Tuesday 26 April 2016

Shakespeare, dreams of stardom and and my early life, by Carol Drinkwater

                       The Arundel First Folio - Engraving of William Shakespeare, by Martin Droeshout                                          

William Shakespeare and I were companions way back, from the time when I was about seven. We spent whole long days and nights together, when I had been ‘naughty’, when I was being punished for some misdemeanour or other. Our house in Kent had a spare room in it, a third bedroom, I remember. It contained little furniture but there was a single bed in it. One corner of the room was built over the stairs and was closed off with a cream-painted wooden platform about two metres square, high off the ground. I needed a chair to step up onto it. But, for me, it was my first and very own stage. My father kept rails of old costumes in that room – mainly dark evening suits that smelt musty and of hair oil. These he could hire out or offer to the dance bands that were contracted to his theatrical agency.

I already knew, and had known for some time, that I wanted to be an actress when I left home, a  classical actress working in the theatre. At some point at around this age, I was given a Shakespeare jigsaw puzzle. I suppose it was a present from my father but I can't claim to remember. What I do remember is that it was very large (1,000 pieces, perhaps?) and circular and fitted perfectly onto “my stage” with just enough space at the edges for me to skirt around it, declaiming. At its centre was the head, the portrait of, of Shakespeare. Encircling him was the canon of plays, everyone of the thirty-seven. Each triangular slice offered an image, a moment from the play. Mistress Quickly, Cleopatra, Gertrude, Falstaff, Henry V... this jigsaw puzzle was my introduction to these characters who became my companions during my hours of isolation in that room. I was in there, door locked, because I had been “bad”. Shakespeare’s large cast of players kept me company, but very much more. They drew me into new worlds, new vocabularies. Soon, I had my own tome of the plays. Thick, heavy, it had a plain black jacket, cloth, I think, with only Shakespeare’s autograph in gold on the front cover.

I had – and still have it somewhere although I would have to turn my home upside down to find it – a foolscap notebook with a green cover. Into this, I began to write. I jotted down sentences I liked the sound of, even if I did not understand them. And words, lists and lists of words. My own glossary of curious sounding or incomprehensible words that I had come across in Shakespeare’s plays: coxcomb, apace, breeches, curst... These lists covered pages, always with a space left for me to fill in the meaning when I had discovered it.

From there, I moved on to other writers, poetry principally. When a sentence, a paragraph, a verse caught my fancy, I copied it down meticulously.

I read Shakespeare’s plays, ploughed my way through that great Bible from cover to cover, although I suppose I understood little of it all. I learnt speeches by heart, by rote, and up on my stage I would climb to recite them, full throttle to an audience of none unless you count the smelly old clothes. Sometimes, I would slip from the coat-hangers a jacket or moth-eaten waistcoat or any article of clothing that I felt might enhance my performance. Some of the linings were white silk and torn or stained, and were a little off-putting. Still there I was, perfectly content in a world of my own creation when as far as the family was concerned I was laying low in the dog-house. The newly-acquired television was playing in the sitting room beneath me. I heard the baritone mumble of voices, of programmes that I was not allowed to watch because I was being punished. I found the nights frightening. If I had been so bad that I was forced to stay overnight in that room, I grew afraid of the costumes, fearing they would come alive, that their original owners would re-inhabit them and come to get me in my sleep, slay me bloodily while the owls shrieked, marching towards me like the forest of Birnham Wood marching to Dunsinane Hill in Macbeth. I was not 'lion-mettled'.

The upside of this period of my young life, in a childhood that was traumatic and isolated, was that my excitable imagination and works of literature became my allies. And that has never changed.

Later, in my final years at the convent when I was meant to be studying for my A levels and university, I would play truant and skip off to London to the theatre. Most especially I loved Peter Daubeny's World Theatre Season, a spring event held at the Aldwych Theatre, which had originated as a one-off season in 1964 as part of the celebrations for Shakespeare's quatercentenary. 
Such a success was it, that it became an annual event and I saved up and bought my tickets and attended whenever I was able. Even today, I am marked by the range and brilliance of the theatrical experiences I was privileged to be audience to back then.

Sometimes, daringly, I made my way to Stratford, to watch Shakespeare performed on his home territory.  I saw David Warner’s Hamlet six times, at the Aldwych and in Stratford. 

                                                         David Warner as Hamlet - 1965

I had heard of or read about the pub, The Dirty Duck, where the casts of actors gathered to drink. I found it and I stood one early afternoon before a matinee hovering near the door and peered in, never daring to step inside. I was sixteen, I don't suppose I had really ever tasted alcohol and my budget had been spent on the ticket and fare. All I longed for was to be close to these professional thesps, to inhale their charisma, their camaraderie. To be one of them, included.

Once home, into my notebook glossary I plunged once more and underlined fardels and bodkins.

Years later, I worked with David Warner on a couple of occasions and told him what a beacon he had been for me back then. The Angry Young Man of modern Shakespeare. How I longed to be valiant and applauded, to know the adrenalin rush of 'flights of angels'.

I chose not to go the route of university but take my chances at drama school. I was very fortunate, in the year before I was accepted at Drama Centre in London, to work backstage at the National Theatre, which at that time was housed at the Old Vic Theatre and was under the directorship of Laurence Olivier, later Lord Olivier. To describe my experiences during that period when I was so full of my own hopes and ambitions and my daily life was peopled with some of the modern greats in British drama would take several chapters of a book, so suffice it to say that to be a witness to Larry’s performance of Othello on a nightly basis, listening to his mellifluous voice over the tannoy, or peering secretly from the wings, was the best gift any young wannabe actress could dream of.

