Last week, I called an old friend.
"How are you?" he asked.
"I’m working," I said. "So I’m brilliant. I’m me again."

I’m working for a year. At the RSC. Dreams come true.

When I was at drama school 20 years ago, they had ‘a man’ come in to tell us what our ‘casting’ was. The man took one look at me and said, "You’re in the Sex-Box."

Feeling mildly insulted/humiliated/baffled, I made an appropriate facial expression.

"Oh, don’t be like that," said the man. "Look at you. Staring up at me with those big eyes and full lips. You’ll play prostitutes and sex workers. In modern stuff. Mainly TV."

"But I want to do the RSC," I said.

The man guffawed. And moved on to the next person.

For a lot of my career, he has proved, mainly, right. I have played prostitutes and sex workers, often and largely on TV. But three years ago, I played a prostitute for the RSC. So that was nice and he was, at least, wrong about one thing. (I also played a noblewoman in the same season but, for the sake of this anecdote, let’s not dwell on that.)

This time I am playing THE PRINCE. In Romeo and Juliet. So. The casting man has finally been proved wrong. 

Man and woman are watching something and laughing
Beth and Andrew French enjoying rehearsals.
Photo by Ellie Merridale © RSC Browse and license our images

The night before we begin rehearsals, I sit with my four year old and we read the story of Romeo and Juliet in her children’s book of Shakespeare by Bernard Miles.

"This doesn’t end well," I warn her. "Everyone dies."

She looks up at me, concerned.

"I don’t die," I say. "But a lot of people do."

She continues to look worried.

"But it’s okay," I continue, searching feverishly for a positive, "because when they die, everyone else realises how silly they’ve been to fight and at last the world can change. And be a better place. And everyone can stop being cross with each other."

She considers this and appears to brace herself. "It’s okay, Mum," she says and gives a decisive nod. "Go on."

Luckily, in her book’s version of the story, the part of the Prince (a smallish role, traditionally played by a man) does feature more than once. I'm able to point this out using my italics voice (‘THE PRINCE - that’s Mummy - banishes Romeo’ etc.). Naturally, my child comes away from my reading of the story thinking that it is essentially subtitled Romeo and Juliet and the Prince.

[I don’t do too much to correct her until she announces a few days later that she is going to do her ‘Show and Tell’ on the play at school. ‘And I will start by telling everyone that my Mummy is the main part,’ she says.

‘Er…no…Mummy is not the main part,’ I say. ‘Juliet is the main part. And Romeo…and there’s some other people who…but…Mummy is…important. I tell everyone what to do.’

The fact that no one listens to the Prince, that the Capulets and Montagues carry on fighting and that lots of people die as a result of my princely banishing of Romeo, isn’t something we focus on for now. She is four, after all.]

Still. Imagine my joy when I get to the read-through on the first day of rehearsal to discover that Karen Fishwick - who is playing Juliet - LOOKS EXACTLY like the picture of her character in the book. Long, red, curly hair, young, fabulous. Show and Tell is sorted. 

Even in the read-through, Karen is so vibrant, impulsive and moving as Juliet that I fall instantly in love with her. It is no surprise to me that the character of Romeo will too. Bally Gill as Romeo is equally glorious with an instinctive clarity and sensitivity. The cast is young and exciting and I am left at the end of Day One believing that this is, surely, the only way to cast this play. Youth and vigour seem to run through its heart.

A young woman kneels on the floor holding crushed paper flowers to her face
Karen Fishwick rehearses as Juliet.
Photo by Ellie Merridale © RSC Browse and license our images

That’s not to say there aren’t a few of us older ones in the cast…which brings me to the physical side of rehearsals.

Before rehearsals began, we got an email advising us that ‘this will be a very physical show’ and that it might be a good idea for us to up our personal exercise regimes before we start. I smiled. ‘Ha ha,’ I thought. ‘If I’d got that email when I was 21, I would have gone into a panic, gone running and then done a yoga session every day. But now I am older and I have done the RSC before and I know I can cope so…I don’t have to.’ I have done no exercise for four years apart from carrying my child about. Mistakenly, I wear this as a badge of honour until the end of Day 2.

At the beginning of Day 2, we have our first movement session with Ayse. She is so spiritually in tune with the body and so utterly inspirational that she can get us to do things that would usually leave me in paroxysms of dread. Working up from our feet, we engage our bodies bit by bit with the beat of the music before moving around the room. Then we dance together as a cast. Sounds horrendous, doesn’t it?

Bizarrely, it’s not.

I have been known, in other jobs involving movement sessions, to mutter ‘I f-ing hate this’ under my breath as someone tells me to ‘be a jellyfish’ for no apparent reason. But this time, it’s all strangely amazing. We sweat and dance (even managing to make eye contact) and we move our bodies in the space with a sense of liberation.

Half an hour later, we are improvising for the party scene in the play where there will be dancing. We are imagining we are ‘in a Brixton bedroom’ and Ayse calls out to us to "RAISE THE ROOF". We are pulsing and winding and sweating even more. After ten minutes, I am loving it but out of breath. After an hour, I think - genuinely - that I am having a heart attack.

Advice to the uninitiated: when you get an email from the RSC movement guru advising you that it could be helpful to do a bit of preliminary exercise to prepare for a "very physical show" … do a bit. 

Heart attack aside, we come to the end of Day 2’s movement session and as we ‘walk it out’ (*limp courageously around the room, trying to remember how to breathe*) I look at the faces I am about to spend 15 months with. Older-than-me and younger-than-me faces, all panting, all open. Adrenaline pumps through my veins. We smile, laugh, grin.

And I find myself thinking, We will never be the same again. 

Something has changed. Something has begun. It’s hard to articulate this kind of stuff without going into cliché but a trust has been sown. One that can make it easier to be bold, to feel carried. To dig deeper emotionally and to connect the human within us to the humanity within Shakespeare’s extraordinary characters. To look for the fear and pain and joy and hurt and love within these stories and to embrace the ridiculous when you need to. To try. So that what you say on stage can mean something - whatever that is - to the people sharing that world with you on stage and to the people in the audience watching the story.

And we get paid to do this. 

Best job in the world. 

Bethy Cordingly

Beth Cordingly

Beth Cordingly has been an actor for 20 years and a mum for four. She’s worked at the RSC before and she’s delighted to be back. She talks about her child too much.

Read Beth's biog.

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