This week I was asked by someone who the ‘persona’ was that I adopt when I’m performing. The person asked this because whenever I perform I tend to wear the same shirt and trousers and I told them that this was my ‘costume’. The person I told this to is in the theatre so they took this to mean that I became a character whenever I performed.
Ah, I said.
And then I got to thinking that maybe she was correct, and that the person who stands up and does things into a microphone is not the same sort of person who does everything else that I do. The Robert Garnham who gets trains and goes to work and eats a flapjack and goes to the supermarket is not the same Robert Garnham who performs poems about orgasms and trousers.
The question then came up again during rehearsals for a show that I’m involved in. ‘Who is the narrator of this poem?’, I was asked. And to be honest, it’s not something I’d even thought about. (The poem is about orgasms).
Anyone who does anything performative it always a different person in front of other people. And yet this persona is bound to have qualities of the person underneath. Whether or not this is an unexplored side of that person, or an exaggeration, depends, I suppose, on the act itself. I’d always thought that my ‘character’ of ‘Robert Garnham’ was a bit of an academic buffoon whose poetry aims for the deep while accidentally provoking much sniggering and laughter. Which, I suppose, is a pretty fair summation of what I do, but also of who I am underneath.
I’m always saying the wrong thing.
I looked at all of my favourite poets and performers. John Hegley becomes somewhat school-teacher-ish when he does his thing. On the one occasion that I worked with him, he was a completely normal chap before he went on stage. (Mind you, we’d both got to the venue late because we’d both got hopelessly lost on the way). Rachel Pantechnicon is very clearly a constructed character who bares very little resemblance to the person who plays her. Yet there is still a slight resemblance of sorts. Both have taken aspects of their normal character and infused them into their stage presence.
But there’s also a form of wish-fulfilment. In the case of Robert Garnham, there’s a sense that he becomes the sort of person on stage that he wants to be in real life. He doesn’t usually get everyone’s attention in any situation apart from when he’s behind the mic. He’s always the one who gets spoken over during staff meetings at work. Yet he’s always the one who’s proved right. He hates staff meetings.
So why does he do this strange performance every now and then? Because he can? Because there are underlying issues? Because he just wants to entertain? Because he’s always been incredibly jealous of Pam Ayres? It’s probably a combination of all of this. Plus, it’s really good when people laugh.
I told the theatre director that the persona I adopt himself has a persona which changes with every poem. There are many meta-layers and semantic possibilities within this. Robert Garnham becomes ‘Robert Garnham’ who then becomes “Robert Garnham”. This explanation seemed to satisfy her and then she asked the same question to another poet.