Rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company Season were held at 35 Clapham High Street a two minute walk from Clapham Tube. On the first day I felt as nervous as I did before my driving test when I took beta blockers to calm my nerves. I mean for goodness sake here I was a musical theatre actress with one year of post graduate training at Mountview Theatre School with not a jot of Shakespearean acting experience except for the good ole faithful audition speech ‘I left no ring with her’ from Twelfth Night. However, I thought as I tentatively approached the rehearsal rooms, I do have an English degree and I did sit a six hour Shakespeare exam……..
My contract was as follows: Iras and understudy Charmian and Octavia in Anthony and Cleopatra and Goddess and understudy Miranda in The Tempest. Effectively I would be learning five parts in all. I was sick with nerves, excitement and dread.
On entering the busy common room that morning the first two people I saw were Golde Rosheveul who I knew from Mary in Jesus Christ Superstar fame and Allyson Brown. Fantastic! I thought. We both got the job. These were to be my fellow Goddesses. Two wonderful mixed-race divas with brilliant voices and fantastic acting ability.
The next fourteen months were to be The Complete Works Festival which meant that every known Shakespeare play or sonnet ever written were to be performed in one year. The festival was the first time that all of Shakespeare’s works have been staged at the same event. There were to be twenty-three RSC shows, seventeen international productions and fourteen by UK based visiting companies.
My fellow housemate and actor friend Minnie and I had a huge party one evening at number 33 Waterside opposite the old RST where we lived in Stratford to celebrate the end of all rehearsals. We had actors from all over the world at that party: Cuba, America, India. It was extraordinary. You could hardly move. We got very vey drunk.
So back to my first day where we began with a series of brilliant workshops and read through Anthony and Cleopatra with Greg Doran. The workshops consisted of flamenco dancing, African drumming, voice workshops, sonnet study with the celebrated John Barton, work with voice coach Cicely Berry and on and on. You would have paid good money for those few week. And I was being paid! Soon we moved to a studio up the road to begin rehearsing for real.
We began with Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. I realised pretty quickly that this meant that I had loads of time off as both plays had to be completed by the same date before we went up to Stratford in April. It was only February and my time table looked empty. I had so little rehearsal time that whenever there was a weekly Jon Barton tutorial I was free. I went through my parts with him. I went through my understudy parts with him. I went through my audition speeches. Then I ran out of ideas.
‘Hi John. Me again.’ He laughed with his crinkly eyes and popped another nicorette gum in his mouth.
‘When did you give up smoking?’ I piped up.
‘Oh. Years ago.’ He said.
We became friendly. I was invited to do some of his workshops in Stratford. I felt honoured.
It was a great company. I was nervous that I would not be nearly as good as them so I reverted back to being a goody two shoes out of fear. I bought note books and highlighters and wrote out all my parts determined to commit everything to memory as quickly as possible. It was a security blanket. Everyone appeared super bright but thankfully Greg had had us all read through the play together line by line interpreting every word.
The weather was cold and February like and unbeknown to me I was still dating my husband-to-be. The days were fun. That was going pretty well apart from one minor detail which was that my husband-to be was in fact already somebody else’s husband albeit with an absentee wife who skipped off within two months of the getting spliced the previous year. That was an underlying problem for me. I was never really comfortable with it. A divorce could not be allowed for another year and a half if it was to be a matter of simple separation without recrimination. I wasn’t entirely happy with the state of affairs. (Literally). However, it was all too exciting with rehearsals and Valentine’s day and getting ready to go to Stratford and sorting and digs. Minnie spotted me looking at the notice board and offered me a room in her Waterside Cottage. Immediately I was stunned and happy. The cottages were directly opposite the theatres: The Swan and the old RST. I could get to work in thirty seconds! Of course that meant I was destined to always be late. I could tell she would be a fantastic flat mate. There were only four of us girls, not including Harriet Walter, in the whole production and I felt that solidarity was in order. RSC boys are most definitely a certain breed. Some would say of dog, but that would be unkind or maybe even sour grapes.
Anyway, after eight weeks rehearsing we were ready to go up to Stratford. I was buying a small ancient red Nissan Micra second hand from my Dad’s dodgy garage men Tim and Barry. It would really help with going back and forth from Stratford to London.
Stratford-Upon –Avon is a gorgeous town more like an overgrown village. Our cottage was and still is miniscule but beautiful. Two bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom. A tiny living room downstairs with through kitchen and a door at the back to a patio garden. It was just right for the two of us.
Arriving in Stratford was particularly fantastic as there were celebrations organized for our arrival and the opening of Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar plus celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday. The 23rd April, two days before one. Walking into the Dirty Duck Pub after the first day of rehearsal in the Swan theatre I had a feeling that I was part of something utterly amazing that just doesn’t happen to many people. I had been to the Dirty Duck pub once before visiting a friend and I never for a million years thought that I would be part of such an amazing company sitting legitimately in the pub that had served so many extraordinary actors over the years.
