Burrell is in the corner smoking cigarettes, muttering the names of dead playwrights beneath his alcoholic breath as I watch the sun melt into the earth. Through the thick deposed air, I can see him musing over it in his mind, tapping his foot patiently, and staring up at the ceiling as if God is the piece of chewing gum absently stuck to it.
Looking over at the ticket on the table, he shoots a glance at me and finally asks:
‘So who’s this Ibsen guy?’
I shrug and toss words around in my head.
‘Not sure, sounds like a Guitar brand.’
Burrell lifts himself up off the couch, shakes himself off and glances at the surrounding room as if he hasn’t seen it before.
‘So this thing, where is it at?’
‘That little theatre in town there…’
As we’re driving there, Burrell continues to tap on the steering wheel impatiently and I can tell that his mind is still trying to figure out this Ibsen guy.
‘Hey Burrell,’ I say suddenly.
‘Do you think it’s narcissistic to write an article with yourself in it?’
Burrell ponders it for a moment as he sits in his large hulking vehicle.
‘Definitely,’ he concludes after a moment of silence.
I wait for him to add more. Ten minutes later he says sternly:
‘Well, if you were to be in this article, in order to avoid narcissism, perhaps you should fictionalise yourself.’
‘Oh yeah, definitely. Like, make yourself about to be ah, different than you really are.’
‘So ah, tall, handsome, brave and valiant?’
Burrell looks as if he’s about to chuck me out of the car.
I think about it but before I can draw any drastic conclusions we’ve already arrived at the theatre.
As we pull up a few people have gathered amongst the misty rain and are beginning to patter about outside the theatre. Quickly enough, Burrell goes to park the car and we step out into this fray of neatly dressed hipsters and old wrinkly women.
Burrell pulls out another cigarette and lights one up as we approach.
‘I think you’re the only one here who isn’t on a pension,’ he mutters to me as we push through the glass doors.
Inside, things are warmer and I immediately feel the need to act decades older than I really am, which means having on-demand comments about the stock prices and commenting on last week’s episode of ‘Mid-Summer Murders’.
I tap Burrell lightly on the shoulder, ‘You want a drink?’
‘Yeah sure, why not.’
I ask the barmen, a young twenty something dressed completely in black what drinks he has available.
‘Do you have water?’ I ask.
He looks a little confused.
‘We have sparkling,’ he answers.
Till this day, I am yet to figure out the difference between normal water and sparkling water. Perhaps one was found in a glistening river in some far off Eastern country while normal water was made in a factory somewhere in Footscray, I’m not sure. Either way it doesn’t matter, but I feel as if I might be exiled if I don’t order something above the ten-dollar price range.
‘Just sparkling thanks…’
Burrell goes up to the desk and picks up a small brochure that advertisers the shows coming up in the future at other theatres.
“A contemporary meditation on the human condition,’ he mutters as he flicks through the pages, ‘I love it when they say ‘meditation,’ even better when they say ‘human condition.’
I look over his shoulder at the book as he continues leafing through it and says, ‘Not as good as a ‘journey into existentialism’ though….’
The P.A sounds and everyone begins migrating to the back of the reception area.
I feel inside my pocket for the ticket, but I pretty quickly realise that I’m grasping at thin air.
‘What is it?’
‘Ticket’s gone. You go ahead. I might check to see if it’s in the car.’
Darting back into the rain, I run across the street and realise that it’s sitting on the very back seat. Without too much hesitancy I snatch it and put it back in my pocket as I head towards the theatre again. By the time I enter, the entire lobby is empty. Standing by the door, is a little old man with a cap that tells me they’re not allowing any new visitors.
‘You sure?’ I ask him.
He looks at me like I just stuck a pen up his bum.
‘I work here, I know kid.’
‘Sure, sure…. So when could I go in?’
‘Probably at half-time.’
‘Do you know when that is?’
‘Do I look like I have all the answers?’
‘Sorry, I was just-
He lets out a strong sigh that seems like its been trapped in his system for half a decade, before eventually stating:
‘…Some time in the future.’
He stares at me for a moment and then checks an old gold watch that rests on his hand.
