Thursday, 27 October 2011

For those in peril on the sea

Going to bed last night was a cosy experience. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness we are currently in has turned into a period of prolonged squalls and gales. The weather has gone mad, with brilliant sunshine one minute, and winds strong enough to strip the leaves off trees the next. The rain was lashing against my dark windows and the wind was causing the sashes to rattle in their runners. Nice.

I received an update via text message from a friend of mine who - about three months ago during the summer - had agreed to be one of a three-man crew (including the qualified skipper) delivering a racing yacht from Portsmouth to the Canary Isles. I think I have already mentioned how - having enthusiastically agreed to do it - he then looked up the route on the net, and found forums with old salts saying that you would have to be mad to attempt a journey across the Bay of Biscay in a small boat (60 foot) during the end of October/beginning of November. He had not realised that Biscay would be involved; a vast expanse of notoriously storm-swept water from which - once you have set out - a turn-around is not only impossible, but suicidal.

He spent the next couple of months worrying about it, but finally set off from Portsmouth a few days ago and spent several nights in Brixham sheltering from the storms which were, and still are, lashing every inch of the coastline of the British Isles. He told me that the company of stranded Irish sailors in all the pubs was very entertaining, but the boat - being a racer - is extremely uncomfortable. That's not good news when you have a 3000 mile, rough passage ahead of you. Occasionally, all the skippers would huddle together in one corner of the pub to discuss tactics, out of earshot of all their already terrified crews.

My friend's message last night told me that they had made it as far as Brittany, and were planning to head off for the long-haul in a few hours. At least four days of 24 hour sailing in seas that are hundreds of miles from land in every direction. 3 hours on, 3 hours off, like an interrogation procedure. And you know what? He is not being paid for it.

When I was working in France for the theatre company (darling) we went to see a production by a Spanish company called 'The Tempest'. The show was in the town's main theatre, and as the curtain came up, we were dismayed to see that the cast were attired in classical Shakespearian costume and beginning a very straight rendition of the opening scene with Caliban, etc. on the set of the shipwreck shore. They were quoting the lines verbatim from the original play, but with one crucial difference - in Spanish.

It would have been impossible to walk out of the theatre unnoticed, so we braced ourselves for about 3 hours of boredom in the heat of a non air-conditioned old theatre.

After about 10 minutes, a drop or two of water fell from the rafters and onto the head of the main character, who carried on regardless until the drops became a small torrent, when he stepped to one side to avoid it. Water began pouring down from above, but the cast valiantly carried on, motioning to the stage-manager to sort it out. We were aghast at what was happening, and felt very sorry for our players who were still trying to make the best of it, when there was a loud explosion from behind and above us, and all the lights went out.

We looked up to see an elderly woman hanging by her fingertips from a high balcony, screaming and struggling to try and climb back into her seat. Then all hell broke loose and water poured down onto the stage as the actors gave up the play and started shouting at everyone to keep calm.

The police turned up on stage along with the local unit of the Civil Defence force, and an announcement was made that the area of Southern France which we were in had been hit by the most catastrophic storm ever to have happened in living history, and the whole theatre had been turned into an emergency hospital and refuge. He then asked us to proceed in an orderly fashion to the corridors outside, so we all stood up and followed his instructions.

During the first ten minutes of the play, the rest of the company had set up field hospitals, etc. in the corridors, and these were peopled with actors playing the parts of victims of the storm. The Shakespearean characters were wandering about, issuing food and leaflets to all the audience. I went to one of the theatre windows and looked out into the street below. To my amazement, it was absolutely pouring with rain, and torrents of water were running down the road which - a half an hour before - had been bone dry.

The troupe had arranged for the local fire brigade to park up about 2 blocks away and fire a huge quantity of water into the sky over the theatre, which fell like very convincing heavy rain onto the immediate area. Eventually we ran out of the main entrance and got soaked, then the actors stood on the steps and received their well-earned applause.

We had dinner with the actors at a restaurant that night, and they told us they had been prevented from putting on the show in London 'for heath and safety reasons'. They were told that unless they told everyone in advance what was going to happen and leave the lights on, they could not do the show, so they stood on the steps of the theatre handing out refunds to all the audience, then went home to Spain. Bloody England.


  1. sounds like a 1970s disaster film to me!
    scary mary!

  2. What a wicked, wicked show!
    Commiserations to your mate but getting on a yacht and sailing to the Canary Isles sounds like a pretty nice escape to this domesticated academic/mum/deckie, right now, whatever the weather.

  3. I guess that's what they call metadrama. Well done to that troupe; I think they'd easily beat anything Shakespearean for the Best Production award.

  4. Hope all goes well for your friend on the open sea.

  5. We had an English semi-pro travelling theatre group here in my village this summer; they also did The Tempest, but the 3 hour long boredom version. I didn't go.

  6. What a wonderful story Tom - and yes, I am afraid we do overdo the Health and Safety these days.

  7. I just love crazy stuff like that. Can't see them doing it at the Theatre Royal though.