I'll be performing M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A, by Lena Kitsopoulou, translated by yours truly and directed by Stella Duffy, in Manchester at The Castle Hotel on July 13th (Matinee 3 PM, then again at 7:30 PM) and 14th (7:30 PM) as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. My friend Ray Turner very kindly made this lovely trailer, so you could decide if you wanted to come see it. It would be really nice if you would come see it. I would love to have you there.
I know, I know... Two blog posts in as many days, how unlike me. I found this poem though, which I wrote when playing Clytemnestra for The Rose Company, and not having looked at it in months I'm still quite proud of it, so...
He was always killing, my second husband. It was the only
language he understood.
Words he bent and twisted to mask his intent; gold is a soft
Swords he could speak in, held erect in his fist.
Edges he understood, and partings. Blood he listened to.
He killed my first husband, they remember that. He killed my
I'm told that is what lions do.
I never spoke my child’s dear name again. I will not say it
I keep the memory, hot and heavy in my womb.
I have swallowed coals.
One coal I carried long - an agony cherished, and then one
more; a girl.
I mourn the children lost to sickness, too, and the
struggles of the birthing bed,
I carry their weight still, of course they haunt me.
Only my murdered children blaze and burn.
Only the ones he killed consume me.
My boy’s name is forgotten now and mine alone, but hers...
She always wanted fame, my daughter.
He took me away with him, of course. They say he made me
My baby's blood still speckled in his beard when he first
My brothers swore revenge. So rumour said.
And I, the spoils, rejoiced to hear it.
But kings are practical men, or they die young, and my
father made arrangements.
The city his to keep, and in all honour, provided he called
me wife and queen, sat me beside him.
I would have rather died - but no such choice was offered.
Revenge is men's work.
I know they say that I was angry to be set aside.
I will not leave that lie behind me.
His concubine, the prophetess, I killed in love.
She laughed and thanked me when she saw the blade, with her own
hands she drew it to her throat.
She died a captive like myself, rejoicing in the blood that
He did not know me at the end. I could not risk it.
He was a strong man still, tempered by battle.
I dosed his wine, and so he died asleep, drowning in blood
I too had learned to read the blade, it spoke as I had honed
it; and as for blood,
it’s women’s native speech. He was fool to think that he
could out-debate me.
I wish he had not slept so sound, that I had seen his eyes
meet mine before I dimmed them.
That would have pleased me, that one look.
Revenge is men’s work. I killed him in the name of my son,
It’s a truism that live performance, whatever else it might be, is a
collaboration between audience and performer(s). It’s a truism because it’s
true. It identifies a phenomenon I think we’re all aware of when we’re part of
it but which is very difficult to describe or even visualise.
I imagine the shape of the show as
something we hold between us, lightly, as you hold a kite by the fingertips,
singing to the wind in the seconds before you let go. I see it as a sculpture
of looks and words and movements, as though we juggled and shaped it among and
above us, fluid, hollow, transparent as light. I don’t see it as any of those,
exactly, not even all of them together. It's not like that at all. It is kept
in the air, though - suspended, like disbelief, raised like a circus tent and
kept in the air by ropes held in human hands. And like a circus tent, the more
of you there are, the easier it is.
of the things I do theatre for, ever since I was a kid, is that collective
awareness, that sense of being part of a whole that is greater than the sum of
us all. What I celebrate in the work I love is the extent to which it feeds
that interconnectedness, what I critique in the work I dislike is the way it
works to thwart or betray it. And I don’t mean that sense of shared presence as
something that’s all sweetness and light, though I think even the bleakest work
owes its audience a degree of nurture, of loving-kindness.
because it’s a kindness people do, when they come to see your work, over and
above the price of the ticket, the traveling, the childcare or any other
arrangements they’ve made; the simple act of agreeing to give you their
attention is a kindness and you owe them at least as much in return.
those immediately connected with the show, 10 people did me that kindness this
week. I can see each face as I write, each gaze that connected with mine and
fed M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A, and I love them all, a little bit, I treasure their
complicity in what I made with them.
to return to the elaborate metaphors I launched in the first paragraph, I am
also very tired, and somewhat drained. Because the fewer you are, the more
effort goes into keeping the performance afloat. We did it; my three friends
(the audience) and my producer in what I called a ‘dress run’, but was of
course a performance on Wednesday in the rehearsal room. We did it on Friday at
UCLan; the woman who’d, unfathomably, come all the way from London, my two
friends and fellow UCLan alumnae, the performance–maker I toured with once who
teaches there now, the man whose face I recognised but name I didn’t know, the
event organiser, the usher, the lecturer I never got on with when I was a
student. The show, in spite of everything (my mistakes included – I asked far
more of them than I intended to, of which more in another post) did stay suspended,
and we were in on it together, ‘til the end.
of course we’re not in the business of perfection, we’re in the business of
experiences that live and enrich. So perhaps it shouldn’t bother me so much
that I wasn’t able to add as much nuance and detail as I’d like, not even
close. That I dropped one of my favourite moments, and failed to shade things
that needed shading, just because there was so much of me used up in keeping
the show in the air. Those small audiences were tired too, especially Friday's. They were with me all the way to the end, but they were tired. And that though M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A is fed by this week, the
show is awake again and ready to fly, I am a hollow thing, drained, a husk,
holding some insights to herself from the experience, some tasks, but no
euphoria. I did know that performance doesn’t owe me a high. I knew. But having a show go well and feeling empty... well, there it is.
Before I start, I want
to say that learning 70-odd minutes of monologue is no big deal. There are plenty of other people who
learn solo shows, many of which are at least an hour long, and don’t write blog
posts about it. There are also many people who perform truly
awe-inspiring feats of memorisation. Chao Lu holds the world record for reciting π to more than 67 thousand places. It
took him some 24 hours. I’ve personally witnessed Oliver Senton playing Phil in
The Warp for a similar span– that was a thing to see, and that’s dialogue, which is much harder than
monologue to learn. And if those aren't sufficiently grandiloquent comparisons, then there
are the oral traditions. You probably know that the epic of Gilgamesh,
the Greek epicpoems, the entirety of Brehon law, the Norse sagas, and many
another once-memorised text surpass any modern memorisation by orders of magnitude. .
So, no big deal.
All the same, because I’m interested in how memorisation works, both
technically and psychologically, and because people keep asking me about it,
In early February 2013, I know M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. I’ve read it through
several times and it flows. The words come easily to me; they’re my words. LenaKitsopoulou wrote Μ.Α.Ι.Ρ.Ο.Υ.Λ.Α, but the translation
is mine. I wrote every word.
I learned the first 2 pages (10 minutes) back in Aprli
2012, not long after I finished the translation, to perform at a scratch night.
That was a scratch of the text itself, really. I didn’t do any work on it
besides the learning. I just wanted to observe how the language worked with an
English-speaking audience, if they understood it. They did, I even got a laugh
or two, which was nice.
I spent about an hour a day on it for a week,
and don’t remember any difficulty, though I do remember that it prompted minor
rewrites. This flows better than that, you need a different turn of phrase here
in order not to skip ahead to the next time you use that phrase; that sort of
thing. The only bit I remember of that process is the 555 bus.
I’d agreed to meet my son and his aunt in
Keswick and the 555 bus is the simplest and prettiest, if slowest way to get there. I look
out the window. “This whole concept,” I mutter, “this birth-death, happy-sad,
black-white business, is it going to go on much longer?” I am looking at the
mossy roots of the trees outside, the little springs that sparkle among the
stones, the giddily bouncing wild rabbits. They’re part of the text now.
• * *
In late February, 2013, I’m learning
M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. I’m in Athens. I drop my son off at his cousin’s house, and
take the bus to the hospital, running lines in my head. The show is becoming my internal monologue.
My father has just had his spleen removed. It
was enormous, full of lymphoma, and excised in an institution that is best
known as a maternity hospital. The surgeon is a cousin and a friend –
approaching us in the waiting room where the expectant families sit, he tells us
Dad was delivered of a spleen weighing only a bit less than my kid did at
birth. It wasn’t easy, but it went well. Later, my brother and I go into ICU to
see him. He is freshly out from under anaesthesia and incoherent. For the first
time I remember he looks old, and frail. Inside my head, Mairoula waxes narcissistic about
her mother’s cancer diagnosis. I’m starting to hate her.
A few days later, I have a stupid argument with
my brother. The tension is getting to us, the hospital, the worry. I storm off,
walk up Kifissias towards the Olympic installations, past the suburban
apartment blocks, forgotten village houses tucked among them with chickens still in the yard, the empty
lots full of weeds and wildflowers. “Can’t complain,” I tell the nettles and
hubcaps, the already-crumbling concrete of the Calatrava walkway “can’t
complain isn’t really gratitude”. Later still, my father asks me about the
show. Conscious of not telling him about the character’s Daddy issues, nor
her mother’s cancer, I read him the bit about being on a ferry boat, the
long and increasingly absurd list of amenities she piles up, then rejects. He
laughs. In May, when we’re
cutting down the text for performance, Stella suggests cutting that bit. I
refuse; in the hospital, it made my father laugh.
It’s March 2013 and I’m learning M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A.
Thanks to Stella, I have a version of the script that looks a lot less daunting
than the huge block of text I produced. She’s divided it into scenes and I can
begin to see the outlines of the structure buried beneath the verbiage like the
trunk of a shrub, just discernible under the leaves.
I know the first five
pretty well, so I start with scene six. I put the script on the kitchen
counter, just under the window. I read the first sentence aloud, repeat it
while walking away. If I forget a word or hesitate or screw up, I walk back to
the script, read aloud from there, walk again. When I’ve done that a couple of
times without a mistake, I add a second sentence. Five sentences takes me
through the door of the annexed kitchen, through the dining room, down the hall
and to my front door; ten brings me back. When I’ve done ten sentences
perfectly a few times, I start a new section. In the morning, walking back from
dropping my kid off at school, I run as much as I know. When it starts to take
longer than the 25 minutes of a leisurely stroll back, I take detours. I try
not to speak out loud where people can hear me, but sometimes a sidelong glance
tells me they can.
It’s April 2013 and I don’t know M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A, though I know about half of it reasonably well, well enough to be getting on
with. . . I don’t. Not really. In rehearsal I’ve got maybe a quarter, maybe a third then it’s rant and flail
about for the next bit. I get to the end of a scene and face a mental
desolation in which not a whisper of a word appears. I improvise actions. More
often, I don’t. Stella gives me things to do. Moving, my body stops my brain
remembering. I am the worst actor in the world.
I am entirely in awe of Stella (the Stella Duffy) and still not quite
able to believe we’re here, in London, working on my show. I am trying to
please. I am diffident. I am also constipated.My digestion is as sluggish as my brain. I can’t get how
three people (Leo Burtin, producing, Stella and I) can rehearse in open space,
but because of D & D I love open space, so there I am. We have three days
together. On the last day, my bowels awaken. The need to empty them is
overpowering, and it hits me right in the middle of the morning’s rehearsal.
Working in open space means that it’s cool for me to interrupt the work,
explain that there’s something I have to do right then, do it, and come back.
Of course I don’t do anything as sensible as that. Instead, I drag my bloated
body thorough various ideas that Stella brings in, contributing no thing to the
process but my endurance.
We’re working the “rock bottom” bit of the show, where Mairoula longs
for the despair of her adolescence, revels in the memory of. It feels like rock
bottom to me, too, but I’m not revelling. Stella gets frustrated with me. I
don’t blame her, but find myself unable to tell her what’s going on.I am certain she’s going to decide she
can’t work with me after all. Who could work with the near-mute and shambling
creature who’s been stumbling through the last two and a half days. I can
barely endure sharing a body with her. With Aliki, I mean, though the more I
think about Mairoula, the less I like her, too. She’s selfish, vain,
pretentious, angry, self-involved, the kind of woman who fawns over men and
ignores other women. I’ve forgotten why I ever wanted to play her.
Afterwards, lighter of body but more anxious than ever, I come back and we
talk. I own up to the hero worship, and the anxiety, but not to the leaden
bowels. It’s not an easy conversation, though Stella handles it with a
generosity and perceptiveness I will come to know as typical. She shows no
signs of wanting to abandon the project. I am giddy with relief. We’ve got one
week off, then another three days in Lancaster.
In that week, rather than resume my one sentence at a time regimen, I
try to learn the scenes I half-know by reciting them with the script in front
of me and my eyes closed, opening them to check a particular word, or see what
happens next. By the time Stella comes up to Lancaster, I know half the show.
I’m desperately nervous that the next rehearsal period won’t go well. The night
before we start, I invite Stella and Leo to dinner. I fret about the food,
because it gives me something to fret about, but in the end it’s as pleasant a
meal as I’ve ever shared.
The rehearsal period is a joy, and the exercises Stella brings in show
me how to fall in love with Mairoula again. We find some physicality, some hidden
structure I can rest on, we find her kindness and her acute, acerbic eye on her
own follies, her flights of poetic extravagance. We find, somewhere inside me,
an open-hearted warmth to give her, a tenderness for the audience that I see in
Stella, and that makes everything alright. We show the first half to some
friends in Lancaster, and they’re engaged and friendly. One of them saw that
first extract performed the previous year “I can see how much you’ve worked on
it since,’ she says, it’s changed completely.”
It’s May 2013 and I’m learning M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A.
Stella has suggested a number of cuts, as we’re trying to bring the length down
to under an hour. I’ve accepted most of them, rejected a couple – one because
the Greeks will get it, even if no-one else does, and one because I don’t want
to lose the bit my father laughed at. I’m surprised by how quickly I get used
to skipping bits of text I’ve already learned; I expected that to drive me
nuts. We have a final few days of rehearsal scheduled in London, then a little
over a month to rehearse on my own before we open.
In London at the end of the month, I still have
my script in hand for the last 10 minutes. It makes things tricky, because this
is the most physically complex part of the show. We block it as well as we can.
It’s almost there. I feel good.
It’s June 2013, and I’m learning
M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. My housemate is helping me. He’s a graphic designer and a
cartoonist, so his schedule is flexible and we can run lines when I’m free.
He’s also Greek, and very perceptive about language. He teaches me some of the
references I didn’t get in the text, elaborates, comments. He is the perfect
person to do this with; patient, knowledgeable, relentless, precise. We run
lines every day. I’ve got it all, except that last little bit, which I know
vaguely, but not well.
In the last three weeks of June, I have a
rehearsal space booked, three times a week. I can lay out the whole playing
area, run the actions with the lines. I start to learn things by what I’m
doing, not saying. I start to think about how I need to be saying that there
so I have time to do that and then I can say that bit right after I’ve
finished doing that bit. This is the part of rehearsing I love best. There
is more creative ferment earlier in the process, but it’s always shadowed by
the fear that it will never come together. At this stage, you have confidence,
a shape, a sense of how it will play, but there’s still room for tinkering. I have all the beautiful stuff. The dress, and the rug and the wonderful sofa. Nerissa comes to watch a run. It's the first time anyone's seen it without me holding a script at some point or another. She's concerned about the sweat stains showing. She's right, as usual.
On the days I don’t have the space booked, I
take long walks. It’s a beautiful time of year. I gather elder blossoms from
the trees by the canal, I wander down into the marshy ground between the canal
and the allotments, declaiming a very Greek text to the vivid English leaves.
My boots are muddy. I am a study in exhilaration.
