The scene is set.
An elegant Regency-style room with huge shuttered windows that looks out onto terraced lawns and rhododendron bushes.
A group of first-year drama students, mainly female, seated in incongruously modern plastic chairs in a semi-circle clutching small books with soft blue paper covers. The door opens and all heads turn to see the vision that is their director. In turn, he peers at them over his half-moon spectacles, adjusts his cravat and perches on the edge of the table placed in front of the group.
‘Well,’ he says, his eagle-like glare sweeping the room. ‘ You seem like a pretty mixed bunch. I see that you all have a copy of the play you are going to perform at the end of term. Your performance will take place in this room in front of the rest of the students and the other directors. We don’t let you loose in the theatre yet unless we are desperate for extras in our crowd scenes. I have a list of your names here and as I know nothing else about you, I would like you to read some of the script as indicated. For those who may not have come across this obscure little play by an equally obscure little Spanish author, it has not been chosen for its merit but because the majority of parts are female, we have a good stock of habits in wardrobe and I personally prefer it to ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ by Lorca which is the other old warhorse that gets trotted out periodically when we have a glut of female students.’
He pauses for effect and scans his audience. Blank faces. A tough crowd. He sighs and fans his face with a copy of the script.
‘In a nutshell; a baby girl gets dumped at a convent and is adopted by the local doctor and brought up by the nuns. Sister Joanna forms an unhealthy attachment for the girl now named Teresa. Not surprisingly, Teresa grows up with a desire to leave the convent and is swept off her feet by the charming Antonio. We jump over the years to the day that she turns 18 and goes off to be married. There are four male parts so one of you boys will be the stage manager. I am not looking for impeccable diction or RSC-level acting at this stage. If you have a regional or cultural accent do please try to overcome it so that I can understand you. We will start at this end.’
The read through begins.
THE CRADLE SONG
GREGORIO MARTINEZ SIERRA
Sister Joanna of the Cross, 18 years of age.
Teresa, aged 18.
The Prioress, aged 40.
The Vicaress, aged 40.
The Mistress of Novices, aged 36.
Sister Marcella, aged 19.
Sister Maria Jesus, aged 19.
Sister Sagrario, aged 18.
Sister Inez, aged 50.
Sister Tornera, aged 30.
The Doctor, aged 60.
Antonio, aged 25.
Also a Lay Sister, Two Monitors and several other Nuns, as desired.
Most of the students have already checked the cast list and skim-read the script to see which parts are the best. With one eye on the passage they have been asked to read and the other on their director, their progress is interrupted regularly by the director telling them to skip certain parts and pass on to a designated page with more interesting dialogue. The director’s pen scribbles next to the names on his list and the students try to work out from his reaction, whether they have done well or badly.
Some people are asked to read another section and those who aren’t feel unsure as to whether this is because of their poor performance or because the person being asked to read again has messed up the first time.
The director’s expressions are impossible to analyse; not because he is inscrutable but because his face contorts through the whole range of manufactured emotions as he scribbles on his list.
At last the torture is at an end. The director gets up and walks round the table in order to sit behind it on the rather grand carved wooden throne already placed there. He steeples his fingers, elbows leaning on the table and his list in front of him, peering over his spectacles as his eyes move from one end of the semi-circle to the other. He is a master at drawing out the suspense.
‘Boys! Stand up and sit down once you are cast. You – tall lad with blond hair – you have an unfortunate glottal stop so you will be the stage manager. Small Scottish person – your accent is virtually unintelligible so you can be the Countryman; he doesn’t have much to say and none of it is important anyway. Pretty boy in the blue shirt – you will be our Antonio but you will have to be a bit more butch dear, an 18 year girl needs to fall in love with you. Older chap with the designer stubble – grow a beard and you will be a passable Doctor if we grey you up a bit and add some lines. Last man standing – you will be our Poet and you have some lovely lines to deliver so let’s see if we can do something to iron out your Brummie accent.’
The last of the boys sits down. The female students stand up.
