Thursday 18 October 2018

A brush with Edna

Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna, tells Barry Egan about his spat with Salma Hayek, his good pal, Seamus Heaney, and his desire to do ‘Waiting for Godot’ in Dublin

Actor Barry Humphries
Actor Barry Humphries

What a drag, possums. Dame Edna Everage and her Morrissey-inspiring gladioli don't exactly have an open invitation to the Spanish-speaking parts of the world.

An item for an -- admittedly satirical -- advice column in Vanity Fair caused a singular stink across Los Angeles and New Mexico in 2003. There was rage in Hispanic communities when Barry Humphries' character wrote, in reply to a reader who asked Dame Edna Everage should she learn the language: "Forget Spanish. There's nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that . . . Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?"

The magazine was inundated with irate letters decrying what they saw as Dame Edna's racism -- actress Salma Hayek added to the outcry with a thundering diatribe aimed at the middle-aged Antipodean cock-in-a-frock.

In fairness, it was satire aimed at rich WASPs and their snooty superciliousness towards the Hispanic community, because, more than anything, Barry Humphries is an equal-opportunities satirist. ("To live in Australia permanently," he once said of his own country, "is rather like going to a party and dancing all night with one's mother." )

When pushed, Dame Edna Everage later came back saying that Hayek's reproof was due to "professional jealousy". Hayek was spiteful because, Everage claimed, the role of painter Frida Kahlo had originally been offered to the great Dame.

As Dame Edna said: "When I was offered the part of Frida I turned it down, and she was the second choice. I said: 'I'm not playing the role of a woman with a moustache and a monobrow, and I'm not having same-sex relations on the screen' . . . I'm not racist. I love all races, particularly white people. You know, I even like Roman Catholics."

Barry Humphries, however, likes our own Samuel Beckett even more than he does Papal-ring-kissing Taigs (please don't write in letters: I'm attempting to be humorous.) In the Fifties, Humphries played Estragon in Waiting for Godot. "I did the first Australian production of that. I am a big fan of Beckett," he says, adding puckishly that "Waiting for Godot is rather a cosy old family show now, isn't it? But then -- back in the Fifties in Australia -- my God, it was revolutionary."

Could you sum up in less than a million words what Waiting for Godot is actually about?

"Waiting for Godot," he begins, "is about the eternal optimism of the human race in the face of inevitable disappointment."

It is just as relevant now as it was then, I say. If you look at eternal optimism in the face of inevitable disappointment such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think so," Humphries muses, adding that "if you think relevance in the theatre is important, well, it is. But Waiting for Godot certainly has a kind of new meaning every decade it is performed. I would like to do it again, as a matter of fact, and I would like to do it in Dublin."

He is cock-a-hoop when I mention that I will endeavour to put him in touch with Samuel Beckett's foremost disciple in Irish theatre, Michael Colgan, artistic director of the Gate.

"I would love to meet him," Humphries says, adding that he will be coming over to Dublin in a few weeks to meet his friend, Seamus Heaney.

The trip to our green and pleasant land will possibly have recuperative value.

"I've been in hospital. I had a burst appendix. It was about the most colourful thing I've done since my experiences at the easel," he laughs (referring to his art, acclaimed over the years).

I joke that he can use the burst appendicitis for future comic material.

"Yes. I had the whole operation filmed. It might have been my last appearance. It should be on YouTube."

What sort of a person is Barry Humphries -- a man who has given the world Sir Les and Dame Edna, who played fellow Ozzie icon Rupert Murdoch in Selling Hitler and who, as a youth, was renowned for his Dadaist pranks? One such wheeze involved young Bazza dressed as a Frenchman, with an accomplice dressed as a blind person who would board a tram, followed by Baz. At the appropriate moment, Baz would force his way past the accomplice, shouting and screaming: "Get out of my way, you disgusting blind person," kicking him in the shins and then jumping off the tram and making good his escape in a waiting car. There are two volumes of his autobiography, which he recommends I get my hands on immediately on eBay.

