It was 1978, 10 o’clock on a winter morning in the centre of Liverpool. I passed the wasteland where the Cavern had once rung with Beatles' music (now a shopping mall stands there) and entered the School of Language, Science, Fiction, Humour and Pun. Up the narrow stairs and into what I was told was the theatre. "Find a seat." I ventured beneath the dangling legs belonging to the punters who had parked their bums on a wooden platform that served as the “circle”. I found a free upturned crate to sit on in the “stalls”. This theatre was not large. At one end was an area that may or may not be the stage. To our right was a kitchen replete with unwashed plates and cups. I was in my last year at school and ready to spend the entire day and night (until whenever it finished) watching the five plays in the Ken Campbell Roadshow’s “Illuminatus” saga, still in its early stages of development. The plays were a bizarre exploration of thriller, myth, science fiction and the absurd.
I’ll never forget David Rappaport’s monologue. Somewhere into the third or fourth play he took centre stage. "What about phobias?" He was in thoughtful mood and began to consider with some concern what the hell made people so afraid of ordinary things. And not so ordinary things. And then something important occurred to him. “WHAT ABOUT FEAR OF LAUGHTER?” He was deeply serious now. The audience laughed. Uh oh, the laughing phobia kicked in. The man who was to become one of Terry Gilliam's mini Time Bandits suddenly leaped back in a panic. We were caught by surprise and laughed. More laughter! Terrifying! "Aaaagh!" He crouched, scraped at the wall, had to get away. We laughed even more. He was shrivelling and palpitating with horror. The fear was devouring him. The laughter was devouring us. The more we let rip, the more he broke down and the more we laughed and laughed and he broke down and we laughed until everyone in that little room was in a state of uncontrollable hysteria - he quaking with terror, we shuddering with hilarity. Tears were shed. And more than a few pants were certainly wetted. It was a magical, magical moment.
As the plays went on, they became more and more disorganised and the whole thing descended into an anarchic improvisation. The actors knew as little as the audience (or even less) about what was going to happen next. At one point the cast and crew gave up and decided to bat an enormous balloon-like ball at each other whilst musing upon the mystical power of the number “23”. Some of the audience joined in. Others sat and watched rather vacantly. Some more may have fallen asleep. We all emerged in the early hours of the following morning having been entertained, challenged, tricked, cajoled, bemused, confused and launched into the stratosphere. I’m not sure that I’ve ever quite returned.
This sense of being transported is what I always seek in some form or another in theatre. David Rappaport will always remain one of my theatre heroes of all time. And thanks to Ken Campbell for being a batty visionary and showing me at eighteen where the hidden doors to alternative realties might well be on every stage.
For more about David Rappaport follow this link
For more about Illuminatus follow this