Dinner opened tonight. The house was nearly full. Max was surprised. He thought nobody would come to the opening night.Max thought he was prepared, He arrived at the theatre in good time. He got his make up applied, sucked Fishermen’s Friends, went through a line and cue, thought of how the last time he had performed at MITP, his mother was still alive and his father had refused to come and watch him play Malvolio. Three minutes into the play, Max was in trouble. His heart missed a beat, then two, then it started to beat into his ears like a Burundi drum. Max could not hear what was being said. His shirt soaked within seconds. Sweat came down his forehead and stung his eyes. White light sparked the back of his retina. Max blinked, soldiered on, walked through his lines, trying to think of what’s next, the next line, the next cue, the next second of respite. An hour and thirty minutes into the play, Max lost the plot totally and was left holding a tea bag and looking at Page. His mind was a blank sheet of text, and he squinted to make out a word or two. Then he spluttered back into life and clung on till the end. When the curtain call came, Max tried to avoid looking at the audience. There was rapturous applause. Max apologised to his fellow actors and tried to tell them about his near death experience. Frank, the director, asked him whether he was always miserable about everything. Max tried to tell Frank that this was not depression, this was not a prima donna hypochondriac attack, this was a fucking near heart attack on stage. Max found it difficult to talk to anyone after that. He left the party early and drove home through a night of dew and dangerous roads. Max wonders if he is really a miserable git, or whether he is going to die soon.
Max doesn’t think it is fair that people like John Peel die and scum stay alive, get fat, drive company cars, lie, screw other people’s lives, go to cocktail parties and die silently in their sleep.Max had an early morning phone call with a 60 year-old woman who wants him to cut the pepper tree because it is encroaching on her garden wall and ‘damaging her property’. Max asked if he could get access to the woman’s garden so he can seal his office wall, which has sprung a leak. The woman said it was Max’s problem, he should have fixed it in summer, now that the rains had come, he could wait until next summer. Max was about to ignite and then remembered that this was a woman who lost a 20 year-old daughter to a car crash 20 years ago and never recovered. Max put the phone down. Max is spending his morning listening to noisy BBC tributes to John Peel. Max wonders what he would do if something happened to Liz or Jacob. Max yesterday fluffed his lines, sweated in a suit and wanted to be alone on a beach that was not called Malta. Max has to do something fast. Time is running out for escapes.
At last, the weather has broken. The seasonal bouquet of thunder and lightning has shown up and the island rattles, floods and leaks, like it always does in Winter.Max thinks of the crack in his office wall, and knows he should have done something about it. Max is still reeling about the death of John Peel, like several other millions who can still hear the gravel voice in their heads. How strange, Max thinks, that the voice never really quite ages, especially a voice on the radio. Life for Max right now is a groundhog day of lines, lights, sweat, laughter, anxiety, introspection, narcissism, revenge. And it’s only a play, says the inner voice. Somehow, miraculously, the play is coming together. Some lines are still shaky, but the silent metamorphosis from words to theatre is starting to happen. Max knows he will not be doing any more theatre, for a very long time. He does not know if that is a good or bad thing. Max is trying to live for the moment.
In 72 hours, Max and the rest of the cast have to deliver Dinner to a paying audience.Yesterday’s run through was a sorry affair. Cues were missed, lines were fluffed, entries missed, egos squashed. Frank Hoerner smoked a cigarette in the courtyard at 11.15 pm and was silent for the first time in six weeks. Max could follow his pacing in the dark by the burning tip of the cigarette. At the end, the cast agreed it had to go for broke and rehearse every available time of day. Max is grateful that he does not have to act for a living. Max is not sure he knows what he is going to do for a living. Max is not sure what he is going to do after Dinner. Max is not having a good day.
Dinner is nearly served.
A couple of nights ago, Max got back late from a rehearsal. He ate his pasta with broccoli and anchovies in front of the Internet. Margaret Hassan from Care International was the latest kidnap victim in Iraq.Max went to bed and was asleep in seconds. Max dreamt Jacob had been taken hostage in Iraq. He spent the entire night looking for his son. All around him, a war ranged on. Max woke up convinced he had just found Jacob. Liz told him not to eat pasta at such a late hour.
