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A Brief Period of Camaraderie in the Early 80s

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“It’s lucky you’re playing Philoctetes, darling,” Darren said. “A limp is perfectly in character.”

“Fuck off, Darren,” Geoffrey said, rolling on his side on the grass and clutching his foot in a deplorably melodramatic fashion. “It really fucking hurts.”

“Eloquent as always, Geoffrey. But if you insist on having close encounters with sea urchins, you’ve only yourself to blame.”

Darren had no sympathy for stupid pretty boys who went swimming in Nauplion with the tragic chorus when they ought to be discussing his revolutionary artistic vision for next year’s production of The Tempest. Had Geoffrey shown sympathy last week, when Darren got the worst case of sunburn in human history and had to carry his rucksack on sore and peeling shoulders? He wouldn’t even rub cream on the burn. Some boyfriend he was.

Not that either of them would call it that. Casual sex on tour was de rigueur, after all. Especially in Greece, which practically invented it.

The crushed grass smelt of thyme, still warm from the afternoon sun, though the shadows were lengthening now.

“What am I going to do?” Geoffrey moaned. “I thought it was wearing off earlier, but it’s just as bad again. Worse.”

“Ask Asclepios,” Darren said, gesturing at the ruined columns around their makeshift dressing-room. “It’s his temple.”

“Oh Christ, not you as well. It’s bad enough Angus banging on about the birthplace of ancient medicine all the time.”

“I believe the cure may involve being licked by snakes,” Darren said, and grinned. “Or maybe sacrificing a cock.”

“Not funny, Darren.”

The amphitheatre at Epidaurus was the last stop for the University of Toronto’s European Players, a name that set Darren’s teeth on edge with its quaintness. In the last quarter of the twentieth century no self-respecting theatre group should be calling itself the Anything Players, not even ironically. Still, he wasn’t going to turn down the prestige that came with the UTEP tour, or the chance of a summer in Europe, however much he despised Angus Blakely’s so-called “authentic” approach to Sophocles.

If you asked Darren (nobody asked Darren, which frankly was a bigger tragedy than anything Epidaurus had ever witnessed), the attempt at authenticity was stupid and misguided in the first place. Neither the actors nor the audience were ancient Greeks, so what was the point? Especially when they’d be doing it in translation. The sandals-sheets-and-safety-pins costumes were cheap, and that’s about all that could be said for Angus’s bland and stilted direction of a play so fucking raw and wild it almost choked Darren to see him making such a hash of it.

Darren didn’t attempt to back-seat direct, of course, that being the quickest way he knew to get thrown off a show. He’d been right about Liseanne Xavier’s overstuffed proscenium arch staging of Ghosts, and everyone with any sense could see that, but she’d still bounced him from the cast so hard it made his teeth rattle. So he mostly saved his trenchant and accurate comments on Angus’s shortcomings for late-night arguments with Geoffrey, who was far more in sympathy with Angus than he should have been, or possibly didn’t care as long as he got to play the lead. Geoffrey thought the answer was realism, but then he always did. Darren had yet to convince him that realism was itself a convention like any other, that what Philoctetes needed was a bold and stylized interpretation: a Vietnam War setting, say, with a helicopter for Heracles as deus ex machina.

UTEP’s production of Philoctetes was already on its second Neoptolemus, after that idiot Craig McDonald decided it would be fun to climb Mont Ventoux the day before they played the Roman theatre in Orange. Actors ought to be banned from doing dangerous sports on tour. Or indeed any sports: a pure waste of time, Darren thought, however pleasing the usual effect of athletic pursuits might be on Craig’s thigh muscles, calves and ass. As it was, Craig was laid up in Toronto with his leg in an unsightly plaster cast, Angus had failed to do anything sensible about understudies – none of the five-strong chorus could be spared anyway without making the ancient Greek ritual dancing even worse than it already was – and the whole thing would have collapsed if it hadn’t been for Ellen Fanshaw.

Ellen was a couple of years older than the rest of them, already training at Vancouver Playhouse. A friend of Alice Gibson the producer, she’d come to Europe on holiday with some man or other, but had either ditched him or been ditched by him, and was now cutting a swathe through the cast and crew of Philoctetes. (Not Geoffrey yet, though presumably it was only a matter of time.) She made a surprisingly good young man, Darren grudgingly admitted. And she and Geoffrey certainly struck sparks off each other on stage. Even in a space the size of Epidaurus you couldn’t miss it. The spark wasn’t there with Ellen and Darren, but that didn’t matter: Odysseus was more obviously a substitute father figure for Neoptolemus, and Ellen’s acting was never less than competent.

(He wrote a lot of things in his diary, but not that one: Ellen’s reaction to him using the c-word about her if it ever came to light didn’t bear thinking about. And obviously one day Darren’s diaries would be published in all their unredacted glory. When he was an internationally famous director, and everyone wanted to know about him and Geoffrey Tennant acting and fighting and fucking their way around Europe in the summer of 1981.)

“If it’s mundane remedies you prefer, how about soaking it in vinegar?” Darren suggested. “Maybe retsina would do. Or piss? I’m told that usually works.”

Geoffrey glared at him, speechless for once.

“It’s a judgement on you, Geoffrey,” Darren said. “You keep saying you want realism. Now you’ve got it.”

Realism, Darren?” Geoffrey burst out. “Are you hoping my foot gets infected so you can maroon me on an island for ten years with nothing but a bow and arrows? Because I warn you I’ll shoot you first.”

