While staying in Cornwall at the home of an old friend of mine recently, I was privileged to see the most remarkable play. It was called simply W.S. Graham, but, as you will have guessed from the title of this review, it took the form of a life of the poet, and, yes, it was enacted entirely by fleas. The program we were given at the door had very little information about the personnel involved in the production—even the mysterious theatre owner who presided over it with the air of a father over a much-loved baby went unnamed—but whoever thought of using fleas as actors was surely an inspired individual, for as soon as the production was underway, it became very difficult to imagine that W. S. Graham had ever been anything other than a flea. I know for a fact that the friend who went with me and was at my side as the tiny curtain went up was just as enchanted and amazed as I was, and that’s saying a great deal because his tastes in the theatre are much more discerning than mine.
The theatre itself had been made expressly for the purpose of housing the play and was therefore very much a ramshackle creation, not a great deal more than a shed full of holes and cracks. The fact that it was positioned on a cliff-top overlooking the sea near St. Ives made the whole theatre seem most precarious, as if, at any moment, a sizable gust of wind might come and claim it for the depths below. That never happened, thank goodness, and anyway, the theatre owner’s constant assurances before the performance began that the structure was sound, despite the creaking and howling all around it, made it clear that the chances of such an eventuality occurring were perhaps a million to one. As soon as the production began, indeed, it was easy to see what he meant, for it was impossible to imagine capital-N Nature daring to rise up and destroy art this exquisite.
It may be as well to tell you the basic plot of the play, though please bear in mind that my own meager words, being devoid of that particular spark of genius that characterized it, cannot do it justice but instead can only approximate. The first act took place in what we were quickly made aware was Scotland—a sign saying as much was propped up on the floor of the stage beside the tiny bed where the eponymous hero was to be born. You might think that the act of human birth would be impossible to recreate using such minute creatures as fleas—which were, in addition to being several thousand times smaller than the individuals whose lives they were dramatizing, also as anatomically different from them as chalk is from cheese—but you will be surprised what these little troopers are capable of in the way of actorly metamorphosis! W. S. Graham’s mother was decked out in a tiny maternity dress, which was pinned down to the bed in order to stop her from jumping away. This was a precaution taken not only for the mother but for all but one of the other actors, for they were essentially, in the delightfully punning words of the theatre owner, ‘natural springs,’ who cannot help ‘gleefully jumping out of any situation into which they find themselves placed, plays included.’
A sign was unraveled from the roof of the stage at the moment the flea playing W. S. Graham was released from the restraints that had been preventing him from leaping out from under his mother’s maternity gown, and this sign read simply W. S. GRAHAM IS BORN. Naturally, everyone in the audience was thoroughly enchanted by the emergence of the young flea, and more than one person commented that he bore an uncanny resemblance to W. S. Graham the person, to which the theater owner, standing over to the side of the stage, graciously thanked them and said that a great deal of time had indeed gone into finding a flea with suitably W. S. Graham-like characteristics. While it was absolutely true that there was a likeness, neither myself nor my friend, discussing the issue at leisure in front of his hearth after the performance, could put our fingers upon exactly what constituted it, for the flea was still, obviously, naked at this juncture and had yet to be given the distinctive large-collared shirt, buttoned up to the chin, that the original Graham wore on the cover of his first Collected Poems from 1979. Yet the likeness was undoubtedly there and the fact that it was unplaceable only made it more thrilling.
The W. S. Graham flea, evidently excited that he had suddenly been freed from his bonds under his mother’s gown, leapt clean out of the stage, as the owner had warned that he may do, and then had to be recaptured by two stagehands bearing candles and grubbing around for perhaps five minutes on the floor under the audience’s feet. The audience had of course been warned not to move a muscle during this procedure and were continually reassured that the W. S. Graham flea was completely harmless and had been screened for diseases, a reassurance that my friend later confided to me was probably unsupportable, given the fact that such screening would involve the use of prohibitively-expensive, cutting-edge scientific equipment. This should not take away from the fact that the chances of the flea being infected were very slim indeed, in my friend’s opinion, nor from every theatre owner’s right to play the raconteur and stretch the truth for the sake of his audience’s piece of mind.
