All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 32 Flying high
I drove back to Stratford on Saturday morning. I had phoned Dale the previous day to tell him I was on my way, just in case he needed to do a 'tidy-up'. In fact the flat was very tidy when I arrived and I suspected that Frank had been visiting, but I didn't ask; after all it was none of my business.
Dale surprised me by saying that he and Frank had driven up to Bridchester to see 'Cinderella' the previous Saturday night.
“Why didn't you let me know you were there?” I asked. “We could have had supper together.”
“Oh we can't keep taking up your time,” said Dale. “You have a real fan in Frank though. He insists of seeing every show you're in, so I'm sure we can all catch up after the next one, whenever that is.”
“Well the next performances are overseas,” I said. “I hope he doesn't insist on seeing those or it's going to cost a fortune!” We both had a laugh about that.
I was pleased to see my passport had arrived, shiny and new and I looked forward to getting some stamps on the blank pages. I was glad that the passport office had accepted my letter of explanation and the confirmation supplied by my surgeon so that I was now shown as female, with a photograph of me as I now was. Thus there would be no awkward questions to answer as I passed through immigration.
That evening I opened up my laptop and logged into Hotmail. I had hoped for an email from Reggie, but instead there was one from Aunt Peggy in Australia which had arrived a week earlier.
' Dear Harriet,
Thanks for your letter. We're so glad to hear everything is going well there. Your career is going great guns and we were thrilled to hear you are coming out to Aus. We'll watch out for when the tickets are on sale in Melbourne. Please let us know which performances you are in. You probably won't have time to come to Yack, so it will be better if we head down to Melbourne and stay a day or two. We do that once or twice a year, and usually stay at the Windsor Hotel, but let us know where you are staying and we'll see if we can book into the same place.
Great you're on email now, it will be easier to stay in touch.
Love from Ron, me and the kids.
I immediately wrote back:
'Dear Aunt Peggy,
Sorry for the delay in writing. I just arrived back from Brid where I was in the pantomime as Mum has probably told you. I just filled in for someone who was sick but it was great fun. I'll write and tell you the performance dates and which ones I will be in as Cassie will play Juliet in some of them, but I will play Viola in all performances of Twelfth Night. I'm looking forward to seeing you again.
Love to all, Harriet' xxx
It was soon time to head back to the theatre for some more rehearsals, and group discussions on how we were going to approach the performances.
There was an air or excitement as we all gathered together again. The one new cast member, Sir John McKenna was present. He remembered me from 'Hamlet' and kindly said “I've been hearing great things about you in 'Romeo and Juliet” and I look forward to working with you, my dear.”
Having had a long career in the theatre he knew some of the other cast members too, so he was soon right at home with us all. Someone asked if he'd heard how Leon McKeen was, since they were friends.
“I'm sorry to say he's not at all well,” he responded after a hesitation. “I don't think there's anything anyone can do for him other than pray.” So it was serious.
Paul arrived on-stage then and lightened the mood.
“Welcome back ladies and gentlemen and a Happy New Year to you all. I hope you all had a good rest, although I did hear that one of our number just couldn't keep off the stage and has been acting in a pantomime!” He laughed. “Yes Harriet responded to an emergency call from her brother-in-law who was directing 'Cinderella' in Bridchester and had his Fairy Godmother go down with tonsillitis. What's that, the third time you've stepped in to save the day, Harriet?”
I was the colour of beetroot by now of course, but responded by saying “The fourth time actually if you count reading the Lesson at the Christmas service for a parishioner who wasn't well.”
Someone called out “They'll be naming you the 'Angel of Pestilence'. Everywhere you go someone gets sick!”
Everyone was laughing and clapping by now, and I really didn't mind a bit of teasing.
Paul was laughing too. “So remember, if anyone gets sick in future – Harriet's your girl! Now down to business. We fly out in two weeks' time. We'll all meet here at the theatre and travel down to Heathrow to fly to Singapore for our first stop. We've organised a 'group travel' arrangement which means lower fares and group check-in, so we'll be travelling Business Class as I want everyone to be rested. (There was a murmur of approval at this announcement)
“We were to perform in the Kallang Theatre which seats seventeen hundred people, and we understand the three performances are already completely sold out. I have to tell you that Singapore has a population of around five million and it's just over the causeway from Malaysia which has a population of over twenty million, so perhaps it's not surprising that sales have been so good. Now the promoters have decided to transfer the performances to the nearby Singapore Indoor Stadium which seats six thousand people.”