‘Okay girls. I am glad to see that you are not all innocent 18 year olds. Take no notice of the ages of the characters on the cast list, the only one who has to look young is Teresa. She ages from a baby to a teenager. Don’t worry, we have a swaddled baby doll for the start of the play. We don’t let students play with real babies. Now, you with the short brown hair. You look about 12 so you will be Teresa. Try to stay looking sweet and innocent dear however many debauched parties you attend. Older woman at the end – you are my Prioress. Girl with the gold-rimmed specs – you look as if you could be a bit severe so you are the Vicaress – keep the specs on. Chubby girl from Yorkshire – Mistress of Novices. Girl next to you with the dramatically crossed legs – Sister Joanna – I have a feeling that you can rise to the challenge of emoting to order. Those left standing – there are five sisters with strange Spanish names left and Senor Sierra gives us some latitude to add nuns and lay sisters as desired so all seven of you will wear a habit and have very little to say. Everybody happy? Probably not but I am not in the business of making students happy. It doesn’t happen in the real theatre so you’d better start learning how to cope with disappointment now. Class over, I need a lie down. Go out in the garden and start learning your lines.’
He sweeps out of the room as swiftly as he had swept in.
The students who have sizeable roles try not to look too smug. The seven sisters and the stage manager do their best not to look too upset.
As the performance date approaches; lines are learned, those who had slushy diction are given extra speech exercises and stage make-up classes focus on the unsubtle art of aging. The director in charge of the wardrobe department kits the students out in their white habits and wimples, with suitably rustic outfits for the Doctor, Antonio and the Countryman. The Poet preens in his dinner suit and dicky bow.
Rehearsals are an education. The Prioress has no problem with being serenely in charge, the Mistress of Novices clucks her way around the spare nuns and Sister Joanna over-acts to her heart’s content, often leaving poor Teresa bruised from her enthusiastic embraces. The girl in the gold-rimmed spectacles delivers the lines of the Vicaress sternly – as directed.
The director asks Joanna to rein it in a bit.
He stands in front of the Vicaress as she delivers her closing speech. He frowns.
‘TOO unemotional dearie. Could you manage to squeeze out the teeniest tear for me during that last speech? You could borrow some from Joanna, she has them in spades.’
‘I’ll do it for the performance.’ says the girl with the gold-rimmed spectacles.
The director looks dubious.
‘I’ve heard that before and I’ve witnessed many a failure. I’ll believe it when I see it but the whole play hinges on that tear.’
No pressure then.
On the day of the performance the Regency Room is packed.
Watching from the room next door, the students try to quell their butterflies. Joanna delivers very audible deep-breathing and speech exercises that make everyone else feel a bit inadequate. The girl in the gold-rimmed glasses wishes that she could have done her part without spectacles so that she didn’t have to see the audience.
It doesn’t go too badly in the end. Everyone plays their part and Joanna emotes and acts everyone else off the stage until the closing moments.
[All make ready to go out sadly. The Vicaress sensing the situation, to her mind demoralizing, feels it to be her duty to provide a remedy. She, too, is greatly moved, but making a supreme effort to control herself’.]
VICARESS. One moment. I have observed of late . . . that some … in the prayer . . . have not been marking sufficiently the pauses in the middle of the lines, while on the other hand, they drag out the last words interminably. Be careful of this, for your Reverences know that the beauty of the office lies in rightly marking the pauses, and in avoiding undue emphasis on the end of the phrase. Let us go there.
[The Nuns file out slowly. Sister Joanna of the Cross unnoticed, remains alone. With a cry, she falls upon her knees beside an empty chair.]
The girl in the gold-rimmed spectacles pulls it off. She delivers her last speech, stony-faced with one single tear rolling slowly down her cheek. Controlled emotion in no way diminished by the fact that Joanna is having hysterics over the empty chair vacated by Teresa.
Make-up and habits are left in the dressing rooms as the cast return to have coffee and biscuits with their audience. Joanna remains in the dressing room trying to control her emotions and cover up her red-rimmed eyes. When no one comes looking for her she sidles into the room and picks up a cup of cold coffee. One of the directors tells her that she looked like a bent banana and that she needs to learn more self-control in future.
The director of the play gives a brief but approving pat to the shoulder of the girl with the gold-rimmed spectacles. Another director, who is also the deputy principal of the college, smiles at the girl and congratulates her.
‘I’ve seen that play so many times over the years but no one else managed to produce that tear so effectively. You did well.’
It is a lesson learned.
Don’t be deterred by people who tell you that you can’t achieve something when you believe that you can.