“Call me St Sebastian,” Darren said, leering. He struck what he hoped was a provocative pose against a fallen column.

Geoffrey threw his sandal at him, and missed by several inches. Pathetic.

“Clearly you’d starve to death,” Darren said. “We’ll just have to take you with us to Troy.”

“Ha,” Geoffrey said, and tried to stand up. “Ow. Fucking ow. Darren, for the love of God –”

How did a man that size manage to look so small and pathetic when it suited him? Darren never worked it out. Too busy trying – and failing – to resist those puppy-dog eyes.

“Ugh,” Darren grumbled. He knelt down next to Geoffrey. “Here, let me look at it.”

“Don’t touch the spines,” Geoffrey said, shrinking back as Darren took hold of his ankle.

Typical Geoffrey: how was Darren supposed to get the blasted things out without touching them? Geoffrey’s skin was smooth, a little dusty, and warm from the sun. Darren stroked his ankle and the arch of his foot, and Geoffrey made a soft sound more usually reserved for the hours of darkness. Interesting.

“Does that hurt?” Darren was pretty sure he knew the answer, but he liked making Geoffrey say it.

That doesn’t, but you – mmm, ok, you can keep doing that.”

Darren pressed and stroked, careful and insistent, light enough not to hurt but firm enough not to tickle.

“Good hands,” Geoffrey said. It was more of a croak, really. He breathed harder, a slow flush creeping up his neck and throat. Other reliable indicators were also present, Darren noted with satisfaction.

It never got old, being able to do this. Infuriating as Geoffrey was – and nobody knew better just how infuriating he could be – the pleasure of making him respond, making him acknowledge Darren’s effect on him, was irresistible.

“Jesus, can’t you two keep your hands off each other for five minutes?”

Angus’s sense of timing, as usual, left much to be desired. The rest of the crew and the chorus were not far behind him, clutching cans of pop and pre-show sandwiches from the stall by the bus-stop.

Geoffrey grabbed for a face-towel and draped it over his lap, a split second too late to save his modesty.

“Geoffrey’s foot is still bad,” Darren said. It wasn’t up to his usual standards of repartee, but his brain was short-circuiting.

“See for yourself, Angus,” Geoffrey said, a rash offer if ever Darren heard one. “I can’t go on like this.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, darling,” Darren said. “Of course you can.”

Angus tore his hair, a process Darren observed with interest. “We’re filming tonight! Jesus Christ, this fucking tour is cursed!”

“Now who’s being dramatic?” Geoffrey said. “And you can fuck off, Darren.”

Back to normal then, for a certain value of normal.

“I’m not late, I’m not – what the hell is going on?”

Ellen, almost on time for once. Buttoning an oversized white linen shirt, a man’s, from the look of it, and what – or rather who – had she been off doing? Best not to enquire, though Darren wouldn’t be surprised if it was that annoying Californian travel writer who’d followed them from Delphi.

“We need tweezers,” Darren said. “For Geoffrey’s foot. Have you got any?” Girls carried that sort of thing, didn’t they?

Of course Ellen made a fuss about lending her female equipment for the cause. Clearly, however, she was no more proof against Geoffrey’s wounded puppy expression than Darren was, and between them they got the worst of the spines out, with Geoffrey doing some distinctly unmanly whimpering. What with the pain and the embarrassment, his erection had disappeared. Be thankful for small mercies…

“I don’t know what you’re smirking at,” Ellen snapped. “We’re on stage in half an hour, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Ah, Ellen,” Darren said, “what would we poor mortals do without your gift for stating the obvious?”

“Fuck you, Darren!”

Not a chance, darling. Darren wasn’t going to make the mistake of saying it out loud, especially while she was still holding those viciously sharp-looking tweezers, but everyone knew he was thinking it.

“Can we all just calm down and focus, please!” Angus yelled.

“I am calm!” Ellen yelled back.

“And focused,” Darren said, grinning evilly. “Don’t forget focused.”

“Darren, I swear to god if you don’t shut the fuck up right now – ” Geoffrey began.

“Handkerchief,” Darren said hastily, not wanting to hear the end of that sentence. “And antiseptic – who’s got the first aid kit?”

With his foot anointed and bandaged, Geoffrey looked more in character as Philoctetes, if not exactly prepared for action. His hair was even wilder than in the programme’s cover photo; his eyes were probably about the same.

“I still think he ought to go to a doctor,” Alice said, not for the first time.

She was roundly shouted down by everyone including Ellen, and went off in a fine producerly huff to sulk in the bus. This at least established enough of a temporary truce between Angus and the three leading actors to get the final preparations under way.

“Five minutes, everyone!”

The sun had disappeared behind the mountains; it was cooler now, and a few faint stars were beginning to appear. In the amphitheatre the curved rows of stone seats, empty till half an hour ago, were filling up fast. Cicadas shrilled over the hum of the audience’s chatter.

“I can’t remember my first line,” Geoffrey said, clutching Darren’s arm hard enough to leave a bruise. “Christ, look at all those people. There must be thousands of them.”

“Thirteen thousand, tops,” Darren said, and immediately wished he hadn’t. “You’ll be fine. You always are. If you can’t think what your line is, scream. They’ll just assume you’re going Method.”

“Fuck you, Darren.”

“Later, darling,” Darren said, and groped him shamelessly. “It’s showtime.”