I WAS already having a bad year when my partner, Jono, died suddenly a fortnight prior to the opening of a show we were co-producing.
I’d managed to get myself sacked from my job performing a cross-dressed version of King Lear a few weeks earlier, but that’s another story …
In the midst of long, grief-stricken nights at home alone, and the increasingly difficult task of sorting through Jono’s estate while discovering that his mother and brother were denying the existence of our relationship, I got an email out of the blue from Sherreen Hennessy, a director I’d worked with before.
Thankfully devoid of overblown sympathy, except to say she’d heard the news about Jono, and, like most people, couldn’t believe it was true, Sherreen was contacting me with an offer to appear in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter for fledging theatre company The Acting Factory, at the Q Theatre.
It was a courageous request, considering the timing.
So I purchased a copy of Pinter’s one act masterpiece the day I collected Jono’s ashes from the funeral director.
I instantly fell in love with the role of Gus, one of a pair of hit men holed-up in some random basement.
We had our first read-through during my move back to the Blue Mountains, where I’d accepted good friends’ invitation to board for a while in their enormous house on the bush.
I attacked the read with a broad accent based on Monty Python’s Eric Idle – it seemed to fit with the text – and we (me, Sherreen and Andrew Broderick, playing Ben) agreed we’d stick to the original time period and location of the play, despite the other half to our whole – a production of Pinter’s The Lover (starring Lynne McGranger, Bill Conn, and directed by Fiona Press) – planning to locate in contemporary Australia.
My Mountains stay hit a devastating hiccup when I moved out of my friend’s place after only two nights. My shocking year changed up a gear with the realisation that I’d made one of the worst judgements of character in my life – saying yes to a constantly open door, only to find it slamming in my face, even as I reached the threshold. But that’s another story …
This set a pattern into motion, where I just began to live Gus’s life. Mine had quickly become inhabited by crooks and fakes, intent on denying the detail of my human rights, from my ownership of almost every item Jono and I shared, to my place as his spouse on his death certificate.
Being Gus was just easier than being me across that winter.
There are a thousand ways to play a Pinter character – the writer leaves so much to interpretation, while supporting the actor with strong speech rhythms (including the famous ‘Pinteresque’ pauses), which, once learnt, allowed me to explore to whatever depth I wanted.
Hiding as I was by then in a truer friend’s granny flat, I had Gus as a companion while the world got very, very surreal beyond the high fences.
He was a wonderful distraction: pedantic, freaked-out, faster at expressing his terror than the more powerful Ben. I could have left things at that, but I had the time and the need to go a lot deeper, and created for my Gus some wonderful messy qualities, and some fun contradictions.
The Dumb Waiter opens with stage directions telling us that Gus is unable to tie his shoelaces, but Pinter makes no suggestion when it comes time for him to don his tie. A man who cannot tie his laces is unlikely to be able to work a necktie, so who does it then, Ben? Perhaps, but my Gus could do it, in his own way, given enough time, which of course waiting hit men have plenty of.
By the time we moved into the theatre the backstage half-light worked its magic.
I am a naturally tidy person, so, as Gus, I became a clean-freak’s nightmare. Every night before the house was open I’d play in Gus’s space and leave lolly wrappers, and other scraps, and I’d mess up his bed.
Andrew responded beautifully by making Ben fastidious. We never spoke about it, but whenever I’d come near Ben’s bed I’d be pulling at his blanket, strewing my stuff all over it and messing it up. Ben, meanwhile, would be straightening and trying to keep Gus at bay.
In the simplest way we found the actors’ game that is behind every scene in every play ever written for the stage.
What clinched my performance was swapping the plastic prop guns for the real thing, under a weapons wrangler’s instruction. I can still recall my first whiff of Gus’s gun. It reminded me of childhood fears around farm rifles, a primal, dirty, dangerous scent.
I put a question to the weapons guy: how would a lazy person ‘cock’ his weapon? He answered by just flicking the pistol hard to the right, clicking the barrel into place, like they did in the wild west.
In that moment I found the one thing Gus could do well and without fuss. Somewhere in there was the little boy who’d become the hit man. I was ready.
On opening night, Lynne came into our dressing room and remarked on Jono’s photo sitting at my mirror. Bill and Andrew joined-in her brief, generous acknowledgement that my mainstay was missing on this night of nights. Jono’s rehearsal room death had by then become something whispered about amongst the showbusiness crowd.
Bill and Lynne worked the crucial live sound effects for Andrew and me, as we opened each night. Andrew and I were stage hands for Bill and Lynne when they followed, and Andrew went on as the Milkman in The Lover.
It was a supportive, well-received run and we got great notices for a tiny theatre company on the edge of the city.
Handling a gun nightly gave me a sense of power, when I was rendered powerless in the real world; speaking while people listened gave me a sense of being heard, while I was silenced in the real world; and being a single hit man on the job gave me a sense of freedom, when my whole world had collapsed.
I will possibly never be more ably equipped as an actor.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved