In part one, yesterday, I explained how I’d been awarded the part of Hoederer in Les Mains Sales, a 1948 Sartre play that explores questions of principle versus realpolitik, compromise versus conviction, there being no prizes for being before your time and how easy it is to render the principled ridiculous by the passage of time. It’s crap, a polemic full of wooden cliched characters, more plot holes than a playgrater, with disclaiming a standard method of moving the story on.
Basically my character, Hoederer, is leader of the local communists in a mythical Eastern European country about to be liberated by the Red Army – this is 1944. His murderer, assassin, protégé Hugo has been let out of prison for killing him two years before and the play is basically an explanation of how that happened. Spoiler alert. I end up bedding his wife so it’s a crime of passion and thus pointless so Hugo gives himself up to be terminated. Cheery, huh?
While we all struggled with making the French sound vaguely plausible, it was the Head of English’s lot to try and sort out some meaningful stage directions to help move this turgid piece of flotsam forward. There’s a bomb explosion where we all dived for cover and there’s my wrestling Jessica at the end and my being shot. Apart from that, it’s a lot of talking heads, hands on breasts (our own)/heads/hips and a bit of strutting.
I think I sympathised with Ethel’s attempts to make this thing watchable. In what world, Peggy Post thought this worthy of a school drama, I have no idea. We ploughed on.
And in my case, I had to confront ‘that kiss’. Jessica was played by Catherine. Quiet, thoughtful, wouldn’t hurt of fly Catherine was perfect for the part. She was an enthusiastic actress and seemed perfectly happy to be kissed. Miss Davies gave us countless lessons how to make it look like we were snogging when were in fact maintaining appropriate social distancing. All I now recall were the cricks in my neck those rehearsals induced.
I think we’d probably mastered this odd technique when a spanner was thrown into the engine room of this scene.
See, this is pivotal. The real (probably only) drama in the drama. As we kiss, Hugo returns, sees us, loses it, grabs a gun that happens to be on the desk and shoots me three times. As I collapse I have a fairly lengthy speech, ending with ‘C’est trop con!’ or similar, which loosely translates as ‘it’s too fucking silly’.
Which turned out to be apposite.
Ethel decided we needed to spice up that last scene. She invested in a bag of fake blood that was strapped under my shirt for the final scene. As Catherine and I pulled apart and Neil shot me, I was to grab my chest hard, pop the bag and sink to the stage, bleeding and declaiming.
Trouble was Catherine decided that, for one night only, sod the kissing techniques. At the moment she expressed her love for me and grabbed me, she pressed in, the adrenaline of the play overwhelming her.
As Hugo entered and threatened me, I was already bleeding profusely as indeed was Catherine. By the time I was shot blood had gushed from the bag – there was a lot more than anyone imagined – and had pooled on the stage.
Who remembers how the play began? That’s right class, the first scene is Hugo with another party stalwart, Olga two years later as he returns from prison. In Ethel’s world the lights went down, I hopped off stage with Catherine and the actress playing Olga took over with Hugo.
We hurried off, trying not to giggle and hoping to avoid Miss Davies’ reaction to the Valentine Day’s massacre we’d left behind. Meanwhile up came the lights, on that same office. Standing in a spreading lake of two year old, uncongealed blood were Hugo and Olga, trying to end the play on its sombre dénouement. As Hugo decides to give himself up to the killers sent for him, he heads for the door, making his most poignant speech. As he does so, he looses his footing, mutters ‘shit’, rights himself and heads off stage.
The applause was generous, if a little tinged with disbelief. No one said much that night. Or later.
And my French A level? I failed, the only major exam I ever blew. Geoff Bain, back as head of French by that time, wrote to the examination authorities because he’d predicted at least a B for me. A week or so later the reasons came back. I’d failed my oral, the written stuff was all fine. Time to turn over a new feuille….