Andrew didn’t like Shakespeare.
“Well,” he said, “when I say I don’t like Shakespeare, I don’t mean I don’t like Shakespeare, I mean I wish I did like Shakespeare. I just can’t get on with him. All that thee-ing and thou-ing. Men in tights. Complicated words.”
It sounded to me like Andrew had never met Shakespeare. I invited him to come over. We could hang out. Have a chat with the man himself. Andrew was naturally amused and not at all sceptical. He thought I had lost my mind, but he said he’d put the paramedics on speed-dial and be over that afternoon. I cracked the lid on a new bottle of single malt while Will and I looked out some of his favourite scenes involving two actors.
Andrew arrived. Sadly, I had to tell him, Shakespeare had been called away. Andrew rolled his eyes.
“Are you persisting with this daft idea of Shakespeare still being alive?”
Will just stepped out, I insisted. He was sorry not to meet you. But he left us a couple of pieces to try. They’re marvelous. Look. The ink’s barely dry on this one. Oh and Will said he was sorry to hear you had a problem with him. He hoped these scenes might change your mind. (Actually the pages weren’t written in ink but poor Will hasn’t got his head round our new technology. I mean he still thinks a tablet is a little personal writing slate, about the size of a roof-tile, with a layer of wax on it that you write on with a bone stylus… which in a way is all it is. Plus ça change…etc.) I had been trying to tell Will how easy it is nowadays to access his plays on a tablet and how we didn’t have to print reams and reams of paper to give all the actors a copy of the script. But Will said they didn’t do that in his day anyway so the idea wasn’t that new.
“So how did Shakespeare’s actors get their scripts?” asked Andrew. I said we’d get to that. I wanted him to know how much Will had been looking forward to hearing his Juliet.
“I’m a forty year old man!” Andrew protested.
I know. Juliet plays really well when a forty year old man does it. Mind you what Will’s really excited about is that women are playing his male roles more and more. Of course what he’s most looking forward to is the day completely random and gender-blind casting really takes off. He loves that it doesn’t have to be all men and boys, like it was in his time. Everybody can play anybody. He loved my Hamlet and as for Meg’s Polonius and Sheila’s Prince Arthur, not to mention Danielle’s Prospero. He said it was thrilling. I asked him what he thought about Dr.Who being played by a woman but he said that was probably one of those later collaborative concoctions so he couldn’t possibly comment. But then he said ‘But what about Michelle’s Terry’s Henry V!’ Will’s so delighted about The Globe, by the way. I told him about the struggle Sam Wannamaker had had getting it built. Will sympathised. He knows all about rebuilding old wooden theatres. ‘They’ve built it facing the wrong way round mind you … but Michelle Terry, eh? An actor as the director! That’s more like it.’ Will wonders if she’ll be writing plays too, because that’s what he did, so if they really want to be authentic … but anyway, Andrew, to get back to why we’re here, it was Richard’s Juliet that Will particularly enjoyed and Richard’s a lot older than you, so a forty year old man playing a timeless young female romantic lead is nothing. I suggested we should read the scenes Shakespeare had left for us and definitely do the balcony scene. It’s a favourite of Will’s. He said it brought a tear to his eye when he was writing it, but he fills up every time he hears it.
“I haven’t prepared the part of Juliet!” protested Andrew.
That’s OK. We’re just going to cold read.
“I’m hopeless at that!” Andrew squealed. “I have to prepare my lines for ages in advance.”
I tried to reassure him we were just having a look at some scenes. It wasn’t an audition. It wasn’t an exam. It was just a bit of fun to show him how the website worked. If he got something wrong that was OK. But anyway, I said, I know you can cold read. I’ve heard you before.
“Ah, but that wasn’t Shakespeare.”
I think you might be pleasantly surprised how clear and simple Shakespeare’s language can be. Can we just try?
“OK. So long as it’s not a test and you won’t laugh if I make a mess of it.”
I promise. Besides, we won’t look at Juliet first.
“Oh good. That would be a stretch.”
We’ll look at Audrey in As You Like It.”
“Who?” Andrew was not familiar with Audrey, or the play.
“I don’t know anything about As You Like It!”
“Look, you don’t have to be some sort of expert to read Shakespeare you know. You don’t have to have a PhD to understand him.”
“Don’t you? I always feel as if I don’t know enough about it all, if I’m honest.”
Audrey would be a great part for you, Andrew, I said. And you’d be a great Feste, or a Touchstone, or Lear’s Fool, or what about Cordelia, or Sir Andrew Agucheek?
I had asked Andrew to bring along a laptop or a tablet or a smartphone for our reading. Not knowing why, or thinking he had misheard me, he had arrived with a great heavy tome of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, a handful of Penguin editions of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and The Tempest, and an old battered copy of a script of Measure for Measure he had hung on to since drama college. Will would have been flattered to see this person who claimed not to like him having all these examples of his work on his bookshelves. But we don’t need all those, I said. That’s so last century. I switched on my iPad, fired up my smart phone and turned on a laptop for good measure. This is the latest thing. Mind you, I added, here’s the part I want you to look at first, handing him a little wooden contraption I had made for him; a neat pair of wooden sticks with a scroll of paper wrapped around it.
