All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 3 Solving a crisis
It was now late August and Hamlet had been playing for nearly three months. I had had my driving licence for just over a month and was enjoying the freedom it gave me to tour the lovely countryside surrounding Stratford. Of course I would have liked to have explored it with Reggie, but with only one day off a week, and him still playing cricket, it wasn't always possible for us to meet up.
'Hamlet' was still playing to packed houses and standing ovations. I have to say that for a relative newcomer to the stage this was heady stuff. We were almost in a routine and that can be dangerous territory. Just when you think nothing can go wrong, it does.
It was eight-thirty on Monday morning. I didn't go down to London to see Reggie that weekend as he had a two-day cricket match and we both agreed it would be better to wait until he was free on Sunday. I always leave my mobile phone on the bedside table and it began that annoying jingle, which I leave in place because it encourages me to answer it quickly.
It was Tony Robertson. “Thank goodness I've reached you Harriet, we have a crisis on our hands. Dame Emily and her friend and understudy Madge went out to dinner last night to celebrate Madge's birthday. Dame Emily has just rung me. They've both come down with food poisoning. They're going to see a doctor as soon as they can but she puts the chances of either of them performing tonight at near zero.”
“Oh dear, that is bad news,” I responded, feeling I had to make a response however banal.
“I spoke to the producers and they were on the point of canceling tonight's performance and hoping that either Dame Emily or Madge would be well enough for tomorrow. Then I remembered that when we offered you the understudy position for Ophelia, we also asked you to be a reserve understudy for Queen Gertrude, and you did have a few rehearsals. So what I'm asking is, do you think you could perform Queen Gertrude tonight while Mary plays Ophelia?”
I only hesitated a millisecond. “Yes Tony, I'm sure I can. I did learn the part of course, but would it be possible for me to have a rehearsal with David today?”
His sigh of relief was audible. “I'll ring him right away. Can you speak to Mary for me?”
“Of course Tony. I'm sure we'll get through this.” I wasn't quite as confident as I sounded but somebody had to be positive about it, and for me there was a certain sense of 'déjà vu' after my first performance in 'Dear Brutus'.
Tony rang off and I slipped out of bed, put on my dressing gown and knocked on Mary's door. I explained the situation to her and she looked at me wide-eyed.
“And you're happy to take on the role with hardly any rehearsal?” she said.
“Well not 'happy' exactly but there's no other option short of canceling the performance, and don't forget I've been in this situation once before.” We both laughed at that and then I heard my phone ringing again so I raced back to answer it.
“I've got in touch with David and he can be at the theatre at eleven o'clock,” said Tony. “There's one other thing. I'm not sure if you'll fit in Dame Emily's costume, so I've arranged for someone from Wardrobe to be there this morning. I”m sure they can find something suitable for you to wear. When can you be there?”
“We should be there before ten,” I replied. “Mary is happy to play Ophelia, so we're all set.”
“Thanks Harriet,” he said. “I won't forget this.”
Mary and I hurried through our showers and dressing and then settled for a quick coffee and a slice of toast before heading for the theatre. I headed down to the Wardrobe department where Ange, one of the women was waiting for me.
“I'll just take your measurements,” she said, and put the tape measure over my bust, waist and hips while I was still dressed. She gave no indication that she noticed anything unusual.
“As I thought, you'll never get into Dame Emily's costume, but one of the advantages of doing so much Shakespeare is that we have plenty of costumes from that era. Take your top and skirt off and I'll see what I've got.”
She was back in a few minutes carrying two very grand costumes, telling me one had been used for the part of Queen Elizabeth I in another play. I tried them both on and we both decided that the 'Queen Elizabeth' one was most suitable.
“Would you like to wear it for the rehearsal to get used to it? It's quite a bit different to the Ophelia costume.”
“Yes, I think I will,” I replied. Ange made sure it was sitting properly on me, and I walked back up to the stage, just as David arrived. Tony was already there, so I asked him what he thought of the costume. I think that was the least of his worries at that moment, but he replied that it looked fine.
“I'm wearing it to get used to it,” I said.
Apart from one rehearsal, I'd never acted with David while playing the Queen before, so this was new to me. Tony had a short discussion with us first.
“Harriet, you're younger than David, so since you're playing his mother, we'll have to ask Makeup to add a few years. Of course in those days, brides, especially royal ones were quite young, so Hamlet's mother might have been only sixteen years older than him. We'll have a rehearsal first, and then if you'd like to get made up, we'll see how you look.”
