I am a rather shy person. I hate receptions and never know how to move on to the next person. I can’t discuss culture and devour canapés at the same time, and Champagne makes me chatter foolishly.
However, as audiences know, many of my alter egos, courtesy of the Natural Theatre Company, tend to be bouncing with confidence! So, when the invitation came from the President, Ralph Oswick managed to get out of going but Lady Margaret Oswick fairly jumped at the chance.
We were appearing at the San Jose Festival in beautiful Costa Rica. Our performances of The Underpant Wedding and The Coneheads had brought the city centre to a standstill. Over 4000 people had almost rioted when the Pink Suitcases invaded the main square. We were front page news, in colour, every day for a week.
The President, who was known to think himself a bit of a card, wanted to liven up his annual budget meeting. There were to be swingeing cuts across the board and it would be heavy going. He had asked the festival to provide some entertainment – a surprise for his unsuspecting cabinet and the press corps. What better than an audience with Lady Margaret, who is of course Roving Cultural Attaché to the British Council (though the British Council are not aware of this)?
The Presidential Palace in San Jose looks like a cross between a rather swish 1960’scorporate HQ and the Radisson Edwardian Hotel at Heathrow. In the reception is a huge shallow pool with a vast open staircase rising grandly to the Cabinet Room. I’m sure the President did not choose the furniture but his aides seem to have shopped in those emporia of London’s Park Lane that specialise in jumbo-sized gilt coffee tables and statues of dusky maidens holding up elaborate candelabra. Like me, you must have peeped in and exclaimed ‘Who the hell would buy that?’ Well, now you know!
To retain an air of surprise, we were ushered through a small back entrance. We tried to look inconspicuous. Apart from me in a frock with tea-pot prints, we were dressed as an ancient arthritic housemaid, a bowler-hatted Man from the Ministry and a British Bobby. Costa Rica doesn’t have an army, but the policemen guarding the palace had some very big sticks. They eyed us suspiciously.
While the others went off to the buffet to frisk the Cabinet members’ wives and to generally cause mayhem, ‘Lady Margaret’ was shown to an anteroom, presumably to await El Presidente himself. I was given a cup of tea by a very smartly turned out flunky, but I couldn’t help noticing his trainers. Ideal for padding discreetly round palace corridors, I thought.
I then became aware of a man sitting in one of the huge armchairs. He was wearing a cream nylon hessian-effect suit and sported an expensive Rolex and much gold bling. All finished off by a pair of correspondent shoes with remarkably high Cuban heels. Apart from appearing extremely nervous, he looked the very picture of a stereotypical Central American president, albeit if played by a member of the Natural Theatre.
Since we were alone in the room, I thought we had better make conversation. ‘Ahem’, I said, ‘Are you the President?’ ‘No I am the Mayor. I no speak English’. He too was waiting for an audience with the President. We lapsed into an awkward silence and both stared at the swirly carpet.
After what seemed an age, our manager rushed in to say that the President was about to arrive. A large party of identical-looking men with black pencil moustaches and blue suits swept down the great staircase, and Lady Margaret was ushered forward. Cameras flashed and faces blurred. I was in a quandary. I didn’t know what the President looked like, let alone his name. The Man from the Ministry announced me and I heard myself saying, in best plummy Lady M voice ‘So which one of you is the President?’
After that things went swimmingly. The President played along with the joke beautifully, even giving a formal speech of acceptance when I presented him with a gold-framed 26p stamp (signed) from Her Majesty the Queen. ‘I shall treasure it for ever’ he said. The elaborate frame was a last minute purchase (‘What the heck to you buy a president?’) and originally contained a 3D winking Jesus. By pleasing coincidence, it went perfectly with the presidential furnishings!
The Cabinet, after their initial shock, were a very jolly bunch. The health Minister massaged Lady Margaret’s swollen ankles and she gave her valuables to the Minister of Finance to look after. He may have lived to regret this because on the national television news and several front pages, serious debate about the budget cuts was illustrated by pictures of him clutching Lady Margaret’s rather fetching bejewelled tapestry handbag.
The President introduced his Vice President. Then he introduced his other Vice President. This one was a young sassy-looking power-dressed woman and looked like trouble. ‘You look very nice Lady Margaret’ she said, with a kind of make-me-laugh expression. ‘I always try to look my best when I meet Vice Presidents’ I replied. She said rather arrogantly ‘Oh, so you meet a lot of them do you?’ to which I answered ‘My dear, in this country it seems they are two a penny!’ Luckily she found that highly amusing and poured me a large glass of wine from the quivering tray of my ancient housemaid.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two of the burly policemen wheeling in an old fashioned high-stepper lady’s bicycle. I had forgotten that I had originally suggested that I should arrive and leave by bike, thinking the event would be taking place out of doors. Unable to explain the mistake in Spanish, with no further ado, and aided gallantly by the Health Minister, I mounted the bicycle. To huge cheers, I cycled off across the foyer.
‘Well, this is a first, even for me’, I thought –‘this’ being riding a bicycle down the corridors of a Central American presidential palace dressed as a posh old lady. As I passed the beaming President, I rang my bell and called ‘Save the rain forest!’ And as far as I know, he has.
Adapted from a Bath Chronicle column 2000.
Update: Since then the President has been voted out, I have retired from Natural Theatre, but Lady Margaret lives on and is available for openings, closings and other state occasions.