The perfect waterfly

Being a legion of people is very tiring. Or it was for Manfred Clootie. Now, in his dotage, he revels in being just one self. But there were times when he had difficulty in finding a self to be.

Living in the dingier parts of Melbourne, he had supported himself during the dreary nineteen-fifties as a thief, to be precise a pickpocket, while pretending to be an ordinary citizen. Then, in the late ‘Sixties (oh yes, this is history of sorts) He decided to experiment with another form of imposture.

He began to loiter on the fringes of The Theatre (the capitals are necessary). He was surprised to find how easy it was. See enough plays, chat with enough people and soon you’re in there with the actors and theatregoers.

He went to the right parties and, after a long period of pretentious prattling, he came to be accepted as a person of talent. Eventually someone told him that introduce himself to the stage, all that was necessary was to attend a party given by someone named Hetty Van, there to meet a man called Royston Crowley, who styled himself a dramaturgist.

Hetty Van turned out to be a rich widow and patroness of the arts. He did not meet her. On the night of the party Clootie walked for at least twenty minutes from the nearest tram stop. He found himself in a Toorak Street whose name was familiar to him because people said it was the richest street in Melbourne. He had no idea how to behave. He was certain that most of the people at the party would have sprung from grandparents no more illustrious than his, but they would have had time to develop habits that were certainly not his. He wondered how it felt to live without worrying about bills, to live legally on credit, to be paid regularly without having to appropriate the wages of others.

By the time he arrived at the house he had resolved not to show surprise at any odd goings-on, not to raise his eyebrows at anyone’s behaviour or dress, not to answer any question with the plain truth, and – if drawn into “intellectual” conversation – to talk pure but plausible bullshit.

He was disappointed. The house wasn’t as grand as he had expected. It was newer than many of the other houses in the street. He had imagined something grand and Victorian. What he entered at last was a low structure built on three levels, none of which reached higher than a few metres above ground level. A man placed at the door was not really interested in knowing anything about him. He was motioned to enter, which he did. Anyone could have done so. Inside, he found a multitude of people, none of them looking spectacularly glamorous. The interior of the house was expensively elegant but too spare for his taste. He would have liked a few squiggles inside and gargoyles outside. He stood on a floor of glazed tiles that reminded him of a public lavatory.

Where was the great producer and director, Royston Crowley? If Crowley was not here, Clootie was about to have one of the most boring nights of his life.

From an abandoned tray he took a glass of white wine and stood sullenly sipping it in a corner. He was not the only solitary sipper. In other corners, in niches and alcoves, others stood with their drinks held close to their chests. Their eyes furtively scanned the room. If they’d managed to find congenial company, they would have formed not a group but a conspiracy. He wanted none of them.

Parties being what they are, it was not long before some of the guests lost the ability to focus their eyes. The party went on without caring; it was now an organism that thought only of itself. Clootie would like to have become invisible (normally a useful accomplishment in his profession). But tonight he was looking for a job in which the ability to play a part would be rewarded. So he did not take advantage of his cloak of invisibility.

He hadn’t eaten for several hours, so he went in search of food and found an enormous table laden with delicacies. There was one other man in the room but he was at the far end of the table and could safely be ignored.

Or could he? Clootie glanced at the feeding man once or twice and thought he recognised him. Which was not surprising, since the man’s face was famous. Millions of viewers knew it, and the voice that went with it, a voice as rich and dark and fruity as a Christmas pudding. Few knew his name, but he was well known as the financial wizard who took time off from weightier matters to stare out of the tube and recommend your investing in something or other that you would not normally have thought of investing in.

As Clootie later discovered, this man had carried in his heart for years a truth hidden from others – that he was meant to be the great antipodean Hamlet of the 20th Century. Never again, when watching Rawhide, Wyatt Earp or Bonanza, would they think of the man with the pointed beard who interrupted the action to tell them what to do with their money. He was heading away from all that.

He had been waiting for a chance to spring upon the black-clad prince and throttle the life out of him. Now he had got a group together that seemed to him capable of fleshing out his dream. A theatre had been booked, rehearsals were in progress. He had but one part left to fill and had been promised that on this night someone would appear to fill it, a young unformed actor, slightly stage-struck, who only needed guidance.

Well, then, where was he? That old bitch Hetty knew nothing of him. Have I, the great persuader, been conned? Mournfully browsing through acres of savouries in search of something unspiced, for he had a nervous stomach, this famous man whose name nobody knew was suddenly irked by the sight of a tall, gangly young man who had entered the room a few minutes earlier and was now eating as if he intended to shift every morsel in sight. The rest of the party members seemed to have surged away to some remote and more promising part of the house.

