All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 21 Romeo and Juliet
The week following my trip to Bath and Lacock, I made three more trips to Warwick to complete recording 'Alice in Wonderland'. It all seemed to go very well. Max was pleased with the quality of the recording and said that the company would be in touch if any re-recording was necessary, but if I heard nothing then that would mean that they were happy. From past experience he expected that the CDs would be on the market in about six months and a complimentary copy would be posted to me.
I also visited the studio where my photographs had been taken and selected a few 'ten by eight inch' enlargements for my portfolio. They showed me which one had been selected for the audio book cover and I was happy with the choice, not that I would have had any say in the matter.
It was now time for the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals to begin. I had made some enquiries about accommodation for Cassie and as a result she had managed to find a flat to share with another girl, a secretary who had nothing to do with the theatre. I told her I was sorry we were unable to share since Dale had taken Mary's room, but she told me not to worry.
“Perhaps it's for the best,” she said. “We'll be seeing a lot of each other at the theatre, and supposing we had a row in the flat about who was taking too much time in the bathroom?”
I laughed and said “Well I do find that Dale spends a lot less time there than Mary used to do, so I think you might be right.”
I had wondered how the rehearsals would go with having two Juliets. On the first day, Jemma, the understudy turned up, She was a pretty dark-haired girl and she seemed rather in awe of Cassie and me. We both greeted her warmly and said how pleased we were to be working with her. “If either of us gets ill, then at least we have a backstop to go on-stage,” said Cassie.
Jemma smiled and said “It seems odd to be saying this but I hope that never happens. I really do want everything to run smoothly. Mr Norad tells me that you both have experience in Shakespeare plays and I'm just a novice, so I hope you'll be patient with me.”
Paul had been right about Jemma's memory; within a week she was 'off book'.
We took it in turns to work with Richard Jenkins and his understudy Donald Barrows, a young Australian actor who had managed to adopt a southern English accent very well. He was taller than Richard and fair-haired, with a handsome boyish face, and he performed very well, better in fact than he'd performed at the audition where I had picked him as the 'best of the rest'. As I had suspected, being nervous had let him down on that occasion.
In addition to his acting abilities, he also played the flute and clarinet and within a few weeks of arriving in Stratford had joined a local jazz quartet which then became a part-time quintet. The only problem of course was that Don had to be at the theatre every evening except Sundays to understudy Richard. Cassie, Dale and I did go along to a local jazz club one Sunday to hear him play and he was very talented. I was sure that he could earn a living as a musician if the acting rôles dried up.
He often brought one of his instruments into the theatre and passed the time practising while sitting in the dressing room. If it was my turn to be the back-up I would often sit in the dressing room listening to him. He tried to teach me how to get a note out of the flute but despite my best efforts, nothing seemed to work.
Unlike my first stage experience in Bridchester, I no longer felt the need to be in costume to act a part although I did tend to wear a long skirt or dress while rehearsing Shakespeare as it made me feel more comfortable. I was pleased to see that Cassie interacted so well with Richard, since she hadn't been able to attend the Romeo auditions. I should have realised that Paul was experienced enough to know that they would work well together.
The rest of the cast performed well. Two of the young men who had auditioned for Romeo had been given the rôles of Mercutio and Tybald, for which they were much better suited. Friar Lawrence was performed by Leon McKeen, an older actor with a long and illustrious career in what turned out to be his final role, as he passed away a few months after the end of the season. Veteran actress Geraldine McKeown returned to Stratford to play the Nurse, giving an impressive performance. I felt privileged to be acting in such company.
The weeks passed quickly and opening night was fast approaching. The question arose, should Cassie or I perform on the first night? We decided (with Paul's permission) that tossing a coin was the fairest way, and I won.
I arrived early at the theatre and, I confess, feeling not a little nervous. Cassie was a great support, sitting in the dressing room as I got ready and being very encouraging. She didn't seem to have an ounce of jealousy in her. As my hair was styled and makeup applied, surprisingly I began to relax. At nineteen I wasn't very old anyway, but makeup had made me look even younger, and once I had put on my costume and checked myself out in the mirror, I felt fine. I think this happens to many actors as they lose themselves in the character they are about to perform.
