Thursday 6th November 2003
"De Penis Praat" the Belgian version of Talking Cock was premiering in Antwerp tonight. I travelled there on the Eurostar with my director Jeremy. We were both looking forward to the adventure, Jeremy particularly as this would be the first foreign version that he has seen.
The first three international versions had all been so different that I had no idea what to expect, though I had an inkling that the show might not be quite as written by me as the website boasted that the performer Erik Goris was also the "auteur" (which must mean author), though it did concede that the piece was "gebaseerd op Talking Cock van Richard Herring".
As with Kotka in Finland, Antwerp was a place that I would probably never have visited if it wasn't for my Talking Cock. I had no idea what it would be like and possibly influenced by racist stereotypes of the Belgians thought it might be a bit dull. But it was a surprisingly beautiful city, with many sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings. It was very clean and quiet and (at least in the part of town we walked around in) was sparsely inhabited by very chic, slim and good looking people. It would be a great place to bring someone for a romantic weekend. Unfortunately I was with Jeremy, who I would need to drink a lot of fine Belgian beer in order to find attractive. It was hard to think of him romantically when the thing he was most impressed with so far was that the toilet on the train that brought us to Antwerp went straight through on to the tracks, so you could see the ground going past as you weed.
But things were so picturesque that I decided to drink a lot of Belgian beer and see how I felt about the wee obsessed director later.
One of the beers we drank was red and made of fruit. What a crazy country.
We met up with the man who had bought the rights to the show and the director of De Penis Praat (the Belgian Jeremy) in the theatre bar before the show. They seemed like thoroughly nice men. I mentioned that it was interesting going to see the shows all around Europe and how some of them had taken a few liberties with the text. The director didn't say anything directly (despite their job title, few of them do), but mentioned that Erik was a great singer so they had added some songs and that he himself was good with one liners so had added a few of his own. Jeremy and me looked at each other askance. Songs? It sounded like this was going to be quite a departure. We both laughed. What were we about to witness?
The guys also mentioned that a rival company who had failed to secure the rights to my show had written their own version called "The Penis Monologues". It was quite different than ours though and they didn't seem unduly concerned by the competition. There had already been around twenty try outs of De Penis Pratt and things were going very well apparently. I remarked that the show seems to have gone pretty well everywhere so far.
As we walked into the auditorium we were told that we would have front row seats. Both Jeremy and me were a bit disappointed with this. We had been looking forward to making comments to each other (especially now we had found out that the piece had become a musical) and now we were going to be in full view of the perfomer. Which would also make us feel that we were under scrutiny from him. We'd have to be laughing along and look encouraging. Even though he was going to be speaking in Dutch and we wouldn't understand what was going on.
We didn't know if the performer had requested this. If it was me I wouldn't want the author sat right in front of me all the way through the show. He must be pretty confident that he was doing a good job.
Jeremy was asking me what the first real guaranteed big laugh is in the show, so that we would have a chance of working out where we were. I told him that most of the foreign shows have started quite differently and riffed a bit on their own. That usually it takes about five minutes to start recognising my material. "And don't forget. There will be songs," I added and we both laughed at the incongruity of this idea.
The show began with Erik off stage and with the music from that Eminem song about losing yourself in the music. A voice off stage began saying "Yo" a lot. "Was this in my version?" I wondered to myself. I couldn't quite remember if I had begun with an Eminem pastiche. I didn't think I had, but it was here in the Belgian version so maybe I had.
The song was about the penis. A penis that was talking. That was about as much as I could ascertain. Not speaking Dutch or Flemish or any language other than my own (unlike the multilingual Belgians who put me to shame). Erik would also say "Yo!" a lot. I understood that.
Well I knew there was going to be songs. I wasn't too perturbed. Soon I am sure we would all be singing (more hopefully talking) from the same hymn sheet.