Clootie wolfed down canapes, pickled onions, shreds of cheese, tiny bits of pastry filled with spiced meat, spoonfuls of caviar. To him they were more than food, they were air and water and sunshine. But he didn’t quite manage to clear the table. In a moment of temporary satiety, he looked up and saw the managing director of the universe looking at him – certainly the managing director of something, and something big. Where had he seen that face before? In the financial pages? But he never read them.

“You’re enjoying yourself,” said the great man in an effortless, comforting bass voice. As soon as he heard that voice Clootie was ready to fall in love with its owner. It was familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

In replying, he tried for a similar tone and nearly choked.

“I’m starving to death,” Clootie said. “Or I was until I found this.”

“I think I’d rather starve,” said the other, looking biliously at the spread.

Clootie, not wishing to offend, wondered if he too ought to express revulsion, but decided it would not be convincing – not after wolfing down such a huge quantity of food designed only for tasting.

“Are you an actor?” Clootie said suddenly

“Why the fuck do you ask?”

“I thought everybody here was.”

“Are you?”

“No, not really, but I hope to be.”

“Why? Do you like poverty?”

“I came here tonight hoping to meet someone,” Clootie said. “Do you know Royston Crowley?”

“Agghhh! Crowley. That fake! That . . .that . . .Why do you want to meet him? He’ll kill you. You’ll see. The first thing he’ll want to do is borrow money, and the very last thing he’ll do is pay it back. Keep away from him. By the way, are you Manny Cooper?”

“Manfred Clootie.”

“Royston Crowley. I had a feeling it was you. Did you have a feeling it was me?”

Clootie had a feeling that he was being whirled in a centrifuge. The contrast between Crowley’s words and his appearance was too great. He looked like a cross between the president of the United Nations and the chancellor of some great university. He talked like the court jester. Perhaps, he thought, Crowley didn’t really look like a distinguished gentleman, only like the common idea of one. Crowley began to chatter about theatrical matters that Clootie knew nothing of. He spoke with the utmost contempt for everyone. Clootie was desperate for a name to drop. When they got to the stage of playing “Do You Know?” he could only nod his head, shake it or pretend not to hear. He knew hardly anybody.

People began to return from the Limbo into which they’d temporarily vanished. Crowley accepted one or two greetings churlishly and then disappeared behind a curtain. Clootie was again left alone with people to whom he must have been invisible. He was considering leaving this house, never to return. It was simply not his world. He had only his thievish craft to support him, a craft which, if pursued too diligently, would draw attention to him; but at least that was familiar territory. He was beginning to come round to the view that he had not been meant to tolerate odd people, never dreaming that to the world he was himself odd.

Crowley returned, irritably pushing his way through a knot of hungry people who were poking at the savouries with something of his own distaste. He had a bottle of white wine and two glasses.

“This is piss,” he said to Clootie, “but who are we to quibble.”

When he had poured for both of them he went on as if he had never stopped.

“And that idiot who recommended me to you – who’s he being lately? Is he being Sweeney Todd, Attila the Hun, Goldilocks, Ned Kelly . . ?”

“You’ll have to explain,” Clootie said.

“A-ha! I see it. You think the real thing. Well, let me tell you there is no real thing. How many times have you met him??

“Twice in a few months.”

“That’s about enough. Meet him any more often and you’ll have to expand your address book. I sympathise with people who feel the need to be someone else, but they ought to do it in the right place, such as the stage. Or perhaps they should change their addresses when they change their personalities. Whoever heard of a conman changing his persona without moving to another town? It’s ridiculous.”

“He’d moved the last time I saw him,” Clootie said.

“That’s an improvement.”

“I thought was supposed to appear in one of his productions.”

“Good thing you didn’t. He ruins reputations, and his productions never get started. Turn your head.”

To Clootie the tone of command in the voice was irresistible. He turned his head.

“Good,” said Crowley. “Are you working at the moment?”

“No,” said Clootie, immediately regretting his honesty. And why had the question been necessary. To Crowley “working” could have meant doing only one kind of work, acting, and he must have known that Clootie wasn’t doing any of that.

“How do you feel about Osric?”

“Osric?”

“Screaming queen in ‘Hamlet’.”

“Oh, that Osric. I’m not attracted to him.”

“No, no, no. I mean, how do you feel about playing him?”

At last! The offer. Clootie began excitedly to explain that Osric was his ideal, the part he’d always wanted, the crown of every actor’s career. Osric was the perfect role and he, Manfred Clootie, was perfect for it.

Royston Crowley looked neither convinced not sceptical. He looked resigned. Clootie now saw that Crowley had all along been a little the worse for wine. He wondered if the great man would remember him the next time they met.

