THE SPACES ON THE SELF
Selina was an everyday actress. She had started in amateur dramatics (that graveyard of theatrical aspiration) and completed a degree in drama which she hoped would usher her into the realms of stardom. It did not. She appeared in a minor role in Eastenders - her character was not chosen for developement, and faded away after the purchase of a packet of cigarettes. She was in The Archers once (as a part-time barmaid at The Bull) and in the ill-fated Eldorado. Finally she gained a job in a Northern repertory company, and tried her hand at anything - the lady in waiting, the second cousin, the under-parlourmaid. She was mediocre, but dependable with it.
She had been taught that smoothness was all-important, and that the delivery of a character depended utterly on matching the voice to the body. The direction of her character’s glance should fit the motion of her heart. So her portrayals were solid and predictable. They were consistent, but they tore no-one apart. No, she thought, the roles she played made the audience feel comfortable, and that was because they were the same all the way through: like a well-concocted fruit cake, where the currants were scattered evenly throughout. What was needed was a sense of shock and surprise.
It was borne in on Selina that she had to import a sense of space and jaggedness into her performances. They had to be awkward. Slowly, she began to hack at their smooth warp and weft. The tender gaze had to swiftly cede its place to a fierce one, and for no discernible reason. A graceful arm movement had to be cancelled out by a clumsy gesture. A seductive timbre had to replaced by a rasping tone. What seemed like love one minute should appear as indifference the next.
Selina noticed at once that audiences responded to her new style in an intense way. It was a mixture of fear and attraction. The producers and directors saw her patchwork performances, and immediately offered her the big roles. Her rise to celebrity was meteoric. Her Nora was not confused and cool, but self-effacing and savage by turns: her Lady Macbeth was inconsequential and moved like a ballerina: her Lady Windermere had a gimlet eye and a malicious core. Soon it became clear that Selina could broach the great male roles too, and Hamlet, Iago, Jimmy Porter and the rest were offered to her. These male performances were full of jagged edges and savage silences, but they were undercut by gentleness at inappropriate times. Selina was billed as the “Fissure Queen”. There was some status to be gained by admiring her, because she exemplified a state of mind which was contradictory and never at rest.
After some years at the top, Selina began to feel that the spaces within her had opened up so far that they could never be filled. She was a living gulf. When she tried an everyday walk, an ordinary glance, she felt as though something dropped off and she had left part of herself behind. Accordingly, painstakingly, she began to reassemble herself and her performances. The smooth transition was what she now desired. But not the critics or the audiences, who had become attuned to her rough edges. She wanted now to be like a Japanese garden, which had a hidden coherence with ordered vistas: they wanted her to be like the sublime torrent or precipice which she had been before.
They won, of course. Selina could no longer deliver contradictions, and so her hard-won wholeness was seen as a weakness and a diminution. Her fall from celebrity was as fast as her rise had been. Soon all she was offered was the occasional radio play about retirement. In the quiet of her room, Selina was forced to meditate on the fact that space is never neutral. It could destroy: and if you tried to fill it in a challenging way, in art or in life, you would be brought into disrepute.