The loneliness of the crowd


This week, I fixed a phobia. Well, maybe not a phobia. To qualify as a phobia a disposition has to be extreme in force, disproportionate to the peril presented and somewhat disruptive to your life. A lot of my fears are too rational and appropriate to qualify as full phobias – I don’t think an aversion to reggae music, green peppers and being hugged by strangers can be described as unreasonable. That’s just common sense.

I’ve also spent a lot of my life imagining how it would feel to be trapped in a dark space too narrow to turn around or lift my arms – a rusty iron barrel, say, or the air-vent in a gold mine, or a close-fitting coffin – and furthermore how it might feel if water were to start rising in that place, inching remorselessly over my face. As a result of these speculations I studiously avoid unlit narrow crawlspaces that are vulnerable to tidal fluctuations of water, which frankly hasn’t impoverished my life much and doesn’t set me much apart from everyone else I’ve ever met.

But another strong aversion is my Theatre Panic, aka my Party Panic. For a very long time I tried to avoid birthday parties or small theatres, and for the same reason: what if no one else arrives? I don’t think I’d be able to stand the awkwardness of being the only person there, of having to make excruciating eye contact with the host or the performer. Wouldn’t they be too embarrassed to let me live? Wouldn’t they have to kill me?

It would be much kinder to have no one arrive than someone, and if only one were to arrive, it really shouldn’t be me. I’m the wrong man for the job; I don’t have the reserves of warmth and confidence and social grace to put anyone at their ease. I would squirm and tremble and make brittle, evasive jokes that would just make them feel worse and more utterly alone. This is why I prefer large parties or shows where I’m convinced there’ll be a nearly full house. Since I’m also mortally averse to crowds, all this makes for an awkward social life

But this week I acted out of character. On Monday afternoon I learnt about a last-minute, one-off presentation of Welsh performer Sue Bevan’s one-woman show, upstairs at the Alexander Bar. The announcement was in the afternoon; the show was at 7pm. I bought tickets. It was foolhardy and spontaneous, and it instantly occurred to me that other Capetonians aren’t exactly known for their spontaneity, especially in winter. There was a big chance of a small audience.

I arrived and had a drink in the bar to settle my nerves, scanning with a sinking heart the unarriving crowds. No! I must be positive! Maybe they all arrived early. Maybe they’re all upstairs in their seats. Be positive!

I presented my ticket and entered tentatively. It was worse than I feared. There were eight of us. Eight! I sat in a daze. How had this happened? You spend your whole life avoiding narrow tunnels and then one day you see one and think, “Huh, I wonder if it would be fun to wriggle into that … oof … hey, this is tight …”

And what about the performer? How will she react? I’m so close to the stage, I can’t miss the dismay in her eyes. She’ll be embarrassed so I’ll be embarrassed and my embarrassment will feed back to her and … Oh god, I might die.

But then she started, and I realised that she didn’t need my neurotic empathy. The situation was only embarrassing if she agreed it was, and Sue Bevan refused to feel embarrassed.

It’s a semi-autobiographical show, her heartbreaking life story woven with a fantasy of being the world’s most committed Shirley Bassey fan. It’s funny and harrowing and sweet and she couldn’t have been more committed if we were a packed house on opening night in the West End. She performed. She revealed. She shared herself. At one point tears ran quietly down her cheeks and I saw them with a shock and then I cried too. That hour gave me what good, honest, crafted, generous art can give: we were nine strangers in a room, intimately sharing something. We weren’t alone and no one was missing from the empty chairs; I wasn’t embarrassed or awkward or trapped in the narrow crawlspace of my head.

I came out afterwards with a revived faith in the value of art and stories, made-up and real, to get us over ourselves and make us bigger than we are and less afraid. Afterwards I saw her in the bar and thanked her and she hugged me, and I didn’t mind because we weren’t strangers any more.

Times, 23 July 2015