A swanky hotel room, tasteful decor, immaculately clean linen. A warm bathroom, a bath full of bubbles and rose petals, candles in glass jars. An assignation with a new lover? A weekend break to revive a tired marriage? No, a theatre show/event/experience (it’s hard to name it!); a one-on-one with Adrian Howells, one of two shows he is presenting at the Edinburgh Fringe 2011 as part of the British Council showcase (the other is his new work, May I Have the Pleasure...?).
You are invited into the room not by Adrian but by an assistant, who shows you where to get changed, and invites you to read a few lines about the show. You read that you can wear a swimsuit or be naked, your choice. That, regardless, your genitalia will not be touched. That you can speak, share thoughts and memories, or not – your choice. When you have undressed and donned a crisply laundered white robe, you knock on the bathroom door and Adrian invites you in. He helps you disrobe, takes you by the hand as you step into the water. He asks that you close your eyes, and immediately your other senses – touch, and smell, and hearing – are enhanced.
I feel an odd sensation on my face and chest, I’m expecting water but this is dry. My eyes open slightly for a second. Oh of course, rose petals falling! Then there is water, a gentle stream, then soap and the washcloth. Face, body, arms, legs. Ears. How odd to have your ears washed, I think. I just ignore mine most of the time, I say. Toes. I’m about to apologise for the chipped nail varnish, then decide that I don’t care. Nothing matters. ‘It’s all alright,’ says Adrian and I believe him. I’m washed, dried, wrapped in fluffy towels. I come to sit with him in an embrace, eyes closed, snuggled in. I hear the fan humming in the room, the cars outside, the hotel lift doors opening and closing. I say nothing, but the thoughts flow.
I remember washing my mother’s hair, a day or so before she died. She was off to hospital for a hip replacement, looking forward to being mobile again, and she hadn’t had time to go to the hairdresser’s, so I offered to wash her hair for the first and only time. It had felt strange: I remember thinking that this might be the first of many hair-washes, that as she got older and more infirm, I'd be doing this more often, but that’s not what happened – she didn’t get older, she died within hours of the operation.
I remember all the years of bathing children, and how when they were little all three of my sons would squash into the bath together. I remember their soft skin, their long girlish hair trailing in the water, and the damp little heads on my chest afterwards. I remember the shock when the eldest got to be eleven or twelve and started locking the bathroom door, shutting me out. These memories float by, but I say nothing.
Snuggling in feels easy, normal, familiar. The calmness and quiet feels unfamiliar; the lack of any sort of agenda, the freedom in being looked after, of surrendering any responsibility to ‘do’ and accept just ‘being’. I stop thinking.
The Pleasure of Being creates a space into which narrative can unfold. Everyone’s story will be different, defined by past experiences, associations, memories. The experience is facilitated by a theatre-maker who knows his stuff: we are in safe hands, boundaries between performer and audience held in a delicate balance. Despite the intimacy of the situation, our roles are clearly defined. The theatre is in the framing of this place, this time, as a shared experience. It happens, and then it’s gone. And it is, truly, a pleasure.