I thought of a raspberry as either a fruit or the obscene noise you make with your tongue to express cheeky disapproval. Cockney rhyming slang? “What the hell is that?” I asked wide-eyed. Mong, flid, raspberry ripple? This was some weird shit, man!
These Brits are ballsy, for sure. But by the end of my initiation into the strangely logical world of rhyming slang, I was hooked—flidding, spazzing, and rippling with the best of them. So by the time I finally met the ubiquitous Garry Robson, I was primed and ready. Six degrees, my friends. We knew a lot of the same people and shared a love of theatre and music. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll made it to the U.S... but an American Dury fan, sadly, is a rare thing.
So when Garry asked me to audition for a new musical he had written inspired by the life and songs of Ian Dury, I jumped at the chance (well, not exactly jumped, but you get the idea.)
It was all very 21st century. How were we going to make this work with six thousand miles between us? “Well, I could film my audition and upload it to the internet and then we could set up a meeting via Skype on the day of the audition,” I offered, having no idea how I was going to make it happen.
But anyone who knows me will tell you, once I commit to something, I’m like a dog with a bone. I was going to make this happen, come hell or high water! And if I didn’t get the job, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. Within 24 hours of a strangely relaxed interview (including a last-minute request for an additional monologue in my American accent) over the internet with the incredibly astute Gordon Dougall, the fab Sally Clay and Sir Garry himself, I got an email offering me the gig! I left my job, sublet my apartment and shipped my beloved Hubbell off to my mother’s. Shit! I was heading to the UK for three months to do a new musical! I’m still pinching myself.
Whenever someone asks me to describe what it feels like to create a piece of theatre, I’m never sure how to it, except to say that theatre at its best is everything at once. It’s exhilarating, complicated, terrifying, frustrating, surprising, messy, dirty, compelling, painful, joyful, inspiring (not to worry fellow crips – not the brave and courageous, “aw bless” kind), exhausting, daring, but most of all, it’s just plain fun.
And at the risk of sounding like a talking head, great theatre illuminates the human condition by going for jugular – it hits us where we live and with a little luck and a lot of damn hard work, hopefully, entertains us as well.
Raspberry is all that – and more. So much more. I am proud and privileged to be working with this incredibly eclectic and talented band of wandering minstrels who are every bit as “vulnerable, mortal, imperfect…and very, very beautiful” as the characters they play. Oi Oi!!