The second scene was just as beguiling as the first, and was set, as another unfolded sign informed us, in a place called LOCH THOM. The W. S. Graham flea, secured once more by whatever secret means were at the theatre’s disposal for doing so, was now rowing slowly across a large body of water, beautifully drawn in blue to resemble, in my friend’s estimation at least, the swirls of a beautiful Persian rug, and with every stroke the young insect took, we in the audience felt something of the yearning that he must himself have been experiencing in the delightfully romantic situation in which he now found himself. Confirming that this was indeed the case, the W. S. Graham flea, having at last reached the centre of the loch, did something completely unexpected and sensational: he got out a miniscule pad and began to write a poem. After a few moments of apparent scribbling, the theatre owner leaned in, took the pad out of the flea’s tiny grasp and held it up to the audience, which gasped en masse to see a copy of the original W.S. Graham poem LOCH THOM scrawled in barely legible—but none the less miraculous for that—handwriting. How the theatre owner and his troupe had managed to train this minute thespian to grasp a pen well enough to produce a legible facsimile of the composition is beyond me to this day, and my friend likewise was stumped, as he revealed to me when we were discussing the play around the aforementioned fire. The curtain fell, delineating the end of the first act, and the audience, unsettled and spellbound in equal measures, shuffled in their seats and stared at each other a little nervously while they waited for the second act to commence. Thankfully, the wind outside the theatre seemed to have dropped to almost nothing, and you could have heard a pin, let alone a flea, drop in the auditorium if you’d been listening hard enough. In the opinion of my friend, the quietness was in fact an illusion brought about by the stunningness of the material we were taking in, an assessment I am inclined to agree with, because coastal weather, while erratic, rarely falls away completely, in my experience.
Act two, it was soon announced, was set in right there in Cornwall, that is to say, in the homeland W. S. Graham famously adopted as his own in his later years, and which turned out to serve as the inspiration for some of his best, and best-known, poems. On the right of the stage was another area of blue meticulously-drawn water, though the swirls in this one were a good deal less calming, to the extent that, if one looked at them long enough, one soon began to feel dizzy. This was due to the fact that their designs were higgledy-piggledy without quite falling apart into randomness, a balance which is unhealthy for the mind to contemplate, according to my friend. Fortunately one’s eye was also drawn to the left side of the stage where there stood a tiny cardboard cottage with a white picket fence, a little chimney and a small barking dog in the garden. The latter was played with exquisite self-control by a young flea dressed in appropriately shaggy attire, and not, as we were told by the proud theatre owner, tied down to the stage by any means, due to his flawless record of good behaviour. ‘This young flea is one to watch for the future,’ the owner said, eliciting an immediate appreciative applause from the audience. In addition to the canine flea, there were two, as it were, human fleas also on the stage at this juncture: the W. S. Graham flea himself, who was now standing at the cottage door in his instantly familiar shirt, and the flea playing his wife Nessie, who was dressed, as the theatre owner explained by way of a helpful prompt, as the creature from which the original W. S. Graham had improvised her nickname, that is, the Loch Ness monster. This flea-playing-a-wife-playing-a-sea-monster was out in the front garden working over a vegetable patch with a hefty fork. She was also, perhaps not coincidentally, chaffing strongly at the means of constraint the theatre company had contrived to keep her in place and had in fact already half wormed out of her costume, a manoeuvre that, had she been able to follow to its conclusion, would have allowed her to leap free like the W. S. Graham flea before her. But it wasn’t to be, because the theater owner, appraising her with a look of concern which the two stagehands squatted to the left in turn hung upon with what my friend described later, I think a little unfairly, as ball-boyish servility, gave a sign which indicated he felt the flea unlikely to escape her bonds, and the stage hands remained in their places.
A sign was unrolled from the ceiling which let us know, in the plain and no-nonsense fashion that we were coming to expect from the company, that what we were seeing was nothing more or less than W. S. GRAHAM AT HOME IN CORNWALL WITH NESSIE, while the theatre owner supplemented this with some further commentary of his own, telling us that the tiny white glass in the W. S. Graham flea’s left hand was in fact a beer tankard from which, at any moment, the poet flea would spectacularly ingest a quantity of, to use his expression, real real ale. We all watched with rapt anticipation as the almost entirely concealed, and remarkably tiny, length of tubing fixed to the tankard in question was used to slowly fill the glass to its brim with beer, and the flea, surely employing the same parasitical magic that had allowed it to hand-write the poem, lifted the tankard to his lips and downed it in one gulp. Again the audience burst into rigorous applause, and, as I looked across at my delighted friend, I saw that his eyes had actually filled with tears, so touched was he by the flea’s apparent willingness to submit his tiny physique to the demands of alcohol—all for the sake of his art. The curtain went down on the scene and an obviously-glowing, evidently-proud theatre owner began to bow prematurely before catching himself and resuming his professional demeanor, which nonetheless permitted him a precocious smile.
