More of John Purser’s reflections on some of his most memorable moments playing and composing music for theatre in the 1960s

IN February 1967, the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow gave the British premiere of Brecht’s The Visions of Simone Machard. It is not well known but is a powerful retelling of the story of Joan of Arc in the context of Second World War France, pitting collaborators against resistance fighters. The translation was by Arnold Hinchcliffe.

Following an audition in front of the director, Michael Blakemore, I was selected for the part of the Angel. I like to say it was type casting but since it was my wife who was music director for the production and her function was to find a singer and write out the vocal part, the possibility can be discounted.

It had to be sung to a tape because the Citizens, unlike the Berliner Ensemble, had no resident orchestra and the music by Hans Eisler was absolutely essential to the production. Eisler’s music was in the same tradition as Kurt Weill and the Angel’s vocal line had to be delivered live. The combination of ordinary singing and Sprechstimme or Sprechgesang was not relished by singers in those days and that’s the reason I got the part. There was no competition.

I was still subject to nerves when performing, and found the prospect of my first professional acting role really frightening, not just because I was to sing from the top of a corrugated iron garage roof wearing a halo, a mask, a four-foot wingspan and carrying a drum but because I was not only singing to a tape but also speaking dialogue with the incomparable 16-year-old Shirley Steedman as Joan, which meant that the timings were to a fair degree beyond our control.

READ MORE: George Gordon Byron: The Scottish background of romantic poet

There was difficulty in obtaining the music and the tape of the Berliner Ensemble musicians playing the instrumental backing had to be smuggled out of East Berlin. East Berlin was still very much behind the Iron Curtain and a place from which tapes of any kind were regarded with the deepest suspicion.

Michael Blakemore was a demanding director but he was gentle with me and had the good sense to have me share a dressing room with James Gibson, one of the great old pros of the Scottish acting profession and a steadying influence upon my own nerves.

The National:

He was patient and matter of fact but we didn’t converse much as when he was not on stage as an excellent Père Gustav, he was reading the Sporting Life or the Pink sports page.

Only once did I see him rattled. I had vaguely heard some kind of break in the proper rhythm of the play on the Tannoy in our dressing room but Jimmy came in and told me something really bad had happened and that they would all get hell for it.

Someone had mis-spoken a word to comical effect in what is a play devoid of anything except black humour, and they had almost all “corpsed” – the word used to describe involuntary laughter on stage. Jimmy had not succumbed but Blakemore, I am told, was incandescent. Not having been involved, I kept well away and never brought up the subject.

It was too painful.

I did, however, provoke a good deal of off-stage laughter the night I misjudged my exit from the garage roof. I accessed this roof from narrow wooden rungs flat up against the back of the garage. I had to wait for a total blackout and negotiate the climb with my four-foot wing-span, broad halo, half mask, and long white robe, drum in one hand.

Having reached the corrugated iron roof entirely by feel, I then took four steps down a wooden ramp across which a small fillet of wood warned me to go no further.

I had just time to accomplish this before I was totally blinded by a spotlight directly on my face which had the beneficial effect of terrifying me into reaching a top F sharp which was normally beyond my vocal range.

When each appearance was done (three times in each show) I had to make my way back hastily before the lights came up again. I did this on hands and knees, as the only warning of the back of the garage was the drop itself and I could see even less after several minutes blinded by the spotlight.

However, after a week or so I decided to measure precisely the number of steps to return to the ladder at the back. It was three. I rehearsed it several times and tried it out one night. Uh-uh. It was two-and-a-half, and I fell down with a noise that could be heard all over the theatre, which is small. Fortunately, my wings and costume were relatively undamaged. But the next night, waiting my turn behind the garage with the stage lights still on, I saw that some wit had chalked on the back of the set: “Beware of low-flying angels.”

I did also survive a disaster of a different kind the night the tape broke. Suddenly my instrumental backing had vanished and I had to keep going on my own. Meanwhile, up in the sound box, the 15ips tape was spooling out on to the floor at, of course, 15 inches per second.