Great man? Yes, of course, for he now knew where he’d seen the face and heard the voice.

“Weren’t you,” he said, “the man on television who said, ‘It’s your country and your money.’? I can’t remember the rest. Skyscrapers growing in the background, music building up, jets taking off. Yes, that was you.”

“Yes,” said Crowley. “That was – but it isn’t any more.”

Clootie felt as if he’d been caught with his hand trapped in someone’s clothing. He knew he’d put a foot wrong there. He decided the situation wasn’t worth retrieving. Crowley was rapidly drowning in white wine, but while Crowley was still capable of responding, Clootie extracted from him an address and was told to present himself there the following week. He went home with the location written on the same piece of paper that bore Hetty Van’s address. He didn’t say good night to his hostess. He hadn’t met her. He never did meet her. He never found out who, if anybody, she was.

Several days later, he was let into a filthy brick building with broken windows and a leaky iron roof. It was the only structure remaining on a patch of waste ground soon to be engulfed by the University of Melbourne, whose assortment of buildings loomed in the near distance. There was no ceiling to this shed. Above the rafters the sky peeped through in places. But there was a raised platform at one end that could be used for a stage.

What happened in there on that and subsequent occasions remained in Clootie’s memory in an abstract form. Afterwards, he could not really believe it had all happened, for this was one of those experiences one has that seem to belong to someone else’s biography.

It was all confusion and despair from the start. It might have been a nightmare if it had not been for the solid reality of the people involved in it. They were a mixture of amateur and lower-level professional actors, none of them good, all of them unemployed apart from their participation in this, the definitive Hamlet. It was soon apparent to all that Royston Crowley, despite his talent as a mouthpiece for institutions, was the worst director in the history of the modern stage. He took little notice of anyone, confining himself to abuse when anyone got in his way or looked likely to upstage him. Each rehearsal was a first night for him. He strutted and bellowed as if an audience of thousands had managed to fit into the tiny building.

Clootie’s part of Osric, the effeminate landowner and hanger-on at the court of Denmark, was not interpreted for him. “Just speak the bloody lines” was all he got in the way of direction. He learned that he was the fourth actor to attempt the part, the previous three having left in disgust.

In a deepening dream, he staggered through the few weeks left until the opening. It was hopeless. He could not get into the part. He remained Manfred Clootie, pickpocket and poet. He could hear, as if someone else were speaking, native Australian accents creeping into his speech, accents he had tried to banish by speaking verse into a tape recorder and listening critically to the result. Crowley seemed not to notice that his Osric sounded as if he owned, not a large chunk of Denmark, but a small weatherboard house in Collingwood.

One of Clootie’s fellow actors (Guildenstern) said to him, “You’ll never get far in Hamlet with an Australian accent.” Being of English origin, he said it with some satisfaction. Clootie worked hard in an attempt to turn himself into a cheap, plastic imitation Englishman – not just any old Englishman, but an Olivier or Gielgud. As a result he developed two voices, the one he used on the street and the one he used on stage. The trouble was he kept slipping from one to the other.

He got over his difficulties by going to sleep. The perfect somnambulist, he walked the stage with eyes open and mouth working while his mind was elsewhere, anywhere.

He had taken to muttering to himself whole scenes from Hamlet, doing all the parts. While he did this he took little notice of his surroundings. He would close his eyes, the better to visualise a scene and would walk blindly about, mumbling as he went. Many collisions resulted. People who had known him for years kept their distance. One, a man named Jack, was not fast enough on his feet. After Clootie bumped into him, Jack found himself grabbed by the wrist as Clootie yelled, “What is he whose grief bears such emphasis?” Jack, a small man by any standards, proved his strength by rapidly disengaging himself and running for his life. He lived in the same rundown pub that housed Clootie. There weren’t many fully functioning locks in that place. Jack hid in his room. A series of dragging and ramming sounds suggested that he had wedged something heavy against the door and under the handle.

It was going to fail. Nothing could possibly come of this production but disaster. Clootie knew it, the whole cast knew it. Only Royston Crowley remained convinced that this Hamlet would shake the world. During breaks in rehearsals – which now took place in a theatre within the university, the actual venue for the play, Crowley spoke of travelling the country, of taking the production to London, of film rights, of immortality. As yet, none of the performers had been paid anything, nor would they be until a profit had been made. Such was the arrangement. But by this time few expected money. Some had left and their places had been taken by raw amateurs, few of whom had good memories. The prompter was kept busy.

