The night an Oxbridge Classics scholar met British comedy’s éminence grise

From Cambringe Classics to standing in a red comedy bucket

From Cambridge Classics to standing in a red comedy bucket

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned Michael Brunström standing in a bucket of water passionately reading a random article from a copy of Yachting magazine.

What sort of man does this?

Well, in Michael’s case, someone who studied Classics – Greek and Latin – at Cambridge University and who is now an editor at the publishers Frances Lincoln.

“So,” I asked him, “you’re doing your first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August?”

“Yes,” said Michael. “Ten performances of a one-hour solo show – The Human Loire. It’s a series of acts with an arc incorporated into it.”

Michael Brunström stands in a bucket of water

Michael Brunström stands in a bucket of water

“That’s a very editory-word,” I said. “Did you always want to be in publishing?”

“I had a job interview about 15 years ago to work for the Erotic Review,” said Michael. “I had to do work experience there. Their opening question was: Can you tell us what experience you have with the material that we publish? I didn’t get the job.”

“Why Erotic Review?” I asked.

“I was looking for any job in publishing. After university, I bummed around fringe theatre doing stage management for a couple of years. But I hated it. I wanted to be a director and a playwright.”

“Why did you hate it?” I asked.

“It was the people I didn’t like,” he told me. “I just found them so up-their-own-arses and so jealous and petty and squabbling all the time.”

“You didn’t want to be an actor?”

“No. I’m not an actor.”

“But you perform,” I said.

“About eight years ago,” explained Michael, “I came out of a pub in Kentish Town and I bumped into Ken Campbell. I was a bit drunk, so I said: I want to meet you. I’m a fan. We started chatting and I was very nervous and I was trying to impress him. We came to a door and he said: Are you coming in? 

Ken Campbell - The éminence grise of alternative comedy

Ken Campbell – The éminence grise of UK alternative comedy

“I went through the door and it was the Torriano Meeting House – a rehearsal space – and there were a bunch of I guess you’d call them actors.”

“There’s no word,” I said, “for Ken Campbell’s tribe.”

“They weren’t like the actors I’d known previously,” Michael told me. “They were all very welcoming and friendly. He was teaching ‘bardic extemporisation’.”

“Do you know how to stick a nail up your nose?” I asked. “Everyone who ever worked with Ken Campbell seems to hammer a nail up their nose.”

“I’m not sure I’d give it a go myself,” said Michael, “but apparently there is a sizeable cavity up there.”

“Did you go to Ken’s funeral?” I asked.

“Yes. It was fantastic! It had ventriloquism, some improvised singing and we sang Lord of The Dance and some Björk was played. It was held in Epping Forest – it was a kind of organic funeral – and we were under this awning and it was slightly pouring with rain. There was one slightly dull speech given by someone from a university who had awarded Ken an honorary degree and, right in the middle of that, this gust of wind whipped up the awning and deposited an enormous amount of water onto some random woman at the end. There was a crazy guy in the front row who had a mental fit and tried to rip the coffin lid off. I don’t know how staged that was. Ken’s coffin was taken to the graveside on a trolley pulled by his dogs.”

“Not chihuahuas…?” I asked.

“No,” said Michael. “It was Ken who got me doing improvisation, so I’ve mainly been doing improv the last few years, in a group called The Inflatables.”

"You tend towards surrealism” - “I guess I do"

“You tend towards surrealism” – “I guess I do”

“When I first saw you perform at the Etc Theatre in Camden,” I said, “there was an element of quirky originality. You tend towards surrealism.”

“I guess I do,” said Michael, “if you’re going to put a label on it.”

“But being a book editor,” I suggested, “is almost the opposite of improvised, surreal comedy sketch madness.”

“Ken would have called it enantiodromic,” said Michael.

“What’s that?” I said. “It’s not Greek.”

“It’s Greek,” said Michael. “Enantiodromia is about having different aspects to your personality.”

“What does it mean in Greek?” I asked.

“Flowing in different directions at the same time. I have a side of me that likes to correct and control but there’s also a Dionysian side. Neitzsche wrote a book which said what you need for a tragedy is to combine the Apollonian aspects with the Dionysian aspects. Apollo is the god of learning and refinement and poetry. Dionysus is the god of wine and of chaos and of madness and delirium.

Michael performs Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale"

Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”: Michael pours milk into his very Chaucerian trousers

“So I spend half my time being very Apollonian and controlling, with close attention to detail, correcting other people’s work… but I also spend some of my time being Dionysian.”

“Like masks in Greek theatre?” I asked. “You change the mask when you change the character.”

“If you like,” said Michael.

“So what did you want to be when you were a kid?” I asked.

“I probably just wanted to be unaccountably famous.”

“You don’t come across like that,” I said. “You seem quite shy.”

“Oh, I’m very shy.”

“But then I suppose that’s performers,” I said. “You expect them to be extroverts, but offstage they’re often hiding in their shell not wanting to do publicity.”

“A lot of improvisers are shy,” said Michael. “Comedians are less shy.”

“They’re more neurotic,” I agreed. “You would consider yourself an improviser not a comedian?”

Michael’s role model? - The Great Gonzo

Michael’s role model? – The Great Gonzo

“I don’t have any jokes.”

“Very few people do jokes now,” I said. “It’s all storytelling with occasional punchlines and it’s mostly the way the stories are told.”

“With my act,” said Michael, “I’m thinking Sylvester McCoy, I’m thinking The Great Gonzo in The Muppet Show. I have yet to place myself in terms of what sort of comedy I do.”

On YouTube, there is a 1min 21sec video version of Lazy Fork by Nux Veybarein (1899-1983), translated and performed by Michael

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