By the time the sound engineer had stopped the machine, rewound the yards of tape that had heaped up on the floor and spliced the break, he had to wind forward to catch up on me and Shirley, by guessing the amount of time elapsed. He was about 10 seconds out, which was a miraculous piece of judgement, and I was able to regain meaningful musical contact. I hope he had a stiff drink that night, for he surely earned it.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Another British premiere of Brecht was The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Blakemore’s 1967 production was stunning and the acting of Leonard Rossiter awe-inspiring as he grew from small-time hoodlum into an American Hitler.

It was there that audiences experienced one of the most shocking coup-de-théatre ever – so shocking it would never be allowed today. At a climactic scene of confrontation on a Chicago street, three gangsters with their violin cases stood with their backs to the audience.

They were just in front of the footlights and it was obvious they were going to shoot down the opposing gangsters further back on stage. Or so we thought.

Without warning a huge floodlight at the back of the stage was switched on, pointing directly at and blinding the audience – but not so blindingly that we could not see the three gangsters in silhouette spin round on their heels as their violin cases fell open to reveal three machine guns which they discharged straight at us.

The assault was total. The air was ripped apart with noise, filled with smoke swirling in the spotlight, and punctuated by stabs of light from the guns. The ensuing silence was one of horror. But Leonard Rossiter’s performance was even more horrific. It grew in evil in an insidious curve that could have been comical but was in truth utterly appalling.

Another unforgettable premiere was that of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols, again directed by Michael Blakemore, with Joe Melia and Zena Walker. The little girl who played the paraplegic Joe Egg did a brief dance routine in the interval – just to assure us all that she was indeed alive.

Glasgow Arts Theatre and Charlotte Delbo

Do you have to have experienced horror or tragedy to give it true expression? The answer for any actor has to be no. Were it otherwise, there would be no acting. The same applies to other creative work. As a writer and composer I have had to place myself in emotional situations well outside my personal experience.

One which took me towards that heart of darkness and an author who had indeed experienced horror and tragedy was the commission to compose music for a Glasgow University Drama Department production of Kalavrita des Mille Antigone in Karen Alexander’s translation.

The National:

Kalavrita’s One Thousand Antigones is by Charlotte Delbo (above), who was a member of the French resistance and a survivor of Auschwitz. Although it is not obviously set out as poetry, the play is a poem and that is how Delbo herself describes it. It is poetic in either language.

The Scottish Arts Council helped in commissioning the music, but there was little available for musicians. In the end, the stark nature of the play, coupled with its deeply emotional sense of loss and outrage at the massacre by the Germans of almost the entire adult male population of Kalavrita in Greece, decided me on composing just for the cello and the voices of the cast.

READ MORE: John Purser: Shakespeare, the Citizens Theatre and the Sixties

The cast did well with the sung sections which were given in the style of Gaelic psalm singing, accompanied by the cello.

Of all string instruments, the cello is the most vocal, singing in all the ranges of the human voice and as an on-stage performer I was drawn into the experience of the cast and further into the depth of the play.

Delbo’s writing is deeply expressive but without any intrusion from herself. She describes, in careful and experienced understanding, the actions of the bereaved women. It is, in a sense, detached. It almost has to be, for the facts alone, the details of suffering, of dealing with the bodies, are more than enough.

“Nous avons lave leur visage ... Nos larmes ont coulé, tièdes, sur leurs plaies, et c’est ainsi que nous leur avons dit adieu de les envelopper dans le drap.”

“We washed their faces ... We lifted their shirts now stiff with blood to wash their wounds because we couldn’t let them leave us like that, with their wounds soiled with dirt. Our tears fell warm upon their wounds. This is how we said farewell before wrapping their sheet around them.”

The production was powerful and moving and I was given a presentation copy of the play from a limited edition of 200.

It has a dedication from Charlotte Delbo that means more to me than almost any comment on my work, because that with which we all empathised, she truly knew. Charlotte Delbo died in 1985. What she would write today were she to look eastward is hard to contemplate.