Memories of Peace

Performed in the Spring of 1973 at Bedford Modern School, Bedford.

  • It was the last major production in "Big School" in the old town centre site, now occupied by Boots and The Harpur Centre. This meant we were allowed to destroy the stage by making a trapdoor for Peace to emerge from.

  • Although no attempt was made to modernise the play - quite the opposite - we were very much conscious of Peace's tentative attempts to emerge in Viet Nam.

  • She emerged triumphantly to Bach's Toccata.

  • Peace was made by Tich Herald - later a successful painter - from chicken wire and papier-mache over a wooden frame. She was at least 3 times his height, with Jordanesque breasts beyond the dreams of boyhood fantasy. She was lustrously white with gilded nipples and gloriously naked. The scene where the farmers salute her return with their agricultural implements was the one that caused most apoplexy amongst older members of staff.

  • Her attendants (who'd had to lurk in the musty recess below the stage throughout: they were genuinely blinking when it was finally time to emerge into the light) were lean Greg Mawson in a black wig (he annoyed the designer James Lynch by taking it off during the curtain call and waving it) and chubby Hamish Henderson-Begg in a blonde one.

  • Only the chorus wore masks, grotesque agricultural faces. But their ability to react and seem to listen was uncanny - later developed in my productions of Prometheus Bound and Seneca's Oedipus. The celebration dance (to Zorba) was particularly memorable.

  • War was played by R. G. Moore, the tallest boy in the school - and "Tumult" (or "Havoc" in some translations) by Nick Hawkins, later a Tory MP. He ran the whole length of the hall to find the "pestles" - his protracted scream of "Sir, I haven't got one" was particularly convincing in the skimpy costume James had designed for him.

  • War's gorgon shield was a masterpiece - which was preserved for a while in my teaching room. I was sorry that we never gave him a properly gigantic mortar - it was represented by a pool of light over the audience, at whom he flung the ingredients - leeks, garlic etc.

  • Other things were thrown at the audience - particularly distressing to the cleaners was the small basket of "oats" (still in use at home) which the second slave managed to distribute evenly throughout the hall each night.

  • The music - apart from Zorba and the Bach - was composed by John Mosely, recently arrived as assistant director of music. I can still sing the tune he wrote for the final wedding procession - as Peace and her fans wound her way joyously around the hall - with everyone joining the chant of Hymen Hymen Io.

  • The production was held together by Sam Ignarski as Trygaeus - a mature and masterful performance. That's him in the picture, giving a v sign, in a photo which he took himself for the poster. The grim setting was the quad of the old school ("Whoever said 'Stone walls do not a prison make' obviously never saw this place.")

  • The dung beetle was made by two second year boys, Duncan Gibbons and John Wallis. It worked like a pantomime horse, and they also operated it during the shows. Unfortunately we didn't have the technology to make it fly (although we did attempt this at my second production of the play some years later at the new school, where the Howard Hall had a lighting grid to which ropes and pulleys could be attached in those wonderful pre-health-and-safety-days. I seem to recall we had Weaver-Smith on a death-slide over the audience. Wow!)

  • Hermes was played by David Molian, who as a Sixth Former studying Classics was also largely responsible for the idea of a production of the play, after a lively reading in class (with Eric Tansley and Stephen Fitzsimons). During the show he never quite managed the outrageous heights of camp that he reached during rehearsals! His winged hat and sandals incorporated two dead pigeons. Like all the costumes they were lovingly made by the incomparable Leonie Zdziarski (Mrs Z to generations of BMS young actors), to James Lynch's designs. However impossible his demands, she could always fulfil them. The Greek motifs on many of the costumes were hand printed by younger boys using blocks they had designed and made themselves.

  • James Lynch's set was made using the school's collection of traditional flats - which, like the stage, were also being used for the last time. They were painted with a mixture which incorporated straw and grit, giving a sort of excremental look. We also wanted to convey the idea that the set was somehow alive with people - stagehands could appear at an actor's command bringing on and removing props as needed. (Although the one entrusted to run on with the gold cup for Hermes failed to appear on the first night).