Drama Centre was an exceptional training, offering a full history of drama from the Greeks onwards, but for me, most importantly, it taught us to write, to create the inner lives and back stories of our characters. Each of us was given the opportunity to write scenarios, monologues that could be used as auditions pieces after we had completed our training and were out in the tough world of fighting for Equity cards and employment.

Within two years of leaving drama school, I found myself auditioning for the National Theatre, still at the Old Vic. It was  a three-step process and I seem to sail through the first two auditions. It was the last one that was the endurance test. I was contacted to say that I had done well thus far and my final audition would be on the stage at the Old Vic in the presence of Olivier, John Dexter, Michael Blakemore, Roland Joffe and one or two other director luminaries. Franco Zeffirelli, I think, was amongst them.

Naturally, I was terrified. I was requested to perform one modern piece, for which I chose one of the monologues I had written at drama school - it had served me well in the job stakes thus far - and a speech from Shakespeare. I chose Hermione from The Winters Tale. The famous justice speech in Act III, Scene 2.

The rush of excitement and the terror I felt stepping onto that National Theatre stage that morning, fearing that my jelly legs would not carry me to down centre, heart beating like a kettle drum,  cannot be described. The directors were seated about five rows back in the stalls. The stage was lit by what is called its working lights, which meant that I could not see the men clearly, while for them I was fully exposed. Olivier rose and made his way to the foot of the apron of the stage. He was charming and, most importantly, knew how to embrace my terror and without saying anything in particular, put me at my ease. He asked me a little about myself and then said:
"Would you like to do something for us?"
As though there was a choice in the matter, as though I was doing them a favour. I said I would begin with my modern speech.
"What are you going to perform for us?" He asked smiling. I announced that I had written it myself. He swung on his heels towards his companions and then back to me.
"Well, that’s a first," he joked. "Off you go then." He returned to the fifth row while I set my scene. Cigarette, chair, before taking a moment to compose myself, to get into character. And off I launched. It was a hard-hitting emotional piece.
When I had finished he returned to the foot of stage, his hands were clasped together. "Bravo, bravo, baby," he exclaimed.
He was smiling and he seemed a little amused.
"Now. What’s next? Have you also written the Shakespeare yourself?" 

                                                             Laurence Olivier - 1961

I was offered a place in the company, at a junior level. What is known as 'walk-ons and bit parts'. From there you would hope to work your way up the ladder. Within six months or so I was playing Mariana in Measure for Measure directed by the wonderful and very brilliant Jonathan Miller. But at all times, Olivier took me under his wing. He sometimes stood in the shadows at rehearsals and would climb the several flights of stairs to the dressing rooms at the top of the building, known as the chorus rooms. In the early days of my contract, I shared one of those dressing rooms with six other young hopefuls, but later I was moved down a floor or two. Olivier, who always insisted I call him Larry, gave me notes, talked me through character choices. He was a mentor to me. I learned a great deal from him. Also, from watching him in rehearsals. If I was involved in a production, I would attend every rehearsal just to study the evolution of his character, the developing performance.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Julius Caesar Act IV,  Scene 3

I knew I was in the presence of greatness every working day of my life and I was certain that however my own career unfolded, these were moments to grab by the horns and live greedily.

I leave you with Laurence Olivier as Othello and a young, sleeping Maggie Smith as Desdemona

Before I went to drama school, one of my little duties working backstage at the Old Vic was to take the white robe of raw silk, seen in the clip above, to Olivier in his dressing room, where his dresser, Christopher, awaited it.  Olivier, already blacked up for the role, would be seated before his mirror sipping a small whisky, preparing for the performance. Back then, it was an honour of such magnitude for me and on the nights when he acknowledged my presence and spoke to me, I knew the rush of 'flights of angels'.

One little after note that has amused me. While writing this blog, I went onto the internet to look for a portrait photo of Olivier and dozens of pictures of olive trees came up. I was puzzled for an instant until I realised that the word olivier is French for olive tree...


keti said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Grier said...

What a story! I was on the edge of my seat. A loving tribute to Shakespeare and Olivier.

Barbara said...

What a beautiful, rich story. Thank you for sharing your history with William and Larry b

Unknown said...

Enthralling, evocative account of early days in a young girl's theatrical career..... When Carol's long awaited autobiography of her pre 'Olive Farm' years eventually hits her typewriter and then the bookshops, I anticipate it will be that year's best selling book across all genres. For it will appeal to not just her Olive Farm and Helen Herriot fans but also to fans of the era and fans of the people involved in her stories, and will be particularly appealing to all fans of good, involving, page-turning, fluent writing. Captivating.

Unknown said...

Wow what fabulous experiences and a wonderful piece of writing. Echo the above comment about a book about Pre-Olive Farm days. How captivating that would be.

Sue Purkiss said...

Marvellous! Going back to look at the video clip now...

Kate said...

A fascinating account and, as usual, so beautifully written. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Carol, what a beloved memory from childhood, one that launched your career! Thank you for this glimpse into your early acting career, I am one of many who would be delighted to read your autobiography. You have so graciously brought us into your more recent life after you met Michel. And to be taught by Olivier!

Elisse said...

Wonderful, wonderful... all of it- your memories, and your writing about them! What more can I say?!

Unknown said...

A fascinating insight...Thank You! The video clip is powerful beyond words...

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