All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2016, 2017 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl'
Chapter 38 Another audition
There are times in everyone's life when you have to make a split-second decision and hope to goodness it's the right one. If I had pretended not to see Aunt Jane, or worse still, looked embarrassed as though I had been 'caught out', the ramifications might have been disastrous. Instead, I smiled broadly at her and beckoned her inside the café. There are times when being an actress comes in very handy! She seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then did as I had indicated.
As she approached our table we both stood up.
“Aunt Jane, may I introduce Richard Jenkins? He played opposite me in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Richard, this is Mrs Walpole, my friend Reggie's aunt. I'm staying with her while I went to the audition.”
Richard smiled. “I'm very pleased to meet you Mrs Walpole. May I get you a cup of tea or coffee?”
Aunt Jane seemed to have recovered from her shock because she said “Tea would be nice, white, no sugar.”
While Richard was getting the tea, she sat down and I said “Richard's parents live in Swansea and he's visiting them. He's been given a part in 'Under Milk Wood” and happened to call in to the hall while the auditions are taking place.”
Somehow Aunt Jane kept her eyebrows under control, but I suspect it was an effort!
Richard arrived back with the tea and also a small plate of Welsh cakes.
“Richard didn't tell me that there were two Welsh girls going for the part for which I auditioned, so I don't hold out much hope of getting it,” I continued.
“Well I didn't know that,” he responded. “But if you've seen Harriet perform, Mrs Walpole, you'll know that she's good with accents, so I don't think that will go against her.”
Aunt Jane responded “Yes I have seen Harriet perform, but I'm sorry I didn't get to see 'Romeo and Juliet'. I understand it went very well and you both toured overseas with it.”
“Yes, it was an amazing experience to visit all those countries, and I actually got to meet my Aunt Peggy and her family in Melbourne,” I said. I nearly added 'They saw me in 'Romeo and Juliet' and also in 'Twelfth Night'.' but was afraid that might sound like boasting, so I didn't say it. I was also afraid that I was starting to babble.
“Reggie told me you were in 'Twelfth Night” as well,” said Aunt Jane.
“Not me, just Harriet,” said Richard. “She's got an amazing memory as you know.”
I blushed at this compliment. After all, I was just lucky that way. We chatted a bit longer until Richard excused himself, saying that his parents were expecting him home.
After he had left, Aunt Jane said “He's a very handsome lad”.
“Yes he is,” I replied. “I've had more than one person strongly imply that our 'Romeo and Juliet' relationship extends beyond the stage. I have some trouble convincing them otherwise.”
Aunt Jane laughed. “Well you could be excused if you fell for him, especially in your present situation with Reggie married and likely to remain so for some time.”
My face fell at that remark and Aunt Jane was instantly remorseful. “I'm sorry my dear, that was a rather tactless thing to say. So how did the audition go?”
“Well as I said to Richard, there were two genuine Welsh actresses going for the part, so I think my chances are slim at best. I'll have to get used to not getting every part I audition for.”
“Well, at least you tried, and your name is getting known. I imagine that's very important in the acting profession.”
“Indeed it is,” I responded.
That evening I took Aunt Jane out to dinner as a 'thank-you' for letting me stay with her. While we were eating my telephone rang. I had forgotten to switch it to 'silent' and was about to do so when I glanced at the screen and saw that it was Dafydd Rhys Jones the director. When I told Aunt Jane she said I had better take the call.
“Hello Harriet, I'm sorry to bother you this evening but I have one question to ask you. Are you aware that you are required to be topless for your last scene in 'Under Milk Wood'?”
“Yes, I do know that, and I'm prepared to do it,” I replied.
“Good. In that case I'm happy to offer you the part of Mae Rose Cottage,” he said.
I was stunned and for a few seconds was silent.
“Hello?” he said. “Are you still there?”
“Err, yes. Sorry Mr Rhys Jones. I'm very happy to accept the role,” I said.
“Excellent,” he replied. “We'll be in touch when we want you. It will be in a few month's time and probably only two or three day's work. We're still finalising locations. I look forward to working with you.”
Although she could only hear my side of the conversation, it was obvious what had transpired.
“Congratulations!” said Aunt Jane.
“I can hardly believe it,” I replied. “I was up against two genuine Welsh girls.”
It wasn't until a few years later that I found out that I was the second choice for the rôle. It had been offered to Ceridwen Jenkins, but she had encountered a slight problem. Her parents were strict chapel-goers and somehow they had found out about the 'topless' sequence and were not exactly pleased. They made this very clear to Ceridwen and she decided that since it was only a small rôle, it wasn't worth starting a family feud over it, so she had declined the offer.
