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Complicite’s McBurney Remembers Ken Campbell

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Playwright, director, actor, comedian and science fiction fan Ken Campbell (pictured) passed away suddenly on Sunday (31 August 2008), aged 66 (See News, 1 Sep 2008). Here, writing from New York, his friend and former colleague, Complicite artistic director Simon McBurney, pays a personal tribute.

I was at the back of the train. Frozen. Impotent. Clinging to the last window of the final carriage, gazing at the retreating track. Attached to the final carriage was an open cattle truck on which was strapped a huge armchair in which my mother was sitting. I tried to call out, but instead of a yell all that I could muster was a ring. Ring ring… Ring ring….

In the darkness I stagger down the hall. Has someone died? My mother perhaps? Ring ring… Ring ring… I can’t find the light I pull open the fridge and grab the phone…

Hello, I croak.

Simon? The nasal bleat is unmistakeable.

….it’s Ken. Ken Campbell. Look there are two things I have to tell you. It will solve everything. We’re both skint, right? I just woke up from a dream. I had to tell you immediately. You and I were at the opening of a musical I had written and you directed.

A musical?

Yeh, you see I just had to tell you how fucking wonderful we looked. We were both in tuxedos and everyone was shaking our hands. We just looked great. And the thing is this. Our musical was such a fucking hit. I mean huge. And we looked so good in our dickie bows. But reason I am ringing you is that I think we have to do it. I mean the idea is genius. It’s going to be huge. It can’t fail.


Absolutely. I’m on to something. Just the way we looked in our shirts I know it’s great. Ok. It’s going to be a musical version of Mexican Pete…

Mexican Pete?

You know the Ballad of Eskimo Nell?

Not really…

Bawdiest poem in the English language….

“When a man grows old, and his balls grow cold,
And the tip of his prick turns blue,
Far from a life of Yukon strife,
He can tell you a tale or two.”

…there was an Aussie movie called Eskimo Nell in the Seventies, A British one too, I think… I mean the whole thing is a parody of that ponderous Scottish Canadian writer Robert Service who would write poems called things like ‘The shooting of Dan McGrew’, but this wouldn’t be called Eskimo Nell but it would be like the sequel so we would call it Mexican Pete….

“When Dead-Eye Dick and Mexican Pete
Go forth in search of fun,
It\'s Dead-Eye Dick that swings the prick,
And Mexican Pete the gun. “…And such was their luck that they\'d had no fuck
For nigh on half a week.
Oh, a moose or two, and a caribou,
And a bison cow or sow,
But for Dead-Eye Dick with his kingly prick,
This fucking was mighty slow.”

I reach for some juice from the fridge and hold it against my head.

Well… There are millions of versions of the poem, but basically these two, Dick and Pete, get fed up with their sex life at Dead Man\'s Creek, travel to the Rio Grande brothel, start penetrating 40 whores and after a few fucks meet Eskimo Nell who challenges Dick to satisfy her so he takes her on but is totally humiliated by Nell’s abilities, comes too soon and is then remorselessly taunted by Nell… so Pete avenges him by sticking his gun up Nell and fires all six rounds but all this means is that she has a fucking massive orgasm, is really shagged off by these two tells them to fuck off, really misses home and heads to the to the north pole where the men…

Ken? I think…

Look the point is we looked so good in our clothes. It can’t fail. Great rhythm, great songs, very funny. And by the time anyone really cottoned on to what we were doing we would be on our yachts in the Mediterranean…

Uh huh.

The other thing is vegetarian sausages.


It came to me when I woke. Vegetarian sausages. It’s a huge fucking gap in the market… I’ll call you tomorrow.

I crawl to bed. 3.30am. I start to shake with laughter.

There are some people who when they leave your company, leave you more alive than before. Every one who met Ken feels like that now. There was no gap between theatre and life for Ken. Theatre had nothing to do with a building of any sort, any building, ANY building was simply an opportunity, any opportunity simply an excuse, for a conversation, a story, a show.

And what’s the difference? It was all about being present. Being alive now. That is why, as far as I am concerned, there is nothing eccentric or ludicrous about him and what he did. He was one of the most sensible men I have ever met. For him live performance was about being a-live. Life was ‘live’. Being alive meant sharing that. Whenever. Wherever. The stage, the sitting room, the street, on the telephone at three in the morning. And when the corner was turned or the receiver replaced, you felt more alive, more here, more empowered to face the absurdity of this ludicrous life.

And while the shock of his departure is brutal and terrible, the suddenness feels apposite and as if he has just put the receiver down. Not for Ken a lingering old age. Not for him the last stanza of Eskimo Nell:

“When a man grows old, and his balls grow cold,
And the tip of his prick turns blue,
And the hole in the middle refuses to piddle,
I\'d say he was fucked, wouldn\'t you?”

Nothing fucked about Ken. He is irreplaceable but also irrepressible. He will continue to be more present than anyone I have ever met. I am laughing now. I am not even sure he is dead.

Simon McBurney
New York, 1 September 2008


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