There is Nothing like a Dame
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2017 & 2018 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage'
Chapter 23 The Recital
I had taken Itzak's advice and arranged to have the hired piano delivered about a week before the recital so that it had time to acclimatise to the different location. Moving such a large piano needs specialists, and I'm glad it wasn't a full 'concert grand'. Even so, it took four very large men to move it into position at the back of the wings to take up as little room as possible.
A tuner arrived two days before the concert to check that all was well and the day before, the piano was wheeled onto the stage and Itzak was brought to the theatre by his mother so that he could try it for himself. I could have sat and listened to him play all day, he was quite brilliant.
It was wonderful to have Reggie there with me but I wondered what he would do while I was busy at the theatre. He had brought along some textbooks as he was coming up to his final exams and said he would find himself a quiet corner at the theatre to study, so I wasn't to worry about him.
The season was coming to an end with my recital on Friday evening, the added matinée on Saturday afternoon, and the final performance of 'Romeo and Juliet' on Saturday evening. That effectively brought my residency to an end. I knew that I was going to miss working in America. I had learned a lot myself and hoped that I had passed on some of my knowledge too.
I had discussed with Miranda the program for my recital, and it was very much a work in progress with amendments after my no-show at Tanglewood. Miranda suggested that I include some speeches from 'Romeo and Juliet' and when I demurred, she pointed out that some of the audience would be people who had been disappointed not to see me perform the rôle, so I was finally persuaded. The printed programme merely said that I would be performing excerpts from Shakespeare's plays and also some of his sonnets. In addition, I would be performing works by other poets.
The evening of my recital arrived. Mr and Mrs Rabinovich were there of course, and Mrs Rabinovich came into the dressing room which I was sharing with Miriam, to help her get dressed. Penny, the theatre's makeup artist arrived to perform her magic which is designed to appear natural on stage by enhancing our features. This was something new for Miriam and her mother. Penny, then went to apply a little makeup to Itzak as well. This is fairly basic for men, usually just some cleanser, moisturizer, foundation, blusher, eyeliner, a little lip gloss and powder. It sounds more than it is really. As with women's makeup, the aim is to look natural under the unnatural lighting of the stage.
Miriam and I were dressed in floor-length gowns and Itzak in a black tie and dinner suit. White tie and tails would have seemed a bit 'over the top'. We hadn't conducted a 'dress rehearsal' as such, although I had gone through the program with them several times and we had settled on various aspects of the presentation. They had given performances to several hundred pupils at their school but this was their first performance in a theatre before a paying audience, so it wouldn't have surprised me if they were nervous. I did my best to keep them calm by showing them how relaxed I was and it seemed to work.
When the starting time approached, the three of us were standing in the wings. One thing I had mentioned to them was that it was 'professional' to start on time. We could hear the murmur of the audience and then it went quiet. This was an indication that the house lights had been dimmed. The stage lights came up as the curtains parted and the two young people walked onto the stage to applause. Watching from the wings I saw them both bow, and then Itzak sat at the piano with Miriam standing where he could see her. He nodded to her and began to play.
There was no sign of nerves and they both played beautifully. The applause at the end was loud and well deserved. Itzak stood up and they both bowed. Part of the art of stage performance is timing. I was determined not to deprive them of the applause they richly deserved and waited until it started to die down before I walked onto the stage, at which point it increased in volume again.
The house was full. There in the front row were Hiram and Magnolia, accompanied by their daughter Andrea on one side and Reggie on the other, taking their son's seat as he had been unable to get leave. The Rabinovichs were sitting beside Reggie.
I smiled and waited for the applause to die down before opening with a joke which I had run past the Thompsons for their approval.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen; my name is Harriet Stow. It's wonderful to see so many people here tonight; I had no idea that Mr and Mrs Thompson had so many relatives.” This triggered laughter as I intended. Turning, I continued: “I am thrilled to share the stage this evening with two very special guests, Miriam and Itzak Rabinovich. These two young people are sister and brother and come from Albany. The piece they just played, William Byrd's choral work 'Though Amaryllis Dance in Green' was adapted for violin and piano by Itzak.”