There was quite a buzz of conversation in response to this news.
“You'll be playing in the round, a bit like a large version of the Globe Theatre. By the way, has anyone played the Globe?”
Sir John coughed politely. “As a matter of fact I have – in Henry the Fourth Parts One and Two, a few years ago. I played Falstaff. It was quite an experience, especially the day when we had a downpour. Some of the audience had umbrellas but the actors didn't!”
There was general laughter at that.
“Well at least the Singapore Stadium has a roof,” said Paul. I suspect he knew about Sir John's experience there but left it to him whether he wanted to acknowledge it. “If you can offer us any suggestions or insights, Sir John, I'm sure they will be gratefully received.” Sir John nodded gravely.
“The arena is normally used for sports events, rock concerts etc, and I don't think they've ever had Shakespeare performed there. They will construct a large thrust stage for us, with one end of the stadium used for background scenery. Because of that the audience will be seated around three sides of the arena. From our point of view the downside is that all the cast would need to be miked, and they'd probably use video cameras to project a picture onto a big screen so the audience could see facial expressions. We did have some doubts about switching to such a large venue, but they finally persuaded us that it was a good idea.”
One of the cast said “I hope this isn't a silly question but will they be able to understand us?”
“Oh yes, English is a commonly spoken in Singapore and Malaysia. They were both once part of the British Empire you know?”
“Not Shakespearean English though,” said someone.
Paul was very patient. “There'll be a synopsis of the plays in the programs and then it's up to us to make sure they understand what is going on. I think you'll be surprised how much they comprehend. Both the plays we are performing are amongst Shakespeare's most popular ones, so it's quite possible they've seen them before. Are there any more questions?”
The tone of voice in which he asked that question rather inhibited any more queries.
“Very good. If the cast of 'Romeo and Juliet' will come with me to the large rehearsal room we'll do some preliminary blocking for performing in the round. The 'Twelfth Night' cast can go home, but I'll see you again in the morning to do your blocking.”
As we walked to the rehearsal space, Richard fell into step with me.
“Would you like to go for a coffee after this is over, and we can catch up on what we've been doing?” he said quietly, and I nodded.
“Zizzi's. See you there,” he muttered. I could understand his discretion, theatres are hotbeds of gossip, and a simple cup of coffee between two people can easily be blown up into rumours of a wild affair. Since both Richard and I were single, what we did was nobody's business of course, but still, why give people something to gossip about?
We spent about two hours blocking our moves, and then were released for the day. Richard disappeared through the door to the exterior of the theatre, and I took my time in the 'Ladies' before casually strolling down to the café, which only took about five minutes. We could easily claim that if we really wanted to be secretive, we wouldn't be meeting so close to our workplace.
I found Richard sitting towards the back of the café with two cups of latté on the table.
I knew he has spent Christmas with his family, so I said “How was Swansea?”
Richard smiled. “In a word, 'wet',” he replied and we both laughed. “Have you ever been there?” he asked. He saw my face cloud over and was instantly contrite. “I'm sorry, it seems that was tactless of me. Something bad happen there?”
“Not at all,” I replied. “It was a nice weekend and it didn't rain once. I know you won't ask but it was with Reggie, the guy who got married, so that's why I felt a bit sad. Sometimes things in our past make us feel that way. You know that poem from 'A Shropshire Lad' ?”
Richard smiled, and in that lovely lilting Welsh accent which it seemed he could turn off and on at will he recited:
'Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.'
A single tear ran down my cheek and fell on the table.
“Goodness me, I think we'd better talk about something else,” he said, offering me his handkerchief. I took it gratefully and dabbed at my cheek.
“I'm sorry. Yes, let's. So how did Christmas go?”
“The way most Christmases go, exactly like the one before, and you know the next one will be the same,” he replied.