The next morning Aunt Jane drove me to the railway station where I thanked her and boarded the train back to Stratford. On the way I telephoned my agent and told him of my success in securing the part. He also wished me luck in securing the part of Desdemona which I would be auditioning for in a week's time. By now I was getting quite confident in auditioning for parts since my success rate was so high, but of course there is that old saying “Pride goeth before a fall” and perhaps I should have kept it in mind.
The following week was a quiet one. I checked over the 'Othello' script, especially the scene which I had been asked to prepare for the audition. I hadn't yet heard who was playing the title rôle, so phoned one of my contacts at the theatre and learned that it was Anthony Leicester, a very talented coloured actor. I was not surprised as the days of having a white actor make up for such rôles was long gone. For example, I knew that Sir Laurence Olivier had performed in 'blackface' as Othello in the 1960s but he wouldn't have got the part nowadays.
The day of the audition finally arrived and I presented myself at the theatre. I was so familiar with acting there now that it helped me to relax. I was not totally surprised to see Jemma Collier among the five other actresses auditioning for the rôle since on our return from the overseas tour, she had mentioned that she might try for it. I greeted her cordially and wished her luck. I had been impressed with how quickly she memorised rôles and how much her acting technique had been improving but I hardly considered her suitable to take on a part like Desdemona this early in her career. I quickly discounted her as a rival for the part and concentrated on the other young women who were all new to me.
The Director of the play certainly was a surprise. Her name was Hannah Barrow and this was the first I had heard of her. I don't know why but I had assumed that a man would direct a play like 'Othello', so the appearance of Ms Barrow threw me a bit. I suppose that like many female actresses interacting with male directors, I was used to using my 'feminine wiles', in the subtlest possible way of course, in the hope of gaining an advantage. Obviously in this instance it wasn't going to work.
“Thank you for coming, ladies,” said Ms Barrow. “We are fortunate in that Anthony Leicester who is to play 'Othello' is still in town and had kindly agreed to attend this audition to play the scene with you.”
There was a ripple of applause when Anthony walked on stage. He is a charming man and put everyone at their ease when the auditions began.
I was the fourth woman to audition, and watching the first three I decided that they were not a threat. Then it came my turn. The excerpt was from Act Three Scene Three where there is interaction between Desdemona and Othello after Cassio has begged her to intercede with her husband on his behalf.
How now, my lord!
I have been talking with a suitor here,
A man that languishes in your displeasure.
Who is't you mean?
Why, your lieutenant, Cassio. Good my lord,
If I have any grace or power to move you,
His present reconciliation take;
For if he be not one that truly loves you,
That errs in ignorance and not in cunning,
I have no judgment in an honest face:
I prithee, call him back.
Most of the exchanges were fairly brief but Desdemona has a couple of relatively long speeches. I felt that I had handled the scene well enough and was pleased with myself as I left the stage. Anthony would certainly be a wonderful partner on stage.
I sat in the stalls to watch Jemma's audition, and for the first time I began to feel a bit uncertain about getting the part. She had certainly improved a lot since I last saw her perform, and it would be ironic if the tips that Cassie and I had given her resulted in her getting the part I had set my heart upon. I tried to tell myself that I was worrying unnecessarily, but I wasn't convinced.
At the end of the audition we were thanked and told the standard 'We'll let you know', and with that I left the theatre and returned to the flat to await the call. That is always the hardest part.
It was early evening when my phone finally rang and my heart started to pound as I answered it.
“Miss Stow? It's Hannah Barrow here. First I'd like to thank you for attending the audition today. You were very impressive and having heard about your recent performances I can understand why you are considered one of the best young Shakespearean actresses in Britain.” She paused, and I felt my heart sinking. If I had the part, why this preamble?
“As the Director of 'Othello', it is my responsibility to chose the actress whom I think best fits my interpretation of the play. I know you will be disappointed, but in this instance I decided to offer the part to Jemma Collier and she has accepted.”
My heart sank, but Hannah hadn't finished. “However, there is another part in the play which I think you would fill perfectly, so although you didn't audition for it, I have decided to offer you the rôle of Emilia. If you would like some time to think about that I can give you until tomorrow.”
Emilia is the villain Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant and is quite a strong character, more so than Desdemona. While Emilia is dutiful towards her husband she is still something of a feminist which would have been rare in Elizabethan England. I was becoming adept at making quick decisions and this was another moment for one.
