All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 35 The tour concludes
Cassie was very excited. “You haven't forgotten have you?” she said. No I hadn't forgotten. About eleven o'clock there was a quiet knock on the door. Cassie opened it and Gerry stepped inside, also clad in a dressing gown. This was my signal to go next door. I smiled at them both and stepped out into the corridor. It was empty, and a few steps later I was outside the door of the next room. Richard opened it and I stepped inside.
“The things we do for friends,” I said.
He grinned. “We do indeed,” he said.
I stood there feeling a bit awkward and Richard broke the ice by asking if I'd like a cup of coffee or tea. I gratefully accepted his offer. The room had two small armchairs as well as twin beds, so we sat down and chatted, carefully avoiding the 'elephant in the room', namely the sleeping arrangements. Despite Cassie's confidence, I didn't know for sure that Richard knew about me, and if he didn't know then I thought it was better if things stayed that way. Our conversation was confined to the rôles we had played and the famous actors we had met. I frankly confessed that if it hadn't been for Dame Emily I probably wouldn't be where I was then, chatting to him. It turned out that he had met a famous actor whose name I had better not mention but will just say that he had a knighthood. It seems this actor had taken quite a shine to him and had endeavoured to take him to bed.
“I let him down as gently as I could,” said Richard. “I was tempted to go along with it, just like those stories you hear of actresses and the 'casting couch', but in the end I had to tell him that I 'played for the other team'. I'm sure he's been knocked back before because he took it well and he was still willing to put in a good word for me which resulted in my first major part. Up until then I'd only managed to get 'spear carrier' rôles, or a few lines at most. It's ironic that in this business you have to already be successful in order to get the good parts, so there's a lot of luck involved.
“I agree – absolutely!” I replied while thinking 'Well he certainly won't want to take me to bed then.' I actually felt a bit disappointed.
Eventually I thought that I had better take the lead, so I said “Which bed is Gerry's? Perhaps we had better get some shut-eye.”
Richard looked a bit disappointed. “It's that one,” he said, pointing to it, “If that's what you want.”
I took a deep breath. “I think it's for the best. If you know all about me, no doubt you think so too.”
To my surprise, Richard looked a bit puzzled. “I know you are beautiful, very smart and have a lovely nature,” he said.
I found myself blushing. I hadn't been looking for compliments.
I took a deep breath. “Cassie says you know the other thing about me, and after what you just said about you and Sir (here I mentioned his name), I can't imagine you would want to take me to bed.”
To my surprise he laughed and as a result tears started in my eyes. Richard was instantly contrite. “I'm sorry Harriet, I shouldn't have reacted like that, please forgive me.” He stepped forward and took me in his arms to comfort me.
“Yes I do know about you, not that I asked, you understand? I had no reason to believe you were any different to any other girl I've met apart from the above-mentioned attributes of course. Someone, I'm not saying who, decided that I should know, but really it doesn't make any difference. You are a woman, there's no doubt of that.”
“A woman with a 'plumbing problem' as the saying goes,” I replied. “Well I'm going to do something about that. I'm having surgery soon after I get back to England, so for now I think I shouldn't get too involved with anyone, but afterwards, who knows?”
“In that case I admire you even more,” he said. “You know what you want in life and nothing is going to stand in your way.” He smiled. “Well now that's sorted out, do you want to share a bed with me or not? If you do, we won't do anything you're not comfortable doing. Is that a deal?”
I managed a smile now “Yes, it's a deal.”
So we went to bed together, still wearing our dressing gowns and in a short time we were asleep. The alarm clock began to buzz at six o'clock and a few minutes later, Gerry entered the bedroom. I slipped out of Richard's bed and went back to my room. Cassie was sitting at the table, with two cups of coffee made.
“How did it go?” she asked. “You look like you've had a good night.”
“Yes, it was a good night,” I replied. “We had a chat and then we went to bed.”
“So you don't mind doing it again?” she asked.
“I don't see why not,” I replied. I left it up to her to draw her own conclusions on what had happened, and if she came to the wrong ones, well that was just too bad.
I was having such a good time on this trip and felt rather guilty when I realised that I hadn't yet written to Reggie to tell him how things were going. Fortunately the hotel had computers available for guests to use, so I took the opportunity to log onto Hotmail. I was glad that I did, since there was an email from him in my in-box written the previous day. In it he guessed that I must now be in Australia or New Zealand and hoped that the trip was going well. He didn't have a lot of news; he was still studying hard and had played several games for the college football team. He had scored two goals, one of which helped to win a match. He didn't mention Sophie, which didn't surprise me.
It occurred to me that after some time she must surely wonder why she wasn't getting pregnant, and since she had insisted that Reggie was the father of the child she miscarried, she could hardly accuse him of not being fertile. That left her in a difficult position and I wondered how it would play out. Reggie's decision to have a vasectomy now looked like a very smart move. Not knowing the truth, maybe Sophie would come to the conclusion that Reggie was infertile and perhaps she would in time want a divorce so that she could marry someone else, I certainly hoped so.
My reply to Reggie was naturally full of news.