There was more applause and when it died, I said: “I'm sure you will be pleased to know that you will be hearing more from them throughout the evening.”
Miram and Itzak then left the stage. We were off to a good start.
“Many of you know that I was going to perform with Richard Jenkins the title roles in 'Romeo and Juliet' at Tanglewood a few days ago,” I continued. “Unfortunately I had an accident from which I hasten to add, I am now fully recovered, but I could not perform on the night. I have therefore decided to recite some lines from the 'Balcony Scene', the most famous one in the play. Imagine if you will that it is night and Juliet stands on the balcony outside her bedchamber gazing over the Capulet's moonlit orchard, and initially unaware that Romeo can hear her.”
The lighting dimmed and changed to imitate the blue of moonlight and I was picked out in a spotlight as I started to speak:
'O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou 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...'
I then followed it with the speech:
' Thou know'st the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek...'
When I finished speaking the applause was very gratifying. I bowed and waited until it stopped before continuing.
“This second piece occurs much later in the play. Juliet is about to drink the vial provided by Friar Lawrence which will send her into a sleep so deep that her family will think she has poisoned herself and is dead. She is scared to drink it and fears she may wake in the tomb surrounded by the remains of her ancestors before Romeo arrives to free her, or worse still that it does not work at all, in which case she has resolved to stab herself to death, rather than marry Paris as her father wishes.”
I walked over to a little table at the side of the stage, picked up a small glass vial and began to speak:
'I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,
That almost freezes up the heat of life:
I'll call them back again to comfort me:
Nurse! What should she do here?
My dismal scene I needs must act alone...'
At the end of the speech as I lifted the vial to my lips all the lights on stage went out in what is known as a blackout. There was a shocked silence from the audience and then applause as the lights slowly came up again. I know it was a theatrical effect, but I wanted my performance to be more than just me standing there reciting; I wanted to draw the audience into the work. I should mention that I had insisted that Bill the lighting designer get a prominent credit for his work which added so much to the atmosphere of the performance.
To lighten the mood, I continued with one of the sonnets, which I introduced explaining how a sonnet is constructed and followed it with one of the most famous:
'Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Then I introduced Miriam and Itzak again to play a work by Thomas Tallis, a contemporary of William Shakespeare - 'If Ye Love Me'.
“Edgar Allan Poe is almost a local since he was born in Boston,” I said when I came back onstage. “He is well known for his stories of mystery and the macabre, but also for his poems. One of the most famous is 'The Raven'.”
One line from this poem everyone seems to know is 'Quoth the Raven – Nevermore' and I could tell this from the audience's reaction every time I said it.
The program continued, and I will not test your patience by detailing every work. Suffice it to say that everything was very well received so that when the interval arrived and the three of us returned to one dressing room to have some light refreshment, we had reason to feel very happy.
We had finished our light supper, had our makeup checked and were preparing to resume the performance when there was a knock on the door and Rebecca Rabinovich entered the room. She was bubbling over with her news.
“Children, your father and I have just been talking to Mr Hiram Thompson and he would like you to perform a recital in this theatre in a few month's time. What do you think of that?”
Miriam and Itzak's were speechless, but their faces broke out into broad smiles.
“That's wonderful news,” I said.
Rebecca looked at me: “And if you say you had nothing to do with this Harriet, I won't believe you!”
I smiled. “The concert is Mr Thompson's idea, but perhaps I sowed the seed when I mentioned how confident I am that Miriam and Itzak are bound for brilliant careers both individually and together. By the way, if there are compliments flying around we mustn't exclude Miranda Strange who first suggested the names of Miriam and Itzak when I said I would like some musical interludes in my recital.”
“That's very kind of you, but please don't downplay your part in all this,” said Rebecca.
Just then the bells began to ring, summoning the audience back to their seats and us to get ready to go onstage. Turning to the two young people I asked them to go ahead and I would following a few minutes. I wanted a moment alone with their mother.
