Bradley surveys the tray. Three cigarettes with a disposable lighter, a carton of chocolate milk and a small bowl of jelly beans. This is luxury, or least as luxurious as things have been for some time. The weak light from the late winter, afternoon sun tries to penetrate the grime on the room’s solitary window. Bradley can barely see the clock on the other side of the room. He knows that the performance is due to start though and all he has to do is sit back and await his cue.
He had been a minor success. On the back of his Horatio to Tennant’s Hamlet his agent had secured him a number of movie supporting roles – New York rather than Hollywood,,but well paid. His girlfriend had joined him and they had a great 18 months.
A rather injudicious moment with a bag of coke, hookers and what was deemed a racially aggravated assault on a black copper had seen the parts dry up. Bradley returned to England and took a number of parts in provincial theatres. Rattigan, Stoppard, Pinter – he received good reviews in the local rags but the audiences were small and he made little money as invariably the runs were cut short. He had not worked on the stage for over a year but that was all about to change. While looking at Craigslist in order to furnish his tax payer funded place he saw an advert for actors – one performance only but it came with a guarantee that it would be a career defining role.
Bradley moves the table the tray is on under the small window. He climbs up and opens the frame as far as it will go and lights one of the fags. He breathes deeply and takes a couple more drags before he hears muffled music. His head drops to his hands and he despairs at the ever corny use of the song.
‘Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside.
Come inside the show’s about to start
Guaranteed to blow you’re head apart
Rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth.’
The audience settles and falls silent as the music tails off. The middle of the dark stage is lit by a solitary spotlight. Silence before a figure jumps into the light and shouts, ‘Here we are again.’ The audience gasps as the character on the stage emits a menacing laugh. He is dressed in a white jump suit with cut off sleeves and legs gathered in to make the material balloon out. The actor’s face has cracked, white pancake make up liberally applied, his eyes stare out from jagged roundels of black and he has a dark purple smear across his mouth continuing along his cheek bones to his ears.The death masque cracks as the actor speaks again.
‘Welcome to this matinee performance of the Harlequinade. We love our audience and as such we look for you to participate as much as possible. Have you all got a phone or tablet?”
A low murmur from the audience.
“I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. Have you all got a phone or tablet with you?”
“Yes, yes Mr Clown. We have.”
“That’s better. Now go to the website and get ready. I have a little wager for you.”
One half of the stage lights up and a large perspex box descends from above before stopping a couple of feet from the stage.
“Okay my friends. What we have here is Christmas past and Christmas present. In one side we have a bad tempered goose and in the other an equally angry turkey. When I remove the perspex slide between them I can guarantee that they will take no prisoners. Get ready to vote, who will win? Past or present? Place your bets now.”
A graph is projected at the back of the stage showing the audience’s choices.
“Well it seems not many of you have faith in the future of Christmas and wish to hark back to the days of yore. Well let’s see who is going to win.”
The Clown removes the divide in the box and the birds launch themselves in a tirade of noise and feathers. The audience is on its feet cheering on their choice in the age old battle of past versus present.
Bradley guessed it had to be only a matter of time before his relationship finished. He could not have been easy to be around as his career took a nose dive. It didn’t end in a big explosion of a row though. His self absorption had masked her increasing diffidence. He had not even twigged when she said that she no longer thought about sex, no longer had a desire for the carnal intimacy that was the backbone of their relationship. When he focused, it was him that put in the effort which said something given where he was. She spent increasingly more time away from him and often found reasons to cancel arrangements they had made. He loved her but wasn’t convinced that she felt the same. One summer’s day she went to work and never returned. She left her belongings and never came for them. He used to sit among her clothes, absorbing the last vestiges of her being – her smell, the memories. This only stopped when Bradley had to down size and moved into a Council high rise. He burnt all of her belongings not wanting any one else to experience her.
Bradley opens the milk, throws a few jelly beans in his mouth and smooths out the black and white diamond trousers he is wearing.
The Clown and his fight to the death have exited the stage. The audience sits as a man enters. He has a slight stoop, large nose, red vest and breeches and what appears to be a rather grubby grey goatee.
“Columbine. Columbine. Where are you?”
The man cups his hand to his ear. Nothing in reply.
“Columbine if you are with that filthy Harlequin I will not be responsible for my actions. Where are you Columbine?”
From off stage a high pitched voice can be heard.
“Father, I am here.”
“Well show yourself then girl.”
