Thirty Men & a Girl

by Elisabeth Parry

Home.
The Author.
Press Notices.
Excerpts.
To Order.
Links.

 

5th May 1944. Beirut

We left Tripoli after breakfast yesterday, and had a very lovely run here all along the seashore, with the water lapping rough grey rocks and a mass of flowers growing amongst them – including a very attractive short, close, bush-like privet, and lots of pale green things that might be a hellebore, though in leaves and growth they are like aconite. (Damn – am writing this during rehearsal, and a huge flea has just hopped onto me and lost himself in my battle-blouse – am in a perpetual state of being bitten by something or other!) It is a joy to be back in a clean hotel eating really good food again – we are here until Sunday when we leave by train for the 24hr journey via Haifa to Ismailia. A lorry is going by road with a few men and part of the baggage. The rest goes by van, and an NCO and three men have to live with it on its three-day journey. Last night we did a variety show in this nice hall of the Transit Camp, and tonight is orchestral – am singing ‘Caro Nome’, ‘L’été’, and in a group with the piano. There have been some excitements in this town during our absence. As our waiter put it while we awaited our food last night, ‘We have had here since four days a Revolution!’ He made a histrionic gesture towards the window and a peaceful-looking street. Seeing we were unimpressed, he hastily added, ‘Today is of course very calm,’ and proceeded to tell us gory stories of how quite ten people had actually been killed in the street fighting. As a matter of fact the curfew has only just been lifted, and there were posses of sheepish-looking Lebanese soldiers wandering about the streets yesterday, but today even these have departed. The trouble was, I gather, that the Lebanon Govt was meeting, and the two parties, one pro-French control, the other pro-Lebanese independence, clashed, the former rather curiously being the revolutionary body. However, I doubt if anyone really knows or cares what happened. As the waiter proudly added, ‘It is here only our second revolution’ (the other having been quite a high-class affair in November last). And who would deny these people the fun they get out of these little fracas? Personally, if I ruled an Eastern country, I’d stage-manage a quiet little bust-up every year as a sort of safety valve, and to give them something to talk about for the next twelve months.

The Band are playing extraordinarily well – Fingal’s Cave for one, and I have been sitting back and loving it after days of variety. The enjoyment of this tour has been purely topographical, to quote J, and the difference after our happy time in Paiforce most marked. There has been the awful feeling of being continually up against people and conditions – difficulty after difficulty, and the show not at its best as a result. In Paiforce everyone at any rate tried to help. We are all rather short-tempered and generally browned-off now! And to make matters worse, it has decided to pour with rain at a time when rain should not be falling here. The Band are in tents in the Holiday Camp, which is lovely in summer, and right on the beach for bathing, but not so good in this weather. Also the travelling arrangements are for them to do the awful journey to Ismailia 3rd class, which is all wrong, and J has to go and wage yet another battle about that, poor dear.

Harry Roy’s remarks were most interesting, and should bear good fruit, though of course he has left a fearful name out here. His Band had the best of available accommodation in hotels and for travel, whereas we being a military party get the worst. Also it is a fact that he was offered a plane here to fly him to Cairo, and he refused to take the (negligible) risk as he said his insurance did not cover air travel. But he is right in that the vehicles and drivers supplied to DNSE are awful on the whole. If the Army would turn over just a very few British drivers to ENSA it would make a world of difference, and the vehicles would be decently serviced and maintained, so breakdowns would be halved. However, I adore this town and shops, and shall be sorry to leave it.

 

 

4th May 1944. Regent Hotel, Beirut

Here we are back again, and such a lovely lot of letters awaiting us. I have not the remotest idea when we return, except that our contract expires during the first two weeks in June. I shall not know when we leave until after we get on the boat, I feel sure. And I can assure you that even the ship’s officers during the actual voyage do not know what port they are going to. I shall not be allowed to ring you from the port, so the first you will hear will probably be a call from London saying ‘Arriving next train’!! At the moment we know no more than that we get on a train for Ismailia on Sunday.

We had very nice audiences for our last two shows in the Perroquet Theatre, Tripoli, despite its being a most dreary old place with bugs and an appalling smell of drains. Alas, no more bathing as the weather turned wet and grey. However, on our last day J took me deep into the most fascinating bazaar area, which he had discovered on a solo photographing exhibition. Funny crumbling old arches, remains of beautiful houses, walls dating back to Roman days, roofless churches, all converted into a thousand tiny shops where the usual patient craftsmen sit doing incredibly laborious and slow work, with minute boys wielding hammers or polishing by hand. The most fascinating thing about the ME is the use to which that commonplace article the petrol tin is put. The social and economic fabric of this part of the world would collapse, I feel sure, were tins in general to cease to exist suddenly. Whole areas of the bazaar were employed in making things from them – oil lamps, cooking utensils, coffee pots, shoe-shine outfits and gazouses (or contraptions in which soft drinks are sold by itinerant vendors), boxes and containers of all sorts and bridal chests which will have ‘Pork Soya Links’ (or the name of a peculiarly revolting American sausage meat supplied in large quantities to their and our troops) stamped all over them. Besides this, the petrol tin is used for roofing houses, as a lavatory, to carry water, as a chair with a wooden bar fixed across the top, as a reflector for stage lights, to make oil-drip stoves, and a million other things – as we were wending our way back, enraptured, through the clatter of hammers, with the usual crowd of small urchins tailing us, and pointing out my trousers and battle-blouse to all newcomers with great glee, we happened to glance up a little cul-de-sac, and there was a nice old stone house with two lovely great trails of scarlet geranium drooping from a balcony. We stopped to admire it, and an old lady caught sight of us out of the window and started signalling frantically. It was some time before I gathered what she wanted while she picked geraniums for all she was worth, and eventually I decided she wanted me to go into the house. So I climbed the steep stairs, and the dear old thing came dashing down from upstairs, threw her arms around me and kissed me, and pressed the flowers into my hand. Conversation was limited as she had nothing but Arabic, however we parted on the warmest terms, after meeting her daughter and baby, and being offered coffee, which we unfortunately hadn’t time to accept.

