Rose English with Sam, Harriet Dixon, and Dorothy Myer Bennett in Moses at The Drill Hall, London. Harriet and Dorothy performed on alternate nights. © 1987 by Sarah Ainslie.
Rose English is a striking example of the English eccentric. In performance she is a cross between a breathless governess and an imperious diva in a showgirl’s costume. She can be as grand as opera and as offhand and awkward as an amateur at home. Her balletic training and large stature (6’ tall) add to her tremendous physical presence.
Her performances, seemingly improvised but almost always scripted, tread a fine line between profundity and triviality; she muses on deeply philosophical issues but digresses whimsically. On the surface her shows seem constructed out of thin air. She flirts with the audience’s anticipation of whether she will create content in her work. In the process she carefully deconstructs theatrical conventions without seeming to get serious.
At times, Rose English seems to exist onstage only for herself, provocatively repeating minimal gestures which amuse her, like tossing her long hair over her shoulder again and again. At other times she revels in meandering conversations with another onstage performer, who, acting as a foil, helps her call attention to the immediate moment or lets her pursue a line of philosophical query.
In her recent show, Moses, performed at The Drill Hall in London, she defied show biz wisdom by working onstage with a dog named Sam and a young child and produced exceptional moments of spontaneity and surprise.
Allen Frame Rose, what was it like having a co-star who was five-years-old?
Rose English Dorothy Myer-Bennett, who’s five, has a concept of the repertoire that’s a bit like mine was a couple of years ago. She cannot comprehend why it should be interesting to do something exactly the same way every evening. (laughs) The first evening was, I think, one of the happiest shows I’ve ever done because it had, within the moment of her performing, the sense that the great mysteries were falling away, and you could witness that. I was witnessing it, anyway, and her comments were so deeply philosophical that I was just incredibly illuminated within the show. And the next night with her was the complete reverse. I tried to get the same answers from her and she just said to me, “I told you last night.” Even when I said, “Well, yes, that is so true, but everybody who’s here now this evening wasn’t here last night,” she just said something like, “Too bad.” (laughter) The first night it was as if she’d decided to comply with all the illusionistic aspects of the show, even though she has been rigorously interested in the actual mechanics and engineering of things, what makes the revolve go around, and what makes the little stars work, but the second night she decided not to collude with the illusions, and she’d reveal how every single thing was done. It was a complete reversal. I became the romantic innocent and I’m very much like that, still seduced by these devices. (laughter) There’s the scene where we’re putting everything in the bed. Some nights I said, “Is it full yet?” And one night she just decided, “Well, this is ridiculous. She says, ‘Is it full?’ And it’s obviously not full, it’s not full yet.” And she just went on and on, bringing more and more things out, like a brick, an old clamp, and I had to think, “Well, yes, it’s true, it’s not full yet.” (laughter) She’s also been the most brutal, critically, within the show of my performance of anyone I’ve ever worked with. (much laughter)
AF Where did you find the dog?
RE The dog belongs to a very good friend of mine called Nancy. I wanted to investigate the show business myth that you can’t work with animals and children. So I knew I wanted to have a dog in the show as well. And I was quite prepared to go with the fact that perhaps the myth was true. But I suspected that it wasn’t really and that what it’s really about is the danger of being upstaged, just by someone’s completely straightforward presence. So I knew that Nancy had this Jack Russell she’d told me about. He had an accident when he was a puppy. He hurt his paw and he had to have a lot of intensive care and affection so he’s a very affectionate dog. He likes sort of hanging out on a bed. He came and had a few rehearsals, quite a few, actually, and they were very relaxed rehearsals because he’d turn up in the evening, he’d sleep on my bed, and then he’d go home, and that was the rehearsal. (laughs) He’s a very deep, a very deep character, and he’s definitely consented to be in the show and aware that it is a show.
AF What do you do about audiences that don’t laugh?
RE I’ve arrived at this position where I accept that sometimes people will not laugh and will be silent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad night. Sometimes it might, but not always. It can mean that that night everybody is just giving a quiet sort of attention. It’s much easier to deal with a more immediate response, but the thing about that is, sometimes that can be seductive, and you think everybody’s laughing, when in actual fact, perhaps just a few people have got very loud laughs and there will be people there who’re giving a sort of quiet attention. Sometimes somebody may laugh throughout and then say afterwards, “That wasn’t very good.” The reasons people laugh are so complex and are not always the same and not always because of the show, not always.
AF Why do you have someone onstage to speak to? You did that in both Thee, Thy, Thou, Thine and Moses.
RE Well, I suppose it comes from doing solos. I became very interested after that in dialogue, even in things like the Platonic Dialogues. They’re called “dialogues” but in fact, Plato gets to talk a great deal more than the person he’s having the dialogue with, who is really there to assist his thinking, to encourage him to go even further in his thinking and usually just affirms what he’s saying, very discreetly. He just says things like, “So true.” (laughs) And then he takes it on to the second stage. I liked the idea of doing that with someone who had a presence of experience, Curly [played by Richard Wilding] being so much older than me and having been a character actor most of his life and actually having this minimal role but somehow affirming what I was saying, hopefully not in a self-indulgent way. But I quite like the idea of reversing that by working with someone much younger than me who didn’t have that experience, who was actually getting that experience at the time, who wouldn’t always be agreeing with me. Some nights they’d stick to what they’d believe and my expectations get confounded and fragmented as a result of their disagreeing with me. Yes, I quite like reversing it.
AF Moses is very similar thematically and structurally to Thee, Thy, Thou, Thine, your last piece.
RE Moses is about the scale of dimension, the sense of scale in terms of yourself at different stages of your life, and how that shifts. And about a notion of being separate as well as being part of all history and all time and everybody who’s ever lived as well as everyone who’s living at this moment. Which is, I think, something that you think about a lot when you’re a child and are very perplexed, very perplexed about what it means to be alive and then to die and notions of genesis and all those sorts of things. I think that’s why it’s a show called Moses. This title has been around for a long time. I meant to do a show called Moses in 1977. And in fact I made that wig for it. The original Moses, I’m sure, would have been quite different. It’s a debate about the notion of God, from both the position of being an atheist and not being an atheist, and this notion of God within questions of representation. It’s something that artists have argued for for years, whether it’s fruitless to represent anything ever or to only ever deal with the abstract if you want to deal with things that are very profound. Those sorts of debates were going on in biblical times. Moses and Aaron did actually debate about whether it was fruitless to ever represent God, the idea of what God was, whether you ever fetishize this notion in terms of an image. I’m not trying to say it’s just about that, but all those debates are incredibly exciting. And also notions of what actually constitutes the experience of extreme comfort and intimacy vs. experience of the immensity and fierceness of the universe.
Also, the background of Moses is a lot of thinking about the split between art and science in western culture and how a lot of the time it’s such a phony division. When you look at the far reaches of both fields, they’re about the same thing really. When you’re working with someone very young, like Dorothy, you see that split hasn’t happened to them so powerfully as it may later. Dorothy might go on to become a comedian, and she might become a doctor. (much laughter) At the moment I think she’s probably going to be an engineer. She never wants to sing Over the Rainbow ever again. (laughter)