All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 4 Home truths
I could hardly wait for Mary to return from her shopping trip to tell her my news.
“Guess what, Mary, Richard, my agent just rang me; the ISC is definitely doing 'Twelfth Night' next and he wants me to audition for the role of Viola/Cesario!”
Her reaction was not what I expected. Far from a beaming smile and good wishes, her face actually fell, and suddenly it hit me.
“Oh I'm sorry, Mary. You wanted to go for that part didn't you. Well you still can you know. You're a good actress and there's a new director Chris Johnson. We don't know what he's looking for. You might end up with the part and me your understudy.”
This did not have the desired effect, in fact quite the reverse.
“Harriet, false modesty doesn't become you!” she said with a frown. “If we were the only two auditioning for the role, I have absolutely no doubt who would get it.”
I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. There's an old saying “When you're in a hole, stop digging.” Everything I said seemed to make matters worse, but Mary hadn't finished yet.
“The other night when you were playing the Queen and I was Ophelia, I had one of those 'light bulb moments'. Alright, you say I'm a good actress, and I'll take that as a compliment, but I'm just not in your league. You took over that role with half a day's notice and made it your own, just like you did when you stepped in for me in 'Brutus'. If I was Dame Emily, I'd be getting worried.”
I was horrified. “Mary! Please don't say things like that. I'm still a beginner, really! Alright, I'm lucky that I have such a good memory, but there's much more to acting, and I still have so much to learn.”
Mary's expression softened. “Alright, maybe I went a bit too far then, but I can only dream of having your talent. In fact, I was going to say something to you and now is as good a time as any. I think it's about time I went back to the Apollo Players. I'm not saying this hasn't been a wonderful experience and I'm so glad I came here, but I feel like an impostor sometimes, acting with all these famous people. You don't see it that way, and I can understand that because you can hold your own with them.”
I was struggling to stop tears springing to my eyes. I didn't want Mary to go. I would miss her dreadfully, but was I still only thinking of me? I knew I had to audition for the role; people would really wonder if I didn't. I could only hope that Mary was appointed understudy and then she might stay. This called for some humble pie.
“Mary, you are right in everything you say. I can see now that I am getting a swelled head and it isn't a good look. For your sake as well as mine, will you please audition for the role? You seem convinced that I'm a shoe-in but it really mightn't be the case. I've got to convince a new director. He'll look at my CV, such as it is, and see I've only done two dramatic roles and no comedies at all. This could easily be where I fall to earth with a thud.”
The performance that evening was not one of my best. Normally I would immerse myself in the rôle so completely that all personal matters were parked in a corner of my mind to be taken out and examined later, while I concentrated on 'being' the role I was playing. However, Mary's remarks kept coming back into my mind and I even nearly missed a cue, something I normally never do. Fortunately Tony was not at the theatre that evening or he would certainly have had something to say. I did notice Dame Emily look at me strangely, but she said nothing afterwards. Perhaps she thought I was just having an 'off' night. I suppose even the best actors have the occasional one. However, I knew I had to pull myself together. It wasn't fair to the audience who had paid good money to see a performance. You can't say to them 'come back tomorrow and I'll do I better'. They only see it once.
Mary and I went back to the flat after the performance, and it wasn't long before I was in bed, but sleep wouldn't come. What did come were tears, and they turned to sobs and I just couldn't stop them. I tried to muffle the sounds by burying my head under my pillow, but I was unsuccessful. There was a gentle tap on my door.
“Harriet? Are you alright?” said Mary. I didn't answer, not because I didn't want to but because I just couldn't speak between sobs. I heard the door open and Mary walked over to the bed in bare feet and sitting on it, reached out and held my hand.
“What is it?” she said. ”What has upset you so much? I watched you this evening, and that wasn't the Harriet I've come to know.”
I finally found my voice, although tears were still running down my cheeks. “I'm sorry Mary, so sorry. I've been carrying on like I'm a big diva and now I'm driving you away, and I just don't want you to go, even though I know I'm being selfish saying that.” It all came out in a rush. “You have every right to do whatever you want to do. You are a good actress, I wasn't just saying that, but you are my friend, and I know I'm going to miss you so much, so I really am being selfish after all, wanting you to stay.”
In the moonlight I could see that Mary managed a wry smile. “Alright Harriet, I've been thinking too after our talk this morning and maybe I've been going to act in haste. I'll put in for the role, but I think it's like the golfers playing with world number one Tiger Woods, they play for second place, and I suspect that's what I'll be doing.”
“Oh Mary!” the tears started to flow again, but perhaps they were more tears of relief this time. I was clinging to her, and this time she slipped into bed and hugged me because it was my turn to be comforted.
It was the day of the auditions. In Twelfth Night there are only two main female roles, Viola/Cesario and Olivia, and one minor role, Maria a servant to Olivia. Mary had decided that she would audition for Maria as well as Viola, thinking that she stood a greater chance of getting the role.