 

 

§

To get back to The Beggar’s Opera, we started work on the music and the pages of dialogue, and we had much hilarity over the latter, for which patient Basil Coleman was coaching us. Dialogue is every singer’s nightmare, even when it is quite ordinary, but we were supposed to be a very low-life crowd, women who were mostly whores and men who were brigands or pimps. Our first efforts at eighteenth-century bawds and bandits reduced us to tears of laughter. We got better, but I didn’t feel most of us were ever wholly convincing.

Ben was always a law unto himself about casting, and insisted that Peter Pears should play Macheath, a macho, charismatic and womanising ruffian usually sung by a baritone. As Peter himself put it: ‘I shall just have to be the pale and interesting sort!’ I don’t think this interpretation entirely accorded with Tyrone Guthrie’s view of the character, but Peter was such a superb artist that in fact he made a great success of it. Ben had disappointed poor Anne Sharpe terribly by not giving her the role of Polly after all, though she had dutifully changed singing teachers and gone to Mme de Reusz. Instead he gave it to mezzo Nancy Evans, who provided Peter with a much more mature and sophisticated – and extremely beautiful – Polly. And Annie joined us in the chorus.

The rehearsals were brilliant, and the production turned out very strong and realistically squalid and ugly, with its movable sets of great clothes horses hung with ragged laundry, which we repositioned ourselves for the various scenes. Our clothes were suitably drab and dirty, with the odd touch of tawdry finery. We girls wore low-cut hessian blouses, and Otto Kraus, who was playing a deliciously villainous Lockit, was anxious to ascertain that we were not wearing anything as bourgeois and incorrect as bras under them. He looked. I wasn’t. For once I think I surprised him! Joan Cross was amazing as Mrs Peachum; no problems for her over a fruity cockney accent. She gave us a splendid piece of advice: ‘Be as vulgar as you like, girls, but never be common!’ Gladys Parr, a distinguished Wagnerian singer, was a priceless old bag as Mrs Trapes, and Rose Hill a sharp and witty Lucy. There was so much to be learned from them all, and Tyrone Guthrie, after offering the chorus a few pointers, told us to get on and develop our own characters. I was Mrs Slammekin, clumsy and awkward, and I made my first entry by coming on, tripping and falling flat on my face. It raised a laugh – I can’t think why. I had just learnt how to do stage falls and was rather pleased with myself! Norman Lumsden and Dennis Dowling amused themselves by coming on with a revolting assortment of bulbous noses, boils, ulcers and carbuncles. They would stick their heads out through the laundry and shock us with something more disgusting every night. We all had special make-up classes taken by Joan to help us achieve a genuinely Hogarthian effect.

§

During the autumn of 1999 I spent hours working out a budget for our ambitious two-year educational project with Chelmsford Borough Council to produce Carmen involving children in every aspect of opera. And Robin paid his first visit to the five selected junior schools (we found it was impossible to work with senior children because their syllabus is so crowded). The preparatory work of introducing the children to opera, which was something quite new to most of them, consisted of performing Hänsel and Gretel in the Civic Theatre with children onstage singing the Gingerbread Children; then came workshops, followed by two showings of Amahl and the Night Visitors over Christmas.

The Carmen budget was for two years of work, with tutors visiting the chosen schools to prepare the music, work with the children on the story and the characters, get them designing scenery and costumes, as well as posters and fliers, even teach them a little Spanish dancing, the whole to culminate in a week’s work in the theatre before the performances, during which the children would get used to singing onstage, and would get a chance to help with the scene painting, and learn a little about stage lighting, and box office management, every aspect of putting on an opera. In June 2001 there would be two public performances, with orchestra conducted by Richard Balcombe and our professional soloists. The budget was a nightmare, due to variations in travel costs, and took me many days, followed by the putting together of a timetable with the schools for the tutors to visit. Robin Green took over here, and after we had agreed how many visits could be afforded from each tutor he had to fit them into busy school timetables. I had negotiated a total sum of £25,000 plus VAT with Chelmsford Borough Council, and I opened a special account to cover the two years of the project. I am proud to say that we ended up overspent by only a very modest sum, for which Chelmsford reimbursed us!

There were 150 children involved, and we had 75 onstage each night, which was really more than the theatre had room for. It was organised chaos, very exciting and moving. The teachers were splendid, and the children, in their extraordinary mishmash of homemade costumes as smugglers, cigarette girls, soldiers, matadors and so on, backed by the scenery they had helped to paint using the ‘by numbers’ system (1 for yellow, 2 for red, 3 for blue and so on – the most popular bit of the whole experience!), the children were amazing. Even some special-needs children whom we had included did their bit enthusiastically if inaccurately. A great performance it was not, but it succeeded nevertheless in being very moving.