Stage Kiss

Martin Crimp

What kind of actor? Well let’s just say you’d almost certainly know my face, but might not know my name. One evening, for example, on the way home from a performance (I’m walking back to my flat), a young man stops me. He’s wearing the kind of hat whose earflaps fasten at the crown. He blocks the path. I don’t know your name, he says, but I saw the show and I’ve been thinking about it. Tell me, he says, that moment, that moment when you kiss the girl, is your tongue in her mouth? And what about hers? What does she do with hers?

I like streets. I like the slight unevenness of the paving-stones, the map-shapes on the trunks of plane trees. I enjoy the movement of traffic, the separation of lanes, the use of indicator lamps. At night, why is it that looked at in a certain way buildings take on the aspect of ruins? The lintels of the doorways, the laborious pointing of the bricks, become mysteries whose function can no longer be explained. Occasionally on my walks I pass a street lamp buzzing violently behind its slim galvanised door. Some of these galvanised doors have been smashed in – wires dangle in the cavity – but the lamp is still shining. What strange gleam of metal light on the green fingers of chestnut leaves!

From time to time after the show I meet up with our director. The two of us go to a kind of café or club I suppose you’d call it, popular with people in the business – the Safety Curtain. This club (cosy despite the terrible name) has mirrors along the walls. One night our director looks into the mirror beside him. He starts to make faces and pull at his skin. It’s quite alarming the way he’s pulling the loose skin of his cheeks right down. Fuck, he says. Fuck. Is that what I look like? Is that really what I look like? I have to laugh. He’s raised his voice. It’s a little embarrassing.

Outside the theatre signs hang by chains from the canopy. They say things like this:

              MAGNIFICENT

or:

         HUGELY ENTERTAINING

We’ve collected a whole row of them and they remind me of railway stations or hospitals. Like the queue for returns, they continue round the side of the building. As you make your way to the stage door you pass beneath one which says:

       TWO SUBTLY EROTIC PERFORMANCES

I know he’s in love with Clair, but this is embarrassing. I say to him: keep your voice down. You don’t need reassuring. It’s us, the actors, who are the vulnerable ones. Vulnerable. He doesn’t believe that for a moment. He’s not prepared to be deceived, and that makes him intolerable. I want nothing to do with this, and I tell him so.

These feelings are at their most destructive when they interfere with the work. For example, he always refused – although of course in a roundabout way – to rehearse the kiss. And when we did finally pin him down, all he would say was: go for it. We’re standing in the middle of the rehearsal room, talking very quietly, intimately, his arms around us. Clair catches my eye. She finds this physical contact repellent, that’s obvious. She’s biting her lip, trying not to laugh. He can’t see that. He’s bowed his head between us. It’s hanging there. For a moment it’s as if he’s lifeless and we’re holding up a corpse. The kiss? He raises his head and smiles. Better just go for it, boys and girls.

Tomorrow I’m visiting Steph, my dentist. She’s gradually replacing the black fillings in my molars with tooth-coloured material. I love these visits. It’s so silent out here, in the suburbs, where Steph lives. Even though there’s plenty of space outside, I park my car (it’s surprisingly modest) a few streets away just for the pleasure of walking past houses which, although similar, have all been treated differently by their owners. Some have planted a screen of fast-growing conifers. Others have stripped the paint off their front doors. One house has a ‘handmade’ ceramic number-plate, with a pattern of entwined flowers. Another has its three digits – 149 – stuck to the front gate with self-adhesive stickers. The numerals are black-on-silver and slant like italics. Not so long ago I would have held all this in contempt – curtains chosen to match wallpaper, the lifelike statuette of a cat about to pounce from the garage roof, the half-barrel planted with an azalea – but now (I’m nearly fifty but I don’t look it), particularly when the light is low and rakes across the lawns and flowerbeds, I find in these things a quite extraordinary beauty. Some of the wooden gateposts have little plaques announcing professions, e.g. Teacher of Pianoforte, Chiropodist. Unlike the polished brass plates you find in a city, these are made of hard black plastic with letters in white or grey. Stephanie’s is no exception, and lists her qualifications. The Victorian bays of the front elevation are filled with white Venetian blinds. However, this is deceptive, the treatment room itself being on the ground floor at the back of the house. Through French windows framed by rust-coloured vine leaves the client is treated to a view of Stephanie’s back garden. She injects at the base of the tooth, and the needle grates against the buried root. These days she wears surgical gloves for all procedures.

Back at the stage door, Colin hands me a copy of the London Evening Standard. Picture of you, he says. In fact, it’s a picture of me and Clair. We’re holding hands at an HIV charity dinner. We both look tremendously famous and happy. The flashlight has detached us from the background, making us look startlingly attractive, capable of anything. We are the embodiment of the word ‘abandon’ or the phrase ‘throw caution to the wind.’ My free hand is plucking streamers from my DJ. Clair, similarly draped, is wearing a short stretch dress, and the arbitrary moment of the picture has caught her legs at an odd angle, as if she’s suffered a spinal injury. But did I say smile? No, our mouths are both wide open. We’re positively howling with laughter. Look at us. We’re like two rare nocturnal animals whose antics have triggered a tripwire in a remote clearing.

