NB: I’m sure performers of every kind have had worse gigs than this one, but it was the worst I ever did. However, it didn’t end my career, and nobody died. Except for several pigs, geese, chickens, turkeys, sheep, oxen, and a wild boar.
* * *
In the late 1970s I was living in Rotterdam with Crystal Theatre, the multimedia performance company I’d started the day after I got thrown out of one of Britain’s most prestigious theatre schools. After a few years the company relocated to Holland because Europeans seemed to like our work, and were willing to subsidise it. Back at home the Arts Council had consistently refused to give us money, seeing us as undisciplined, erratic, wilfully obscure, and on drugs – which was unfair. We were never wilfully obscure.
But there was subsidy for the arts in Holland, and the definition of art was pretty flexible. For example, in this period Amsterdam city council was paying a cultural foundation grant to the local chapter of the Hell's Angels.
In Rotterdam we were given a house and funds to develop our work. We began devising a big new stage show. Progress was slow, but in early December a young Dutch guy we knew, who’d decided he wanted to be a promoter, told us he’d secured us a gig in Utrecht for the new production, if we could get it ready in time. The gig was at a college for butchers. The biggest one in Europe, he said. He explained that the students' Christmas party was coming up, and usually the entertainment was provided by a band – typically a German heavy metal tribute act – but he’d persuaded the social secretary that this year the students should be exposed to something more adventurous, like the cutting-edge multimedia show we were still in the process of devising. The gig was in three weeks.
At that time we had an idiosyncratic approach to rehearsal. We didn't do any. Instead we devoted ourselves to building a huge, elaborate set, with big revolving panels that acted as screens for the lightshow projections we used. It was an ambitious construction, and we were looking forward to getting the whole thing up and working. We probably should have tried doing that before the first performance.
The gig was on a Saturday night. I'd been in Amsterdam for a couple of days, and I'd arranged to go straight to Utrecht, while the others would drive from Rotterdam in our bus, and we'd all meet at the college. I got there early, and I was met by the social secretary. I explained that the rest of the company would be arriving later, and he said he would give me a guided tour while we waited. He was a tall young man with rimless glasses and no trace of the joviality traditionally associated with butchers. He informed me that this was the most modern butchers' college in the world, with nearly three hundred students, two of whom were women.
He led me into a large room completely covered in white tiles. Four hulking figures dressed in full-body orange bio-hazard suits were clustered in the middle of the room, hosing blood off the walls. My host frowned. Oh, he said, it is unfortunate that they have just finished the slaughtering and you are unable to watch it. I tried to look disappointed.
The next stop was a small but highly realistic replica of a butchers' shop, equipped with all the tools of the trade and various parts of animals, possibly those that had recently been despatched in the abattoir next door. Here, the students were doing a role play exercise. One would enter the shop, in the guise of a customer, and address another student who was standing behind the counter. Good day, Mr Butcher, the first student would say, may I have five kilos of offal, please? The other student, twirling a meat cleaver with a merry twinkle in his eye, then replied, Certainly, Mrs Customer, would you like me to wrap it, or will you eat it on the way home? Something like that, anyway. The students took it very seriously, and I found it deeply disturbing.
But now it was down to business. My host, still addressing me in English that was stilted but far better than my Dutch, told me how much the students were looking forward to our show, especially as they had no idea what to expect. Then he outlined the schedule for the evening’s entertainment. First, he said, we will be having the great Christmas feast. We start with some cold sliced meats of salami and hams. Then a type of big meat pudding, made of minced sheep inside an intestine. Then there is turkey, served with sausages, and bacon. And then beef, and oxen meat. And all the time a whole wild boar is roasting, and we eat him. Then we have coffee. He paused and looked at me expectantly. Sounds good, I said, but there are nine of us, and five are vegetarians. Yes, he said, there will also be some vegetables with the meat. No, I said, these people don't eat any meat at all. He looked at me for a long time in silence. Finally he said, How is it possible?
He simply didn't understand the concept of not eating meat. After that, it all went downhill.
