Thursday, January 25, 2007

What I did on my holidays

There is, as we know, a type of coffee, prized by wacko connoisseurs, that has been eaten and regurgitated by Vietnamese weasels. Which I mention only because that's exactly how I feel. Haven't ever really experienced jet-lag, not like this. This is the kind that waits until you're insouciantly telling someone how the jet-lag hasn't been nearly as bad as you'd been led to expect, and then it sneaks up behind you, stuffs a choloform-soaked rag in your cakehole, and blats you robustly on the anterior fontanelle with the business end of a coal scuttle.

So it may take a while to get this post together in the gaps between naps. (Does it still count as a 'nap' if you actually flatline and only wake up at all because the familiar-looking lady at the end of the white tunnel says "It is not yet time, little one"?) Let the record show, nonetheless, that since you and I last played conceptual dominoes here in the Thompson's snug, I have been to summer and back, and saw that it was good.

I didn't keep a diary exactly but I'll see what I can remember through the bruise-purple haze.

Friday 12th: Cis and I meet at Heathrow. I have travelled almost the entire length of the Piccadilly line in my summer jacket (which will not fit in my bogglingly overstuffed suitcase). Cis thinks I look like an Englishman abroad already, and I probably do. We are a bit nervous and a bit excited. We accidentally check in at the business class desks and the woman has to ask us, very sweetly, if we realise we're travelling in economy. It is all getting a bit real, suddenly, after a long haul of getting the show (nearly) together and tying up all the other loose ends that won't have our attention for the next ten days. Once we're through security I have an Oreo shake. It is disgusting. We get on the plane. I have been telling myself that the legroom in Economy is never as bad as I remember. This turns out to have been a lie.

Saturday 13th: We are still on the plane. My vegetarian meals keep not arriving. Fortunately Cis, who is a choosy carnivore, has ordered vegan or halal or something so I nick hers and she chows down on some decent-enough-looking meat while I tuck stoically in to a smorgasblee of rice pasta (note: not rice comma pasta but rice pasta, which is apparently the punishment that God visits on coeliacs) and dirty lentils and a fruit salad that seems to have been assembled by a child with ADHD and a cold. We get off the plane and spend 25 minutes seeing the sights of Bangkok from inside Suvarnabhumi Airport - which is a brilliantly exciting building, so it's not too much of a hardship. I marvel at the previously unseen Cadburys chocolate variants in duty-free while Cis absent-mindedly flicks water at a startled little girl in the bathroom. We get back on the plane. More lentils. Possibly the same ones, actually. It transpires my sleep patterns have fallen into exact sync with the in-flight entertainment system and consequently I see the last ten minutes of Borat and the first five minutes of Neil Sedaka In Concert three times. We are still on the plane. It occurs to me that if my ankles swell any more, I may have to rethink my brace position in an emergency.

Sunday 14th: We are still on the plane. Then we get off it and suddenly we are in a cab careering around Sydney with the delightful and quite radiantly hungover Rebecca from the festival. We are delivered to our apartment, on the 33rd floor of a skyscraping block slapbang in the middle of town. It's a real space-age bachelor pad with a black sofa and an inscrutable oven, in my dealings with which I never, all week, get further than (inadvertently) altering the time on the clock. We have a bathroom each and are both secretly overjoyed. The view from the balcony is spectacular: though it is slightly odd, so epically far from home, to be looking out over the HQ of BT and a large branch of Woolworths. I don a new variant of my colonial garb and we go out to get wilfully lost in the Velvet Underground & Nico cool of Sunday morning in Sydney. It is very bright and surprisingly docile -- we keep forgetting most people haven't got up yet. After a while we turn a corner and suddenly there, in front of us, is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and just a little off to its left, the Opera House, our workplace for the next week. The water is impossibly blue, the sunlight is bouncing off the Opera House, and my legs nearly go out from under me. We walk down to the venue and find a big Kiss of Life poster in a display case. It's quite overwhelming -- I'm a bit choked -- the inevitable "If only my mum were around to see this..." -- and Cis compounds it all by saying some kind and touching things, which nearly tips me over. We go and get a drink at the Opera Bar to take the edge off it all. It really is the most extraordinary feeling. Back home via Woolworths, which turns out to sell organic vegetables and decent blue cheese; the cognitive dissonance is at Tom and Jerry frying-pan levels. I get back to the flat and those regions of my skin that have been exposed to the sun are throbbing roughly the same colour as the giant festival banners all over town. It's a deep pucey sort of fuchsia. It suits the banners better than it suits me; Cis certainly doesn't fancy shining lights on it when I'm on stage. The rest of the week I walk around slathered with so much Factor 30 I look like I've escaped from Sankai Juku.

