My first encounter with Shakespeare was at secondary school. Then, as now, studying his works was a non-negotiable part of the English Literature curriculum. Like most stroppy teenagers I found it very hard to understand the plays, and even harder to understand why anyone in their right mind would ever want to read them. Faced with a few hundred pages of solid text written more than three centuries earlier, and in a near-incomprehensible style into the bargain, our collective response was “What on earth is the point of all this?” (That, at any rate, was the gist of our collective response…)
What we stroppy teenagers had totally failed to appreciate, at least at first, is that the plays are not meant to be read in the same way that one would read novels. They were written for performance. It’s only when the text is translated into speech and action (on stage, screen or radio) that it really comes alive – and nowhere is this more apparent than in works which consist entirely of dialogue.
In an attempt to keep us interested, our English teacher allocated the main parts in the play to members of the class, and the key scenes were acted out at the front of the classroom. Our efforts were hardly RSC standard, but they did serve as an early lesson in the basic principle of “show-don’t-tell”. After this, Shakespeare did begin to make some kind of sense.
The play which we studied for O-Level (the equivalent of modern-day GCSE) was Julius Caesar. As I struggled with the idiosyncracies of rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter, little did I realise that more than forty years later this very play would form the backdrop for what was to become my third novel.
The Unkindest Cut of All is a murder mystery set in a theatre, during an amateur dramatic society’s production of Julius Caesar. The novel’s title is adapted from a quotation from Mark Antony’s crowd-turning funeral speech after Caesar’s death. The play is staged during the week which contains the Ides of March – March 15th, the date on which, according to tradition, Caesar was murdered.
I’ve drawn on my love of the theatre and my own experience of am-dram backstage work to create the setting. But the plot and the characters are, I’m happy to say, pure invention!
In the story, the part of Caesar is played by Brian Wilmer, who is by far the company’s best actor. Unfortunately, he knows this – and he makes sure that everybody else also knows it. As a result, over the years he has made himself extremely unpopular with cast and crew alike.
In this extract, which takes place halfway through performance week, Brian is trying his charms on Sarah, one of the backstage crew (who also plays the part of Soothsayer). John and Alan, who are referred to in the dialogue, are the director and stage manager respectively.
“Drink, Sarah, dah-ling?”
Sarah hadn’t heard Brian approaching as she stood waiting to be served at the bar, and in view of what she’d heard about him the previous evening, she felt more than just a little uncomfortable in his presence. But for the sake of keeping things on an even keel, at least until the end of the run, she turned to face him and forced a smile.
“Thanks, Brian. That’s very kind of you. I’ll have pint of bitter, please.”
“OOOH, a lady who drinks pints?”
Not for the first time, Sarah had to suppress her irritation at having to explain it.
“Yes, I drink pints. I like beer, and there’s no point in my drinking halves. I get very thirsty and they don’t last.”
“Fair point, I suppose, fair lady! And I can’t say I blame you. I’ve worked up a pretty thirst myself. I think I might take a leaf out of your book. Now, you go and find us some seats, and I’ll be right back.”
He strode up to the bar and returned a couple of minutes later with two brimming pint pots.
“Cheers, sweetie!” Brian sat down opposite her, raised his glass and took a swig.
“Cheers. And thank you.” Sarah smiled and returned the gesture.
“That wasn’t a bad audience, for a Wednesday,” Brian went on. “I can’t believe we’re halfway through the run already. How time flies when you’re enjoying yourself!”
“Are you enjoying it?” Sarah asked as she took another sip of her drink. She knew before she asked that it was a pointless question, but all the same it made something to say.
“Am I enjoying it, dah-ling? Tell me, sweetie, is the Pope a Catholic?”
Sarah forced a smile.
“I knew it was a stupid question. Have you done any Shakespeare before?”
Brian’s face creased into a broad grin at the prospect of talking about his favourite subject – himself.
“Oh yes. I started very young, you know. Oddly enough, my first role was in this very play.”
“Really?” Sarah called on her own acting abilities and pretended to look interested. “What part did you play?”
“Lucius. It was a school play. Most of the other parts were played by sixth-formers, but they needed a younger boy to play the servant. It wasn’t a huge part, but it was the first of many. I was well and truly bitten by the acting bug by the end of it.”
“Oh yes? What came next?”
“The following year the school did A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played Puck.”
“After that, it was The Tempest. That time I played Caliban. Then the following year it was Hamlet, and I was Polonius.”
“Wasn’t he the one who was stabbed through the arras? I always thought that sounded slightly rude!”
“Then, the following year,” he went on, “the school decided to do Romeo and Juliet.”
“Were you Romeo?” Somehow Sarah could picture Brian playing Romeo (though she couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for Juliet). So his reply came as something of a shock to her.
“No. The producers decided that I would make a much more convincing Tybalt.”
“What’s the matter?” Brian asked, with a rare display of concern.
“Sorry. It’s just that I’ve never liked Tybalt. No offence intended,” she added hastily.
“None taken, I assure you, dah-ling! No, I don’t think anyone is supposed to like Tybalt. That’s one of the things which makes him such an interesting character.”
“Really? I’d never imagined it in those terms before.”
“How well do you know the play?”
“Fairly well. I first did it at school. They showed us the Zeffirelli film…”
“Oh yes. That was a real cinematic masterpiece. And it was such a treat to see them played by actors who were the right age!”
“Wasn’t it just?” Sarah agreed.
“Oh yes. Well, anyway, Tybalt is often seen as a one-dimensional character; a troublemaker who hates purely for the sake of hating. Nobody has a good word to say about him…”
Sarah raised an eyebrow. “I know some real people like that!”
“Don’t we all, dah-ling! But elsewhere in the play, we’re told that Juliet loved her kinsman dearly. So he must have had some redeeming qualities, even though the audience never sees that side of him. That was what made him such a challenge to play. I had to somehow find a way of suggesting that he wasn’t all bad.”
“I’d never thought of that,” Sarah answered truthfully.
“No, dah-ling, most people don’t.”
“What did you do after that?”
“Nothing more at school, because that was my final year. But when I went to university I joined the Dramatic Society. In my first year I was Malvolio in Twelfth Night…”
Sarah grinned as a comical picture came into her mind. “Somehow I can imagine you in yellow stockings and cross gaiters!”
“Thank you, sweetie. But there’s a lot more to Malvolio than just some silly legwear! He’s actually quite a complex character. Then in the second year I was Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, and in my last year I was Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.”
“Wow! That’s a pretty impressive repertoire.”
Brian smiled. “Thank you, dah-ling. So you see, I’m no stranger to the Bard. But until now I’ve never managed to play the mighty Caesar.”
By now Sarah had had more than enough of Brian’s constant stream of self-glorification. As he paused to take a swig of his drink, she took advantage of the opportunity to change the subject.
“I met your nephew at the dress rehearsal on Sunday.”
“Oh yes, he told me that you’d been very helpful. He was gutted at not being able to come to any of the performances.”
“He mentioned that he was on evening shifts this week.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a chef. He works at the Royal.”
Whatever sort of response Sarah might have been expecting, this was not it.
“Yes, really. Believe me, dah-ling, there are times when it’s very useful to have a tame food expert in the family!”
“I can imagine,” Sarah sighed wistfully. Cooking was definitely not one of her own strong points.
It was not a brilliant reply, but she figured it would suffice. She got the impression that Brian wasn’t really listening to what she was saying anyway. That impression was strengthened by his next remark.
“Talking of Martin, that reminds me, dah-ling. Can I ask you a HUGE favour?”
“You can ask, of course. But I can’t promise to grant it until I know what it is. You might be asking me to do something totally illegal!”
“Well, not strictly speaking illegal, but a little, shall we say, unorthodox?”
Sarah took another mouthful of her pint.
“Well, sweetie, Martin tried to get a ticket for the Saturday performance, but as you know, it’s a complete sell-out. But would it be OK to let him come backstage on Saturday evening and watch from the wings?”
Sarah choked on her beer.
“I’m sorry, Brian,” she said, once she had got her breath back, “but I don’t think that would be up to me. You’d really need to ask John about it. And Alan too – backstage admin is his department, not mine.”
“OK, sweetie pie. I’ll go and have a word with them. But if I do manage to swing it with them, you will look after him for me, won’t you?”
Sarah nodded noncommittally. As Brian flounced off towards where John and Alan were sitting, she realised that this had probably been the reason why he had bought her a drink in the first place. Brian never did anything without some kind of ulterior motive. By the time he reappeared a few minutes later, Sarah’s glass was empty.
“No thanks, Brian. I need to get going.” She stood up and reached for her coat. “Did you have any luck?”
“Yes, dah-ling, it’s all settled. So I can leave Martin in your capable hands on Saturday evening. Thank you SO much!”
Sarah had mixed feelings about having Martin left in her capable hands. She had plenty to think about as it was, without having the added complication of having to babysit Brian’s nephew. All the same, the brief conversation she’d had with him on Sunday afternoon had suggested that he seemed a pleasant enough chap. If she could find somewhere for him to sit where he wouldn’t be in anybody’s way, he shouldn’t be any trouble. Unlike his uncle, she thought, with a wry smile. All those Shakespearean performances. No wonder Brian was such a prima donna…
The e-book of The Unkindest Cut of All is available for download for just £1.99, or the equivalent in your own currency. That’s considerably less than the price of a cup of arty-farty coffee, and lasts for considerably longer. Click here to be taken to the Amazon links for your own country. Go on, friends, Romans and countrymen – what are you waiting for?