But once the singing stopped and the talking began there didn't seem to be anything at all familiar. There were poems being read out and more songs and things that I could recognise as jokes, but that were definitely not jokes that I had written. I had resolved on these jaunts to let each company do what they wanted with the show. To cut and add stuff based on regional differences and humour. But it was clear that apart from being about the penis, this version had practically nothing to do with my script. For the first hour there was no mention of the questionnaire, no noticeable journey through the various subjects that I know so well and a large number of recognisable feed-line punch-line gags about the cock. Only the bit about us all being the sperm that made it to the egg was from my original version as far as I could tell.
The show was going down very well with the audience and Erik was a likeable and engaging performer, but I couldn't help but feel a bit embarrassed that I was sitting up at the front, and being referred to, in a show that bore little relation to what I'd written. Had we been skulking at the back Jeremy and I could have laughed off the strangeness of this together, and attempted to work out what was going on and what the show and the songs were about. But we had to be on our best behaviour and smile politely and try to laugh when we could understand what was going on.
I was quite enjoying it, but was wondering why they had paid the money to put it on when they had ostensibly written a brand new show from scratch.
Then to make me sit right at the front, as if their decision to bin my jokes and structure in favour of their own was some kind of honour.
I tried to remember that I was happy to let every company do what they liked with the work, but it was quite hard. And it was also difficult to work out what I thought about it all, here right in front of the actor.
The room was full and the audience were loving it. But it didn't feel as good as in other places, as they were generally laughing at stuff written by someone else.
After the hour mark there was suddenly a lot more stuff from my show. Though they had put all the statistics from the internet questionaire into one section. This all went fine, though it was presented by a sort of scientist character which was another unusual departure.
In the middle of this there was a serious song to the tune of "Send in the Clowns". As we didn't know what this was about and because the audience were suddenly perfectly quiet and moved it became almost irresistably funny to me and Jeremy. Why this song? Why here? What was it about?
The incongruity and the serious atmosphere added to the humour for us, but because we were in direct view of the performer we had to stiffle our giggles, which made the whole thing even more painful.
This was the one serious part of the show. We couldn't be seen to be sniggering like school boys. I was in agony holding all of this in. I prayed that each verse would be the last. It seemed to go on for a very long time. I was truly embarrassed by this awful madness that had gripped me. Right at the end I giggled loud enough for the woman next to me to hear. She looked at me very angrily. We later found out that the song was about a woman who got revenge on a rapist by castrating him.
Again. A bit of a departure from the original text, but I was happier by now as there had been at least some stuff from the original show.
But it is difficult to have spent so long working something up to speed, and then to see your work torn apart and changed without seeing it as a criticism. The Belgian group had clearly put something together that was working for the crowd and which stayed true to the original remit of celebrating the penis (castration of rapists aside) and by the end I felt that there was plenty to be positive about, and there wasn't much point in discussing my reservations.
The show ended with a rousing chorus about the penis being A OK to the tune of YMCA (which I am considering adding to the end of the English version) and there was much applause and laughter. Jeremy and I were able to truthfully compliment everyone on what was a successful show, without expressing our slight bemusement about why they had paid me for something that they had used so little of.
But if I wasn't prepared to see the show changed then I guess I shouldn't have sold it. Or at least insisted that it wasn't messed with. I didn't want to make any such conditions and to be honest it is extremely interesting and entertaining to see the piece changed in so many different ways. In Italy it had been used as a vehicle for political satire, in Belgium the penis had been set to music.
If only we had been able to understand what was being said things might have been clearer.
And I think it was the best audience reaction on the continent so far and Erik was definitely the best at playing off the crowd.
Our hosts were charming and excellent company and we enjoyed several more beers with Erik and stayed up into the night. Even after all the drink though Jeremy did not seem attractive enough (though he was looking better than before) so I retired to bed alone.
I had been right to realise that the show would only be gebaseerd op anything I had done.
Perhaps it is arrogant of me to expect anything more than that. But we had such a fun evening of genuine laughter and repressed schoolboy giggles that none of it mattered in the end.
The essence of my cock had still touched the Dutch speaking proportion of the Belgian people.
All the dates for the Talking Cock tour can be found here
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