While Juliet does not appear until Scene Three in Act One, I had developed the habit of being within earshot of the stage to mentally immerse myself into the play, and this would be no exception. When I heard the five minute call for the actors in the opening scenes, I made my way to the stage, being careful to keep out of everyone's way. There is a certain thrill, standing in the wings and hearing the buzz of anticipation from the audience on the other side of the red velvet curtains, and while it wasn't possible to see into the auditorium, the sudden quiet indicated that the house lights had been dimmed.
The curtain rose and Chorus a tall, handsome actor, strode onto the stage. After making a deep bow to the audience he began to recite an introductory sonnet:
'Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Once finished, he gave another deep bow and strode off-stage as the characters Sampson and Gregory entered.
I have often thought that the opening sonnet is a 'spoiler' since it summarises the whole plot in fourteen lines. That was a common occurence in Shakespeare's time, and since almost everyone nowadays knows the story, no real harm is done. Another interesting thing is that Chorus breaks the 'fourth wall' in addressing the audience directly, something we tend to think of as a modern device, but it was often used in Elizabethan theatre.
Soon it was time for Scene Three a room in the Capulet's house and I made my entrance 'How now! Who calls?'
In fact I had little to say in that scene which is dominated by Lady Capulet and my Nurse and I then had to wait until the ball in Scene Five where Romeo meets Juliet for the first time and instantly falls in love with her:
'If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss'.
By the end of the scene, Juliet is as deeply in love with Romeo as he is with her, but she is also aware of the difficulties they will face.
My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy.
Act Two starts with Chorus again addressing the audience, reciting another sonnet. Soon afterwards begins the most famous scene in the play, where Romeo climbs over the orchard wall into the Capulets' garden and speaks to Juliet standing on the balcony of her bedroom.
After the magic that Richard and I had captured at his audition, and which in my opinion we had never quite achieved since, I was thrilled to find it once more, perhaps reaching even greater heights now that we were in costume, on a set seemingly lit by moonlight, and performing for an audience. The dialogue in this scene is some of the loveliest that Shakespeare ever wrote:
'But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she...
'See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!'
Then Juliet, unaware of Romeo's presence says:
Oh Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore art though Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name:
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
Later she muses:
'What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd...'
Romeo reveals his presence and the two lovers converse until finally, called by her nurse, Juliet reluctantly bids him farewell:
'Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.'
And when she is gone, Romeo's final words:
Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast!
Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!...
With experience you can tell when an audience is really involved and this one certainly was. In the last scene of Act Three, Juliet plans to visit Friar Lawrence to seek his help. Then came the interval and I went back to the dressing room. Cassie and Jemma were there and congratulated me.
“We stood at the back of the stalls for a while,” said Cassie. “It's really going so well. The chemistry between you and Richard is amazing.”
“It's like I'm seeing the play for the first time,” said Jemma.
I blushed, although of course I was pleased with their assessment, which means all the more when it comes from fellow actors.
I had a sandwich and a small cup of tea with sugar to keep up my energy levels, and soon it was time to go back to the stage for the final two acts.
The story of Romeo and Juliet is so well known that no 'spoiler alert' is necessary. In fact it says much for Shakespeare's genius that audiences still become so involved in the story even though they know the ending.
The final scene takes place in a churchyard at the tomb of the Capulets. The stage was divided in two by the wall of the crypt. Juliet lies on a bier in a deep coma, while the action takes place outside. This required me to take slow and shallow breaths to reduce body movement to a minimum. With practice it can be quite convincing. Romeo arrives at the graveyard and meets Paris, the young nobleman who was to have been Juliet's husband; they fight and Paris is killed. Romeo, unaware that Juliet is not dead enters the tomb and bids her farewell with a kiss before drinking poison and dying.
Friar Lawrence arrives too late, just as Juliet awakens. Hearing voices, he tries to take her from the tomb but she refuses to leave when she sees Romeo lying dead She kisses him, trying to find enough poison on his lips to kill herself, but failing that takes up his dagger and stabs herself.
