With his near-universal appeal, William Shakespeare was the start of Merely Players, but he’s by no means the finish.
I started writing this story in 2003, and it’s been a labour of love in the true sense of the word. I’ve even delved into the photo album to dig out some old shots of me playing Petruchio in an Acting Factory production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and thereby hangs a tale…
Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters is the story of two unconventional players whose lives are linked by the works of the world’s greatest playwright, in a story about acting, ageing, fame and forgetting… just in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April. Enjoy!
WHEN a middle-aged boy player returns to London’s Globe playhouse during a terrible revival of Romeo and Juliet, she sets off a chain of events as great as any of Shakespeare’s entertainments, revealing a love story that lay hidden for decades, just beneath the lines of the script.
Centuries later, an out-of-work Sydney actor connects the dots of this drama and is inspired to write a play, bringing him face to face with big life lessons in the art and politics of storytelling.
The lives of these two unconventional players collide in a journey from Australia to England, from drama school to the professional stage, from male to female, from failure to success and back again, exploring the untold story of those who created the complete works of William Shakespeare.
“Masters, I have seen a man out of his clothes before, and not tried to make him mine.”
I go back to the place I have made for myself by the rack. Master Burbage sulks while the others begin to peel doublets over expanded bellies, revealing sweaty waists and backs. I notice Heminges undoing his hose on the other side of the rack, trying to conceal himself.
‘Masters, I have seen a man out of his clothes before, and not tried to make him mine, but if you’d be more comfortable hiding your glorious forms, I can wait upstairs,’ I say.
‘Nay, your place is down here with us. We’re not going to make a fuss about Master Tooley, now are we?’ Heminges asks.
Condell shakes his head.
‘Perchance you just sit by the steps and tell me if you can spot any printer’s boys in the crowd,’ Heminges adds.
‘You’re letting printers into the playhouse now?’ I ask, crossing to the stairs.
‘Much has changed since you were in the playhouse, Master Tooley. They’ll have real women playing soon enough,’ Condell says.
‘Don’t believe him, it will never happen,’ Master Burbage mutters into his lap.
‘And there’s never a rehearsal for the bit players, because there’s no lines apart from whatever you can drag up from within your receptacle,’ Condell adds, tapping the side of his head.
I search the ceiling by the stairs, where that larger crack allowed the light to fall onto my mirror when I arrived. Three steps up, the view of the stage reveals itself.
The sun has dipped below the highest gallery of the playhouse, where people sit talking and eating, some asleep against pillars or calling down to others in the pit.
I glance back into the darkness below, to see Condell rushing to get his wide arse back into a fresh pair of hose before I can see him.
‘It won’t be much of a play, without all the lines,’ I say, eyes back on the crowd.
‘We all know how the stories go, just follow the patterns,’ Condell says, ‘you enter, you wait and you listen, then you throw in a line or two which you think sounds right according to your part. Make it a rhyme, if you have the time. Keep it short, or have some sport … it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare.’
‘We don’t do too many old plays by Master Shakespeare,’ Heminges adds, emerging fully clothed from behind the rack, ‘not these days, because whenever we do, the printers send a pair of their pock-faced boys to sit up the back and scribble down our words as best they can. By the time they go to print with it, Will’s best poetry sounds like a madhouse ditty!’
Judging it safe to take my eyes from the stage, I say: ‘I might have been away from this playhouse for many years, Master Heminges, but I do recall you once had a grand plan to print all the plays of Master Shakespeare’s in the one book.’
“While you’re on the stage, duckie, perchance you work out what it is you did come back for.”
‘I did, but then one player of this playhouse took it upon himself to sell the contents of his receptacle to a printer, and when the little books of Master Shakespeare’s became so popular no printer was interested in paying for our plays anymore, they were only interested in stealing more of them. If I ever discover which player it was I’ll hang him by his balls from the top of this playhouse, but I could never catch him at it. I always thought it had to be a player who disappeared from our playhouse, and never dared show his face back here again,’ Heminges says.
I glance down at them, three pairs of eyes, looking into me.
Before I can say anything, a sudden round of trumpets announces the play. The crowd explodes into applause.
‘We’re off!’ Condell says.
‘No-one is listening to you prattle, Heminges, ready yourself,’ Burbage says.
‘I have, but where is my Lady Montague?’ Heminges asks, offering the hat and veil to me. I don them without thinking, and reach for the sliver of mirror in my basket, by the steps, the light from the stage falling across my aged face.
‘Oh dear … I am not ready for this,’ I say, pulling the veil tight and slipping it under my chin.
