Written on 03/04/2010. // His name is Ben.
We haven’t been introduced; I haven’t said ‘Hi’ to the waist-coated, blue blazered, artful dodgerish man smashing a red suitcase to the grounds of the courtyard. He is of the tribe of street performers I will meet over the course of the day. This is my first as Covent Garden’s creative in residence, I have a chesterfieldesq chair parked on the side of the courtyard close to the Royal Opera House. On my right is the rich food market, which to my unbreakfasted self, is both pleasure and pain. Sophie, who I have introduced myself to behind the Laveli stall waves, I make towards her but hear Ben, raw and relentless demanding attention, confidence thick as Covent Garden’s history cracking off his shoulders. ‘This is the home of street theatre’ he declares, ‘Not that that matters to you...’
He starts his act this way - cute, condescending comments at passerbys, ‘This is my mother’, he says gesturing to an older lady, who blushes embarrassed, playfully strikes his arms, but poses for a photograph. Five minutes pass and he has charmed the streaming pedestrian into a small pool of an audience. He spends the next ten setting the props for his performance about the grounds. He asks randomly, ‘Where are you from?’. Answers come thick and fast in varying accents, Spain, Portugal, Oslo, Edinburgh. To the American he asks, ‘You a tourist or have to come to learn the language?’
He then mime’s instructions on how to applaud and leads the gathered audience on a clapping and screaming spree until anyone within earshot is drawn. Finally, Ben begins the show. He juggles pins then knives. After the applause dies, he throws the pins at selected men in the audience asking them to hold up the objects. Keiron from Ireland, Tom from London and one simply called ‘Ipswich’. ‘Ladies and genl’men, for my grand finale, I need three volunteers and as these men have their hands up, give ‘em a round of applause!’
My phone rings, I find a corner for the call and when I return, Tom and Ipswich are on either side of Keiron, and Ben, Ben is standing on Keiron’s shoulder; ‘Stand Still! Keiron! I am speaking English!’. He proceeds to juggle knives. As he berates his ‘volunteers’, Ben asks for money, encourages the audience to be generous, that he does this full time, that this is the most honest way to earn a living, please give what you can. This is the show’s climax, a relatively unimpressive trick, I think.
But in the crowd’s dispersal, in their reach for wallets, as the the walls of the street theatre created by their bodies crumble and disappear, I realise the real trick had little to do with knives or juggle pins. The real trick was the set up: Ben’s ability to pull the child like want for a spectacle out of an audience and make, in a world of iMAX cinemas, death defying stunts and special effects, make the idea of a man throwing and catching things, mean something more.
Wouldn’t it be Laveli? (for Sophie)
I stride purposefully, point at her sign scoffing at its stylised misspelling.
Her impish grin glistens like a young Oliver Twist’s. It’s a French bakery
Sophie says correcting my mistake. Name is combined from his family’s
daughter LA.ura, wife VE.ronica and LI.bor his name. Round the corner
Drury Lane boasts a classic musical. Coupled with tourist feet, a new one
from this cobbled street plays among the Italian cheese, Ethiopian coffee
and other stalls. Hoping for change in a pocket or two, wouldn’t it be Laveli?