....Yea, noise? then I'll be brief. O happy dagger!
This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.
With that I stabbed myself and collapsed across Romeo's body. This scene was difficult to play. Knives with retractable blades are dangerous and no longer used since they can jam and result in a real stabbing, so Cassie, Jemma and I worked with Paul to play the scene is such a way that the audience believes they see a stabbing but in fact they don't. Then I had to lie across Romeo's body, both of us keeping as still as possible until the end of the play.
The play concludes with the Prince, the Capulets and Montague entering the tomb and finding their children dead. Too late, they are reconciled.
The Prince's final words conclude the play:
'A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.'
The curtain came down, and we were accorded that rarest of compliments from an audience, several moments of silence, before the applause erupted. On stage, Richard helped me to my feet.
I smiled at him. “Well done! I think we really nailed it tonight,” I said.
He smiled back. “We did indeed.”
We arranged ourselves in the wings ready for the curtain calls. When the curtain rose again, the minor players appeared first, followed by those who played the larger parts.
Leon as Friar Lawrence and Geraldine as the Nurse appeared separately and then Richard and I appeared from the wings on either side of the stage, joined hands and advanced to the apron where we bowed to the audience. The applause which was already loud, increased in intensity. The house lights being slightly raised, we could see that the audience were on their feet, clapping and cheering. Then we joined hands with the other principal players, and there were more bows and more cheering.
The curtain fell and rose again and still the audience cheered and clapped as we bowed again and again. Finally, after the sixth time the curtain fell and stayed down, the house lights came up and the show was over. Paul came on stage and congratulated everyone.
“Well done everyone. That was one of the best performances that I have ever seen,” he said.
We returned to our dressing rooms to change. Cassie was still there and smiled when she saw me. “Harriet, you're a hard act to follow.” she said. “I hope I can do half as well on Monday.”
I blushed. “You'll do as well as me, maybe better,” I said, and I meant it. Suddenly I felt exhausted, and I was glad of Cassie's help as I took off my costume and got dressed. She drove me back to the flat and refused my polite offer of a coffee for which I was grateful. I went straight to bed and was asleep in minutes.
I can't pretend to be impervious to the critics reactions in Monday's newspapers. I will quote just one, Norman Pleasance, for whom the expression 'damning with faint praise' might have been invented.
'STRATFORD'S NEW PRODUCTION OF ROMEO AND JULIET DELIGHTS'
'The new ISC production of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays opened to a packed house and rapturous acclaim at the opening night last Saturday. The large cast performed well as an ensemble and it was a pleasure to see veteran actors Leon McKeen as Friar Lawrence and Geraldine McKeown as the Nurse reprise their rôles from earlier productions.
The play stands or falls by the ability of the two lead actors to convey the adrenaline rush of young love. It is easy to forget that Juliet is not quite fourteen and Romeo is fifteen, although the actors who portray them are never as young as that. Relative newcomers Harriet Stow (who will share the rôle with Cassandra Evans) and Richard Jenkins, acted with exceptional polish and the chemistry between them was palpable. The 'balcony scene' was performed as well as I have ever seen it done by some of the great names. The future of British theatre is in good hands with young actors such as these.
Set and costume design by Eliza Norstradt were of a consistently high standard and contributed much to the production, and the play was directed by Paul Norad, now achieving renown as a gifted Shakespeare specialist. The play is set for a two month season at Stratford and will undoubtedly be a 'must see' for the many visitors to the Bard's birthplace. Lose no time if you want to secure tickets.
The article was accompanied with a picture of the balcony scene which had been taken at a dress rehearsal.
Paul commented that this was the first 'five star' review he had ever seen from Pleasance. “He usually feels that he has failed if he can't find something to criticise, so this review is quite exceptional. I would frame it and stick it on the wall if I were you.”
The other critics were similarly complimentary and in some cases their praise was even more fulsome. As usual, I cut them all out and posted them to Mum. I hope this doesn't sound narcissistic, since it was something she always asked me to do. When they arrived she carefully put them into a photo album along with any pictures of the production that I was able to obtain.