Monday 15th: Mostly we're in the flat all day, Cis working on her lighting stuff, me trying to learn the script for the show -- it's proving unexpectedly difficult, largely because of the cuts and changes we've made in rehearsal with Wendy - it means not just learning the new stuff but wilfully erasing the old stuff. Mid-afternoon we head over to the Museum of Contemporary Art for a reception. Somebody who may or may not be the Minister for Arts makes a hail-fellow speech and Fergus Linehan, the impossibly youthful festival director, says a few words. I'm not paying attention. To my left is the godlike Ursula Martinez and to my right are half a dozen boys from Batsheva Dance Company. Possibly I have dreamt this scenario before, but forgotten it for the good of my health. I suddenly feel immensely fat and puce. After a chat with some festival folks we wander home and start to go painstakingly through the script cue by cue. It's all gone a bit 'game on'. For the first half hour we are splendidly meticulous. After that it all gets a bit fudgy and by 9pm we are so mashed with (alcohol-free) tired-and-emotional that there's nothing for it but to hit the hay. Tomorrow's going to be a hell of a day.

Tuesday 16th: A hell of a day. I'm bolt awake at 5am, the jet-lag and the adrenalin meeting in the middle. A car takes me over to the vast Gilliamesque ABC building, where I'm to be interviewed on the national radio breakfast show by a distinguished fellow called Paul Barry. It seems he's the Aussie hybrid of John Humphreys and John Pilger. I'm supposed to be on straight after the 8 o'clock news but I'm being bumped a bit so that they can talk a little more about Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti's head coming off. Mr Barry barely crunches the gears as he comes out of that and into "And now for something a little lighter..." He's great, it's a decent interview, job done. Then it's over to the Opera House for a photocall; I'm a little late and the photographer has a 10.30am deadline so is more stressed than I am. I lean winsomely on bits of the set, he pronounces himself satisfied (though I'm not sure satisfaction normally expresses itself through a psychotic grimace like that), and it's only then that I'm really able to take in the Studio, where I'm going to be performing. It's a beautiful space: impossible to believe that it seats 300-odd, it's so intimate-feeling. Cis is perky, I'm perky. (I'm still a wee bit pinky, too.) We spend the next eight hours being pretty unrelentingly deperked. By lunchtime (another photocall), we have worked four and a half hours and are precisely four and a half hours behind schedule: the morning has been entirely taken up with stuff we thought was going to be done before we arrived. Everyone's incredibly nice and warm and friendly and encouraging and deeply, deeply, how-deep-is-the-ocean deeply unconcerned at the state of play. We smile and say 'thank you' a lot. The last of the lightboxes for the set is finally installed at about 4.30pm (by a delightful guy who is under the impression that this first performance is a preview); we do a soul-destroying, energy-sapping run, and then have about half an hour before the sell-out audience start coming in. On the strength of a large banana, a swig of camomile tea and a brisk warm-up that involves shouting "Knife!" a lot (ask Wendy), I'm back out there. It's fun. I get to say "Hello Sydney" like I'm, I dunno, Nils Lofgren or someone, and they're very friendly and supportive and I have to tell you there is a huge rush of pleasure the first time I hear close to three hundred people laugh at my silly jokes. We get through it. Some of the festival folks gather us up and take us to the Opera Bar where I lose the will to speak, and allow myself to become engrossed principally in the cocktails I keep getting bought. (My opening Dirty Carpet Disco is nice enough but it's the Pink Kimonos thereafter that really hit the spot.) Everybody is very nice and warm and friendly. No one is talking about the show.