The first night approached like a dental appointment. First night, last night – that’s how Clootie saw it. If only it was over, he moaned to his pillow in the devastation of his bed. His voice must have penetrated the walls, for he heard soft footfalls in the hall. Someone crept away after listening for a while at his door.

There were two dress rehearsals, both disastrous. This production was to be dressed symbolically. No attempt was made to present the play in the style of its period, or any other period. Hamlet wore a black one-piece jump suit. Claudius was in a purple caftan. Ophelia had only a featureless white shift. The set barely existed. Lots of matt black paint had been used, lightened in places by touches of dirty grey.

The moment Clootie donned his costume, pink to show Osric’s effeminacy, he knew he was in the wrong business. Somewhere in the world there was a place for him, a modest office, an interesting little shop, a nice clean factory, a small room perhaps, in which one was paid to sit and read 19th Century novels. But not the stage. How he’d ever been able to convince himself that he had a theatrical vocation was now a mystery.

He had always hated dressing up. He had always been the last to thrust himself forward in any gathering. Until he was twenty he had spoken through clenched teeth.

So what am I doing here, he asked. He went back in his mind to the time he had first begun to think of himself as an actor. Step by step he retraced his steps back to the moment of decision. He was surprised by how many months ago that was. The beginning of winter. Now it was near the end of summer. He had believed himself capable of professional performance merely because of his tendency to imitate the mannerisms of people he met. Now he resolved never to do that again. If he came through this present experience alive he would thereafter be his own man. People could then imitate his mannerisms.

He thought this out during the second dress rehearsal. Automatically he went through his part, speaking words that meant nothing. Perhaps this would get him through the first night. And after that? Well, suicide was always possible.

“And what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” thundered the voice that had launched a thousand Commonwealth Bond campaigns.

But Clootie was alone in the universe. The voice had no effect on him. All was silent, void. Entropy had had its way and no organised worlds now existed. The silence deepened. Yet somehow he heard his name. My name, he thought, is now Clootie-You-Bastard!

“Your part,” said the voice of the master, “is that of Osric, a screaming Danish queen, not to be confused with Gertrude, the Danish queen. My part is that of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. We are in Act five, Scene Two. You are in Act Three, Scene Four – speaking my fucking part!”

The silence that followed was broken by the sound of Clootie’s voice, complete with uncertain accent, hollowed by the emptiness of the auditorium and the smallness of the tape recorder that had captured it. He heard himself say:

“Do you not come your tardy son to chide,

That, laps’d in time and passion lets go by

The important acting of your dread command?”

Clunk! said the machine as Crowley shut it off.

 

“Important acting, indeed!” he shouted. He came stumping up on to the stage in his black costume, looking for all the world like a spider that had managed to grow the head of a senior executive. As hair that bore touches of grey was not required for Hamlet, he had put on a small black wig. It did not suit him.

“Now Osric,” he said. “You are a poofter. You cover your face with rouge and powder, you cruise the comfort stations of Elsinore, you sit down to pee.”

His face, unnaturally white in contrast to the black of his suit and wig, was thrust out at Clootie like a target. His eyes were drawn to Clootie’s right arm, which was slightly crooked, the hand clenched into a fist.

“My God! said Crowley in a near whisper, “I think the man’s about to strike me.”

Clootie, his voice reverting to the timbre of his school days, said, “You could be right.” But he did unclench his fist.

“Do you often do that, strike people, I mean?”

It sounded like a doctor’s question: do you often do that, move your bowels, I mean? Clootie was unable to answer. He found himself being manoeuvred into a small room behind the stage where the cast retired to take coffee and console each other. It would have been glorifying it to call it a green room. Crowley sat Clootie down at a laminex-topped kitchen table and then sat opposite him.

“Now, what’s the trouble?” he said in a voice that, despite his costume, was the reassuring voice of Royston Crowley, chief executive officer of the world. It was impossible not to be won over. Clootie took a deep breath, let it out – and said nothing. He tried again and managed to say, “I can’t do it.”

“Osric? Of course you can. Look, don’t worry about my manner out there. It’s not the real me. It’s a mask I put on when I direct. I always do it. Don’t take offence.”

This did not help Clootie much, for he knew that this was Crowley’s first theatrical venture. Until the coming of television, he had been an insurance salesman. Looking at the man who was to play the prince, he saw there was nothing he could say. The only thing was to go through with it and hope his mind would straighten out on the night. To explain his difficulties to Crowley would only have been to call forth reassurance, the kind Crowley gave to investors.

They talked for a while about the play until Clootie said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be all right on the night.”

But of course he wasn’t.