The tour is going very well. In Singapore ticket sales were so big that they changed the venue from a 1700 seat theatre to a 6000 seat arena, the largest audience I'm every likely to perform in front of. We all wore microphones to be heard and our images were shown a huge screens. It was like a rock concert! In Perth we were in an old theatre, and the same in Melbourne, one which even had its own ghost! I met Aunt Peggy, Uncle Ron, and cousins Flora and Ron junior who stayed at the same hotel. We had some meals and did some shopping together. They saw the plays and enjoyed them very much. It was good to catch up with Aunt Peggy again and meet my other relatives.
We are now in Sydney and had a reception in the famous Opera House. The harbour and bridge are amazing. Next we are off to New Zealand and after that America. I will write again from New Zealand.
Much love, Harriet.
Of course I also sent an email to Emma containing much the same news, and I knew that she would pass on the contents to Mum. I suspected that Mum might be worried about her little girl being on the opposite side of the world.
We continued playing to capacity audiences. I should mention that the countries where we were playing all had professional theatre companies that specialised in Shakespearean productions, and doubtless some of their members were casting a critical eye over our performances.
In Australia there is the Bell Shakespeare Company, formed in 1990 and based in Sydney and in New Zealand there is the Shakespeare Globe Centre. In 1991, five hundred embroiderers and textile artists combined their talents to make four wall hangings for the new Globe Theatre in London and from that beginning has sprung up a collaboration which has seen teachers and students study and perform there.
The theatre companies performing Shakespeare in the United States are too numerous to mention. Performances started in the mid eighteenth century and remain popular to this day. With so many 'home-grown' performances available, what was it that attracted audiences to us? I suspect it was partly the fame of our company, coming as we did from Shakespeare's home town; also the chance in this case to see famous artists Sir John McKenna and Geraldine McKeown live on-stage. Most of the other cast members, including myself, were too young to be household names yet, although naturally enough we hoped that this would happen in time. For the present it was our intention to live up to the reputation of the ISC by performing to the best standard of which we were capable.
At the conclusion of the Sydney season, we took another plane and headed east again, this time landing in Auckland on New Zealand's North Island. The two islands are quite different; the North Island being very volcanic. We were given a short trip to Rotorua south of Auckland and a centre of geothermal activity, in fact the whole town has the aroma of sulphur or 'rotten eggs'. We saw the Pohutu Geyser at Whakarewarewa erupt and were taught how to pronounce it properly (the 'Wh' is pronounced 'Ph' and the 'r' is rolled). The New Zealand accent is really unique and took us a while to get used to, it's certainly not like the Australian one.
Our Auckland performances were at the Civic Theatre which holds nearly 2400 people and operates as a theatre and cinema, has a 'rococo' style interior and an amazing ceiling with stars and clouds effects.
Our next stop was the South Island which is quite different, with much lush countryside and some quite high mountains including Mt Cook, or Aoraki. A short 'internal' flight took us from the North Island down to Christchurch where we performed at the Theatre Royal, a century old theatre with 1300 seats. Once again the interior decoration was amazing, with a dome illustrated with scenes from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', and Shakespeare's image on one of the boxes next to the stage.
I love performing in old theatres, they have an atmosphere that the modern ones will never have, or at least not for a century or so! We were all surprised and delighted at the age of some of the theatres we encountered during our tour.
In case my story seems to be turning into a travelogue, I will abbreviate the rest of the tour. After the reception, rehearsals and our New Zealand performances which were again mostly sold out, we flew from Auckland to Los Angeles. This was quite a long trip back to the Northern Hemisphere, which of course meant that when we emerged from the airport, it was winter again and felt a bit chilly after the high temperatures we had just experienced.
More receptions, many with State governors, more rehearsals and theatres followed, or 'theaters' as they are referred to over there. After a while one place almost blurred into another, however, looking back now on the photos I took and the journal that I wrote, I can recall what an amazing journey it was. Since that time I've been overseas many times, but like your first kiss, the first tour is always one to remember.
Finally we arrived in New York and I can definitely say that none of the million photos that everyone has seen can prepare you for what it's like to actually be there. As previously mentioned, we did not play Broadway where the theatres are booked by shows that run for years. Instead we performed in a 3500 seat theatre in Brooklyn which was over seventy years old, again with the most amazing interior. Bookings were excellent with full or nearly full houses every night. This was not strictly 'off Broadway' which refers to smaller theatres of four hundred seats or less in the vicinity of Broadway, but it wasn't that far away.
At last the season came to an end and on our final day all the cast and crew were treated to a tour of New York, including the view from the top of the Empire State Building, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, and a walk through part of Central Park. That evening we dressed up in our gowns and dinner suits for an end of season dinner at a large Chinese restaurant. I noticed that Scarlett and Jemma came in together. They looked very happy and it seemed that they were now an 'item'. Well it wasn't for me of all people to say what people can and can't do, so I just exchanged smiles with them.
When we were seated and ready to eat, to our surprise who should walk into the room but Duncan Morgan, the ISC's CEO. It turned out that he had been visiting New York to negotiate another longer season for the company, and had arranged it so that he could attend the dinner and surprise us.