From the opposite side of the stage the actor appears. She wears an apron and white cap. Her breasts have been pushed up towards her chin and do their best to escape her garments. She gives her father a big smile. The bright rouge of her lips can just be seen amongst the facial hair she sports. The moustache is waxed at the ends and the long beard is tied in two pigtails. The audience gasps.
“Oh my beautiful daughter. You are every man’s desire. Why do you waste your time with that reprobate Harlequin? You could have any man from the parish that you wish.”
“But father I love him.”
Columbine turns her head away and places both hands flat on her apron. The Clown enters and walks up behind her father and flicks his ear.
“Pantaloon. Pantaloon. How can you stand by and see your daughter deflowered by that monstrous Harlequin?”
“What do you mean?”
“Not only does she love him but she has let him have her. She is with child.”
Pantaloon explodes in rage.
“Is this true daughter?”
“You are pregnant by that disgusting Harlequin? Well? Are you?”
She turns away and the Clown addresses the audience.
“Pregnant? Who’s the father? Is it Harlequin?”
The crowd shouts back.
“What’s that noise?” Pantaloon says.
“It’s your friends telling you what you already know. He did it? He has had your sweet, beautiful daughter. What will you do?”
“Pierrot. Pierrot,” shouts Pantaloon, “bring me my gun.”
An actor shambles on to the stage wearing over sized clothes and is carrying a blunderbuss. His face is whitened and he nearly trips over the length of his trouser legs. As he stumbles his head turns and the audience gasp at the near facsimile of his face on the back of his head.
“Is it loaded?”
“What I can’t hear you.”
“Sorry, wrong way round sir. This face works.” Pierrot says as he turns back towards Pantaloon.
“Is it loaded?”
“Yes sir it is.”
“Well let’s go. We have a manhunt to conduct.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where do we start?”
Pantaloon is silent in bewilderment. Clown steps forward and addresses the pair of actors.
“The forest. That is where you will find the Harlequin but be careful it is a dangerous place.”
“I’m not scared,” says Pantaloon as he and his servant turn to leave the stage.
“It’s dangerous,” says the Clown who laughs as Pierrot falls on his backside having slipped in the grease left on the stage by the jester.
The stage goes dark.
The event that sealed Bradley’s fate was the death of his mother. She had been so proud of him. No, she had been so proud of his career. As the acting jobs became less prestigious and dried up altogether she took it badly. She continually asked him how she could hold her head up in public. Everyone knew what a wonderful actor he had been but now Bradley was letting her down. She never recovered the ignominy of Bradley’s career descent. First it was booze, then she discovered heroin. This was when her husband, not Bradley’s father, left her. The beginning of the end. One day she had used just a bit too much heroin and stayed slumped in a kneeling position for thirteen hours before she was discovered. This severely affected the circulation in her legs and whilst she didn’t lose them they went on to cause her as much pain as Bradley.
A bright, early September day. Bradley’s mother dressed in her finery and got a cab to the south side of the river just by Tower Bridge. Later that day the Police cut her down from where she hung below the bridge. The Police asked Bradley if he wanted the sign she had been wearing. He only made the decision once they told him what it said – ‘Bradley Parsons. Failed Actor. Your failure made me do this.’ He declined.
Bradley puts the light on so he can see the clock. Not long now, so he pulls on the loose fitting shirt they have asked him to wear and fixes the harlequin’s mask over his face.
Pantaloon enters the stage pulling Columbine by her beard. The Clown follows and Pierrot enters carrying the gun. The screen at the back of the stage shows a slow rolling film of forest as the actors walk on the spot. The party stops.
“What is this before us?” Pantaloon says.
“I know but we cannot pass through them. How are we going to progress?”
The Clown whistles and six men enter the stage. They wear skin tight red leotards and each carries a long, slim sword.
“We can help sir,” the sword carriers say in unison, “It will only cost you a small amount of silver.”
Pantaloon proffers the money and the swordsmen begin to hack away at the foliage.
“We have finished,”
“No you haven’t. You have barely made a small path through the undergrowth. Return my money.” Pantaloon says.
“No need sir, we tried. Please just indulge us.”
The six actors stand in line and tip their heads back. They bring the tips of the swords to their mouths and shout ‘sorry’ before they gradually start to insert the blades. The audience gasps and clap as the swords disappear to their hilts. When the last blade has vanished the actors cross their arms, join hands and dance off the stage sideways as music from Swan Lake plays. The audience claps and shouts at the spectacle.
“Well that was impressive.” the Clown says, laughing as he kicks Columbine’s ample backside and Pantaloon trips over a discarded scabbard.
