Alex, 14, is in the yard of his dad’s pub in Hoggeston, serving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the noisy bunch of actors who are showing off and fooling about as usual. So, six pints of ale, two beers, two honey meads and a sherris sack for James Burbage, their manager. Mr Burbage, who is also a carpenter and a businessman, built the open air 8-sided playhouse in the fields nearby. He calls it the Theatre. They do bear baiting and plays that hundreds come and watch. Most people pay a penny to stand in the cobbled courtyard below the stage. Some pay tuppence to sit along the galleries. A few posh people pay threepence to sit on the stage.
Then Will the poet arrives. He’s one of the actors too. He asks Alex for a glass of canary wine. He says he’s celebrating finishing his latest play – a romantic tragedy set in Italy. Alex serves him the wine and asks what the play’s about. It seems to be all about hatred, suicide, fights, poison and dead bodies rather than romantic kisses and cuddles.
“Here it is, Alex. Would you like to read a bit?” He hands Alex the manuscript that he’s got rolled up under his arm. Alex begins to read it silently to himself. “No, no, not like that,” says William, “Read it out loud, big voice, shaking with passion! Like an actor in the Theatre. Deep breath!”
The pub falls silent as Alex, rather wobbly and stumbling on some of the words calls out:
“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”
There’s a big cheer. “Perfect, Alex!” Will says, “That’s the voice we need! You’re good-looking and clever. You can read. You’re not too big. Your voice is strong and still not broken. Tell you what. You can join our Company as an apprentice actor. You’ll need to wear a wig, costumes, make-up and stuff. You’ll need to learn your lines. We’ll teach you how to act and perform and how to die on stage. What do you say?“
Alex looks appealingly across to his Dad who says, “Let’s ask your Mum.”
“I’m calling the play. Romeo and Juliet” says William, “Best thing I’ve ever written. You, Alex, are going to be our beautiful Juliet! Rehearsals start Monday!”
The remains of Burbage’s original Theatre in New Inn Yard have recently been excavated in Shoreditch, just yards from where I work. Young boys, including an Alexander Cooke, played female roles in Shakespeare’s plays. It is thought that Romeo and Juliet was first performed in The Theatre in 1597, just before the company literally upped sticks and moved the building across the water to Bankside to be renamed The Globe.
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