‘Mother Glasgow’s succour is per-pet-u-al’ Mike Marra
Have you ever fallen in love at first sight? You have? Isn’t it wonderful!
I’ve been lucky – it’s happened to me several times; well, on four occasions which, naturally, I will never forget.
These lightning bolt moments stay with you forever. Coup de foudre, the French call it: a flash of lightning or maybe even a thunderbolt.
Usually it’s another person, when you fall head over heels for somebody. But this story, which tells of my first love at first sight, is about a place.
It was when I stepped off the train from Bristol at Glasgow Central. No, not love actually at that moment, me kneeling down, pope-like, to kiss the chewing-gummed tarmac of Platform 1. But it did happen soon after.
It was a late afternoon in March. I’d come for a job interview. Gloomy skies overhead, but chin up! I decided to walk. I set off towards the river. Above the Clyde, thousands of starlings wheeled in spectacular murmurations. Thrilling and sinister at the same time. Once over the water, I walked past a row of 24-storey blocks of flats.
From the windswept entrance to one of the high-rises, a young girl, no more than 12, stepped out. She stared for a few seconds then threw a stone at me. It missed – that particular thunderbolt wasn’t due to strike.
Fuck off! she spat, and walked away. Not the warmest of welcomes, but somehow I felt intrigued rather than threatened
Amidst the gloom, across the road and through the moving buses, I saw a tatty string of bright light bulbs, dangling from a large white canopy, cracked and rust-stained. It stuck out from a dilapidated, flat-roofed, single storey building that looked like a run-down cash-and-carry.
On the canopy were black letters confirming that I’d arrived: CITIZENS THEATRE.
As I crossed Gorbals Street, dodging a bus as it groaned away from the stop, I could read the huge white poster, papered over the entire front of the building:
by CARLO GOLDONI
and, emblazoned on a diagonal red flash across the top left-hand corner, the legend:
ALL SEATS 50P
I looked up, above the bashed low frontage to the imposing high-gabled brick building, which rose skywards to the roof of the theatre itself. I pushed open the metal and glass doors and entered the place for the first time. Beyond the dowdy entrance lobby – enlivened either side with huge black-and-white images from previous shows – I could see a garishly lit box of a foyer, painted from floor to ceiling in red, gold and black.
I went to a tiny window on the right of the lobby, the box office. A pleasant middle-aged woman asked if she could help and brightened further when I said I’d come to see the director.
She returned a moment later. He says he’s so sorry but he’s going to be another quarter of an hour. Would you like to go and wait in the foyer? There are seats there.
I thanked her; it was no problem. I was early anyway. I climbed a few steps and pushed open another set of metal and glass doors into the foyer, with a huge mirror on the wall between two sets of gilt sprayed double doors. What lay beyond them?
Sitting down meant a choice between a red carpeted box under the mirror or a couple of bentwood chairs, also sprayed gold. But I couldn’t resist the lure of those doors. I pushed one of the brass handles on the right-hand opening.
Inside it was pitch black. Or so it seemed; as my eyes adjusted, they were drawn towards the stunning brightness of the stage. There was the most striking set, with high white walls, topped by a vast ceiling of skylights through which light blazed.
On the stage there were lots of people – some immobile wearing beautiful costumes: women in sweeping white dresses; others in black dresses and men in cream linen suits. Other figures, in modern clothes – jeans and sweatshirts – scuttled about, carrying props, wielding chairs and moving screens.
One of the working figures stopped and looked up at the dazzling skylights. Christ, that’s bright! she said. A strong Scottish accent.
A voice came out of the darkness in the stalls. Yes, darling. It’s midday, midsummer, in the middle of the Italian countryside. Course it’s fucking bright! Now can we go back to cue 5, please?
I ventured a bit further into the auditorium until I was just behind the back seats. I could make out two rows in the middle, topped by a huge console of switches. Standing beside it were 3 figures, conferring as they watched the action on stage.
Between the seats and the stage, I could also see the proscenium arch, decked with even more red and gold than the foyer. One of the 3 figures moved close to the stage and spoke to the actors and technicians before re-joining his two colleagues by the lighting controls.
The stage darkened to a state of twilight. The actors reacted by moving to different parts of the stage or left it all together. The technicians carried on a huge table, covered in a white cloth and candlesticks, glasses and plates.
The actors started speaking their lines. One character was declaring his love to another while a third boasted about his house in Venice, mocked by a fourth. Uninterrupted, the scene played out for fully ten minutes.
It was such an intense atmosphere, full of contrasting elements: the brilliant scenery inside the dark, coloured proscenium; radiant then darkened lights; the constant movement of the lavish period costumes among the jeans and tee-shirts and the murmurs of directions and questions interspersed with elegant dialogue. I was familiar with technical rehearsals at uni, drama school and in other theatres, but here was an edge, a buzz and a fantastic spirit I hadn’t quite witnessed before.
I was thrilled by its mess of energy, its other-worldliness mingling with the workmanlike purpose of detailed preparations. This was hard work and glamour in equal measure, and I was captivated by it all.
I was so immersed in the scene I was watching that I didn’t immediately notice the figure who sidled up to me. It was the pleasant woman from the box office. She whispered: The director’s free now, so if you’d like to come through for your interview.
I’d seen enough to know how I felt about the place. I loved it – here was something I longed to be part of. I was hooked, lined and sunk.
But the story doesn’t quite end there. That was just the start of it. The place I fell in love with wasn’t only the theatre itself. Though I didn’t know it then, there was a bigger, wider setting I was about to be entranced by. Somewhere that would get even deeper under my skin.
For all its strange welcome – the gloomy skies, the startling birds and the glaring, swearing girl – maybe even because of it all, there was something deep, inviting and fascinating about the city in which I’d just landed.
My love at first sight for the Citizens’ Theatre extended rapidly to the place that fed its thrilling, unconventional brilliance.
I fell in love with Glasgow.
And, forty years on, I still am.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, August 2019.