When they had walked out of the room, I said to Rebecca: “That's great news. I know that excellent though they are already, both Miriam and Itzak will benefit from expert tuition, maybe overseas. Mr Thompson has the means and contacts to make that happen.”
I paused for a second, wondering if Rebecca would take offence at my remarks but fortunately she didn't.
“I understand what you mean Harriet. Menachem and I are comfortable financially, but we're not billionaires, and we certainly don't have Hiram's contacts.”
I smiled gratefully. I do open my mouth before putting my brain into gear sometimes. Suddenly I realised time was passing, and I could hear Miriam and Itzak playing in the distance. I needed to get to the wings ready to make my entrance, and Rebecca needed to slip back into her seat at the end of the music.
When Miriam and Itzak finished and enjoyed their applause, they waited for me onstage. This was my 'big moment' and I felt the tiniest bit nervous which is unusual for me, but I masked it with a smile as I walked on.
“Many of Shakespeare's plays contain songs, in fact, there are over one hundred of them, something I didn't know until recently. For that reason, almost all Shakespearean actors have to sing at some point in their careers and I am no exception. For that reason, I've been persuaded to present just one song. It's from 'As You Like It'; the music is by Thomas Morley, a contemporary of Shakespeare and it's called 'It was a lover and his lass'.
Itzak played the introduction and I began to sing:
'It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass,
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring...'
At the conclusion of the song I was surprised at the volume of applause; after all, I am an actress who sings, not a singer who acts.
The performance continued, and I included a few American authors to please my audience. In between items, I spoke a little about my life on the stage and how my time in America was coming to an end and soon I would be playing on a stage far away but where it was I did not yet know.
“You could describe the career of an actor as a 'vagrant gypsy life',” I said. “And if that phrase sounds familiar, it comes from one of the most famous poems ever written about the sea, ships and the people who sail in them, 'Sea Fever' by John Masefield. In fact, the poem is a metaphor for life itself, so why don't I share it with you?”
Up to that moment I had not included it in the programme, but sometimes a 'spur of the moment' decision is a good one.
'I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by...'
When I finished there was silence in the theatre for a good ten seconds before the applause which from where I stood on the stage, sounded like the roaring of surf breaking on a beach, or is that my overactive imagination?
My final work was Shakespeare's famous Sonnet No 18, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' and at the conclusion, I bowed and walked off the stage. I reappeared with Miriam and Itzak and we all took our bows in turn and finally linking hands bowed again and again and the applause became a standing ovation. I could feel the two young people's excitement through our linked hands.
Even when we left the stage the applause continued. Miranda had warned me that East Devon audiences expect an encore, so eventually, I walked back onstage and the applause turned to cheers. It was enough to turn a girl's head.
“Thank you all so much,” I said. “This has been a truly wonderful evening for Miriam, Itzak and me, and it seems you enjoyed yourselves too. (More cheers.) I'm told that an encore is mandatory, so once more I'm turning to Edgar Allan Poe. This is the last complete poem he wrote and was published in 1849. It was the first poem I recited on this trip to America, so it seems appropriate that it should be the last. It is called 'Annabel Lee'."
There was more cheering; it seemed that everyone in the audience had at least heard of it.
At the end, the applause was thunderous again. It seemed that they didn't want the recital to end, so I held up my hand for silence and gave them a final quote from Shakespeare, this time from 'The Tempest'
'Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.'
“Thank you. God bless you. God bless America and goodnight.”
More applause, but this time, after a final bow, as I walked off the stage, the stage lights were dimmed and the house lights came up signalling the end of the performance.
To be continued.
Many thanks once again to Louise Ann and Julia Phillips for spotting my 'typos', thus allowing me to correct them before publishing. A special thank-you to Karen Lockhart, a native of New England who has provided me with local knowledge, menus and correct American idioms for the chapters where Harriet visits the United States.
For anyone interested, all the music mentioned can be found on Youtube and the poems and excerpts partially quoted can also be found online.
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