A lifetime of pin-ups
The Oldie Magazine|July 2021
Barry Humphries still has nightmares about going on stage. He’s always admired the stars who kept battling on
Barry Humphries

I was there again last night. It looked a bit like old Sydney as I remember it from the fifties, before they pulled it down in the name of progress. But wasn’t it more like the badlands of San Francisco, that once beautiful city that is infested by beggars and muggers and is sadly now past redemption? It was only vaguely familiar, yet the neighbourhood was strange and inimical. In my dream, I am always in an unknown part of town, well off the beaten track, a no-go area of half-demolished buildings and menacing tatterdemalions. I am very frightened.

Then a stranger approaches me and whispers, ‘Haven’t you got a show tonight?’

Of course I have! It hits me like a thunderbolt.

But what time is it? And how far away is my theatre?

I rush out into the street, brushing aside those clawing hands of the canallas which want to keep me there. Taxis slow down, then at the sight of me speed off. I look down at my clothes. My feet are bare and I am wearing filthy rags. But at last I hitch a ride and ultimately, at the slow pace of nightmare, I reach the theatre.

But it’s unfamiliar. Moreover, it’s being demolished. There are workmen on scaffolds hammering at the remaining masonry, exposing what was once the stage and half a stuccoed proscenium.

A man up a ladder in a yellow hard hat (for a change, not Boris) calls out to me, ‘Where were you? We waited!’

And then, covered with sweat, I wake.

We don’t need what Nabokov called ‘that Viennese quack’ to help interpret this nightmare.

I have it every night, always with small variations.

I find myself in what used to be called ‘the stews’ of a great city. The inhabitants are progressively becoming less threatening, more friendly. I recognise some of them from previous nightmares – as one does repertory players – but although they are as horribly malevolent as before, they greet me as one of them; they regard me with expressions of lewd complicity. That’s even more terrifying.

I might easily have told you about this dream before because I have related it to quite a few people, but it doesn’t matter; after all, it is a recurring dream.

Last night I went to the theatre for the first time in a couple of years. It was the magnificent Lisa Dwan in Beckett’s Happy Days at the Riverside. This is theatre as it’s meant to be and so rarely is. I sat in the socially distanced audience, watching a play about isolation (among other things), and gazed longingly at the stage I might never again inhabit. If lockdown didn’t exist, and COVID were merely a nightmare, would I ever again step fearlessly before an audience?

Losing one’s nerve is the actor’s greatest fear.

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