"I think most people think I'm a rather peculiar person," Barry says, "and I suppose I am in some ways. But really what I am is just an imaginative actor. I have also had a few strings to my bow -- as a kid, I always wanted to be an artist. And subsequently, I've had quite a few successful exhibitions. So this is an opportunity for me to exhibit on the net," he says, talking about his much- trumpeted new artistic pact with Hewlett Packard (see above).

Humphries' art, he says, is not really like anybody else's. Upon reflection, he adds that there is a little bit of Van Gogh and Jack Yeats -- "You're Irish, you should have heard of Jack Yeats" -- and a bit of Monet too somewhere, and a touch of David Hockney.

"Funnily enough," he smiles, impishly, "there is not a trace of Rolf Harris. Isn't that peculiar? I think the Queen should be asking me to paint her portrait next."

And which queen would that be, possums?

"That would be the braining monarch," he replies, naughtily.

In 1959, he left Melbourne "in the dreary old Fifties" and took a boat to Italy.

"My first glimpse of Europe was Venice. So it is now my favourite city."

When asked what possessed him to make such a journey, he explains that all Australians returned to either England or Ireland -- "which is where we all came from; we returned there like salmon back to the spawning ground. It was just the thing you did. You did it automatically."

You saved up. You got on a boat. You went as far as you could afford. Humphries couldn't afford much further than Venice.

"So I had to hitch-hike my way to London," he says, "and seek my fortune, which was quite a while in coming."

In London, he met and became great friends with the likes of Spike Milligan and Peter Cook -- "and a lot of the legendary people of comedy, not that one thought of them as legends then," he says.

"I felt a great affinity for these men. We kind of, I suppose, inspired each other. I am lucky to have survived all that. A lot of these people have passed on. It seems, since I have got over my horrible operation a couple of weeks ago, I am going to be pressing on for some time to come. And luckily, I have found a new outlet on the internet."

Is it rude to ask you what age you are?

"Yes, it is terribly rude. I am on the wrong side of 60." (He was born February 17, 1934, actually.)

You're only a baby. My father, Peter, is 80, I say.

"That's great," he enthuses. "I must say I have two sons and I am getting to know them a bit, which is very good. There are a lot of questions I would have liked to have asked my father before he died and I never got round to it."

The Sydney Herald possibly answered a lot of our questions about Humphries' most famous character when they wrote of the great Dame in 1970 that she was "a perfect parody of a modern, vainglorious celebrity with a rampant ego and a strong aversion to the audience (whom celebrities pretend to love but whom, as Edna so boldly makes transparent, they actually loathe for their cheap shoes and suburban values)."

"There were a lot of people like Edna around Melbourne in those days," Humphries says now, referring to the time Edna was created in the Fifties. "And there still are. When I was writing it, I really drew on the people that I knew and the people around me.

"Edna was just one of a number of characters I portrayed, a little crudely perhaps, in the theatre over 50 years ago. Oddly enough, she has persisted. She has a life of her own.

"She is always the best-dressed woman in the theatre. She has a big new audience in the United States of America and she has even branched out and become a painter."

Do you actually find your brain thinking differently when you put on the dress, bra, knickers and make-up?

"When I wear a costume to do one of my characters? Well, you think in the character, obviously. You learn to improvise in the character."

Asked about plans to put Dame Edna on the silver screen, he says there are offers, but he prefers the theatre. The stage is his field. He likes to work with an audience.

"I very much like audience participation. That is my speciality. I am really good at it. That's why I'm inviting, in this new Hewlett Packard venture, the participation of people in creating a picture. It just so happens to be signed by me. For example, they can change all the colours. They can put elements in. They can, dare I say it, improve it. I recommend they use very good inks and good paper. They'll have something to hang on the wall, which is theirs, except signed by me. I have neither pride nor vanity. I have slowly managed to discard these two. It is part of the very slow ageing process. There is one painting by Edna and one by me."

Will I need to lie down after seeing Edna's etchings?

"You might just need a strong cup of tea. But collaboration in this way is a very new thing. I think it is going to be fun for us all. And frankly, I'll be doing it, because I left room for improvement in these pictures."

A bit like a movie starring Salma Hayek, possums.

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