Twelfth Night is one of the most performed of Shakespeare's plays, and summaries of the plot are easily accessible, so I will confine my precis just to the character Viola that I hoped to play
Twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Viola is saved but believes her brother drowned. For safety in a strange country, she disguises herself as a youth 'Cesario', and obtains a position as a page to Count Orsino who is wooing the Lady Olivia. She rejects his advances, saying she refuses to marry for seven years following the death of her brother. Orsino tries a different approach by sending 'Cesario' with messages to Olivia who of course falls in love with 'him'. Meanwhile Cesario (Viola) falls in love with Orsino – the perfect 'love triange'.
There were six young women auditioning for Viola, and I was to be the last. I took this to mean that after discussion with the producers, the new director Chris Johnson had been told that I was the most likely person for the role of Viola. I hoped they were right.
For the audition, we had all been asked to read Viola's longest speech of the play, in Act Two, when disguised as Orsino, she meets the Lady Olivia who immediately falls in love with 'him'
'I left no ring with her: what means this lady?
Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!
She made good view of me; indeed, so much,
That sure methought her eyes had lost her tongue,..…..'
In much the same way as at the Hamlet auditions, we were all thanked for our attendance, and told that Chris Johnson would 'let us know'.
Then came auditions for Olivia, and another six women in their late twenties or early thirties were auditioning for that role. I sat in the stalls to hear them, and one in particular, Scarlett Mitchell impressed me. Not only was she beautiful, with flaming red hair but she could act! Mentally I rated her easily the best of the women who auditioned. I could tell from Chris's body language that he was impressed too. Men find it very hard to conceal their emotions when they find a woman really attractive.
Finally, there were a couple of young women as well as Mary, who were auditioning for the role of Maria. I thought Mary did very well, and at this point I left to go home and have a siesta before returning to the theatre for the evening performance of Hamlet. I knew Chris had all the male auditions to conduct, and I didn't really expect to hear from him that day, so it was quite a surprise when a couple of hours later I was woken up by my mobile phone.
“Miss Stow? It's Chris Johnson. How are you?”
“Very well thank you Mr Johnson.”
“Thank you for auditioning today. We were all very impressed, and I have much pleasure in offering you the role of Viola/Cesario,” he said.
“Thank you very much Mr Johnson, I'm happy to accept.”
“We'll start rehearsals next week, and I expect everyone to be 'off book' by the end of the second week. Now I understand you share accommodation with Miss Wells; may I have a word with her if she's available please?”
I asked him to hold for a minute and knocked on Mary's bedroom door. When she opened it, I told her it was Chris Johnson and left her to take the call in private.
Five minutes she knocked on my bedroom door. I had dressed and was fixing my makeup.
“Harriet, I need some advice. I've been offered two options – understudy to you or the role of Maria, and I don't know which to chose. I said I'd ring Chris Johnson back within the hour and tell him.”
“Well that's good news Mary, but I can't tell you what to do; that's your choice.”
“I can't make up my mind and I'm afraid of making the wrong decision. Tell me, please, if you were me, what would you do?”
I looked at her. “Alright Mary, I'll tell you what I'd do, but if you find out it's the wrong advice, please don't hate me.”
“Of course I won't hate you,” she said, smiling. I hoped she meant it..
“Alright, then I'd take 'Maria', and I'll tell you why. It's a smaller part of course, but you are on-stage quite a bit, and that's where you want to be, not sitting around in a dressing room.”
Mary smiled. “That's what I thought too, but I didn't know if it was the right choice. I'll ring Chris back right away.”
She looked very relieved as she left the room, and I was relieved too. Now she would be staying for another few months – a 'win-win' situation.
The following weekend, Reggie came to visit me at Stratford. His cricket club had a bye, so he had the whole weekend off. He took the train straight after work but he would arrive after I had left for the theatre, so I suggested that rather than hang around the theatre all evening, he could call in and pick up the door key and then I would see him after the performance was finished.
This proved to be a very good move, as when Mary and I returned from the theatre, Reggie was in the kitchen, and after inquiring how the performance had gone, his next words were “Who would like an omelet?”
That was most acceptable as I always find that acting makes me ravenously hungry, and Mary was very happy to tuck in too. After that was bed of course, and it was so lovely to snuggle up to Reggie's body once more. I missed him so much when he wasn't there.
Saturday morning we slept in late (no prizes for guessing why!) and after showering and dressing, we had a cup of coffee and a piece of toast and then went out for the morning. Mary was performing at the matinee, which meant I was free until about six o'clock. I was effectively her understudy in case of emergencies of course, but I had my mobile phone with me and wasn't more than about ten minutes from the theatre in the unlikely event that I had to rush in and take over, which never happened.
It might seem strange that I had been living in Stratford for a few months and was performing Shakespeare six nights a week, but I had never seen his grave. I pointed this out to Reggie, so we decided to go for a walk down to the Church of the Holy Trinity. Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616, and was born and died on 23rd April, St George’s day – the patron saint of England. How appropriate is that? He was buried in the chancel of the church and his grave does not bear his name but rather a few lines that he penned for his own epitaph, which read as follows:
'Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.'
