30th July 2021
Part Nine. Berlin. December 1995
Julie gravely wanted the run to be over, doubting if the cast would hold together for the projected three nights. There were times when she doubted the cast would even hold it together for the first night. She thought of an expression that Alan had taught her; Brecht would be ‘turning over in his grave,’ and smiled, calmly applying make-up in a vortex of disorder.
The actor playing Baal was walking in diagonal paths up and down the room, bellowing out his vocal exercises. Another actor, playing Johannes, was in a side room, running around in circles, reciting all his lines as quickly as possible. He first tried this without shoes, but had slid into a wall, and had almost broken his hand. An older woman, playing Emilie had found an old, out-of-tune piano, and was irritating everyone by singing in an equally out-of-tune voice.
Most of the other men were simply in the bar, half-in or half-out of costume, drinking beer and speaking loudly, half-sober or half-drunk. One proclaimed to the young barmaid, that he would go straight from the bar to the stage as, (here implication) he had so much talent, he didn’t need to warm-up. The part was beneath him, anyway.
The Assistant Director was desperately trying to get the lighting man to focus on the job, giving him the cues when the lights should go on and off, but instead, the technician was brusquely dismissive, as the week before there had been a performance with thirty-seven light changes, executed perfectly. The A.D. looked at the desk which was a mass of wires and sockets and beer cans and ash and Rizlas, and visibly abandoned all hope.
The Director was everywhere, shouting at everyone, making elaborate theatrical gestures of what he presumed were indications of artistic genius. He held the script as a weapon, thumping it on occasion, clutching it to his breast on others. He was angry at the cast, some of who still hadn’t appeared. The theatre manager kept coming in, asking them when they would be going on, but really to catch a look at Julie.
The Director was now making a laboured display of appearing to remain calm under insurmountable pressure, and asked the manager if the bar staff could change the music from Portishead to the Kurt Weill tape, to set the mood. The manager said he would, immediately. Nothing changed. Portishead prevailed.
The theatre was on the top floor of the third Hof of a backstreet off Warschauer Str. Alan was glad to have Vincent as guide because he would never have found it. Vincent was very dismissive of the whole project, mainly because he couldn’t believe he hadn’t been asked, and had already decided it was a doomed production, but he was going, magnanimously, to support Julie.
Alan enjoyed being with Vincent in that it got him noticed and introduced to all the creative people in east Berlin, and many attractive women, who warmed to him when they heard he was a director. Yet he resisted all the subtle and blatant temptations of Berlin, remaining focused and sober.
In the bar, Vincent was performing, ordering beers, running his hand through his hair, calling out to people he recognised, explaining that he was here to see Julie, to support this little effort, no, he wouldn’t be performing tonight, yes, he knew what a massive disappointment that was for everyone.
Alan looked through the crudely photocopied program and saw Julie’s photo. He tried reading, but the German was too hard for him. He had asked his sister to send over an English translation of the play, which he had read and re-read, in preparation.
He had wanted to take a seat in the front row but, being with Vincent, had to sit in the back. That helped him decide to return, alone, which he did. Every night.
The play was unbalanced; some of the actors were quite good, some appalling, and at times there appeared to be no direction at all. Some of the minor characters forgot their lines, or spoke over each other, and decided to turn this into part of the show, turning to the audience and laughing. Vincent translated;
“He said he was being, ‘Very Brechtian.’ Verdammt Arschloch.”
But even with little German, and without bias, it was obvious to Alan that Julie was the only one on stage who merited being there. The difference between her and the rest of the cast was simply embarrassing.
Afterwards, a crowd of people had commandeered a corner of the bar, actors, their friends and various people on the fringes of the Berlin scene. Some girls were taking photographs of the cast, and a greasy young man was interviewing the director for a local paper, circulation in double figures.
Alan was elated when Julie sat next to him. Despite her well-founded reservations, she knew she had performed well, and was glowing with a natural high. She even allowed herself to be photographed and took several glasses of Sekt. She got up to kiss various people and waved and smiled. Alan found everything enchanting. Yet he was very uncomfortable when Vincent approached and, after embracing and complimenting, sat with his arm around her. It was uncomfortable that she let him keep it there.
Julie waved to one of the actors who was just leaving. She explained to Alan;
“We call him Matthäus, after some footballer. It is because on the first day, he arrived in a tracksuit, and thought we were all going to do lots of exercises. He started stretching and everything. It was so funny.”