‘It’ll probably be in forty minutes sport, although we’ve had some delays tonight so probably more like 60 minutes. Hey um, you don’t know where I could get some sparkling do you? I’ve been standing here for an hour.’
An hour later I’m sitting in a toilet cubicle that is like an extravagantly crafted holding cell. You can say what you like about theatres, but they doubtlessly feature the best public toilets in the entire metropolis. Just past the door, I can hear the sound of theatregoers coming in for the halftime break:
‘That set…. That set…’
‘Did you see him in that other play?’
‘Yes, very impressive. Clearly, an artist.’
It kills me whenever someone says that: ‘clearly an artist.’ As opposed to what exactly, a plumber?
It takes me ten minutes to figure out how to turn on the basin tap and when I finally do I go through a minor panic because I can’t seem to turn it off. Moments later, the dryer causes a miniature cyclone in my hair.
When I finally make it back out into the lobby alive, Burrell is standing in the corner watching people swim around him.
‘You missed out on first half?’ He exclaims as I approach.
‘Yeah, the door man wouldn’t let me in,’ I reply.
‘Says he wasn’t taking in people until after the interval…’
Burrell shakes his head.
‘Do you want the real reason?’ Burrell exclaims.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look at you man, I barely know you, but let me say this: You’re a mess. Where are your skinny jeans? Where is your beard? Where are your wire-framed glasses? Your Morrissey C.D?’
‘Who the heck is Morrissey?’
I can’t actually tell whether he’s joking or not.
The second half of the play, I attempt wildly to figure out what the heck is going on.
All I know is that there’s a pastor striding triumphantly up and down a stage, proclaiming dramatic words that I think are meant to be resonating with me. I check my heart for resonance, but right now I think I’m feeling 0% resonance. For some reason though I suddenly feel as if I couldn’t care less about what was happening in front of me and I started thinking about whether or not I’d locked the house, taken the bins out and remembered to turn the oven off.
Lines of dialogue pass over me like waves of a foreign radio frequency, ever so often crashing thunderously into melodrama.
There’s one moment when the actor’s looking directly into the audience and I start to wonder what he’s thinking. I wonder if he feels awkward in those pants or whether or not he too has forgotten to lock his house.
When the whole affair is over there is rapturous applause and the curtains begin to fall on the stage. I feel as if I was the only one not in on some grand scheme, although missing the entire first half probably didn’t help.
Everyone starts moving out of their seats as if it were just a momentary divergence from everyday life and quickly forgotten in an instance. Perhaps to them it was just a minor injection of escapism, consumed and then discarded. I feel as if I should be more cultured but if anything I feel supremely dumb.
Then Henrik Ibsen enters my mind: that old wiry man from another time and place, his seemingly strong headed social commentary playing no larger role in my life than an hour with a incredibly lavish set. Was it worth it? Where did it all go? I almost feel sorry for him. The poor bum probably burnt his brains out writing it and like a message in a bottle, it gets passed across the islands of eras, only to be lost somewhere in the oceans in-between? Or maybe I just didn’t get it. Is it possible to feel sorry for dead artists? Perhaps the best artist is a dead artist, one completely utterly free of criticism and-
‘Your friend left. People are leaving, I’m afraid you have to get up.’
The same doorman from earlier has seemingly appeared out of nowhere on my left:
I look around: unfortunately he’s right. People have already begun to scatter.
Now all that’s left in this hollow stage is Ibsen’s ghost and I. The stage without actors isn’t a stage, but an almost suffocatingly empty space. The seats without the audience are merely columns of unanswered applause. Quietly the old man escorts me out of the building, but I can’t help but want to stay, as if the real show were still about to be staged. I just read the third chapter of a book only to find out it was its last.
When I get outside, I remember that Burrell’s already gone off to go wherever Burrell goes. Walking slowly along the pavement as the night closes in, I think about dead playwrights and dead words. I wonder if the fact that Ibsen’s play is staged centuries later in a Melbournian theatre matters at all to him. Perhaps he couldn’t care less. Perhaps he’s somewhere up in the sky smoking a cigar.
But I no longer care and quickly these thoughts vanish with the words I recently heard.