  • The prompter, Steve Lawson, wearing a petasos, sat throughout in full view behind a flat with a window in it. (Did anybody notice him? In later productions, I abandoned the use of a prompter - my actors were expected to be able to improvise their way out of any glitch!). The whole set had to be destroyed on the Sunday after the final show, so that the hall could be back to normal for Monday assembly. According to legend, James Lynch spent the Saturday night after the final performance of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (directed by Andrew "The Incredible" Cairncross) perfecting his stunningly rococo set before it was destroyed a few hours later. He also had a confrontation with a couple of intruders some years later while working through the night on a set in the new school. They naturally fled when confronted by a bearded paint-spattered gnome appearing as if from nowhere.

  • The two slaves where most memorably played by Steve Chaplin (now the landlord of my local pub, The Bird in Hand) and Jonny Laing. His attempt to assemble a deckchair for his master at the start of Act II was an object lesson in clowning. A comic genius - whatever became of him?

  • Mark Johnson made his acting debut as the Trumpet-Maker. His one line ("Trygaeus, what can I do with this trumpet?"), plaintively delivered while holding a long straight hunting-horn, got one of the biggest laughs of the night.

  • Lighting and Sound were directed by John "Banda" Hope. His tape of eating noises for the beetle was utterly brilliant. The play opened with an epic amplified belch, for which he auditioned widely among junior boys in School House, where he was a tutor. He never revealed the actual perpetrator. Thus we got a massive laugh before the lights went up or any actor appeared.

  • The production gravely offended several older members of staff - several of whom gratifyingly walked out. There were remarks, in a strong Lancastrian accent, about "dooble ontonders". The headmaster, however, Brian Kemball-Cook, was delighted to see a revival so true to the Aristophanic spirit. Several governors wrote approvingly, too.

  • Paul Stekelis was cadaverous Hierocles, whose stripping (down to an authentic-looking loincloth) was done with relish. The cooking scene, which preceded his entry, was another triumph for non-health-and-safety. Actual sausages were actually cooked on an actual gas-burning picnic stove (on a wooden stage). Authentic smells perfumed the hall.

  • The shit in the opening scene was genuine mud mixed with straw, and looked genuinely disgusting. The audience was probably glad we hadn't tried to be olfactorily authentic this time, though.

  • The idea of using real girls in a play at an all-boys school like Bedford Modern (now gone co-ed, since September 2004!) would have been far too revolutionary in those days, even for James and myself. Greg Mawson and Hamish Henderson-Begg dutifully managed the female roles - authentically Greek of course. (Although it is in fact probable that in the original Opora and Theoria may well have been real girls, as they are non-speaking parts.)

  • The pulling Peace from the pit involved two huge naval ropes, which the audience helped heave on. The climax was (intentionally) reminiscent of a difficult birth!

  • A feature was made of the many references to figs - used in the Greek for both male and female genitalia; for a non-classical audience it seemed better to concentrate on a single double-entendre (oxymoron?) in the hopes they might pick up on it.

  • The litle lamb for sacrifice was played by Simon(?) Holly, the smallest boy in the Junior School. He looked very convincing when carried in Greek shepherd style on Big Steve Chaplin's shoulders, bleating piteously. There was applause when Trygaeus decided not to sacrifice him after all.

  • This was the first Aristophanes I directed - and the only big budget one. The ones that followed were all on a shoestring, though not necessarily the worse for that: Frogs in the Drama Room (Pete Davis, later a Maths teacher at the school, was a memorable Charon; he came on carrying a huge rubber dinghy, which he slapped down so aggressively). Clouds, with Gareth Johns' Socrates (an amazing physical resemblance, finely tuned with James Lynch's makeup) and Andy Gilchrist (until recently [2005] General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, and a nationally recognised figure), who got his first starring role as Strepsiades burning down the phrontisterion! There followed a Thesmophoriazusae (twice), Frogs (twice more), another Clouds with Simon Hooley as an equally definitive Socrates, Lysistrata, Birds, and another Peace somewhere along the line. These shows, performed by Classical Civilisation groups at a time when when the pressure of exams had not yet darkened the Lower Sixth year, were knocked together on two weeks rehearsal - leaving plenty of scope for improvisation. There was much ad hominem humour in Aristophanic vein, and only ever a single unique performance to a packed and demonstrative audience, mainly of young people from the school and others in Bedford. Headmasters, elderly members of staff and other killjoys soon learned to stay away!

I'd be delighted to hear from anyone who took part in the original production of Peace in 1973 [thanks, Sam], or who was in the audience. Hopefully they may be able to add to or correct some of these memories I've jotted down over thirty years later.

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