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Frau Welt: The Making of A Grande Dame by Peter Clements

Photo credits: Holly Revell

It began with a voice. A character I’d once played wouldn’t leave me alone. Her name was Frau Welt, a grande dame of the theatre. I’d sit on trains muttering, in a thick German accent, tall tales of Berlin, Broadway and Angela Lansbury. I was desperate to make a solo show.

April 2015. For two months I lived in a bedsit on the top floor of The Rothensteiner, an eccentric apartment block straight out of a Wes Anderson film. I was in Vienna performing in The 39 Steps. With my days free I’d write the solo show. In the land of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart inspiration was bound to strike; I’d return to London armed with my very own magnum opus. Waking late I’d throw the windows open with Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G Minor thundering from my speakers over the rooftops of Vienna. I waited for the lightning bolt. I’d imagine myself as Mozart sitting down to write a symphony. Losing my mind over six weeks to Mozart’s Requiem on repeat, I realised plays do not write themselves. I felt useless, depressed and just a bit pretentious. I had a crummy room, four white walls and a blank page. Over-caffeinated and creatively blocked, I’d overdosed on Requiems and symphonies. Staring at the contorted body of an Egon Schiele at the Belvedere one afternoon, I abandoned my idea of a solo show and got on with doing 39 Steps at night. I was clearly no playwright.

Inspiration comes from unexpected places. The company of 39 Steps are invited by a wealthy patron of the theatre to a private viewing at a gallery followed by sausages and cold beer in her apartment. The final room of the exhibition. A Hieronymous Bosch triptych towered over me. A vision of Hell. The patron, a woman in her 70s, wore large square spectacles and a salmon pink trouser suit. Her companions were like characters from a Berkoff, all backcombed, blow dried hair, elegant yet ever so slightly terrifying.

Back at her plush apartment, the evening started pleasantly enough but soon became uncomfortable. As we moved from starter, to main and dessert, their masks began to slip. The beers now warm, the gloves were off. From the virtues of Thatcher and Reagan, to controversial views on immigration and conservatism, a fiery passion poured forth from these women. In Vienna everybody loves to talk politics. I excused myself from the table, noticing thousands of CDs of classical music on shelves. Chopin, Scriabin, Shostakovich. I spotted a genuine Picasso hanging in the hallway. Who owns a genuine Picasso? Drunk on strong, dark beer I imagined these ladies in drag, almost caricatures. Can one still like a person despite their controversial opinions? We walked back home with one of the patron’s guests. She stopped, turned to us and said “You know… Isn’t it absolutely wonderful that we can disagree?” She said her goodbyes and disappeared awkwardly into the night.

Back in my bedsit, sick of Amadeus Bloody Mozart but with a newfound inspiration I remembered Dmitri Shostakovich. I played Chamber Symphony No. 8. A violent, slashing string quartet. This felt like Frau’s theme. As I went to sleep I imagined a vision of Hell. A woman with a secret. A coiffured lady, elegant and dangerous. Frau’s voice comes back to me, “absolutely wonderful…” I see and hear Frau Welt clearer than ever: a fading star tells the story of her life. “I fell in love with the theatre. It didn’t love me back...” 

July 2015. My comrade Anna Tierney tips me off about a venue seeking new work. I needed a collaborator. Someone I could trust deeply, who loves actors. I remember the play The Criminals in which I murdered my mother and father with a kitchen knife. Terrifying yet strangely hilarious. I call its director, my partner in crime, Oliver Dawe. He says yes. One week later I sit outside Hackney Showroom opposite Oliver. I hyperventilate. What the fuck have I signed myself up for? We’ve blagged our way through a pitch of a show that doesn’t exist to a person we’ve never met before. Sam Curtis Lindsay loves our idea. He offers us three nights in September at Hackney Showroom’s festival Queer Show & Tell.

We set to work immediately. “The pressure’s off, it’s a work-in-progress.” We simply share whatever we’ve made. We take the work seriously, but not ourselves. We have fun. The next four weeks are spent rehearsing in a basement in Pimlico. Days and nights bleed into the early hours fuelled by laughter, red wine and cigarettes. Oliver directs and becomes co-writer, captain of this eccentric ship. I look at my face in the mirror, caked in terrible make up. I wonder, as Antony Sher does in his memoir Beside Myself when creating a role, ‘Is this art, or is this shit?’

September 2015. 45 minutes of material. Our work-in-progress sells out every night. I am overwhelmed by the audience response. Sam Curtis Lindsay and Nina Lyndon, co-directors of Hackney Showroom, want to collaborate with us to create her full-length solo show. They see a play. To develop, refine and test our ideas we created a cabaret for Frau Welt, Masterclass. Alongside a variety of acts we’d surreptitiously test sections of the new play in front of a live crowd. Frau Welt worked.

Encouraging ideas whilst emboldening artists with a spirit of risk taking makes Hackney Showroom unique. Drag has given me an assurance that I could never have envisaged.

September 2017. On my shelf, a postcard of the Bosch triptych. Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony No. 8 plays. Frau’s back combed wig sits on a mannequin head. On Monday morning I’ll travel to rehearsal. I’ll sit on a train muttering, in a thick German accent, tall tales of Berlin, Broadway and Angela Lansbury. Oliver often uses that dinner party in Vienna as a useful analogy as we work. From starter, to main, to dessert, the mask slips. Two years later, her secret is finally exposed.


Frau Welt
A new play by Peter Clements & Oliver Dawe
4-21 October 2017 | Hackney Showroom
Twitter @DasFrauWelt

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