As is now generally known, Royston Crowley’s version of Hamlet, after a few bad early notices, was seen by a theatrical knight who was visiting the antipodes to deliver a series of lectures in praise of himself. This distinguished playgoer – he had not actually performed for more than twenty years – raved about the production (although some sour critics alleged he saw it only by mistake). He spoke of it on radio, in print, on television. As a result, the production continued, was acclaimed as the greatest theatrical triumph of the Sixties – of the century. It was last heard of taking wing for London.

But not with Clootie as Osric – or anything else. The Osric who replaced Clootie was a short, broad-shouldered young man, lean in the hips and fast on his feet, who had been for a time the national amateur lightweight boxing champion. He didn’t wear a pink costume. He appeared in a sort of leotard and cape combination. Some said he looked like a sawn-off superman.

Two nights after the opening of “Hamlet” Clootie stood in a Carlton street, not far from the scene of the crime. He was eating a rapidly cooling hamburger, biting savagely into it again and again, as if it were Royston Crowley’s arm. The night was unseasonably cold. As he was lightly dressed, the air went through his shirt and savaged his flesh, which, he thought, deserved it. He gave himself so little time to chew that lumps of meat and bread went tumbling down his gullet, the spices in the meat etching tracks as they descended.

In his shirt pocket he carried a folded cutting from what, until the morning of that day, had been his favourite newspaper. Whenever he felt that he was about to forget himself and his situation he would touch the pocket, murmuring to himself a threat meant to freeze his soul: If you forget how despicable you are, I’ll make you stop under the next light and read the thing aloud.

And yet he was not dead, not even maimed. But oh how bruised was his vanity!

To prove to himself that he could take punishment, he sought a warm place where he could calmly read the clipping in his pocket. This was not easy. There were restaurants he had used during rehearsals, but Crowley had been paying then. Now he needed an unpretentious place, a coffee dispensary perhaps that would cost next to nothing. The only ones he saw were full of foreign people who would be sure to stare t him when they heard him speaking English.

He did at last find a place, a glorified milk bar with a few tables and an espresso machine. It was empty, bright, and, as he found out going in, warm. He ordered black coffee, took it to a table and extracted the clipping from his pocket. He got ready to read it as if it were the best possible news.

It was headed: First Night Fiasco. A note informed readers that the paper’s regular critic was ill and that a well-known ornament of the theatre had stood in for him. Clootie knew the writer by name. Everyone did.

The clipping read in part:

. . . We all love to remember those performances that are so very bad that they now seem to possess almost a classic quality. At least they weren’t merely mediocre. It is the truly frightful, the abysmal, the ghastly performances of the very worst practitioners of the arts that come closest to greatness.

This little meditation was the outcome of a night spent watching a play, allegedly by Shakespeare, presented at the University of Melbourne. According to the execrably designed and wretchedly printed program, this play had something to do with Hamlet. But the connection was tenuous.

Royston Crowley, who has claimed responsibility, has a face known to many. Since television commercials do not carry credits, his name is not so well-known. But it will be. It will label his bust in the hall of infamy.

One scarcely knows where to begin. With the sets? Survivors of the wrecker’s ball. The costumes? Designed by the Marx Brothers. With Crowley himself? Earnestly advising the skull of Yorick to buy Kingdom of Denmark bonds.

No, I think it must suffice to describe the antics of Osric – “Spacious in the possession of dirt”. Whoever he was, for the program did not name him, the actor playing Shakespeare’s effeminate courtier showed a rare talent for commanding the attention of an entire audience. He began by entering on someone else’s cue in the wrong act and patiently stood by, either doubling as the ghost or waiting for Godot. He disappeared during an unscheduled lowering of the curtain – to be replaced by a veritable Adonis.

When this Osric, the original, not the replacement, finally got on at the right time, he muttered a few inaudibilities, fell silent, then burst out with two of Horatio’s lines. He seemed to be greatly affronted by Hamlet’s remarks about Osric (“this waterfly. ‘tis a vice to know him, ‘tis a chough”, and so on…). I thought he might at any moment punch Mr Crowley’s Hamlet, which might not have been such a bad idea.

I’d love to see the whole farrago again, but can’t spare the time until next week, and I’m sure it will close by then. But if you’d like a good, healthy belly laugh, see Royston Crowley’s Hamlet soon. But don’t look for Osric – my Osric. He’s certain to have been replaced by then.

Clootie left the café and walked outside. It was raining. He took out the newspaper page and laid it on the ground. He watched the rain soak into it. Soon it was unrecognisable, and so was Clootie. He had reverted to some earlier form of life, a water-dweller soon to be ingested by a passing shark.

The following day he returned with relief to what he called the Art of Manticulation, which to the rest of us is known as pocket-picking.