“What’s this?” asked Andrew.
That’s your “role,” I said. It has your lines and your cues written on it. You can turn the rods and see each line in turn.
It’s a lo-tech version of what we can do online today. In some ways it’s superior because you can read it in daylight and it won’t run out of power but then again it doesn’t let you switch parts at the click of a mouse and do all sorts of other amazing things and it doesn’t contain the entire canon of Shakespeare’s works or weigh as much as that doorstop of a thing you brought. I mean a website weighs as much, effectively, as your smartphone does. We called up Players-Shakespeare.com and clicked on As You Like It. It’s easy to find the part you want. We chose the parts and cues format for Audrey in Act 3, Scene 3 [Click on the following link to see Audrey’s part in ‘Parts and Cues ]. I said I would read the other parts by choosing the full script format. That way I could read Touchstone and Jaques. We started the scene, Andrew tackling that fetchingly raw creature of womanhood, Audrey. All he had to do was wait for his cue (written in red) listening out for them as I spoke the other lines. [And here’s a link to Audrey’s other main scene, Act Five Scene 1, again in Parts and Cues].
“That was easy,” said Andrew. “What a great character. I love her.”
How did you like only having her lines and cues and not the whole play in your hands?
“It was a bit weird. But not difficult. I mean I didn’t know when the cue was going to come. And if you did that in a performance how would you know where to stand? What if you didn’t hear your cue? How would you know who was going to say it? What if you were looking at the wrong person…”
Andrew’s questions came flooding out. But his next question was the one I was waiting for. “Can we do another?”
We read the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet. [Here’s a link to the Balcony Scene] Twice. The first time, I read Juliet and he read Romeo. Then we swapped roles and read the scene again just to prove how different it was with different actors and yet satisfyingly the same. Andrew loved playing Juliet, finding her, seeing her from the inside as it were, a much more savvy creature than he had thought. We turned to her solo scene where she takes the poison. I had shivers running down my spine as Andrew read, and we discussed how well the verse works and why. It’s the diving in and doing it that matters most; not being intimidated by the words on the page but getting them off it, reading them aloud, finding how they feel and sound. Andrew was encouraged by how easy it was to access a role and see it through a cue script, instead of reading all the other lines as well as your own.
“It really makes you listen!” he exclaimed.
To cut a long story short, Andrew and I read for two hours from plays he had never seen before, King John being a particular hit. He left in a buoyant mood, confident that Shakespeare wasn’t so hard; just a little misunderstood. Andrew texted me later that evening. “Eliza, thanks so much for today. Could we do another few hours next week? Maybe a few more scenes. I’d like to. xx”
Shakespeare, whisky glass in hand, read Andrew’s text over my shoulder. It’s a pity you missed Andrew’s Juliet today, I told him, but you were with us in spirit, as I topped up his tumbler.
‘And you say you can read all my texts on that wee tiny thing?’ said Will, his voice slightly slurred, his breath nicely malty.
Will, we look you up on Wikipedia, watch videos of your plays, interviews about you, buy and sell books about you…
‘They set up this world wide web thing just for me?’
It’s not all about you. I mean you’re a genius and all that but it’s not all about you. Anyway what were you working on today?
‘I don’t work,’ said Will. ‘I don’t have to. My plays are what keep me going.’
It is a shame you died when you did, I said, wistfully.
‘Because I might have written more plays?’
You’re so popular. You made another friend today. Andrew will be back, with bells on.
‘Ah yes. It takes a real star for the clown roles.’
Andrew thinks I think you’re actually alive, Will. Imagine if you were. Just think of the royalties. Will? His chair was empty as was his glass on the table. There was no bottle. Andrew and I had had tea. Fancy that.
You can find scenes for two here: Playreadings for 2 players
You can see another post like this at: Playreading Report: Professional Actors playreading session, May 11th 2017
The river water was clear, clean and deep, the weather hot. Aberdeenshire was a gentle place that summer, the countryside of Monymusk, lush and green. I was staying with friends, of friends. They owned this stretch of river. The kids all learned to swim here in its pools and runs with its stretches of stillness and brown peaty deeps. Lazing along at the end of the paddock, it seemed a docile family pet. I slipped in and thought I might practise my only stroke. Wow! My speed had improved!
I didn’t know I was in trouble till I heard the shouting, the children running along the bank waving their arms. I turned in the water, seeing how far I had come. It had nothing to do with my swimming.
Metaphorically, socially and literally I was in over my head. “She’s never swum in a river before.” No indeed but it was more perilous than that because I had learned in a municipal pool with sea water pumped straight from the Firth of Forth. Fresh water, to my horror was proving a different beast.
With the bend approaching and deep water I had to find a foothold. Somehow I did and beached myself gasping on a shingle bank. Exhausted but safe I was still out of my depth, however, never having swum in a family owned river. Docile pet indeed.
This morning, in the shower, the metaphorical truth of that day came to me. Water. And the forces that work upon it to support, teach or sweep us away. Gravity pulls us down. Bouancy holds us up. Whether we descend or rise in water is a balance of skill when immersed and wisdom to get into it, or not, in the first place. But then we too are — what percentage? — water. Water needs respect but how much more the forces that work upon it? And while we may learn to swim in all waters, so are we a mix of salt and fresh and tides and currents, deeps and eddies too.