The following morning I rang Mum to tell her how the performance had gone.
“It went very well Mum. Richard was brilliant and he really inspired me. Judging by the applause it's going to be a great season.”
“I do hope we can come down to see it,” she replied. “I know you are sharing the role with Cassie Evans and while I'm sure she will be very good, we would really love to see you of course. Do you have a rota of performances?”
“Well I played at the opening night and so Cassie should play Monday evening. Wednesdays and Saturdays will both have a matinée as well as the evening performance and we will take it in turns to do each show. When we're not performing then we will act as each other's back-up.”
“Well I think we had better come for a Wednesday matinée if you can tell us which one you are doing.”
“Ok Mum, I'll work it out and let you know when I can get tickets.”
It was another three weeks before I was able to get tickets for a Wednesday matinée when I was performing, and Mum and Emma came down with baby Elizabeth. Cassie kindly offered to look after Elizabeth and give her a bottle if needed. Emma came to the dressing room at interval to check on her, but everything was going fine.
“I'm so looking forward to the second half of the play, Harriet,” she said. “Every time I see you, your acting has gone up another notch. I've never seen the 'balcony scene' done so well. I'm sure everyone watching thinks that you and young Richard are really in love.”
I laughed. “Well you know that's not true Emma, I love Reggie and always will.”
Since this chapter has rather concentrated on my acting, I must record the response to Cassie's performances. The local newspaper was published weekly and so their theatre critic had the opportunity to see Cassie perform as Juliet too. He published a glowing report.
“INSPIRATIONAL ROMEO AND JULIET FROM THE ISC”
A new season of 'Romeo and Juliet' from ISC is thrilling audiences including many visitors to Stratford. The lead rôles are performed by relative newcomers, Richard Jenkins as Romeo, and in an unusual decision Cassandra Evans and Harriet Stow are sharing the role of Juliet. For those who are not aware, Cassandra Evans is the daughter of Dame Emily Good who has often graced the stage at Stratford, and Cassandra has obviously inherited her acting genes.
Having had the privilege of seeing both actresses perform, I can report that while each brought her individual touch to the role, audiences will be more than satisfied whichever actress they see.
The whole company performed at a very high standard, and it will be a delight for older audience members to see veterans Leon McKeen perform as Friar Lawrence, and Geraldine McKeown as Juliet's nurse. These actors may be in the twilight of their careers, but their standard of acting is as good as ever.
This is a performance that stays in the memory, and one I can unreservedly recommend.'
This was another review which I duly cut out and posted to Mum. Things could hardly be going better. Yes, I had to defer my surgery, but that should take place early the following year, and meanwhile I was performing in a lead role at Stratford. Life was good.
It was on the Friday afternoon of the fifth week of the season that I had a phone call from Reggie.
“Hello Harriet,” he said, and he sounded unusually subdued.
“Hi darling, how are things going at York?”
“Fine, thank you. Harriet, I need to talk to you,”
“Well you are talking to me now,” I replied with a laugh.
“No, I mean talk to you 'face to face',” he replied. Suddenly I felt that something was wrong.
“What is it Reggie? Is something the matter?”
“Can I come down and see you on Sunday?” he asked. He was not replying to my question and that worried me.
“Of course you can. I can even drive up there if you like?”
“No, I'll take the early train down,” he replied. “I'll see you then.”
“I love you Reggie,” I said. I didn't mean to say it, but somehow it came out as though it was a defence against whatever was troubling him.
“I love you too Harriet. I'll see you Sunday,” he said and hung up the phone.
Something was definitely wrong, I could sense it. Was he ill, or did he want to cool things off so that he could take out other women? After all, because of the present circumstances, we couldn't see each other very often, but how would I feel about that? I went through a dozen scenarios in my mind, but in the end I needn't have bothered, because the truth when I heard it was worse than I could have imagined in my darkest nightmare.
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, also Julia Phillips for picking up my punctuation errors and any typos Louise or I missed. I'm very grateful to them both.
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