Wednesday 17th: Wake up utterly depressed. We have travelled fourteen-thousand miles to do a show I don't like doing very much at a venue run slightly worse than [pick a London off-West End venue to replace the one whose name I've just removed] and I have this weird paranoid sense that they think it's a dud. Another early morning radio interview at ABC, this time on the local station, with a woman called Jennifer Byrne, who seems to be styled as The Thin White Oprah. It's cordial if slightly wonky, though she annoys me by going on about the show I made last year for Pizza Express (and then tells me off for actually saying "Pizza Express" on a non-commercial station). Then C & I have our first taste of free time, and decide to take the ferry to Manly. The beach is packed and the town feels slightly down-at-heel but we head away from the sea and find a nice spot for a really decent lunch. Good Lord, the ladies and gentlemen of Australia seriously know how to put a salad together. We get ice cream on the way back, but it's immediately apparent when I put mine near my face that it has undeclared peanuts in it, so that's the end of that for this allergic sissy. I carry it around forlornly for a while and then, back on the ferry, bend over to put it on the floor. (It's a cup, not a cone, 'kay?) There is a noise like a sonic boom. My trousers have split from the side of the crotch to halfway down my inner thigh. I spend the next few minutes trying to cover everything up with Cis's bag -- sure, it's a robust and vibrant culture, but my puce sunburn and bright blue M&S pants are presumably a colour combination too far, even here. Back at Circular Quay, we manage to transfer me to a taxi without causing any diplomatic incident, but back at the apartment block, as I get out of the cab, I hear another terrifying ripping sound and the tear now extends south of my knee. And there are, of course, literally, thirty people in the lobby all waiting for the elevator with me. Later at the theatre, telling the audience about my day, I realise that "I tore my trousers on the Manly Ferry" sounds like the title of a gay country-and-western song. The show, though, goes like a dream: I'm full of energy and everyone comes with me. We hang around afterwards to see the late show in the same space, Taylor Mac -- whom I've been hearing great things about for ages. It's all true. He's extraordinary. The nice thing is, we couldn't be more different as stage presences -- seriously, we couldn't -- but we're talking about the same things, we're on the same team, it feels really nice. I've never seen a drag artist make such explicit connection with the idea of shamanism. His songs and patter are the perfect combination of sweet and dirty, and he can turn a line on a dime to achieve effects of really stunning poignancy. I'm a fan, hook line & sinker. Cis and I wander happily home and make short work of the best potato chips I've ever tasted.

Thursday 18th: We have tickets for the morning dress rehearsal of Opera Australia's production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Opera House, though we cut the timing a bit fine and end up getting snapped at by an usher, who thereby earns the distinction of being the only rude and unpleasant person I met all week. I suspect she thinks she's affecting an English air of superiority; but of course that's very slightly not the same thing as being a sour old bag. Sweeney is an almost unconscionably smart and intricate score and we get quite wrapped up in it, despite a dismal, occasionally truly risible, production by Gale Edwards -- it completely botches the double edge of Sondheim's tone, hampered from the start by a blousy and unattractive design based apparently -- as Cis observed -- on an outsize rendition of the Big Yellow Teapot. Peter Coleman-Wright is an excellent Sweeney though and the lovely "Not While I'm Around" comes across with all its tenderness and ardour intact. After a lazy lunch we head over to the Aquarium: we're being proper tourists now, I've even got my DV camera out. Cis is concerned about the apparently psychotic behaviour of the duck-billed platypus but everything else we encounter seems pretty chilled out. The moon jellyfish are heartstoppingly beautiful and we have an extraordinary long moment gazing upwards at a huge ray that's settled on the roof of the glass tunnel above our heads -- I don't think either of us will ever forget watching him just sit there and breathe. I know it's anthropomorphising like mad but you could look into that face and see such infinite kindliness and wise serenity and even if that's just a dumb projection, it feels profoundly meaningful in a way I would never have anticipated. -- So we head over to the Opera House feeling revived and inspired and really up-for-it. Our first clue to how the evening's actually going to go is that my costume, and Cis's work t-shirt, have been shrunk in the laundry. And then, from the get-go, the belt pack that I wear under my shirt around my stomach (to conceal the transmitter for my wireless mic) keeps coming undone, the velcro is worn or something. During the preamble it doesn't matter too much, a bit of technical difficulty is always a good(ish) icebreaker, but when I get on the chair for the first scene and I feel it give way again, I know we're in for a hard night; the lights come up on me and I'm standing on this chair with my t-shirt rolled halfway up, trying to adjust what looks like a freaky demi-corset around my gross and upsetting belly. I suppose if you're fond of your dignity you don't go on stage in the first place. ...About ten minutes in it comes undone again and this time, mid-scene, there's nothing I can do about it, and the whole contraption slowly unpeels, pulling away the elastoplast that holds the mic cable to my face, and that's that. I'm now definitely unplugged -- with the added bonus of having a bit of manky cloth hanging out from beneath my shirt and flapping in the breeze. It could be worse -- I just ratchet everything up a bit and I don't think too many people would have had trouble hearing what I was saying, but of course all the intimacy of the quiet moments is lost and the heart of the show goes with it. Afterwards there's a little buzz of having got through it -- and a genuine wish not to make anyone (especially the sweet young lad who's been wiring me up each night, with great care and discretion) feel bad about a mishap that wasn't really anyone's fault exactly -- but ten minutes later my spirits are around my ankles. We're supposed to be going to a party for all the artists but instead Cis brilliantly whisks us off to a slightly rundown, gay-but-barely pub out near Newtown, where I drink vanilla Smirnoff at the bar and we watch a fantastic young singer-songwriter called Red Ghost with whom we both fall a little bit in love. There are worse things.