Heminges takes my arm in a strong grip. ‘You’ll soon be, duckie. A player who does not play has no place in a playhouse!’ he says, as we ascend into the light.
SOME of my earliest memories of growing up at ‘Paxton’ (the property my parents owned near Delungra in New South Wales), are of the shearing shed, and not just during shearing season.
Back then, ‘Paxton’ was not a particularly iconic or beautiful homestead, but my parents had made it habitable after years of standing derelict, and turned it into a viable farm.
The home itself was once two buildings – the main house faced the east, and, built onto tree stumps at the west stood what was probably the old kitchen, once separated. This was common practice from times when the risk of the house burning to the ground was great if the kitchen went up in flames.
“There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed.”
A falling-down chook run and an overgrown tennis court stood at each end of the home yard, and up the gravel road was the shearing shed – a cluster of corrugated iron buildings with sheep yards on one side and a rather large door.
This shed was a source of delight and surprise for me and my brother, probably starting when we found our Christmas presents behind that door, long before Santa Claus had a chance to deliver them that year. It was far enough from the house that our frequent secret trips to ride our new bikes were not discovered for some time!
Most of the year, the shearing shed was empty. Not being completely weatherproof, the elements had worked away at the wooden rails of the yards, which were over a child’s head height and enclosed tall weeds more than they did sheep.
But once a year, the building would fill with life, when the Shearers arrived. They introduced new words into my world, the most evocative being ‘Smoko‘, meaning a break, a few minutes to swill down a hot tea and smoke a cigarette, usually sometime in the mid morning. The other was a ‘Spell’ – a short sleep in the shade of a tree after lunch.
My brother and I carried an esky and thermos up to the shearing shed every day the Shearers were in residence. I have no idea where they lived – they probably camped in the shelter of the shed itself.
These were worn men, angular with years of bending into their task, hands burnished from holding their shears, and senses dulled from maintaining the loud engine which drove the complicated overhead shearing system – dangerous rubber belts and fast wheels which whizzed the clippers into action.
We were too young to do more than sweep up sheep crap and help with cleaning the shorn fleece, in the raucous masculine atmosphere which departed as quickly as it had arrived, leaving the shed empty and full of potential.
There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed for me, even now I cannot pass one by without getting a look inside. They are scattered across the Tablelands, often surprising you around a rural corner, usually well cared-for if the farm is still functioning. For me, however, the more dilapidated they are the better.
In the drafty darkness of an empty shed, the smell of decomposing sheep crap brings my childhood stampeding back to me. The odour is always tempered by lanolin, the oil from the fleece which builds up on all timbers where sheep have been herded and shorn, preserving wood better than any varnish ever could. The skeletal frame of a shearing shed endures for decades under this resin, whereas the outer shell rots away until it’s like driftwood, lending the place a graveyard quality.
But the most romantic element of a shearing shed is the journey of the wool. Corralled in the waiting yards, sheep are dragged through a timber gate onto the shearing floor, where they are clipped from head to toe, then shoved down a chute to the lower ground level outside to recover from the shock. Those chutes, slippery and steep, were our first fun park.
Each precious fleece, akin to a great fluffy jacket, is thrown over a large wooden table, allowing burrs and sheep crap (called ‘Dags‘) to be picked out, then thrown into the top of an enormous timber cupboard with great doors. There it waits until being pressed into bales and labelled by spraying across a tin stencil to create a mark identifying the wool’s source.
Those great doors held a kind of theatrical power, perfect for making dramatic entrances. In fact, for me, the perfect theatre would be a converted shearing shed, with the same hand-made quality as the original Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays first saw the light of day.
Thousands of pin-sized holes in the corrugated iron roofing sheets make a sky of stars overhead, especially on a brilliant sunny day. An audience could be herded onto the shearing floor, waiting for the actors to emerge from behind those great doors.
Perhaps it was the spirit of Shearer’s industriousness and camaraderie that inspired my love of shearing sheds? And probably their faces, full of weathered character, adept at entertaining youngsters.
In shearing sheds, as with theatres, roles are defined, achievements praised, young people trained-up. Vocabulary is important, for the sake of tradition as much as safety. Star performers are made every year. Sometimes they fall, overtaken by younger talent.
The existence of Shearers is tenuous at best, much like the lives of those who ‘tread the boards’. Both career choices rely on good economies and fair bosses, and entire careers can be judged on one day’s performance. There’s plenty of touring, you must go where the work is, and the pay is not great.
The end result of both these labours is something that enhances life without taking it. Such roles should be treasured forever, but they languish in danger of their existence.