“Thank you very much for offering me the part of Emilia, Miss Barrow, I am happy to accept it.”
“Excellent. I look forward to working with you. I understand you know Jemma Collier?”
“Yes, she was the understudy for Juliet when Cassie Good and I performed it recently.”
“She spoke very highly of you and how much you and Cassie helped her. I'm sure she'll be pleased to be working with you again.”
“I shall ring her up and congratulate her,” I said.
When I put the phone down I realised how hard I had been clenching the receiver and that my heart was still pounding.
I waited a full five minutes before I picked up the phone again and dialled Jemma's number. During that time I started off by thinking that Hannah had made a mistake by giving the part to a relatively inexperienced actress when there was someone far more suitable (namely me) to fill the rôle. But then I had second thoughts. Desdemona is a rather immature young woman, whereas Emilia is slightly older and far more mature. Perhaps Hannah was right after all in her casting. The more I thought about it, the more I had to agree with her.
“Hello Jemma, it's Harriet here, how are you?”
“Err, fine thank you Harriet,” she sounded very nervous. Did she think I was going to snap at her?
“I just rang to congratulate you on getting the part of Desdemona. I know you will perform it very well,” I said.
There was a pause and then she said “You're not mad at me because I got it? I know that you wanted to play it.”
“Jemma, there's something you have to learn about the stage. It's just like professional sports people. You can be friends with someone off the stage or arena, but when it comes to an actual contest then everyone tries their hardest to win and there can only be one winner. Sure I would have liked to play the part, but I'm sure you'll be excellent. Anyway I have been offered the part of Emilia so we will be acting together. I'll look forward to that.”.
The relief in her voice was obvious. “Oh I'm so glad you said that Harriet. I was worrying so much how you would react when you heard the news.”
I laughed. “Well it's not the first time I didn't get a rôle I wanted and I'm sure it won't be the last. I look forward to seeing you when the rehearsals begin. In the meantime, I have some lines to learn.”
After we said our goodbyes and I put the phone down, I discovered that I really did feel better for handling Jemma the way I had. In a way I felt like her mentor, even though I didn't have a very long career behind me. In fact I was sure that I could be of more assistance to her and it was only right that I should help her as much as I could.
The weeks passed by until the rehearsals started. Part of the time I filled in by borrowing the Nagra recorder again from the sound technicians at the theatre, and recording more bible extracts for the minister in Bridchester as I had promised to do.
I had explained to Hannah about my small part in 'Under Milk Wood' and she assured me that I could have the few days off provided that shooting didn't occur once the season of 'Othello' started. I had an understudy of course, but that was only for emergencies.
A couple of weeks later the rehearsals started. I was so glad to be back on the stage that I knew so well. It had only been a couple of months, but I had missed it so much, and now here I was again on-stage and in another Shakespeare play.
That reminded me of something Aunt Peggy had said to me when I saw her in Melbourne.
“I was chatting on the phone to your Mum recently, and from what she told me you seem to be something of a 'Shakespeare tragic'.”
Misunderstanding her I replied “But I enjoy being in his comedies too.”
She laughed. “I guess it's an Aussie expression, but by 'tragic' I mean you are very keen on Shakespeare. Former Prime Minister Bob Menzies was a 'cricket tragic'. He always tried to make his visits to the Old Country co-incide with a test match. John Howard, our current PM is a bit like that too.”
By now I was laughing too. “Well I have to admit you're right, I am a 'Shakespeare tragic', and proud to be one.”
At the start of the rehearsals only Anthony, Jemma and I were 'off book' from the start. Anthony had played 'OthelIo' before, so it was to be expected of him, but I think Hannah was quite impressed that her two female leads also knew their parts by heart. I had a feeling that some of the other cast members felt under pressure and weren't too happy about it.
As I expected, Hannah turned out to be a very good director. She treated us like the professionals we were, and her suggestions were always constructive and added to the performance. I had a good feeling about the production.
Every week I made a point of ringing up Mum in Brid and having a chat. We talked about anything and everything. She told me how things were going up there and most of what I had to tell her was about the theatre. Apparently the minister was really pleased with the CDs of the bible recordings, which he loaned to parishioners who were unable to attend church, and the feedback from them had been very complimentary.
On this particular occasion I was on the point of ringing off when Mum said. “Harriet darling, yesterday I ran into Reggie's parents in town and they told me the news. I thought you might have mentioned it.”
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.
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.