The rehearsal went very well. David is a brilliant actor, but by now I was quite used to seeing him around, both on and off stage, and he's the easiest person to get along with. When we had a break, he complimented me in that amazing Scottish accent which he seems to be able to switch off and on at will.
“That was great Harriet. I'm rather glad you're a young woman or you might have been taking over my role,” he said with a smile. Now that is some compliment!
I went off to Makeup for them to work their magic. They're just some of the talented people who are never seen, but by working their magic they make the cast look good. After they had finished and I looked at myself in the mirror, I was amazed. They had added a good ten years to my age but without me looking grotesque. It was indeed a revelation to see myself as I might appear as I grew older. Now it was up to me to act the part of an older woman.
We rehearsed until mid-afternoon, when Tony said he was satisfied. He might have wanted to go on longer, but he realised that we would all need some rest before the evening performance.
“I've heard from Dame Emily,” he said. “Her doctor has said that ideally she should get at least two days rest before going onstage again. In the meantime she's undergoing treatment.”
The evening performance was quite a challenge. Before it started the announcer said to the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, due to the indisposition of Dame Emily Good, in tonight's performance the part of Queen Gertrude will be played by Miss Harriet Stow, and the part of Ophelia by Miss Mary Green.”
That certainly caused a stir amongst the audience, we could hear them murmuring to each other. I know that they were all looking forward to seeing Dame Emily perform and so would be viewing my efforts with a very critical eye. Still, I couldn't let that affect me. I would do my best, I always did.
The performance went very well. For me it seemed strange to see someone else playing Ophelia and having to interact with them. It was almost as if I was watching myself perform two roles at the same time. One special moment for me was that lovely speech in which the Queen announces Ophelia's death, which in the play occurs off-stage.
'There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb'ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
When I finished the speech there was a moment's complete and utter silence, a compliment better than the most enthusiastic applause. The lights of the stage spilled into the audience far enough for me to see two women in the front row dabbing at their eyes with handkerchiefs. I might not be Dame Emily but I felt sure that they would remember my part in the performance.
At the conclusion of the play, there was again a standing ovation, and cheers as Mary and I joining hands advanced to the foot of the stage to take our bows, just before David appeared. We smiled at each other in silent recognition that we had not disappointed the audience. Tony was very gracious in his compliments afterwards.
“I'm going to contact Dame Emily and let her know how well you went, and that if she feels it's necessary for her to take a second day off, then we can manage,” he said. Thinking back, I suppose that even with an artist of Dame Emily's standing, he had to be careful not to imply that we were managing too well without her! I'm sure I would feel the same way.
Mary and I then went back to our dressing room to change and take the taxi back to the apartment. What a day it had been!
A few mornings later I had a phone call from my agent Richard Green.
“Hariett, I thought I'd catch up with you. Actually I was in Stratford a couple of days ago but didn't have time to call, however I did managed to see 'Hamlet', and you playing the Queen at short notice – amazing! As you know, I took you on as a favour to Dame Emily; she's asked me to do that for young actors a couple of times, and I trust her judgment implicitly, but it's still nice to see clients for myself. I have to tell you that I was very impressed with your performance. You have a great career ahead of you young lady.”
I thought to myself 'How on earth did you manage to score a ticket? They're like hen's teeth.' Aloud I said “Thank you very much Richard.”
“Now to business,” the tone of his voice changed. “I'm sure you are learning that as a professional actress you have to be thinking about the next role you will play and the one after that. You must also put aside money to tide you over the lean times, and they happen to even the best actors. It's my job to help you with your career, and to expand your repertoire and experience. I have it on good authority that ISC's next production will be 'Twelfth Night', and you would be perfect for the role of 'Viola', so I hope you will audition for it.”
I could hardly stop myself from bursting out laughing. This would be “art imitating life” in a way no-one but I would know. In Shakespeare's time the role was played by a boy, pretending to be a girl Viola, pretending to be a boy Cesario. How ironic if I should play the role!
“I'd love to audition for the role,” I replied. “Of course I've never played comedy before so I don't know how I would go. Do you know who is directing the play?”
“The whisper is that it's Chris Johnson. He's very experienced with Shakespearean comedy,” he replied. I'd never heard of him, so made a mental note to find out all I could about him.
“Do this well and there might be bigger things to come. I've heard a rumour that they are considering 'Romeo and Juliet' in the near future. Most actresses your age would kill for that role.” 'Hmmm. An interesting choice of words' I thought.
“Anyway, first things first. I think you stand a very good chance of getting Viola, so I'll put your name forward.”
“Thank you Richard,” I said. “I'm just learning how important an agent is to an actor.”
He laughed and rang off.
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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