It seems that even when he was alive, Shakespeare was concerned that as a well-known playwright and poet, someone might be tempted to obtain a souvenir from his remains. On the wall of the church we saw the bust that was made during the lifetime of his widow Anne, and which is said to be a good likeness of him.
Afterwards we went to lunch. By now I was becoming used to being recognised. Sometimes this was merely by a smile from a passer-by, and sometimes I was engaged in conversation or asked for an autograph. I believe I had learned how to be gracious whatever approach was made. After all, these were the people who paid their money to see me perform and so they were deserving of respect. I couldn't help thinking that if even I as a junior member of the company received this attention, what must it be like for Dame Emily or David? They must find it difficult to step out of their accommodation without being accosted.
After lunch we made our way back to the apartment for me to have a short siesta prior to the evening's performance. It did concern me that Reggie might get very bored with a girlfriend who worked such unsociable hours, but he insisted that it was not a problem to him.
On Sunday, we decided to go for a short run in my new little car which I had named 'Bluebird', and drove north to Henley-in-Arden a small town with lovely historic buildings, some dating back to Tudor times. We lunched appropriately enough at the 'Bluebell Inn' – well having seen it, where else should we go? It may well sound that we didn't seek excitement on our days together, and to be honest, only having one day off a week, I appreciated the opportunity to have a rest, and was not up for strenuous exercise.
It was while we were having lunch that something happened that shook me. I was telling Reggie the story of my driving lessons and how Dale had helped me buy my car. Thinking that perhaps he might be jealous of me spending time with another man, especially when I told him Dale had asked me out to lunch, I blurted out “You don't have to worry, he's gay.”
Reggie's response was not what I expected. He looked at me with a solemn expression and said “It doesn't really matter if he's gay or straight as a die, Harriet. You know that I want to marry you one day, but until that time comes, I have no right to tell you who you can and can't see.”
I felt a thump in my chest as though my heart had skipped a beat. Was he saying that when we married he would want to control me to the point of telling me who I could and couldn't have as a friend? For that matter, was he saying that if I saw Dale, then he too had a right to see other girls? That was something I could hardly bear to think about, but did that mean that I didn't trust him? I suddenly felt as if the solid rock of our relationship had developed a tiny crack, and an unbidden tear ran down my cheek.
Reggie was immediately concerned. “I'm sorry Harriet, I didn't mean that in an unkind way. You are entitled to have friends and Dale sounds like a really nice chap. I'd like to meet him sometime.”
That didn't really address my internal questions, but I reached out across the table and Reggie clasped my hand in his.
“I love you Harriet,” he said quietly. “I will always love you, you know that.”
Of course the effect of his words was to make the tears run faster, and I had to excuse myself and go to the 'Ladies' to repair the damage to my makeup. Thank goodness there was no reporter present or the headlines might have read something like “Stratford star and boyfriend in public bust-up”. This of course would have been a gross exaggeration, but reporters are not renowned for sticking to the truth if a juicy headline can be the result.
When I returned, Reggie was sitting there, the rest of his meal untouched. I took his hand in mine and said “Reggie, I love you too and always will. I'd never do anything to hurt you and I know you'd never do anything to hurt me.”
Reggie smiled at me and I managed to smile back and said “Well, let's not waste this lovely meal.” With that we resumed our lunch, but my throat was dry and I had difficulty swallowing. The day had been ruined and all through a few thoughtless words. I wished I had never mentioned the lunch with Dale, but then I didn't want to keep secrets from Reggie. His response too had really concerned me.
When we left the hotel, I asked Reggie if he would like to drive the car, but he declined, saying it was my car, and anyway I probably needed all the practice I could get. I wasn't going to argue with him, so I drove us back to the apartment, more or less in silence. I took it for granted that Reggie would stay the night and returned to London by the early morning train, so I was surprised when he said he thought he would return that evening as he had an early morning meeting at the bank. I didn't question the truth of that remark, but thought it was surprising he hadn't mentioned it before. We kissed goodbye at the railway station, but it seemed rather perfunctory to me, and I told myself to stop worrying as I watched the train until it disappeared out of sight.
Looking back now, it seems ridiculous that we both reacted the way we did to what was really a very minor issue, but when you are young and in love, little things can quickly blow up out of all proportion.
Reggie and I had an arrangement that when we arrived home after visiting each other, we would telephone and let it ring three times before hanging up, unless of course we wanted to talk, in which case we let the phone keep ringing. That evening I waited for his phone call; I knew roughly what time he would get home. I hoped he would want to talk but when the phone began to ring, it rang three times and then stopped. I cried myself to sleep before Mary arrived home from a date.
To be continued.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Louise Anne in proofreading the text and giving me a great deal of useful advice about modern-day Britain to incorporate in the story.
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