I saw a Neval motorbike on the street earlier today, and I had only one thought. My great friend and first freelance client was the crazy Marcel Steiner who ran his Theatre off the side of one twenty years ago. Marcel is a forgotten genius. I found the obituary I penned for the Guardian. He should never be forgotten.
Giant among dwarves
Guardian, Monday August 2 1999
You’d think I’d be glad to see the back of someone whom the Financial Times once described as “huge, hairy and shamblingly repulsive”. In the case of Marcel Steiner – the one-man theatrical phenomenon and king of kerbside culture who so sadly died last month – nothing could be further from the truth.
The story goes that Marcel once landed up in a London flat where Yoko Ono was staging a fast for whatever was fashionable on the fasting agenda at the time. Late at night, he caught her raiding the fridge. Marcel was never very money orientated, so when Yoko paid for his silence at great personal cost … but here the details descend into the hazily apocryphal.
You could call Marcel the first and last great actor manager of the street theatre genre. Or you could say he was an outrageous exhibitionist with an instinctive sense of showmanship and a dedication to all things over the top.
In the 60s, he was one of the original members of the legendary Ken Campbell Roadshow. One day, he introduced the company to a Panther bike and sidecar which he’d spotted in a showroom, had taken a fancy to, and rashly purchased. Ken was moved to comment “Christ! That’s so big you could fit a theatre in it”.
Which Marcel did. Single-handedly, he designed and built the facility, and then personally handled the box office, prop shop and set design workshop, stage-management, costume, lighting, sound, musical direction, overall management and day-to-day cleaning and maintenance of the Smallest Theatre in the World – the only venue in the country which can claim to have had 100% sell out houses for every single performance it ever staged during 30 years.
Replete with premium quality Tandoori flock wallpaper (£5.00 per roll), velvet plush drapes, a chandelier from Woolworths and a Sistine Chapel frescoed ceiling, the venue – with its single-seat auditorium – shamed many of its vastly subsidised cousins.
Not content with his administrative and technical roles, Marcel wrote every classic literary adaptation which formed the venue’s staple repertoire … and directed and starred in every production. On – and around – the Smallest Theatre’s fabulous stage, Marcel created and performed dramatisations of everything from A Tale of Two Cities to The Guns of Navarone, The Raising of the Titanic, and War and Peace (complete with cannon). Krapp’s Last Tape never made it into his repertoire.
With just two additional cast members, he dedicated himself to the presentation of huge panoramic dramas which drew to the utmost on his manic energies and ferocious appetite for playing to the gallery.
Inhibition was not Marcel’s strong point. He was an early devotee of nudity, and could be relied upon to take his clothes off for dramatic effect with frightening regularity. Joan Littlewood banned him from the Theatre Royal Stratford East for streaking through the venue’s famous Variety Nights. Often he’d walked over an audience in a kilt whilst performing the legendary brick-catching routine (attaching a brick to a 30’ length of taut elastic held in his mouth, and firing the brick into his face).
Whilst touring nationally and internationally, he stood naked by some of the world’s most famous statues, striking up the same poses, and recording the images for posterity; introducing Terry Wogan to the delights of his Hunchback of Notre Dame, he flashed his bum on live TV; but perhaps his biggest nude coup was the ban he incurred from the Playboy Club in Chicago. The great Victor Lownes detected in his use of nudity something disgusting, loathsome and offensive … and told Marcel so to his face.
Famous for setting fire to himself, for hammering six inch nails up his nose, for performing in Hammer Horror movies and for his cult status as a berserk interloper into the chaos which was Tiswas, Marcel never did much by halves, and if there was the vaguest chance of a party, he’d be there … even if it involved scaling four floors up the front of a town-house in Edinburgh to get in.
From the outset, he never conformed. In his teens, whilst his friends were dib dibbing in the Scouts, he’d got hold of a 16mm camera and was shooting his first feature. The only vaguely conventional theatrical thing that he did was to get himself an Equity Card. But given the arena he made his own, he needn’t have bothered.
Marcel was perhaps the ultimate exponent of an art and an attitude which is withering fast. He celebrated the simple disorder and freedom of being able to set up shop on whatever street corner, park, square or public space he pleased, and going hell for leather to earn a living out of a hat. It’s not misty eyed nostalgia to say that those days are gone.
Increasingly, city centre malls and council-run spaces pre-book and package up outdoor entertainment, printing programmes, company profiles, and performance times. Marcel never wanted that … if he had, he’d have worked in straight theatre. If you know when it’s happening, where it’s happening, who’s doing it and what it’s all about, then half the purpose of street theatre is undermined. Spontaneity has been suffocated under a deluge of permits, licences and regulation. Marcel would have no truck with any of it. His work said it all – kerbside culture was the sole preserve of the performer and the possession of the audience, and nobody else’s business.
He described himself as an “old beatnik Belgian bohemian” and “the only actor who can perform Quasimodo without make up”. Struggling to encapsulate this strange and manic physical entity, he was once summed up in these pages as “a large dwarf”.
Personally and professionally, he was held in the highest esteem, and everyone who ever knew him will remember him, his integrity and his rare generosity of spirit with incredible affection. Perhaps the strongest indication of the regard which people felt for Marcel and for The Smallest Theatre in the World came when an inferno razed the theatre to the ground one year.
The donations poured in, and within the space of just 24 hours, the funds were in place to undertake a total re-build of the venue. Not a bad achievement for a large hairy dwarf.