I don’t do it for the glamour, really I don’t. I get no thrill from signing autographs and I’m not the sort of actor who demands that theatre venues treat him like some kind of god; but I do have some standards. I’m changing out of my costume in a little venue on the east coast of Scotland. I just had a great gig and I’m looking forward to driving home when the wall of the dressing room creaks.
I’m standing there, one leg in my Mallory trousers one leg out, when the wall opposite me swings open and I realise they are demolishing the dressing room around me. The audience, who just applauded me as Mallory, walk silently past as I fight to get my trousers on and try to preserve the few tattered shreds of dignity I have left. Most of them try not to look but others stare at me with the open curiosity that is normally reserved for chimps in a zoo.
Oblivious to my scantily clad figure men and women start stacking chairs in what’s left of what I thought, until now, was a dressing room. Obviously it isn’t that anymore, perhaps it never was, now it’s the chair store with a half-naked old man standing in the corner. I’m at an age where people should be helping me. As I stagger into the hall laden with props and costume, eager young people should rush forward crying, ‘Let me help you with that sir?’ They shouldn’t be taking down my dressing room while I am still in it.
I am touring around the remotest corners of the Scottish Highlands with my two one man plays. Mallory: Beyond Everest, then story of George Mallory and his three attempts on the mountain and Aleister Crowley: A Passion for Evil, the tale of the legendary Victorian occultist.
My one man play about life of George Mallory, follows his early exploits as a boy, climbing his local church spire, through the trauma of his time in the trenches of WW1 and on through his three attempts on Everest. The play generally goes down well and without incident.
Things are very different with Crowley. The Beast, as he was once known, has the kind of reputation only Rasputin could boast. In some circles, the occultist, is as popular as a rattle snake in a lucky dip. When I visited the west coast village of Ullapool there was a concerted effort by some people to have me run out of town. Fortunately there was an equally strong reaction arguing that I should be able to perform.
My next appearance as Mallory is at Kendal Mountain Festival 18th November http://www.mountainfest.co.uk/speaker/detail/john-burns
In the end the forces of reason prevailed and I performed, despite both my technician and the dancer who takes part in the show going sick. Perhaps the complainers had greater influence than I suspected.
Crowley was born in 1875, the son of a Plymouth brethren minister. After his father died when Crowley was eleven, he turned his back on religion and launched into a hedonistic life style, immersing himself in the occult and studying eastern philosophies. A man of great talent he was a prolific writer, a chess expert and one of the leading mountaineers of his day. He undoubtedly had many flaws, he was arrogant, self-opinionated and given to distorting the truth for his own aims.
Despite his flaws those who dismiss the man as a lunatic are underestimating him. I think Crowley was also courageous, sincere in his quest for the truth, and sometimes showed a caring and generous nature. He was not a Satanist, although he did practice his own brand of Magick, which many would consider black magic but was, I think, perhaps closer to the what we would consider Paganism today.
Over the last few months I have traveled hundreds of miles, through the beautiful countryside of the Scottish Highlands, to perform my plays in remote communities clinging to the rugged shores of this northern landscape. Every performance is a challenge. I walk in and the carpet bowls team is just rolling out its mat. No one mentioned a play to them. Stage lighting can be temperamental at the best of times but most of the kit we work with hasn’t been maintained since it was installed twenty years ago.
In these small places hall committees struggle valiantly with jumble sales, jam making, fashion shows and anything else that can raise them funds. Mrs MacLeod turns up every year with her nice gooseberry jam and a Victoria sponge just so that some actor can drive all the way from Inverness and perform a play about a very bad man.
The only reason I can take my plays to such places is that I am a one-man band, well not quite, there’s me and the technician. Often I just take what we can raise on the door. I haven’t applied for Creative Scotland funding because if I wanted to jump through hoops, I’d join the circus. Me and Ali, my technician, can throw a few props into the back of my car and set off on theatrical adventures in wildest parts of Scotland. We plan to go to the Scottish islands next, somehow the west coast isn’t far enough.
I think I’m turning into one of the two reprobate actors in Disney’s Pinocchio as they try to lure the puppet come boy into a life on the stage. Their song often drifts though my mind as I am driving across the empty vastness of the Highlands.
‘Aye tiddly aye, an actor’s life for me.’