Back when I worked as an assistant-director with a small company, there was this time when the director got sick, and I was left in charge of an open-air performance of a play about Odysseus coming home to Ithaca…
No, not that time. Same play, same company – but a different open-air stage, at a rather huge Roman reenactment. Only, beside directing, this time I was also substituting the actress who played the Wise Athena, Odysseus’ patroness, more or less…
I rather hated it, and my costume was of an orange so loud it hurt to look at – but frankly, it was the last and least of my troubles. It was one of those days when everything – but everything goes wrong. They’d put us in the middle of a crowded square, close to a noisy fountain, with six blaringly ugly columns of very light polystyrene for scenery, and there was no way we could rehearse because others were using the stage before us, and anyway we were still missing three of our numbers, caught in a traffic jam somewhere… I was rabid, and busy yelling at thr two lackadaisical girls playing Penelope’s maids, when our leading man informed me that they’d found a rack of javelins and spears somewhere, and were going to put the thing onstage.
“It will look nicer than the stupid columns,” he said.
“You’re doing no such thing,” I snapped back in between yells at the girls. “Because…”
But before I could explain, he was gone. Ten minutes later, as I was frantically trying to call the still missing three, the leading man’s pal and usual partner in crime, playing Eumaeus the Loyal Swineheard, accosted me with the spears again.
“Just think how fine they’ll look…”
I shook my head no, no and no, and he shrugged, and smiled understanding, and swam away through the chaos. Then the missing ones arrived, and it was too late for a rehearsal, so we went quickly through the modified blocking, and I hurried to change, and nobody bothered to tell me I had made up only one eye, and while I shepherded us all towards the lighting board to get the microphones, Odysseus and his friend tried a double assault.
“Why not, Clara? Look at the lousy place we have. What’s wrong with a little ancient colour?”
I looked them in the eye, and said that I wanted no spears onstage. “No. Spears. You understand? And that’s because–”
Before I could explain, I was called away to argue with our borrowed technician, who had all sort of last-minute peeves… After which we began in haste, and the microphones did not work – unless it were to catch every splutter of the fountain – and the wind rose, felling the polystyrene columns one after another, and I writhed backstage, and old Eurycleia missed half her cues, and the very loud bells of the church chimed for five minutes solid, forcing us to freeze midway and wait, and, and, and…
And when the time arrived for Odysseus to reveal himself and draw the great war bow, Penelope’s Suitors began to frantically search for weapons to defend themselves. “Our weapons! Our weapons! Where are our weapons?” And only then I saw the darn rack of spears and javelins, standing proud there on the stage, in full view and well at hand of the Proci!
They’d done it – the heedless fools! Hadn’t they thought…? Imagine me frothing at the mouth.
“There,” I thought. “Now the Wise Athena will leap centre-stage in all her orange glory, point at the rack and shout: There, o Proci! There are the weapons. Take them, and butcher Odysseus and Eumaeus, who dared disobey me, the Goddess of Wisdom!” It all flashed through my head like lightning – and I’ll swear I very nearly did it. Very nearly. All else apart, the whole thing was so much of a disaster already, could it get any worse?
Then… Ah well. There was the absent director to think of . And I wasn’t sure the Proci would react with a convincing improvisation. And discipline reasserted itself, and the madness passed, and we limped our way to the end and scant applause. “It’s been nice to have you,” the event manager told us later, and we never went to that particular reenactment again. But still I wonder what it would have been like to give the Odyssey an impromptu alternate ending.
It surely would have thought Odysseus and Co. to mind the assistant director’s instructions, don’t you think?