The twenty-first of January, 2011: Chaliapin on page and stage

Here’s a thing I’ve been working on: the transposition of Wild Ink, the first novel I wrote (“wonderfully depressing” – A.N. Literary-Agent) into a stage-play. It’s not easy. Compare:

CHAPTER 1

There isn’t, I’m afraid, a great deal to talk about.

I’ll try. There’s a square window full of flat white sky. A calendar still folded to August although today is October the twenty-second. By my bed, my things: some books, a glass of water, pill-bottles, a sheaf of as-yet-unlooked-at submissions in brown envelopes.

My bed-sores look like war-wounds or split blood-oranges.

There are medical things here and there: dossiers, a wheelchair, a rack of linen and bandages. The drip plugged into my inner arm.

There’s me, Albert Chaliapin, fifty-nine, radiating energy into the ether and asking nothing in return, poring over my sores, looking seventy-five and enduring the betrayals of my body.

I came in here with a troublesome liver. They opened me up like a jacket-potato, hustled away a kidney, made off with a bowel-segment, and watched my treacherous blood escape and pool on the flecked hospital tiles. My body is a fifth column and in the end it’s going to win.

Still I have the liver. It is like a scarred, shell-shocked old major-general who hangs on, hangs on. Doesn’t see that it would be best all round if he only let go.

“Morning, mister Chaplin.”

“Chaliapin, c-h-a-l-i-a-p-i-n.”

“Yes. How are you feeling this morning?” The nurse Paula, without much ado, pulls back my bed-clothes and starts swabbing down my private zones.

“Tremendously proud.”

“That’s good.” Paula rolls me over and sees to my war-wounds. They sting. “Lots of work to do?”

“Some. Not too much.” I gesture at the envelopes by the bed.

“That’s good.”

She heaves me back into a sitting position and replaces my covers.

“Thank you,” I say.

“My pleasure,” she says. She isn’t what you’d call pretty. She is a little bit ugly and a little bit pretty.

“Good-bye.”

“Bye, mister Chaplin.”

“Chaliapin, c-h-a-l-”, but Paula has closed the door behind her. That’s my most meaningful human contact of the day.

Sometimes an Irish nurse with a buttered-up hand comes and has to tug an especially stubborn turd out of my arse, but we aren’t on friendly terms. I’d rather have Paula do it but I could never bring myself to ask.

I turn my attention to the piled envelopes. It’s eight-forty-five. Take the top one and tear it open. Pull out four white cartridge-pages.

What does Albert Chaliapin do, the clapped-out old ruin? What’s my line? These days I work for a satirical paper that you probably haven’t heard of.

Harry Stoop founded the paper in nineteen-sixty-six and he still edits it from an inky cubby-hole somewhere in central London. Mostly he recruits sharp-toothed young things from among lowly Whitehallers, TV-company runners, aimless arts graduates, square-mile wannabes, but, because I was at school with the old bum-hole, he employs me as a cartoon editor.

It’s work you can do while sitting in bed: that’s the important thing.

With:

ACT 1, SCENE 1.

CHALIAPIN in a white-sheeted hospital bed. He is fifty-nine but looks to be in his seventies. Enter DOCTOR, unshaven, hurried. Pauses by the bed.

DOCTOR (to himself, leafing through a file)

Now, let’s see, what have we here –

CHALIAPIN

Not a great deal, I’m afraid. There isn’t really a great deal to talk about. Over there, there’s a square window full of flat white sky. There’s a calendar, look, still folded to August (although today is October the twenty-second). And here [he gestures to his bedside table] are my things: some books, a glass of water, pill-bottles, a sheaf of submissions – haven’t got round to looking at them yet. And there are medical things here and there, of course. Some linen on the shelf there. A wheelchair.

The DOCTOR ignores him. Scribbles a note. Scratches his arse.

And there’s me. Albert Chaliapin. Radiating energy into the ether and asking nothing in return. I look seventy-five but in fact I’m fifty-nine.

The DOCTOR continues to ignore him. He checks his mobile phone. Chuckles at a text message. CHALIAPIN, now engrossed in his descriptions, peers beneath his own bedclothes.

[Interestedly] My bed-sores look like war-wounds. Or split blood-oranges.

The DOCTOR exits. CHALIAPIN, not unhappily, sits back in his pillows. PAULA, a young nurse, a little bit pretty and a little bit ugly, with cropped hair and spectacles, breezes through.

PAULA

Morning, Mr Chaplin.

CHALIAPIN

It’s Chaliapin, C-H-A-L…

PAULA has already gone. CHALIAPIN sighs.

Paula. Paula, Paula, Paula. You know, that might turn out to be the most meaningful contact of my day. Unless she comes back later to swab down my private zones. [Thoughtfully] Although sometimes there’s an Irish nurse with a, a buttered-up hand who comes and has to tug an especially stubborn turd out of my arse – but we aren’t on friendly terms. I’d rather have Paula do it but I could never bring myself to ask.

He sighs, shrugs. Picks up the brown envelopes from his bedside table.

Now. Let’s see. What have we here.

He tears open the first envelope, draws out some sheets of paper. He leafs through them. As he does so, single-panel cartoons are projected on to the white wall behind his head. At some he chuckles, sets them aside with a ‘Very good’ or ‘Yes, we’ll have that’; at others he tuts or shakes his head, and sets them down in another pile.

Then he looks up and the cartoons fade.

[Musingly] It isn’t what you’d call a proper job, I suppose. But it’s work you can do while sitting down, and that’s the main thing.

The main trick or gimmick of the adaptation would be (a) collaboration with cartoonists; Chaliapin is an ex-cartoonist and a cartoon editor, and I’d like the cartoons he receives to be genuine originals, varying with each performance, and (b) the presentation of cartoons on the stage, either through projection or (in certain cases) some form of dramatisation.

I haven’t yet decided how it all ought to be done. File under Work In Progress.

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