I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that the final scene would take place in W. S. Graham’s house, on his deathbed, for the death of a poet never fails to be a moment worth witnessing, and such a reenactment would have given the production a satisfying narrative arc. My friend, for one, later confided that he had believed the exact same ending would be forthcoming, and when it wasn’t, he reported to having been a little taken aback, for how else could W. S. Graham’s life end than with the historically recorded fact of his death? And yet the theatre owner had another trick up his sleeve, one that, were there any more breath within us to be taken away, would surely have taken it with even greater swiftness and style. The curtain went up on a scene of ice and snow and a sign that read, in bold uncompromising type, MALCOLM MOONEY’S LAND. These words, which will be instantly familiar to anyone who is even peripherally aware of Graham’s verse, are synonymous with the title poem of his most famous book, published in 1970 to universal poetic acclaim. In the centre of the snowy flats before us, there was a great crevasse going down into hitherto unseen depths of the stage, and beside this feature was pitched a solitary tent with a tiny white flag flying from its pole, more, one felt, in correspondence with the whiteness all around than with any notion of surrender as such. The wind outside the theatre was suddenly again audible to an almost distressing degree, but it chimed beautifully with the arctic scene before us, allowing the audience to believe that capital-N Nature was in some sense a sympathetic player in what was unfolding on stage. The W. S. Graham flea, with whom everyone in the audience had surely by now fallen in love despite the earlier attempt at escape which had lowered him in our estimation temporarily, emerged from the tent still gripping the empty tankard from the previous act. In a loud stage whisper, the theatre owner told us that, at the start of the play’s run, they had had to employ the services of a different flea for the final scene because the W. S. Graham flea was invariably too intoxicated by the beer imbibed in the previous scene to go on with it himself, but, over the course of the run, he had developed a certain tolerance for the alcohol and was deemed fit to continue, much to the delight of the theatre owner, who had wanted to sacrifice neither his preferred choice of actor nor the authenticity that came with using real beer if he could help it. Rather woozily, then, but no less charmingly for that, the W. S. Graham flea departed the tent and walked out into the snow, his shirt covering him more than adequately and a woolen hat now gracing his head in addition. He walked, indeed, all the way over to the crevasse, somewhat to the alarm of the two stagehands, one of whom emerged from the darkness and appeared ready to intervene but was halted by the theatre owner’s calming wait-and-see gesture. But the W. S. Graham flea did not tumble over into the crevasse as the stagehands had clearly feared but stayed just this side of it and dizzily appraised the audience with, as my friend later put it, ‘a coiled expression which spoke of a thousand blind leaps into the past and the future.’ Then, in a voice apparently from nowhere but, according to my friend, in fact from somewhere underneath the stage proper, where it would just have been possible for a human actor to have secreted himself for the entire duration of the play, however uncomfortably, the following lines by W. S. Graham, taken from the poem ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ itself, were read in austere but lilting tones: ‘Come bonny friendly beasts / Bite me your presence, keep me awake / In the cold with work to do / To remember to put down something to take back.’
Perhaps it was too great a leap of the imagination on my part to have read a tiny actorly bow into the W. S. Graham flea’s woozy stance in the moments between the conclusion of these words and the bringing down of the final curtain, for, when I spoke to my friend about it later on, he admitted that he hadn’t himself seen any evidence of such a gesture. However, my friend did concede that, given the diminutive actor’s other well-documented feats of performance, it was more than conceivable that he had indeed bowed and that the majority of the audience, himself included, had missed it because their attention was by then focused on the theatre owner, who was performing an extravagant bow of his own at the side of the stage. The fact that the theatre owner had himself seen fit to bow at that moment additionally suggested, according to my friend, that he considered the action on stage complete and that he was unaware of any such gesture from his principal actor; all of which led my friend to conclude that the bow had been a spontaneous one originating from the W. S. Graham flea himself, rather than being something he had been mechanically trained to do, and this, we both agreed, made the production even more poignant.
To conclude much more hastily than W. S. Graham, the play, the poet and the flea deserve, I urge all those who find themselves in the vicinity of St. Ives this autumn to catch this out-of-the-way gem.