Shakespeare, dreams of stardom and and my early life

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.

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

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…

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