Friday 19th: Our first chance of a leisurely morning. I mostly loll around eating cookies and reading Studs Terkel. It is totally unenjoyable but we stick with it as a point of principle. Then we have to go and buy replacement gear for each of us to wear for the show. We traipse in and out of various half-nice clothes shops in the mall but it's clear nothing's going to fit me here and we wind up at Lowes -- a sort of sub-Primark bargain outlet where the sizes go up to XXXXXL (though I only, & thank heaven for relatively small mercies, need the 2 X's). This becomes a well-received joke in the preamble later: "Mr Goode's wardrobe is by Lowes of George Street." You've gotta laugh, eh? Then it's over to the Museum of Contemporary Art: art later, though, lunch first... & boy, what a lunch. The food all through the week has been magnificent but my entree at the MCA Cafe, a little porcini lasagne, is so amazingly good I get the giggles, the kind of giggles that overtake you sometimes when something's just so exquisitely perfect you don't have the language for it. I've got the giggles for Haydn quartets before now, but never for a meal. Cis has oysters of equal calibre and we both just sit there saying "Wow" to each other and grinning like apoths. It's wonderful -- & all the stress and occasional dismay of the last few days just lifts. The only downside is that we don't finish lunch until four -- why would you? -- and the museum (it turns out) closes at five, so we don't get to see much of the festival exhibition of video art from the Pompidou Collection -- which was, after all, the reason for going in the first place. We arrive at the Opera House feeling like (respectively) king & drag king of the world, and the show is the best so far, by miles. Everyone's buzzing a little bit afterwards, and it's good to feel. Cis & I hop on the ferry to Darling Harbour later and watch Sydney coming out to play for the weekend. Reassuringly, it's horrible, like Friday night is everywhere. I have a ball. And a lot of chocolate cake at a really grim tourist caff. Walking home I realize I haven't been as intensively (and extensively) with someone as I've been this week with Cis in ages -- yet there's hardly been a moment's strain. We've talked a lot and laughed loads. We must look quite the odd couple and in some ways we're chalk and cheese. But she's chalky cheese, like a mild chevre or something; and I'm cheesy chalk. Mmmm. Cheesy chalk.

Saturday 20th: We've been promising ourselves an expedition, but over the week our plans have got less and less adventurous, and we settle eventually for the walk down the coast from Bondi to Coogee. It's fantastic -- I think it bugs Cis a bit that I'm one of only four men either of us sees all day wearing long trousers (though I do give my turn-ups an extra flip for luck), but I'm more up for it than I probably seem. Bondi is ravishingly beautiful and, even on a dead-hot bright-white day like this, surprisingly quiet and laid-back. As the whitest living Englishman, and moreover as someone in whose upbringing "the seaside" meant Weston-super-Mare, I feel quite pleased to have seen both Venice and Bondi beaches in the last decade... It's by no means an arduous walk but we've really had enough by the time we take a break in Clovelly. It's well up in the 30s today and we've been feeling it a bit. So we're still a little depleted in the evening and the show is not one of the best; the audience is fidgety and talkative and I find it hard to concentrate, the preamble is a botch and the club scene comes out completely mangled. But we're done, it's over, and we part on good affectionate terms with the Opera House crew. Cis drags a pretty ungracious Controlling Thompson up Oxford Street where, after I've rejected every vaguely happening or funky-looking gay bar on the strip, we wind up in a manifestly unhappening and funk-free gay bar, sitting in the window people-watching. I am encouraged to note that almost everybody looks about as preposterous as I commonly feel. I wonder what they're thinking. We give up after one drink and head back to the bachelor pad, where we stay up for a while drinking herbal tea and talking about porn, in bachelorish fashion.

Sunday 21st: Up early to pack, and then I head back down to the MCA to see the rest of the video art show. (Great stuff. I'll write about it separately.) Before I know it, time's up, and I say goodbye to Cis on the corner of Pitt and Bathurst -- she's staying on for a couple of weeks. I tell the cabbie I'm sad to be leaving. "Your girlfriend," he infers, sympathetically, and I agree for the fun of it, and he gives me lots of excellent advice on the way to the airport. "Maybe it work out," he says. "I hope so," I say. Unarguably, in the best of all possible worlds, nothing is impossible.

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