Julie thought that the first night mistakes could be addressed, but they just intensified over the next two nights. Some actors were not just late, they failed to appear at all, and the Director wanted to make changes to the script, almost leading to a fight between him and the main actor. Matthäus was now ignoring everyone but Julie, simply not willing to waste his time on anyone else. The Assistant Director had either been sacked, or had quit depending on what story one chose to believe, and the actress playing Johanna had gone home with the theatre manager, just to get away from the actor playing Johannes, who had been seen smashing empty beer bottles in the car park, the previous evening. And the bar staff still played Portishead.
Four days later, Julie met Alan for a coffee. He had a copy of the local paper with the review. Kelly had translated for him, and it was generally supportive, though only Julie, in the role of Sophie, received a namecheck. Only Matthäus sent her a congratulatory note.
She was still glowing, though now it was more from relief. She had changed her hairstyle, which Alan complimented her on.
“Yes, it was an experience, but I don’t think I would want to go through it again.”
Alan showed her the paper and was surprised that she covered her face when he pointed out her name. Instead, he asked her what was wrong and what she, as an actress would want from a theatre piece. He already had an idea.
“It was too big, too many people. We never had a full rehearsal. I often had to read lines with a stand-in. It is hard, it is impossible to build up the character and the . . . “
“Ja, danke, inter-action. The Director wanted a different actor for every part, but we could easily have played other small parts. Then with so many people, and many of them only having one scene …”
“They get bored and start drinking.”
“Genau ! (exactly). People try to rehearse, and I just hear other actors laughing in the background, sometimes speaking louder than the actors. When we say to be not so loud, they get angry, and leave. But, when it worked, it was . . . just wonderful.”
“So you would do some more theatre ?”
“Ja, of course. But not with so many. It is just too impossible.”
Richard put a copy of Rimbaud on the table.
“’A Season in Hell’. Do you know it ?”
“I know the name but I haven’t read it. OK, what part do I have ?” Julie asked as she took some coffee, hiding the smile.
When her office manager asked her why she was reading poetry, Julie explained that her boyfriend was taking a course and that she was reading it to keep him company. This of course backfired, as her manager made disparaging comments about students and their financial insecurity, and if he needed her to help him, maybe he wasn’t intelligent enough to be a student in the first place. He would look at her with a meaningful nod, then leave her to ponder his sage words.
The fictitious boyfriend was meant to serve two purposes; one to explain how she spent her free time, the other to deter the men in the office from hitting on her. Neither was successful. She still had to listen to the senior staff talk about how empty their lives were, before they asked her to take coffee with them, or found pretexts where she may have to stay behind after work.
Other people asked her what she and the boyfriend had done, where he had taken her, what their plans were. Julie did her unstimulating work, but didn’t feel close to anyone there, certainly didn’t want to share anything of her personal life. She couldn’t even think of anyone from the office coming to see her, or discussing rehearsing and acting.
Even though the new piece was to be in Friedrichshain, and she worked in Charlottenburg, west Berlin, she was still scared that someone may, just possibly, see her name on the handmade posters Kelly was making up for the new piece. The fact that they would only go up in Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Kreutzberg didn’t really calm her. She insisted her name be much smaller than Vincent’s, justifying it as he had a larger role, but Alan over-ruled her, reminding her that she now was a name, referring to the newspaper piece. Vincent didn’t seem to appreciate that so much, but knew that if it generated interest, in would work out well for him, too.
Before rehearsals started, Julie has been quite forceful, saying that Alan was the director and that he would have final say, but that any mistakes would ultimately be down to him, if the actors followed his instructions. This was a notice to Vincent not to try taking over, and to boost Alan’s confidence. Of the two, it was Alan who, in her opinion, had a real future. He put the project first.
Alan had finished the script, adapting the poem for the two actors. Vincent would open and close the performance, but the central piece would be Julie’s, a monologue from the Ravings 1 section of the poem, ‘The Foolish Virgin / The Infernal Bridegroom’
Vincent had booked a space, the usual bar where he performed, for three nights in early January. There would be a week to rehearse, then a break, as both Alan and Julie would leave Berlin for Christmas.
Julie was excited by the part, and loved hearing Alan talk, watching how this normally quiet, almost withdrawn man suddenly became so animated, gesturing and almost falling over his words as idea stumbled over idea.
Alan knew he could trust both of them to learn their parts and to rehearse. He couldn’t even imagine how Julie had coped with the shambles of Baal. The only problem was the situation with Vincent, his actor, and Kelly, his flatmate. Vincent was a very attractive man, and got a lot of attention, but recently his indiscretions hadn’t been so discrete, and in such a small city like Berlin, it was only a matter of time before Kelly found out.
But, for the moment, Alan had the cast for his first play, Vincent had a new piece to talk about and Julie had another part she hoped to keep secret from the people in the office.