Following Paul McCarthy’s review of The Great Stage of Fools in the May issue of BCCJ ACUMEN, Timothy Harris writes this epilogue in memory of the writer of the book, his great friend and fellow actor, Alan Booth.
When Alan Booth died in 1993, the manuscript of his second major book, Looking for the Lost, was more or less ready, and after some difficulty we managed to get it published. But I wanted also to publish a selection of his shorter writings about Japan, since I thought they contained some of his best writing. It proved almost impossible to find a publisher for This Great Stage of Fools at that time and later, and this is why this beautifully written book was published around the 25th anniversary of his death.
Alan was a remarkable person, filled with irrepressible energy, enthusiasm, generosity and humour. We worked together for a number of years—not only within the relationship of editor and contributor, but as performers, putting on readings of the poetry of Blake, Yeats, Hardy, Hopkins, Milton and Shakespeare.
Alan was a trained actor and a gifted director. At the University of Birmingham, he had directed a number of plays, one of which, his production of the bad quarto of Hamlet, was praised in the local and national press (by no less a critic than Harold Hobson), and went on to win the first prize in a European students’ drama competition. So, it was not easy for me to stand up to him on stage. But we would have a glass of red wine each just before every performance to settle nerves—mine more than his—and then go on stage.
We found that we were able to play off each other well, and at times Alan would quite unpredictably switch into one of his strange moods—they occurred both on and off stage—in which he became possessed by a near preternatural energy and quickness of wit. Once this happened when we were performing the temptation scenes in Othello, which we ran together. Alan was Iago, and I was Othello. We got to the speech when Iago speaks of sharing a bed with Cassio:
In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves’;
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry out, ‘Sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard,
As if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sigh’d, and kiss’d…
Alan tore into this speech with a lecherous and comic intensity that he had never used before. I started “corpsing,” which is actor’s slang for collapsing into uncontrollable giggles on stage, and, naturally, panicking at the same time. Finally, I slapped both hands over my face and hoped that my heaving shoulders would be taken as a sign of strong and painful emotion, and that I should be able to recover myself before Othello’s next line came. I was able—thank whatever—to do this. And, it seems, none of the audience recognised what was really happening on stage, for, about 30 years later, at the publication party for The Great Stage of Fools, someone came up to me and said he had witnessed this performance and had found it riveting and extraordinarily moving.
Well, here to finish are some words from Hamlet that I think are applicable to Alan:
He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.