The theatre was dimly lit; smoke, incense and rock music hung in the air. A white unicursal hexagram at the centre of the floor. To the audience’s right, a small dais draped in red satin, a beautiful carved wood chair upon in. To the left, a deck chair. Behind, a screen for projection.
I took the opportunity to observe the other audience members. Having come straight from work my occult jewellery was on the subtle side, but most others were doing an even better job of hiding their credentials; except the pagan contingent, brightly coloured and cheerfully greeting each other. My presence was bringing down the average age for certain, and I wasn’t dressed in the black jeans, shirt or leather jacket which the bulk of the audience seemed somehow to have agreed on.
The music changed and the play began. White robed Thelemites entered. We felt there would be ritual. One spoke the gnostic creed, and echoes around the auditorium revealed those who dared to speak their truth in unison. The audience beast was paying attention. A man with a significantly large ash staff was robed in red and crowned with the serpent crown. A woman held a small silver cup for him to penetrate with this impossibly large lance. The ritualist within me struggled to take that seriously. The actress with bared breasts, sat upon her throne, reciting excerpts of The Gnostic Mass; she did not face us, perhaps she did not speak to us.
The “rite” concluded, the play itself began. Crowley, at ease in the deck chair, shot up his medicinally prescribed heroin. Perhaps it was his drug induced dreams that followed, with images projected on the screen; the guest house in Hastings, Katchenjunga mountain, Boleskine on the banks of Loch Ness, the Abbey of Thelema. The main action was between Crowley and a judge character wearing a mitre. The audience was alluded to as a jury – we pricked up our ears, ready to participate. Each of these ‘acts’ called forth ‘witnesses’ from Crowley’s past – his mother, his wife, his mountaineer colleagues, his scarlet women.
I considered the vignettes as a whole. The accepted reaction to AC’s antics is outrage, but there was little on stage for the audience to be shocked by. This portrayal of AC was of a man uncompromising in his passions, but here he was not coercing, blackmailing or forcing himself on those around him – indeed the worst he did here appeared to be abandoning people to their own autonomy. Briefly our AC pointed out that perhaps it is society’s restriction of sexuality, refusal to acknowledge mental illness, and attitudes to unmarried or divorced ‘fallen’ women, which is the cause of their alcoholism, mental decline and degradation. My inner feminist wriggled in her seat – AC and his ‘debased’ women had fought a public campaign on my behalf, testing the extremes of cultural tolerance so the boundaries I operate in are far wider than their’s were.
Having been invited to judge, the inner theatre critic wasn’t interested. Indeed the audience, I am certain, were mostly acquainted with the events or characters the play presented. We had not come to judge, no, we were there to taste. “A play is play”, Peter Brooke tells us, but a play about the Great Beast, well that should be foreplay. Television’s small screen and bright lights are the place for documentary, stimulating detachment and analysis. Theatre is a magical pact between actor and audience. It is bodily presence, sensual, alive, the gravity between lover and beloved. What the audience desired – I know, I was there in the dark – was a more intimate liaison, shedding the intellectual and immersing ourselves in the symbology, poetry and, in the absence of fluids, perhaps an energetic relation between audience and actors. The theatre is the perfect medium for exploring the real undercurrents of AC’s life.
The catharsis we were seeking then, existed mainly in the scenes with the scarlet women. The witch within recognising, that on the astral plane, the man reflects woman and woman reflects the man. Exotic Leila Waddell dressed in Egyptian style with her violin, spoke no words but enacted musical rapture followed by an off-stage violent sexual encounter. Sphinx-like, she lounged in Crowley’s deck chair folding her long legs, and murdered a man with a kiss. We felt both her vulnerability and her satisfaction. Dowdy Leah Hersig was contrastingly loquacious, directly addressing and challenging a silent audience while stripping down to her red basque, making her claim from the throne as Babylon incarnate, with AC passionately speaking the lyrical lines of the poem dedicated to her, lying his goddess down for devotion, veneration. Here the audience beast could witness the sexual-spiritual energy which was the aim of so much of AC’s work.
Only the final tableau really provided the nudity promised by the poster. An unclothed man knelt, adoring or contemplating images of Crowley’s tarot as they played across the screen. The inner esotericist was struck, as she has been before, by how well the deck works in large scale, projected 4 feet high. Naked rippling people stalked and slithered across the floor and engulfed the contemplator.
I settle back into my chair, pulled from my reverie of The Book of Thoth, as the screen concludes for us with the impact AC has had on the world…
… I look around to see if others notice the sudden bitter taste. AC’s contribution to the world is not a footnote in pop culture, this is only other people appropriating an image of him for sensationalism.
How many Thelemites currently practice a religion he created? How many Wiccan initiates can trace words in their own worship from his liturgy? How many copies of the Thoth Tarot deck are purchased by students of the esoteric every year? How many books did he leave behind, as a true magician attempting to chronicle and frame his work? Ritual, magic, spirituality, poetry and theatre exist as experiences which are by their nature difficult to evaluate, though their impact can be life changing. My fellow audience members began to leave. No, they were not judging Aleister Crowley based on this play, they were considering a women upon a throne who is the camel crossing the desert, the call of the grail that provokes the lance, and the words which tumble in the sunset and the dawn from the eternal lover to the immortal beloved.
More about Exeter Alternative Theatre, who presented this esoteric evening, can be found at their website: http://www.eattheatre.co.uk/