The party stands about considering its dilemma as the Clown dives through their legs kicking their backsides as he goes. When he is finished and the laughter subsides the Clown whistles and a man appears on the stage. He is naked, except for a loin cloth, and tattooed from head to foot. His back sports a large dragon slaying a knight and on the back of his head many intertwined snakes.
“Can I help?”
“Indeed you can, we need to get past this foliage,” says the Clown.
“No problems just bring my jugs to me.”
While awaiting the stagehand the tattooed man sidles up to Columbine.
“Who’s this cutie?” the man says stroking the women’s beard.
“You leave my daughter alone. I’m not afraid to shoot.”
“Okay, okay. My tools are here.”
Over the next couple of minutes, as a troop of diminutive dancers take to the stage and perform a grotesque imitation of an orgy, the tattooed man swallows the contents of the jugs.
“Are you ready?” the Clown asks.
The man nods his head and his chest begins to heave until a long stream of liquid emits his mouth which he lights as it is propelled towards to foliage. The leaves catch light and before the fire can get out of hand the tattooed man sprays another stream of liquid, this time water, which extinguishes the fire.
“We are free to continue,” the Clown says and the audience give the biggest round of applause of the performance.
The party leaves the forest.
“He must be here somewhere?” Pantaloon says.
“I agree sir. Do you want your gun?”
“Not yet Pierrot. How are we going to find him I can’t see very far.”
“I have an idea,” says the Clown. He claps his hands.
The noise of engines firing up comes from back stage and the lights are dimmed. A man enters with horns protruding from his skull and his many facial piercings twinkle in the stage lights. The man is juggling three chain saws as he weaves his way through the actors on the stage before he stands at the apron and throws the saws into the audience with a bit of backspin to help them return. When he is finished he sets down the saws and says, “I can help you I just need me ladder.”
This prompt sends on a stage hand with a frame and the sword swallowers return placing the now removed blades horizontally in the frame. The blades are doused with accelerant and set alight.
“I will climb my ladder to see if I can make out your quarry’s hiding place,” says the horned man.
He places first one then both feet on the flaming sword at the bottom of the ladder and stands there for a short while. He repeats this until he reaches the sixth sword where he places his hand horizontally above his eyes.”
“I can see him in his ridiculous trousers. He is lying in the sun. The arrogance of the man. He clearly believes you won’t find him. He is half an hour away.”
The horned man jumps down from the ladder, the flames are extinguished and the stage goes dark.
There is a knock on the door.
“Mr Parsons, one minute. You are due in one minute.”
Bradley breathes deeply before leaving the room and makes his way to the wings of the stage.
The lights come up and the Harlequin is lying on the floor of the stage. The audience boos and hisses and shouts insults at him. Bradley reflects on the aggression but knows why he is here.
The posse arrive on the stage and the Harlequin stands.
“You scoundrel what have you done to my daughter?”
“But I love her. She is my world.”
The Harlequin moves to Columbine and embraces her while twirling one of her pogonic pigtails around his finger.
“Leave her alone.”
“Do you want to shoot now sir?” Pierrot says passing the blunderbuss to his master.
“No! Stop!” says the Clown,”I’ve got a better idea.”
The Clown whispers in Pantaloon’s ear.
“Yes, that is good.”
Pantaloon walks up to the Harlequin and pulls the mask off before slapping his face.
“Seize him Pierrot.”
As the servant and the Clown grab the Harlequin a large cross ascends from under the stage and the Harlequin is grabbed and strapped to the crucifix. A stage hand brings on a bull whip and gives it to Pantaloon. The Clown turns to the audience.
“Have you got your phones and tablets ready? Yes? Well now’s your time to bet. How long will it take for this poor, wretched creature to meet his demise. Don’t forget Pantaloon will be using the bull whip, with added shards of steel, to flay the skin from the Harlequin. Does he look sturdy or stubborn? Make your assessment of how long it will take him to die. You can stay until the end or watch on our live webcast from the comfort of your own home. One thousand pounds to the winner.”
Bradley looks on, aching for them to start and do what he didn’t have the courage to achieve.
“Don’t forget we are on again this evening and for another seven nights. A new Harlequin each night. Read their back stories on our website and see which one you want to come along and see suffer most. Don’t forget though a mixture of old and new acts each night as well. The Harlequin also departs differently each time – so always something new for the return visitor. We aim to please.”
The Clown moves, a number of people leave and the rest of the crowd sits back. Harlequin’s shirt is stripped back and the first lash administered. All the actors cheer and Columbine blows the Harlequin a kiss as he continues his extraordinary departure from his life.