Max is a great music buff.His taste in music ranges from Gilles Peterson and the future of dance to the Cure and the Smashing Pumpkins and Kylie’s bottom antics to David Bowie crooning in an obscure Brecht play called ‘Baal’. Max was there at Freddie Mercury’s last concert at Knebworth, the Who’s 25th Anniverary tours, Peter Gabriel’s soaring concerts at Earls Court and Frank Zappa’s last tour of Wembley. Max would have loved to have spent his twenties with a guitar strapped to his chest and a flock of pubescent Motley Crue female fans waiting in the wings. Or as a U2 roadie (except his bad back would have precluded any serious lifting). Or as a member of the Brodski Quartet. Max spent his twenties working as a Chartered Accountant in middle-management in the UK. Max is teaching Jacob how to sing. He has managed to get through the first stanza of ‘Octopussy’s Garden’. Max is wondering if it is not too late to go to guitar lessons. Jacob asks for Piazzola tangos when he is playing with his train set. Max is hoping that he will not succumb Jacob to unreasonable peer pressure.
There are 14 days left until Dinner’s opening night.The play has yet to be blocked. Max is still struggling with his lines. His dog-eared script surfaces during tea-breaks and breakfast. Jacob has started to despair, and has taken to saying ‘Waiter! Take it away!’ every time he sees his father running his fingers over highlighted text. And now the weekend rehearsals have to be transplanted elsewhere as the theatre has been taken over by two simultaneous performances: an intense play featuring barefoot people chatting around a candle; and a ‘dance extravanganza’ replete with smiling people with bongo drums and jangly bracelets. Max is wondering if he is rapidly approaching another milestone of humiliation. At least the Censorship Board woman has backed off from the threat of a war of words in the press. Max secretly regrets not going to war.
At 08.13am, the electricity cuts out.The living room is plunged into darkness. TV switches itself off. The Pavoni cappuccino machine splutters and steams up. The toaster hiccups and ejects half toasted toast. The computer UPS kicks in with a mournful bleep bleep. Jacob starts to cry. Jacob wants the TV back, the lights back on. Liz asks Max if he thinks Enemalta will compensate small businesses for power outages within her lifetime. Max wonders if he will have to spend the day walking by the Sliema front, next to the sea, away from his silent monitor.
Internet news frenzy. Every other picture has a man in tights and a cape. The first visual on the BBC site showing a bald Christopher Reeve in a wheelchair is rapidly replaced by a more dignified picture of the great man with a full head of hair and a suit.Max spends the day running errands to keep him from thinking about beheadings in Iraq, girls shot in drive-by killings in Nottingham, and all the shit in the world. Jacob says that he likes having chicken pox. He watches fourteen consecutive episodes of Thomas the tank engine before Max realises that a responsible father would find alternative entertainment for his toddler. Max is starting to think that his own real life character bears many similarities to Lars. Max gets home to a plate of pasta with M&S vegetable sauce. Max doesn’t know what he has become.
Jacob and his spots
Jacob has chicken pox.Liz texted me while I was at rehearsals, in the middle of a heated discussion on censorship. A militant member of the Malta Censorship Board has taken umbridge to ‘derogatory references to Jesus Christ in the play Dinner’ and has ordered Irene, the producer, to make cuts. Frank, the German director, thinks it is a big joke and said that although cuts would be made, they would not be the ones referring to Jesus. My communications & PR brain is spinning on how to leak the censorship threat to the press and drum up some interest in the play. I drive back home on two wheels, dwelling on chicken pox and the responsibilities of fatherhood. I will call my father tomorrow to establish if I have contracted chicken pox before.
Nothing winds up Liz as much as bells on Sundays.We live in the shadow of a baroque church in the village of Siggiewi. It is a splendid piece of architecture. On summer nights, the floodlit dome nestles above the furthermost corner of the garden, framed by the olive tree and the conifers. In June during the feast of St Nicholas, it is a candy box of yellow and orange. The church is the apex of the village, the reason for traffic jams on evenings and Sunday, the conch for all Christians. And that is where the problem lies. Liz believes that Catholicism has turned the Maltese into an insular race that only cares for its own small circle, rather than the greater whole. It is why housewives throw buckets of water in front of their doorstep, knowing full well that this will only wash the rubbish down to their neighbours’ doorsteps. Why what’s left of valleys and beauty spots are full of discarded fridges and other white goods. Or grown men go and shoot on migrating birds. Liz has never been to the church of St Nicholas, although it is literally on her door-step. On Sundays, the anti-Catholic sentiment explodes with the activities in the bell-fry. Today’s 24 x 7 session was managed by an energetic roster that kicked in at 5am and never quite let go. All the way up to Jacob’s bed time, the bells hammered their voice into our head. Liz called Joyce and asked if there was any reason for the cacophony. Joyce said that it was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Liz delivered a monologue about Our Lady’s various personality disorders, such that every other weekend she was reincarnated in some particular aspect – my favourite is Our Lady of Sorrows. Today was Liz’s 41st birthday. Liz would like the bells to go away.