23 May 2010


London, Saturday, 25th October 2008
I was abroad, filming my part in Pope Joan, the legend of the woman who lived in disguise and became the Supreme Pontiff in the ninth century. Last Saturday I woke at the Park Hotel in the small Rhineland town of Euskirchen, which I had christened 'Munch Binding',  Euskirchen meaning 'the church in the marsh' – hence Munch-Binding-en-das-Marsh. (This private play on words will only be explicable to those who remember the classic BBC Home Service comedy show which ran from 1944 to 1954). My first action, without getting out of bed, was to play God, letting in the new day by activating the electric curtains which spanned the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows: 'Let there be light, and there was light.' Despite the glare through the net curtains, which mercifully blurred the view of the train station opposite and its adjacent McDonald's, I could still 'see' (and can at this moment) the owl that had visited my pre-waking dream: it was a night owl, of course, but pale pink in colour and perched on a low wall, looking out of place in the dream’s daytime urban setting. As a man attempted to get hold of it, the owl took flight and came to rest on the top ledge of a two-storey building but, startled again, spread its wings and, in the same movement, metamorphosed into a rearing ram with horns. It was then that I woke.

By 11 a.m. I was speeding to Cologne, driven by the tallest of the film unit's drivers, who must have been 7ft (though his name was Smike). I was being given a perk on a day off by Constantin Film; Smike took me to the Museum Ludwig, part of the postwar reconstruction of the area surrounding Cologne Cathedral. The Cathedral, which remained standing throughout the Allied bombing of the city, is still a dark Gothic presence with its patina of grime, apparently unchanged since the black-and-white photographs of that appalling time.

On the journey, Smike had told me about his upbringing in East Germany, how the only imported fruit was oranges from Cuba that used to remain unsold and shriveling in the shop windows, because they were poor, unjuicy specimens. There were two realities, home life and the life outside. He remembered in the conversations his parents had in company the moments at which his father would say to him, 'Don’t mention that outside.' After the wall came down, Smike said, there was a cartoon of East Germans eagerly eating bananas, like monkeys, and indeed he himself recalled the delightful novelty of the fruit. I asked him what other changes he remembered. 'We learnt how to use our elbows', he said succinctly. 

In the modern magnificence of the Ludwig’s white galleries, I went in search of the Picassos, kept very happy the while by the haunting subtleties of Kokoschka, Chagall, Emile Nolde, and August Macke. Upon finding the Picasso rooms, I was admiring the way he could lurch between exquisitely drawn ‘naturalism’ and the outlandish and wayward, marvellng at the ‘crudely’ painted figures, distorted creatures aggressively executed, asymmetrical, obscenely bulbous or with the exotic angularity inspired by African masks, when I saw it ... an owl. It was carved I thought in wood, or it might have been ceramic, painted white with black markings, though its base was pinkish; yes it was terra cotta. Its wings were spread, it was no more than a foot in height and placed under a Perspex case on a plinth. 

I said to myself, 'The next thing I see will be a sheep.' Barely altering the angle of my gaze, I looked beyond the Perspex box to a print on the wall eight feet away, one of a series of four (from his Suite Vollard); unerringly I approached it and found it was a group of figures – classic, contemplative yet Dionysian. One of the figures was a man with his right hand raised pensively to his chin, and then I realized his horned head was that of a ram.

What sense could I make of the fact that my dream had been prophetic? None at all. Is the owl a symbol of wisdom? Is it simply a bird of prey; why did my dream show it in a city in daylight? And the metamorphosis; why a ram, fertility symbol or sacrificial animal? The half-man development was a shock; what were the odds against my confronting, within a couple of hours, the very images of my waking dream? Even the direction from which I came upon the owl dictated that the next thing I should see would be the ram's head.

Did an East Berliner dream of a wall being torn down, lines of people eating bananas, and using their elbows whilst repeating, outside, things they'd heard at home? Before its realization, a dream as surreal, perhaps, as one of Picasso’s wayward distortions; as unimaginable as a hotel room with electrically operated curtains; as inconceivable as a female Pope.

London, Sunday, 23rd May 2010
Today, on the eve of the opening of The Fantasticks in the West End, I have been confronted by another Picasso owl. You’ll see we are both referred to, the owl and I, on the first page of The Sunday Times Culture supplement. Fantastic!

Click to enlarge

In her blog, Cocktails and Feminism, Ruth Johnston is quite right to point out that I'm the last person in the world to know who Cheryl Cole is, even though we are both featured in today's Sunday Times. But then Ms Cole, I'm sure, hasn't a clue who I am.

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