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Rose Riot

"I look like a plucked chicken"

Christopher Tomkinson gets bare for the Bard.

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Show: Rose Riot
Company: Sport for Jove
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Why (and How) I Waxed My Chest for Shakespeare

Date: 12 Dec 2018

It’s a costume fitting and I’m trying on a pair of very sexy velvet trousers with flowers embroidered on them.

They look great, they feel great. I’m going to want to spend the whole show running my hand up and down my own thigh.

As always, designer Anna Gardiner has got me some beautiful threads.

Then she drops the bomb: “You’ll have to wax your chest, of course.”

Now, preparing for roles often requires changing my appearance. Over the years I’ve been on very specific diets to lose weight, worked out for three hours a day to bulk up. At 14 I had thick orange and green spikes in my hair to play a punk. I’ve grown my hair and beard for 12 months, sported a handlebar moustache that eventually grew wider than my face and, of course, I’ve shaved my head. But I’ve never waxed.

It would be for one of Shakespeare’s lesser known characters, Rumour, from Henry IV, Part II, who starts the show by talking about how we all love gossip and lies and how the Elizabethan version of ‘fake news’ has profound political consequences:

“Which of you can stop the vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
… I speak of peace, while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds to the world”

In Damien Ryan’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s history cycle, Rose Riot, this character kicks off all the action. In the original script, Rumour is described as being ‘painted full of tongues’.

We’d talked about getting the audience to paint tongues on me before the show … but designer and director have decided that temporary tattoos are the way to go and my chest, although not the thickest of forests, is too hairy for the tattoos to stick.

I immediately feel a little sick about the whole concept, but this summer is Sport for Jove’s tenth anniversary summer season and my sixth at Bella Vista Farm and Leura Everglades. I love the company and I trust Damien’s vision and ability to create powerful images, so, with some trepidation – and with no experience whatsoever – I agree to give it a go.

But how? And where?

Naturally I go to the two main sources of rumour and fake news – Google and Facebook.

Google presents me with a variety of places that will wax me. Some webpages are slick, filled with soft-core pictures of nubile bodies and look like they sell sex. Others are just mobile numbers on a blank page and probably do sell sex.

There are articles, lists and bulletin boards on how to prepare for chest waxing and what to do after, but they all offer contradictory suggestions – hot showers, cold showers, clippers and Neurofen – and they tell you all of the things that can go wrong: rashes, infection, ingrown hairs, allergic reactions … Great!

My Facebook post quickly fills with suggestions of places that will ‘take care of me’, other actors who in similar situations used hair-removal creams and found them just as long lasting as waxing, and people who didn’t.

There’s advice on what to do beforehand, during and afterwards, about using teething gel to numb the skin (and not to do that), and “to go “Zen” because (as a drag performer friend writes to me on a PM) the process is both “hilarious and insightful”.

That final comment is, perhaps, the most disturbing.

Of course, lots of people generously offer to do the waxing for me (thank you, but no) or flood the thread with gifs from The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and clips of men in agony getting their hairs plucked out by machines.

One local provider gets multiple recommendations, so I book in and ask them for advice.

They say the main thing is not to be sweaty, which is something I’m well known for being. But, apparently, hot showers or cold showers are no help and numbing cream usually just gets in the way of the wax being able to work properly … so there goes that idea. It seems like I’m taking the Zen option and I’ll find out how hilarious and insightful it can be.

I rock up early to give myself the chance to stop sweating. I’m not as it happens but I do feel like I’m trespassing on a site of secret women’s business. The receptionist sits me down, gives me a glass of water, and I wait in the chemical-rich air.

Anne, a nice Irish lady, will be my consultant for the day. She ushers me into a bare cubicle and I’m left alone, in the stark overhead neon, to remove my shirt and lie face up on the cushioned, height adjustable bench.

There’s wax bubbling in small cauldrons on a table and a large fish tank set in one wall. The fish look serene and cool and entirely hairless … I suppose I want to be just like the fish.

Anne returns and I try small talk, asking some questions. Am I just trying to delay? Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Anne is on a schedule and gets down to business with a large palate knife that spreads hot wax on me.

RIP!

It’s a short, sharp shock. My right leg rises into the air (a reflex action I also exhibit when I’m punctured to give blood) and I find myself emitting a long and slightly rueful chuckle. That wasn’t intolerable … but it didn’t tickle either.

Anne moves with ruthless efficiency across my torso spreading and ripping and stripping me bare.

If I breathe in, my ribs expand, the skin tightens, and it hurts less. On my belly the skin is even looser, so I tense my abdominals and find that this also reduces the discomfort.

By now it has become an exercise in curiously enduring discomfort. As my dance teacher Rayes once said: “There’s a difference between discomfort and pain.”

This experience is pretty much right on that border.

Oddly, for someone who is pulling my hairs out by the root, the only time Anne offers any kind of sympathy is when she accidentally tickles my belly button while applying wax there. “Oops, sorry.”

Before I know it I’m standing up, covered in an alcohol solution to stop infection, my skin is sensitive and raw, the colour of a pale red rose and I look like a plucked chicken.

Was it hilarious and insightful?

Well, I did a sort of groan-laugh at each rip, but I’m sure that any comedy would have been better appreciated by witnesses than this participant. And I did learn a bit about the pain that some people put themselves through on a regular basis for beauty or happiness. If adventure is ‘discomfort recalled from an armchair’, it was certainly an adventure.

I took all the aftercare suggestions – washing without perfumed soaps, Sorbelene to soothe the skin, gentle exfoliation after 24 hours – and everything has settled down well without complications. It’s still weird when I see myself in the mirror, but I guess I’ll get used to it.

Now I’m bare for the Bard and ready to wax lyrical.

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