The Sussex Countryside – home to opera and drag


The landlord of the pub in the village where I used to live had his fiftieth birthday party yesterday. My old house and the pub were separated by a memorable line of Scots Pine trees, the view from my windows and now the view, in reverse, from the party.

It was great to be invited as often it is so easy to move away and lose contact with people no matter how much you liked them.

It was an English June day at its most beautiful and my old village is in as beautiful a part of England as you would ever want to see. So it was perfect that the party was held in an orchard behind the old village pub.

For me, it was my first big outing to a party since my brain haemorrhage. There were a lot of people there, the atmosphere was extrovert and friendly, yes, I guess I would have to say, camp too. The food was excellent and the glass of Spanish Rioja earned its place as one of the three glasses I am allowed to drink in one week. Mostly if it is going to be just one glass then I pretty well always go for red and this glass, filled shamelessly to the top, did not disappoint.

Whilst we were laughing and joking within the marquee, just a few miles down the road, evening dressed opera goers were enjoying one of Glyndebourne opera’s great hit productions, the revival of Handel’s Giulio Cesare which I saw when it opened a few of years ago. Perfectly cast and entertainingly directed in a choreographed style where Bollywood meets the British Raj with a sexy young soprano as Cleopatra who even sings one of her ferociously difficult solos whilst doing a belly dance. I only mention this because the production is available on DVD and even if you think you don’t like opera then you really should watch this. I am sure the opera goers on this glorious Sussex afternoon were having a great time.

I won’t be going sadly as my health is really too unreliable to have booked up early this year when all the tickets go over night. It will be the first time in a long time that I have not been there for their new productions.

But we were having fun back in the marquee where the cabaret, not exactly operatic, starred two drag artists singing songs from the musicals and cracking jokes that were bluer than the cloudless skies above. There was also a female string quartet dressed in ballet tutus and fishnet tights and a young magician who could do a remarkable deep throat act with a balloon. Later there was an impromptu and magical rendering of “Maria” from West Side Story sung by the young singer who is currently starring in the West End production. No tall order so stand there and deliver unaccompanied in a marquee to an intoxicated audience.

The English countryside was at its most attractively unpredictable. It was strange being back, only yards away from the old house, I even felt I recognised all the birds that were signing in the trees but I doubt if they were singing to me.

I wilted of course – these days I cannot sustain an entire day of people without fading into my shell. I still don’t really understand why sitting down, having lunch, talking to entertaining people and watching a cabaret should be so tiring. Well it is and at the end of the afternoon I crept away and sat discretely under an apple tree waiting for my taxi.

Everyone was, of course, very nice about it, most of them hadn’t seen me since the “incident” and they all said those tactful things that people say at these times. I knew, of course, that I had lost some of my ginger compared to past visits to this great English pub when all sorts of bad behaviour was just a couple of minutes walk from my home.

Oh well, not long ago I wouldn’t have been able to have gone at all.

It feels like Summer has arrived just in time for the party season….my diary is now crowded with weekend events most of which I hope I will be well enough to attend. This is an amazing bit of England, now full of friends who seem happy to run this difficult course with me.

I may not have been well enough to go to see Giulio Cesare but I can watch that DVD – I think you should too.

Just three extracts below, please stick with them, but the whole production is so full of life and imagination this can only give you a glimpse.

First Sarah Connolly, a woman as you may guess, is Julius Caesar in an aria describing his skills at stalking his prey, in this case his enemy Ptolemy, a man singing falsetto in case you are taken by surprize. The aria with its wonderful stalking rhythm is choreographed so that the whole scene is a danced image of international diplomacy. Breaking all the rules I learnt at college of not moving in time to the music in opera, the cast stalk around each other to brilliant sustained effect with the added theatrical danger of having drinks served by slaves who are balancing trays of glasses on their heads.

The aria itself used to send me, quite literally, into leaps of excitement when I first heard it as a child – I have never lost my sense of joy in Handel’s great showpiece arias and this is probably my favourite.

Poor old Ptolemy comes off no better in the hands of sexy Cleopatra, played by the perfectly cast soprano, Danielle de Neese who manages to dance her way through the whole opera whilst keeping Handel’s music totally under control. She is wickedly adventurous with her hands as well showing us how difficult it is to protect our groins when we are carrying tyrants on our shoulders.

When I was sitting under that apple tree waiting for my cab, I was reliving a heady mix of the drag cabaret and my memories of the Glyndebourne’s Handel opera and thinking just what a surprizing place the English countryside can be.

And before I go, here is Cleopatra again dancing, wiggling her bottom and singing magnificently.

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