'Only that isn't always the case,” I thought, remembering our first Christmas after Dad died. I chose not to mention that but it did nothing to lighten my mood.
“Oh before I forget I must tell you, the whole family came up to Stratford to see 'Romeo and Juliet' and Mam said to be sure to tell you how impressed she was with your performance, mine too incidentally, so that was nice. She said we looked like we were really in love and I had to explain to her that we were acting.”
I smiled. “Someone said much the same thing to me. It seems we are good at fooling people.” ('Or are we fooling ourselves?' I thought.)
“Well, I suppose that's what acting is all about.” Then he suddenly changed the subject.
“When the tour is over and we return, we should go to visit Llanfairpwllgyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillllantysiliogogogoch”
“Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave.”
“ Ydych chi'n siarad Cymraeg?” he said. Seeing the blank look on my face, Richard laughed. “Well that answers my question. I just asked if you speak Welsh?”
“Heavens no, although I've often thought that I'd like to. We had a Welsh schoolmaster, a Mr Evans and he told us the full name of Llanfair P.G and what it meant. He said it was an early publicity stunt to get tourists to go there and they're still using it. It's on Anglesey isn't it?”
“Yes it is. Far enough away from Swansea?” he asked.
“I've really got nothing against Swansea. Reggie's Aunt Jean lives there and she's a really nice person. While we were there we went to hear a local male voice choir and that was so special. In fact my favourite male singer is Bryn Terfel. (I pronounced it as it appears to an English person).
“Now I'll give you your first Welsh lesson,” said Richard. “A single 'f' is pronounced like a 'v', and a double 'f' is 'f', so you pronounce it 'Tervel', just like you should “Llanvair'. Actually, his full name is Bryn Terfel Jones, but there was another singer called Bryn Jones which is why he decided to use his second name like a surname to avoid confusion.”
“Thank you, I'll remember that,” I replied. “I wonder where I can find a good Welsh teacher? Do you happen to know any – good looking ones I mean?”
I looked at Richard and we both laughed. It occurred to me that I was flirting with him and enjoying it. I felt sure he was too.
“I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this,” I said.
“Because I'm a sympathetic listener,” he replied. “What...” He stopped abruptly.
“What happened to make Reggie and I break up? I'm sorry, I'd like to tell you but I can't. I made a promise.”
“I'm sorry too, my big mouth again, I should restrict it to acting or singing,” said Richard. Impulsively I reached out and took his hand which was lying on the table.
“You've nothing to be sorry for. I haven't enjoyed a conversation so much in a long while. I hope we can do this again,” I said.
“I'd really like that,” Richard responded.
We walked back to where my car was parked and I drove him to his flat but declined an invitation to go in. He kissed my cheek before he got out of the car. My own thoughts were in a whirling jumble of emotions as I drove away. Was I starting to feel more than friendship for Richard? After all we had quite a lot in common, more than I did with Reggie if I was honest with myself, but did I have any right to do that when Reggie had made such an enormous sacrifice for me? Add to that the fact that Richard didn't know about my own secret. Oh dear, why did life have to be so complicated? More often than not it was men who made it that way.
The next two weeks were busy ones, rehearsing the two plays, and practising playing them in the round. Scarlett had returned to play Olivia. She had greeted me cordially and congratulated me on performing as Juliet. I couldn't help noticing that she seemed to be spending a lot of time chatting to Jemma. I didn't know whether I should try to do something to warn Jemma, so I discussed it with Cassie. Her opinion was that I couldn't know for sure if Scarlett's interest in Jemma was unwelcome, and with all of us shortly to be very much in each other's company, it was a bad time to be causing any tension.
“Let's just keep an eye on things and see how they pan out,” she suggested.
A day or so later, Paul took me aside: “Harriet, you're the only cast member who has a substantial part in both plays. The seats for the 'Romeo and Juliet' performances are selling so well in Singapore that they've requested that we perform a matinée on the Saturday. I suspect it's the rôle you prefer, but do you mind playing the matinée and have Cassie play the evening, then you will be rested to play Viola in 'Twelfth Night' on the Sunday evening?”