The Duck, as it was fondly called, was a two minute walk from number 33 Waterside where I lived for six amazing months. The river was opposite our house and endless swans roamed the water day and night, up and down, silent and beautiful, elegant and faithful. I loved sitting by the river bank walk man in hand listening to music, script in front of me, sun blaring down as it turned out to be one of the hottest summers since ’76. It was so hot I got sunburned on my shoulders whilst learning Miranda by the river. They went hot and red to touch. Mind you, I was out there for three hours at midday. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that…….
The first show to go up was Anthony and Cleopatra but at the same time most of the cast were rehearsing Julius Caesar which I wasn’t in. The Tempest was the third play to go up. This meant that I had copius amounts of hours to drink in my surroundings and most importantly become the proud owner of a bike and cycle along the fabulous pathways out of Stratford along disused railway lines passed a café in an old train run by a lovely couple. It was incredibly romantic to ride along with music blaring in your head in the summer heat and end up in the café supping sweet tea and muttering lines in my head belonging to Miranda, Charmian and Octavia.
Once the main show was up and running to fantastic reviews the second cast was called upon to rehearse the play again but in their understudy roles. Charmian was a similar role to Iras in that she flanked the queen so blocking wise I didn’t have too much to change, however, character wise there was a world of difference. Iras is younger and says very few words whereas Charmian is opinionated and the queen’s right hand woman. Octavia as Caesar’s sister, who married Anthony after he left Cleopatra, is a dour and straight character devoted to a man whose affections we are led to believe lie elsewhere but to whom she bore two children. She finds herself torn between her allegiance to her husband Anthony and her brother Caesar played in our production with a strong incestuous link on behalf of Caesar. Octavia was to be changed into from Charmian and back again in our understudy run so I was certainly very busy. I loved it.
The Tempest was an entirely different experience. I had been chosen by the director principally for my voice as the three Goddesses were required to sing. This I understood. What I was unclear about was the director’s vision for the play. As rehearsals finally got underway once Julius Caesar had also opened it was already June and biting hot. I was raring to go having had more time off than most and itching to know which Goddess I was to play. Juno, Ceres or Iris? A couple of weeks into rehearsals and we still didn’t know! We goddesses were getting a little bit twitchy. Then one day we were called in for a chat.
‘So’ began the director, ‘What are these Goddesses actually saying then?’ Duly the three of us began to explain the text with me referring to my highlighted notes. It was clearly not going to plan.
‘Mmm’ he mused. ‘But I mean really what does it all mean? Do you think the average audience I going to get it?’
Well yes. The average audience who has come all the way to Stratford to watch The Tempest is absolutely going to get it.
‘No, no!’ Says our director. ‘It’s too difficult. I think we should simplify it and that’s why we’re going to come up with our own language. Our Goddesses are going to be inuits.’
And so Lana, Gala, Sala duly followed.
The strange inuit language created by Adam with his eerie atonal music was joyous to sing. In addition I got to learn the lines for Miranda and once we had opened I performed a wonderful show as Miranda in the RST for the visiting companies. Hurrah hurrah for life’s funny twists and turns! I started out in T.I.E and here I was in the R.S.C a with the chance to play a romantic lead.
Sadly or possibly inevitably I chose to end the relationship with husband-to-be. A few weeks later I ended up embroiled in a ridiculous farce like affair with The Rogue from the season who wooed and shooed with the practised ease of an early thirties womaniser. Thankfully it ended almost as soon as it had begun and I spent the rest of the run a sorry singleton though excited about my travels. After Stratford first stop Michigan. Then Newcastle and then a five week break during which Minnie and I flew to my parent’s house in Dominica. It’s a hard life.
The Tempest was a huge success. I adored the beautiful snow-capped set complete with rocks and real snowflakes as we three made ourselves known. Julian Bleach made a phenomenal Ariel and chose to move slowly and deliberately round the stage in stark contrast to flitting and floaty Ariels who have gone before and after. As he said, Ariel was supposed to move like air but whoever said that air moved fast? I looked forward to every performance and was especially pleased when it was announced that The Tempest and Anthony and Cleopatra would both be performing in Michigan in October and that just The Tempest would perform for a week in November when we got back.
Despite my confused and disconcerting love life I was having an amazingly cultured and exotic time of it in my career. It was odd though. Financially I was still finding being an actor tricky as I had to keep paying my mortgage on my London flat and also pay for expenses in Stratford. Lots of people had given up their flats or subleted them if they were renting but I still wanted the London bolt hole at weekends so as not to go stir crazy in Stratford. As a result I was still spending every penny. Still I was looking forward to Michigan immensely and after a fun packed summer with first night parties abounding I was ready come September to move on. Especially since The Rogue suddenly acquired a new girlfriend who was at Bristol Old Vic with my sister Antonia. I needed a week off to recharge before flying to the US of A.