As we approached the end of the excellent dinner which like all Chinese ones had many courses, Duncan stood up to address us.
“First of all I'd like to congratulate you all, both cast and crew, on a very successful tour. It seems that everywhere you have performed there have been full houses, including those extraordinary ones in the arena in Singapore. Six thousand people is by any standards a big audience!
“As we all expected, you have upheld the high standards of the Imperial Shakespeare Company wherever you went, and I have been overwhelmed with letters and emails of congratulations.
“I don't want to put a dampener on the evening, but I thought it best you heard it from me first. I received a phone call today that our dear friend and brilliant actor Leon McKeen passed away yesterday. I last spoke to him about a week ago and brought him up to date on the tour. He was thrilled to hear of your success. We are all going to miss him very much. The last thing he said to me was ' I don't think I've got long to go Duncan. Please tell all the company that I love them dearly. Tell them not to be sad but just drink a toast to me one last time, that is if they feel so inclined'. Well I'm sure we are so inclined, so if you'd all be upstanding, I propose a toast – to Leon!”
We all stood up and with one voice said “To Leon”, then took a sip from our glasses and sat down.
It is hardly surprising that after many food courses, and a few glasses of wine, that it was suggested that a company of actors should recite their favourite poem. When it was my turn, since no-one else had chosen it, I stood and said.
“Even though he was Australian, Leon spent so much time in England that he was an 'honorary Englishman', so in his memory and considering where we are at present, I'm going to recite 'Home Thoughts from Abroad' by Robert Browning:
'O, to be in England
Now that April 's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom'd pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge—
That 's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!'
I sat down to cheers and applause, so immediately stood up again and bowed to everyone. Well I had consumed a couple of glasses of wine!
Then it was Richard's turn.
“To follow on from Harriet, and in memory of Leon I'd like to recite one of Dylan Thomas's most famous poems.”
This he proceded to do in that lovely lilting Welsh accent which he seemed about to switch on and off at will:
'Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'
There was silence when he finished, and I confess, my eyes were filled with tears.
The final recitation went to the oldest member of the company Sir John McKenna.
He stood up and said. “Thank you Richard. Now I knew Leon better than most of you. We performed together many times and I know he would not like you to be sad at his passing. Something he really enjoyed was what is often called 'Parlour Poetry', that is poetry dating back to the Victorian era, long before television and even radio, when people used to entertain themselves by playing the piano, singing or reciting poetry. This was one of his favourites 'The Girl on the Stairs' by Lawrence Hanray which goes something like this:
'I've kissed many girls under many conditions,
I've kissed them both with and without their permissions,
But never a one for a moment compares
With the girl that I kissed, in the dark, on the stairs.
It was just round the corner, a sudden sharp turning,
They'd kindly forgotten to leave a light burning,
We met with a bump, taken quite unawares,
And somehow or other we kissed on the stairs.
Was she fair? Was she dark? Was she mistress or maid?
An innocent schoolgirl or heartbreaking jade?
I've never discovered but who on earth cares?
Enough that we met and we kissed on the stairs.
She didn't say yes and she didn't say no,
But she clung pretty close and she didn't let go.
Now a lover who wins is a lover who dares,
So I kissed her again on the lips, and the stairs.
Her lips were so soft and her skin oh so creamy,
While, as to her eyes well I'll bet they were dreamy,
But of course total darkness your vision impairs,
You don't want to look when you kiss on the stairs.
For a moment or so, she clung pretty tight,
Then up on the landing some fool struck a light,
And swearing the softest of feminine swears,
She kissed me and left me alone on the stairs.
Oh it's long long ago and I'm fast growing old,
And girls nowadays leave me out in the cold,
So I just close my eyes to such mundane affairs,
And fancy I'm kissing...that girl on the stairs.'
As you can imagine that brought the house down. We cheered and clapped and drummed our feet on the floor, and other patrons looked at these rowdy Brits, but we didn't care. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful tour.
The next morning we packed our bags and were driven to the airport for our flight home. Some of us were nursing sore heads although I'm glad to say that I wasn't among them. I did feel a little dehydrated, but after plenty of water to drink I felt fine.
I sat next to Richard on the flight home as Cassie wanted to sit next to Gerry. I wondered if their romance would outlive the tour, but really it was none of my business. I knew that it was quite possible than in a month or so they might find themselves working on opposite sides of the country. No wonder so many relationships in the theatrical world don't last very long.
After landing at Heathrow the group started to disperse. Some of us took the bus back to Stratford while others departed to locations where they had work lined up, or perhaps just to visit their families. I realised that I would have to get used to experiencing the sadness of parting after being with an 'extended family' for over a month.
Richard was going to Swansea to see his family. We had a farewell hug and promised to stay in touch. Cassie, Jemma, Scarlett and I sat in a row across the bus and chatted as we rode back to Stratford with the crew and some other members of the cast. Gerry wasn't among them and I wondered where he had gone. Somewhat to my surprise Jemma said she was thinking of auditioning for Desdemona in 'Othello'. I don't think she knew that I had my eye on that part too, so I said nothing. If it came to a contest between the two of us, I fancied that my experience would be the deciding factor.
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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