The show went well. One night in Lancaster and a
film to show for it, a film which will form the centrepiece of our attempt to
book a tour. I spend the summer running the show every day in my head. Back
home in Greece, I run it swimming in the sea, the show’s length perfect for my
morning workout – breast stroke out, freestyle back. Soon, I start to stumble,
and by the end of the holiday I’ve given up. I’ll learn it again when we have
Tour booking, it turns out, is more complex than we knew. Months pass, and then
more, and then hope appears. Her name is Claire and she’s booking the tour
right now. Send her an email.
It’s February 2014, and I’m performing
M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A again in less than two months. I'm scared, so I wrote to Stella and got the loveliest response. This morning, I went down to the
cellar, opened one of the two suitcases where I keep the show, and took out the
script; it’s the first time I’ve seen it since July,
It’s February 2014, and I’m learning
Last winter, I ended a
blog post with a breezy promise to confide in you the techniques I used to
learn 60 plus minutes of monologue for my solo show; an English version of
M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A by Lena Kitsopoulou. Perhaps you read that promise. Perhaps you
believed it, or even anticipated the big reveal; unlikely, but possible.
Perhaps you even checked occasionally, as digital dust drifted out of the void
to settle on these neglected pages, as the pause grew longer and longer and was
revealed as silence.
I’ve been known to
complain that theatre-makers rarely show process in their blogs; the wrong
turns, the frustration, the bickering, the doubts. How much better it would be,
I railed, if all the vulnerability and stupidity and mess were out in the open,
so people understood that no-one’s work is effortless, unflawed, pristine –
everything has life’s grubby fingerprints all over it. That’s how the light
And then I started
working on my show, the show it had taken me a year and a halfand weeks and weeks of translating (and two
directors whose schedules didn’t quite fit before I found a marvellous one who
gloriously had just enough time) to get to start
work on. And I was frustrated and scared and angry with myself and stupid and
vulnerable and full of doubt. And I couldn’t bear to tell you what a fraud I
So time passed, and we
were rehearsing and more time passed, during which the backlog of
M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A work that I’d have to tell you about before I got to the bit we
were working on just then got longer and longer. And posterous closed down, so
maintaining my blog suddenly meant uploading all that stuff all over again and
consequently became even more daunting, and in the middle of it all the
all-female theatre company we were talking about starting became a show and a
performance date and there was so much to blog about I didn’t know where to
start and here we are.
The blog is still a mess,
and most of the links are broken. I don’t know when I’ll get around to
fixing it up. I don’t know if I’m
going to write about learning M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. I don’t know if I’m going to
write about the whole warty process of re-learning a show you’ve only performed
once, some 10 months after that one performance. I don’t know what I’m going to
write about, and I’m not making any any promises. Except…. I promise to write.
To keep on writing.
So, maybe 3 pages a week was a bit too ambitious. The truth is, I started late, on Friday. I worked on it a fair amount over the weekend, but I also had an audition on Monday, so I spent some time preparing for that. Tuesday and Wednesday I spent learning lines for my first rehearsal with After Dark. I'm very pleased to be working with this lively company -they're all about improvisation and popular entertainment, and it's been a while since I've had enough of those in my performing life. I wanted to make a good impression, so I worked mostly on learning their script and doing some research for the considerable ad-libbing I knew their work involved. I worked on M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A again on Thursday and Friday, but the most recent pages had gotten a bit wobbly over the period of neglect, so I didn't make much progress. Plus I've had trouble sleeping, so I was moving through a mental fog by the end of the week. Saturday I set off early for the After Dark gig, and since I didn't get home from that til one in the morning, on Sunday I rested.
Those are my excuses, and I stand by them.
Boring, aren't they? Still, 2 pages in two weeks is better than my previous rate of two pages in 5 weeks. That's something, right? And it's Douglas Adams' birthday today, and I know he would have approved.
I may be failing to provide an example of self-disciplined monologue-learning, or indeed blogging, but I haven't forgotten my promise to tell you how I go about it, when I do go about it. I'm feeling a bit too shame-faced to start describing it right now, though. Next post, I promise.
Oh, and by next Monday? Three more pages; for real this time.