Love For Sale
A Charles Bukowski short story is relocated to Belfast, where blow-up dolls remains taboo
The stage is bare but for four chairs, four actors and one showroom dummy, dressed with Special K simplicity in a red smock dress. Love for Sale, based on the Charles Bukowski short story 'Love for $17.50', is presented in the Baby Grand in a refreshingly stripped down production by Fionnuala Kennedy and Paul Caddell’s Black Egg Productions.
It is part of the Belfast Book Festival and is wittily introduced as such, in an open-ended framing device, which introduces our 'award-winning author' as he narrates the tale of Robert, a writer of his acquaintance who has a thing for blow-up dolls. The narrator has the linen suit, pulled pork complexion and untucked shirt of a theatrical author. You know he is about to pour himself a tall glass of J&B, and has a revolver in the drawer of his bedside table.
This is a very Belfast Bukowski (which sounds like the sort of thing that goes on under the glare of head lamps at the Giant’s ring). So references to the Newtownards Road and Bittle’s Bar are shoe-horned into the narrative, and the price of Stella, the showroom dummy and object of Robert’s affection, is appropriately inflated from Bukowski’s original $17.50.
These insertions often jar, not because they’ve no place in the play (I have no problem with the story being 'reimagined' for a local audience), but because they aren’t finessed enough, aren’t quite bedded into the script.
At one point Robert, on his way once again to Bittle’s Bar, has to go 'two or three streets out of his way' to get some cigarettes. Why? There’s a newsagent just down the road and Miss Moran’s is just beyond that!
It’s a fabulously economical way of telling a story – the linen-suited literate narrating throughout, and the other players incarnating the vignettes even as he describes them. The concept is strong, reminiscent of cult 1980s film I Love You, in which Highlander’s Christopher Lambert falls in love with his own key chain. In fact, there is a probable link. Director Marco Ferreri had previously filmed an adaptation of Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness.
The story is flecked with a virulent seam of misogyny, but the two main parts of Robert’s personality are misanthropy and cowardice. Robert hates everybody: Harry (a lugubrious Ciaran Nolan, turning in another fine comic performance), his friend and the only person to visit him is denounced as a tedious, sexless bore.
His twin rants about the horrors of smoking and the life enhancing properties of eggs ('Though they sadly lack vitamin C') are the comic highlights of the show. He is all too quickly ushered off the stage so that Robert can have some more alone time with the dummy.
Robert’s only other visitor is Brenda, his 'accidental' girlfriend. Brenda has limited horizons; the most romantic thing that has happened to her has been Robert breaking up a bar fight in which she was involved, an act of gallantry that is proof of affection in her eyes.
Of course, we see that Robert only has eyes for Stella, whom he has taken to buying lingerie and jewellery for (though he has to stick her earrings on with blu-tack).
Robert’s erotic encounters with Stella are initially fuelled by anger and hatred. He slaps her around and calls her a whore, though there is still room for bathetic laughs as the narrator notes ruefully that he has to 'wipe her down with a dishcloth' after each encounter.
Worrying that he has fallen in love with Stella, that his erotic idée-fixe has gone too far, Robert strips her of her scarves and jewellery before apologising and replacing them; the penitent lover. As Robert says of himself: 'Is it necessary to love a real human being? It never lasts: there are too many differences between the species.'
When confronted by Brenda, Robert confesses all. And when, finally, she believes his story and forces him to choose between them, Robert chooses Stella, despite Brenda’s threats to ruin him. It is the bravest thing that he has done, but Brenda is right to brand him 'a miserable coward'. His preference for an inanimate object over a difficult, wilful flesh and blood human being marks out that cowardice.
Robert has a woman he can dress up, move around, do whatever he likes with, though Brenda, difficult, drunken Brenda barely seems less malleable herself. 'He is himself with Stella,' as the narrator points out. 'No, he is the greatest version of himself.' But that is all he is: a cut-price Pygmalion with a static Galatea.