You wouldn’t argue with a force of nature, would you? You couldn’t argue an avalanche into a change of course or cajole a bolt of lightning not to strike. You couldn’t, by argument, stop the Aurora Borealis doing its thing. Things of that kind happen and, if you’re lucky, they roll right through. If you’re really lucky, you watch; you stand and stare. But what about you? What are you doing with the forces within you? You are a force of nature, are you not?
The force within, through and around you, can’t be argued with. It is perfect. It may not be responding the way you want it to but that force will have the last word in any confrontation you start. So what’s the answer? What’s the question?
“Why is everything such a struggle?”
Whatever way your energies are driving you, that’s where you’re heading. If you want to be grabbing that helm any time soon, you’ll need to be getting in touch with what’s grabbing you. And if what’s grabbing you is pulling in the opposite direction, well … put it this way, the helm is only responding to what the heart and mind are telling it. Heart and Mind. Two forces that need to pull together.
Get in agreement with yourself. You are a force of nature. You wouldn’t argue with that, would you?
I screech to a halt at Lairg because I’ve been starting to think about lunch or at the very least a tea break on my journey from Lochinver to Thurso and this new-build, glass and wood, loch-side café looks, in this corner of Scotland, like it might have Wifi. It doesn’t. The girl behind the counter says the restaurant up the road has. But the food here is better though–-and somehow I don’t think ‘well she would say that wouldn’t she?’ –-no, I take her word and stay. And she’s right. The Victoria sponge comes with one perfect strawberry on the side and a cake fork to slice the sponge off into mouthfuls of such perfection it’s demolished before I’ve even tasted the tea. I’m rewarded for my trust. But there’s more such sustenance to come.
A bookshelf in the corner of the café beckons and, as there’s no Wifi, I take look for something to leaf through with my tea. There are also two tables and a sofa occupied by a gaggle of comfortably blethering teenagers. Must be on a school or a club trip I suppose as I edge past to get at the bookshelf and, as I do, a young voice says, “Hello.” I turn. A young lad with thick and shiny black hair answers my replied “Hello to you,” with a smile and another simple, “Hello.”
“So who are all of you?” I ask.
“Pals,” he says.
“I know,” I say, “but what’s the occasion? Why are you all here, in a group?”
“That’s what we are. A group. Friends.”
“Not an organised thing?” I ask.
“Not particularly,” he says. “Well … it’s her,” pointing to one of the girls at another table. “Birthday. On Tuesday, anyway. So we’re kind of doing a birthday thing for her but we’re also just hanging out.”
I tell him I’m surprised at being greeted so openly by such a group. “You’re so nice to say hello,” I say in an elderly sort of way.
“We’re very nice,” says one of the girls.
“We’re the nicest people in Sutherland,” offers another. Something in what I say suggests I take them for being 15 or 16.
“We’re mainly thirteen year olds,” says one boy. “Twelve and thirteen year olds,” says another and points to the birthday girl who’s going shortly to be the one that leads them into being fourteen, starting on Tuesday. It’s something this group have gathered to help her to do and when it’s each their turn, they’ll accompany one another then too, I suppose. “Oh yes!”
Later, as I pour myself a second cup of tea, I realise they have all, quietly… gone. I didn’t see them leave though I’d expected I would and would have said goodbye. There was a dozen of them but they must have all tiptoed.
These are the moments that explain why this part of the world feels so secure, benign, easy.
The café is filled with the murmurings of friendly conversation. People en route. A grandmother holds a skein of stretchy cheese up with her fork while an eleven year old enjoys the experience of his toastie and coke, winding the lengthening drooping string into his mouth, his grandmother’s hand never getting closer, the cheese never breaking.
I take a picture of my empty cup and plate.
Onward. I scrape my chair and hover by the counter as I wait to pay. A voice behind me orders Victoria Sponge. I smile a full-up smile at the rosy cheeked man and his wife ordering tea as if it was prohibition gin – such decadence.
I’m glad there was no Wifi. Oh! But I find I do have a strong signal on my mobile phone, a novelty after a week of radio silence up at Glencanisp Lodge, Lochinver.
Half an hour down the road I screech to a halt once again, a poem forming half-baked in my brain. This is the effect of spending a week amongst writers on a retreat dedicated to relaxation, good food and time. The girl who served me the cake and invited me not to go to the restaurant for the Wifi (I must write about what wifi means in Scots, but I digress) is occupying my thoughts. I grab my notebook. If I only scribble the first verse, that’ll be better than doing what I usually do which is to let these things form like soap bubbles and we know what happens to soap bubbles when we let them drift away on the wind.
Girl from the north lands
We meet at every turn
Though where I never know
Her hair is red or black or brown,
she wears it loose, or up, or down
or short. Ah no it’s fair and shines in sun.
She brought me tea today and cake
She spoke and smiled
She climbed a stair
She showed me in
Girl from the home lands
Here and where I turn
See in the glass
Where I belong