This is a introduction to the play Percy Lifar by Marcus Reichert originally performed as ‘Tenderly’ at the Photographers’ Gallery in 1986. (Marcus remembers it as April 1987 but the version I was in was not that year. My mother died on my birthday April 14th 1987. I was not performing that month. The play is about memories – the fragmentation, hallucinations and improbabilities of memories…
Percy Lifar ; A Play by Marcus Reichert – Intriduction by Mel Churcher published by Ziggurat Books 2012.
It is 1986. The Chernobyl nuclear plant has exploded. Mrs Thatcher, who has broken the unions over the miners’ strike, now allows US warplanes to mount attacks on Libya from British bases.
I, on the other hand, am concentrating on holding an umbrella over my head to protect myself from the radioactive rain, whilst combining mothering a seven year old and working as an actor. Out of the blue, I am asked to be in a new play by Mark Reichert. It is to be directed by Mark Normandy and performed at The Photographers’ Gallery in London’s Covent Garden area. This is a most prestigious and unusual location.
The play, too, has an unusual and, possibly, prestigious location: The Edenbourne Asylum. It is a haunting place of dreams and hallucinations; of hopes and failures. It is a place of possibilities – its strange inhabitants destined to live endlessly meshed in each other’s desires and fantasies, in an echo of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Huis Clos’…
This densely written play depicts a dark, savage, absurd, yet comic and tender, world. We, the cast, are daunted, but excited. I am to play the small part of Mrs. Piper, an overripe matron, who feels she is forever young. She deals with loss by flirting outrageously with the hero of the piece, Percy Lifar (played by the actor, Ray Armstrong) who is trying to pick his way through an impenetrable briar of lost memory, with the help of his strange inmates.
I am of an age now that my memory has become a clutter of vivid snapshots rather than playing like a linear movie, and so I can only share a few of the images from that time:
We rehearsed in an old hospital or maybe it was a school. It was the holidays and my son came with me. I was terrified that the crumbling ceiling was full of asbestos. Looking back, I think it was not, but that the paranoia of this strange world we were inhabiting leaked out into my own world.
I look at my script now, full of my scribblings about what I – as my could-have-been self – wanted. What had led to my unresolved maternal longings? How was I to draw Percy to my breast? What could satiate my unfathomable desires? I see the world of this institution only through the eyes of Mrs Piper – Mrs Piper, who cannot conceive of a past; who probably cannot conceive. She sprays her cheap perfume and dreams of her Parisian music halls…
I endlessly asked about what I was to wear. My director didn’t think it was important, but to me it was. I had played younger parts than myself all my career and now was being asked to play older; to play the very self that I might become – ‘What ever happened to Baby Jane?’ (An original photograph of Bette Davis, near the end of her career, now hangs in my hall. A friend asked the other day if the picture was of me…)
So I searched London for the right sixties clothes, the right wig and the right flower to wear at my breast. The flower that had become the essence of the child Mrs Piper may or may not have. The child that Percy – her Pierre – may or may not have fathered in her fancy’s fancy with his insistent tickling stamen. I think I found it, the silk iris, in Liberty’s. Iris was my mother’s name (she died the following year).
Parents and children crop up a lot in this play. The roles we play. The tugs of love we may or may not experience. Relationships.
This world within the institution obeys its own surreal laws. It has it its own logic. It is peopled by those who believe; believe they may be great, and once cherubic, violinists or Christ-like figures who must assuage their guilt by crucifixion or that they must become the parents or children that they’ve never been. They may or may not be made to suffer the diabolical tortures that Percy describes to Mrs Piper, but they do suffer in their metaphorical imaginations. Dr. Lustig (played by the late lamented Peter Porteous) is the conduit to their dreams and nightmares.
The physical space of the Photographers’ Gallery has merged in my memory with the imagined world of the institution. I remember walls of glass, stairs that climbed steeply to a dark space of giant shadows thrown onto white walls. But whether these images were true or in my mind, I have no way of knowing now, as the gallery left its old home and moved to Soho in 2009.
‘Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.’
This play is full of roles encountering themselves, and others, without being able to define themselves, or decide how they should proceed. They are defined only by their actions, but these are driven by whatever image they see of themselves at that moment in time. They act and react as actors do. For we are, after all, all actors playing on the world’s stage. (Shakespeare said it better.)
I would not dare to say what the play is about but, for me, it examines the nature of reality and truth. Anything is possible. The author quotes Oscar Wilde in his superscription,
‘The Universe itself shall be our immortality.’
Is it enough to believe something for it to be so? Well, after all, that’s what actors do all the time. That is probably what sincere politicians do. And if they make it up and believe it, then, as the ageless Miss Ezrad says,
‘Nobody will ever know the difference…They only know what they are told.’
And that is true for every part of our lives. This play, as metaphor, is truer now than it has ever been. We only know what we are told. And writers and artists, too, can tell us things. They are the dream weavers. And they can ask us questions,
‘Do you dare to hear this story?’ ‘Whose story is it?’
And then they ask, as Percy asks, and as we all ask,
‘Do you believe me?’
copyright Mel Churcher 2012