I saw the sense in what he was suggesting, so I agreed. I think Paul was fearing I would be a 'drama queen' about his request, but if I was one I wanted it to be in the nicest possible way.
The next day Paul announced what was happening to the full cast. I think we were all amazed that a six thousand seat venue could be selling so well that they requested an extra performance, but no doubt there would be a financial bonus for our Company.
“One thing I must speak to you all about is the weather at the various stops,” said Paul. “It will be summer in the southern hemisphere and can get very hot indeed. Singapore is often in the low thirties Celsius that's in the low nineties Fahrenheit, and it can be very humid.
“When we get to Australia it might be about the same and only slightly cooler in New Zealand but it will probably be at least the seventies or eighties. The venues we play in and the hotels all have air conditioning, but remember to put on suntan lotion and wear a hat if you're out in the sun. I've been out there and it's easy to get heatstroke. Once we get to America we'll be back in the northern hemisphere so temperatures will be in the thirties to fifties range, so wrap up well and don't catch a chill.
“As we're flying Qantas Business Class we get forty kilos of luggage, so use it wisely to take clothes for both hot and cold climates, and take a tip from me, don't use up your full allowance at the start of the trip as you're sure to buy things along the way, and you don't want to be paying excess luggage charges. It's a good idea to wear your heaviest clothes onto the plane as they don't weigh you, just your luggage, and try to get a light-weight suitcase too. You can also take two carry-on items but check the sizes and weights.”
It all sounded quite complicated but also very exciting. I decided to ask Cassie if she'd been overseas with Dame Emily and could give me some pointers.
It turned out that she had been to Australia with her mother when Dame Emily had performed a short season of famous excerpts from well-known plays including Shakespeare.
“I was fifteen at the time so it's a while ago, but it was summer time and I remember it was very hot,” she said. “You need to take cotton dresses or skirts and tops, plus sandals and a broad-brimmed hat. Of course when we reach America it will be winter again so you'll need some warm clothes. One other thing, it's quite likely that the big wigs from the various places we stop will hold a reception for us, so you need a suitable gown for that, maybe the black one you bought recently, with matching heels of course. You only need one outfit since all the places we stop are hundreds of miles from each other.
“I suggest you buy two light-weight suitcases, those new ones with four wheels as they are so easy to move around. As for the amount of clothes, Mum gave me some advice that she was given, which is chose the minimum number you think you'll need, and then take out half of them!”
We both laughed at that, but it was probably the best piece of advice I could be given.
Paul had been appointed as tour leader, with a member of the Admin staff, a young man called Adrian as his assistant. I checked with Adrian what dates we would be in Melbourne, which would be my performances and where we would be accommodated. I was told we would be performing in the Princess Theatre, built in 1886 and seating just under 1500 people and we would be staying in the Windsor Hotel just down the road. Then I sent an email to Aunt Peggy.
An answer came from Aunt Peggy two days later to say she was very much looking forward to meeting me again and that she and Ron were keen to see me perform. They had had already booked a couple of nights at the Windsor while I was there.
The next two weeks flew by. I went down to London to see Dr McLeish, my specialist. She examined me and checked my latest blood results which were fine. Although I would have to see her for a final check before surgery, all being well, it would take place the week after I returned from the overseas tour.
I sent a brief email to Reggie to let him know when I was leaving on the tour and when I would be back. I also said I hoped he was ok. The next day I received a reply saying he was fine and wishing me a good trip and to 'break a leg'!
I talked to Dale to make sure that any bills that arrived while I was away would be paid, and I would settle up with him upon my return. I gave him my Hotmail address and suggested he send me a message if anything urgent arose as that would be far cheaper than an overseas phone call.
We had a final briefing session at the theatre confirming the performance dates and locations.
“One thing I haven't mentioned before is that we are being invited to a reception with a senior government official in Singapore, and the same will probably happen at some of the other stops on our tour, so ladies, please bring along a suitable gown, and gentlemen, you will need a dinner suit,” said Paul.
There was a murmur from the cast and crew, and Cassie nudged me “See? I told you so,” she whispered.
Finally the big day arrived and Dale drove me to the theatre, complete with my suitcase and hand luggage. I was on my way.
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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