Archive for March, 2012
Stephen Jenn was an actor, a hero and my friend. Yesterday I went to his funeral.
It was in the Actors’ Church, St Paul’s in Covent Garden. Inigo Jones’s lovely building, one of Stephen’s favourite places, was full of spring light.
On his coffin there was rosemary for remembrance. So today I am remembering.
I saw Stephen act long before I knew him. He was Silvius, the romantic shepherd in As You Like It in the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. I never forget the soft summer night, the heartbroken poetry, that wonderful voice. It got right into me, into the core and sinews of my imagination. And it’s still there.
Though, to be fair, it took me a while to realise that the Superior Being taking English Gentleman’s Tea at 4 o’clock on the dot was my heart-stopping shepherd. Stephen scoffed when I told him I’d seen him all those years ago. So, to prove it, I dived into my precious store of programmes of plays I really, really loved– and produced the evidence.
Stephen put aside his hot buttered toast, third cup of tea and umpty um years and turned into the young unrequited lover, telling the sophisticates around him ‘ what, ’tis to love’:
It is to be all made of fantasy.
All made of passion, and all made of wishes
All adoration, duty, and observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all obedience,
And so am I for Phoebe.’
And yes, the Voice was still magic.
But then, I already knew about the Voice, whether he was Chatting to the Telephone Salesman (he scored if he got them to ring off first), persuading my nervous cat to have his tummy tickled, Rebuking Radio 4 (he wasn’t usually up for the Today programme but he would have a good old argument with PM, not to mention Front Row) or reciting poetry as he went about the house. More than once I went into the kitchen to find him telling the kettle sorrowfully:
Alas, ’tis true, I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear –
Mostly it was Shakespeare, occasionally Donne or Marvell; often plays that I didn’t know. Then I would get not only a one-man performance but programme notes and a potted history as well. ( I’m not surprised that he was much in demand as a visiting professor in the USA; the lectures were spellbinding.) And once, fabulously, after I’d enthused about a Toccata of Galuppi’s, he seized my Collected Works and we had an impromptu evening of Robert Browning.
Often he made me weep with laughter. Filming Cleopatra, as Temple Priest, he carried the basket of asps to the queen. And when she lifted the wicker lid, it was free from rubber snakes and, indeed, anything else except a card on which someone had helpfully written, ‘Hiss’.
Very soon after we met, I went to see him as Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s Faustus at the Young Vic. I knew he’d been ill and this was his first attempt at a big role since his treatment. He wasn’t sure about remembering the words. He needn’t have worried. He said them as if he had just that moment had the thought. In his hands Mephistopheles was clever, sophisticated, playful, wickedly seductive — and yet I can still hear the huge weary despair in ‘Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.’ I still feel the shock, too, as he turned from a sober student in spotless ruff, black robes and a cap, to an agonised shapeless thing, except for the arching throat and silently screaming mouth. Pure Hieronymus Bosch.
At supper afterwards — a long time afterwards, he was a hero who took his make-up off at glacial pace — he gave me a detailed explanation of how he effected the transformation from scholar to horror. I think he would have jumped on the table at La Barca to demonstrate if he hadn’t twigged by then that I have a very low embarrassment threshold.
And not for a moment, then or ever afterwards, did he even hint that his acting career was already into injury time and he knew it.
Stephen was ferociously determined not to be a victim. If his medication slowed him down, well then he would take life at an imperial tempo, letting the day wait upon him. As his left side weakness became more and more apparent, he simply acted his way through it. In the end, even class acting like his could not keep that heroic frame upright. Then there came the wheelchair, the carers and, worst of all, silence. But even then he sometimes had that wicked glint of laughter, when you said something that caught his fancy. His courage humbled me. A true hero.
But I don’t remember him sadly. I remember him with awe and laughter and gratitude and much tenderness.
One Christmas he took exception to my tatty fairy on the top of the Christmas tree. ‘Give her a new dress,’ he said. ‘Something with a bit of style.’ I brought out my box of scraps and he chose white silky stuff, purple felt, purple braiding and an old broken chain of seed pearls. I’m no dressmaker but I cobbled together something that looked all right. Well, from the front at least. Stephen anchored her to the top of the tree, stood back critically, and then gave his huge, wonderful grin. ‘Duchess of Malfi to the life,’ he said.
And then, in the firelight and the beat up Christmas tree lights, he launched into Prospero’s great speech:
These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision.
The cloud capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yes, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
It brought the hair up on the back of my neck then. It still does. I was very privileged.
Ave atque vale, magister.