Some actors are jokers and I’m afraid I’m one of them. Not just offstage (locking fellow actors in their dressing-rooms when they’re called, telling Colin that I can smell smoke and making him summon a fire-engine to the Wednesday matinée) but also onstage. At critical moments I’m very fond of whispering comic remarks to the person I’m acting with. Alternatively I play the fool in the wings, the aim being to distract somebody else’s scene. This is perfectly innocent behaviour, and some of the actors find it enormously funny, but there are one or two (you always get one or two) who will no longer speak to me.

After the show I may go to the Safety Curtain, or on to a party, but usually I just walk home. I say that people know my face, but the mere act of walking generally protects me from recognition. In Charing Cross Road for example, I become invisible. This enables me to unwind in the video arcades where I go not as a player, but as a spectator. Our play is a costume piece and the machines are a refreshing reminder of the 20th century. Some of them simulate driving racing-cars or flying a plane – to complete the illusion you climb right into them. After the initial impression of chaos you’re finally overwhelmed here by a sense of order: patterns of light, which appear random, start to repeat themselves, needle-like blips of sound gradually become recognisable as fragments of Mozart, Beethoven etc.

Once I take my turning I’m virtually there. It’s a small street, really a lane, the pavement lined with bollards. I rarely see anyone in this lane, but two incidents stay in my mind. In the first, a young woman with fair hair and a black dress is running towards me. She ducks into a doorway where she changes into a different pair of shoes. She then runs on. In the second, I find myself walking behind a young couple with arms around each other, male and female. The man pulls his free hand out of his trouser pocket, and as he does so a key drops to the ground. I run after them with the key. Oh, says the man, I don’t need that any more. They then walk on.

A plastic card and PIN number give me access to a lobby with exquisitely maintained plants. A private lift takes me directly into my apartment. No one comes here. I sleep deeply. I don’t dream.

Most Sundays I visit my wife. I say ‘my wife’ although – notoriously – we are divorced. I drive down to the coast (my car is surprisingly modest) and if the weather is fine we’ll spend the afternoon in the garden (we both hate the sea) until dark. I often cut the grass with an old hand-mower, feeling thoroughly domestic, before sitting back at the slatted patio table to watch the alternate bands of light and dark with their exaggerated perspective. When I’ve done this it becomes a true seaside garden, bringing to mind miniature golf, speedboat rides, red-and-white lighthouses, the brittle crust of toffee-apples. My wife reminds me that I once said to her: ‘Have you noticed how men leave their wives when they become famous? I’m just waiting to become famous.’ She says this without rancour, as if describing the shape of an afternoon cloud, or the habits of the songbirds she feeds with bacon fat. She’s interested in Stephanie, and asks to look at my teeth. Having done so, she says: It’s strange – you seem to have spent your life growing younger.

Only when it’s completely dark do we go indoors. I’ve been asked to free a jammed cassette. The Sunday supplements seem to like the fact that I began life as a stage-manager, and it’s quite true that I have a gift for this kind of work. There’s a green felt noticeboard in the kitchen with the usual papers pinned all over it – this month’s calendar (it’s October), coupons for money off toothpaste, handy phone-numbers (plumber, pizzas, minicab), and among all these I notice that someone – presumably one of the children – has pinned up the photo from the Standard. It seems to have been assigned no particular prominence: indeed, the picture is already half-covered with a final demand for the telephone.

It doesn’t take long to extract the cassette: Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat played on a Viennese piano of 1828, the year of his death. By the time I’ve unearthed the solvent and thoroughly cleaned the heads and pinch-roller with a cotton-bud, it’s time to go.

From the front garden the sea is audible. My car stands just outside the gate, in the moonlight. The last thing my wife says to me is, ‘Are you happy?’ to which I reply ‘Are you?’ In the theatre, these lines could prove unplayable, and I’d suggest a cut.

The moment of the kiss is violent, technical, prolonged. Clair’s character initiates it. I’m playing the kind of part I often seem to be offered nowadays: the older man – solitary, apparently cold – but with an undercurrent of repressed sensuality. And as Clair – or Clair’s character – pulls me down onto the chaise, we must avoid a. letting the stalls see all the way up her dress (slippery green satin) and b. crushing her (I’ve recently started to put on weight). At the same time, as I’ve said, it must be forceful and abandoned, and I think we’ve started to achieve that. By pushing one of my knees up between her legs as I fall, we solve the weight-bearing and sight-line problems simultaneously, as well as making it quite clear that sexual intercourse will follow. Even without direction, the kiss at its best can still contain the truth of all the kisses I’ve known: the kisses of the girl who became ‘my wife’ and lives by the sea, the frightening kisses which came outside my marriage and – notoriously – destroyed it, other kisses on stage, kisses on film. How can I regret any of these when each contributes to the work and feeds the intensity of this one stage kiss which night after night shocks a packed house into what the critics quite rightly describe as rapture?

Sometimes, though, just before our lips touch, I’m afraid I can’t resist whispering one of my little comments, the joy being Clair’s extreme susceptibility. Just the movement of an eyebrow is often enough to set her off. As I go down I push my knee into the usual place, but from the way her fingertips dig into me I can tell she’s lost all control. This is why she’s so desperate for my mouth to cover hers. It’s a scream. Her back arches. She’s choking. We kiss.

In the auditorium: silence, rapture, the same, exactly the same. No inkling of deceit.