First, the others turned up. They were only a couple of hours late, and while there was nothing unusual in that, it did create a problem. The big hall, where we were due to perform after the meal, was now being prepared for the banquet itself. This meant we couldn't set up before the meal. We'd have to do it afterwards, as quickly as we could. This put everyone in a bad mood. All except Mort. I stood beside him as he gazed at the students who were beginning to congregate in the hall, in pleasant anticipation of an orgy of blood and protein. I inspected him closely. You're looking happy, I said. Yes, he said, this acid I've taken seems to be pretty strong. Shit, I said, is everyone tripping? No, Mort said, just three of us.
Well, I thought, at least they didn't get the tour of the abattoir and the imaginary butchers' shop. That might have freaked them out a bit.
It turned out there was enough to freak us out anyway. The meal went on for a very long time. Everyone was polite to us, but they were clearly offended that some of us didn't eat meat, and that those of us that did eat meat didn’t eat it in the gigantic quantities they considered natural. But finally the meal was over, and it was time for us to set up. We waited for the students to leave. They didn't. There was nowhere for them to go, we were told. So, for the next hour, three hundred Dutch trainee butchers sat in silence, watching nine sweating, stumbling, cursing English people trying to erect a very large, very complicated set – for the very first time. The atmosphere in the room became increasingly uncomfortable.
Finally we were ready to begin the show. And if the preparations had bewildered the audience, it was nothing compared to their bafflement at the performance itself. It didn't help that unlike most of the Dutch audiences we played to these people spoke very little English. It also didn't help that we didn't know what we were doing, and were doing it very slowly. The show was meant to last just over an hour. After two hours I calculated we were about half way through. The going was slow, but not uneventful. At a certain point I gave Mort his cue to enter from stage right. It was a big moment because he was meant to come on carrying a blazing sword. Which he did. But this was the first time he'd attempted the costume change that was involved, and he was only half way through it. However, he believed it would have been unprofessional to miss his cue, so he marched onstage, blazing sword aloft, naked except for a pair of Wellington boots. He said later he thought it would enhance the impact for the audience. He was right, but not in a good way.
The show continued until, perhaps mercifully, the set fell down. Its collapse was slow and strangely beautiful. The audience remained completely silent, as they had been all the time, but I sensed a momentary change in the quality of their silence, from profound hostility to grim satisfaction. They continued to sit and watch, maintaining their complete silence, as we cleared everything up. Then, like bystanders at a gruesome accident accepting that the carnage is finally over and there is nothing more to see, they stood up and filed out, in silence.
After they'd gone we were told we weren't going to be paid. We remonstrated with the social secretary, but he steadfastly refused to hand over our fee. However, he was needlessly unpleasant about it. He sneered as he told us there was nothing we could do, because our "stupid hippie" promoter hadn’t asked for a written contract. With that, he turned on his heel and sauntered away, leaving us to load up the bus and leave.
But he was mistaken when he said there was nothing we could do.
The main exit from the building was accessed via an adjoining room, which the students used as a social club: somewhere to relax after a hard day of frenzied butchery and demented role play, and swap a few yarns about intestines. In the middle of this empty room was a kind of wooden shed festooned with padlocks. It was the bar, designed so that once the shutters were opened, thirsty students, eager to wash away the stench of slaughter, could be served on three sides.
Although this edifice was well secured, it was still, basically, a shed. And a shed is, when you get down to it, nothing more than several pieces of wood screwed together. And what is screwed together can be unscrewed. Especially by nine people with a powerful grievance, who always travelled with heavy-duty tools, on account of the ridiculously large and complex sets they always constructed.
Without touching any of the padlocks we dismantled the shed, piece by piece, in about fifteen minutes. We didn't take all of the bottles inside it. We just took all of the vodka, and all of the whiskey, and all of the gin, and all of the tequila, and all of the beer, but we left the soft drinks. And then we rebuilt the shed, so that it looked, from the outside, as if it had never been touched. And then we loaded up, and drove into the night, drinking heavily to destroy the evidence.