Authors: Robert Barnard
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The extracts from the supposed
The Chaste Apprentice of Bowe
are in fact taken from
A Trick to Catch the Old One, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore,
and other plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period.
So don't blame me.
AD AS A HATTER
,” said Gillian Soames complacently, striding up the road from the underground towards Ketterick High Street. “Stark raving bonkers. Up the wall. Round the twist to an unprecedented degree.”
Peter Fortnum, legging it beside her through the town, was surprised to see on her face an expression of quite sunny anticipation. After all, she was talking about Jason Thark, the producer-director of the play in which they both were to appear. The two had met on the underground, having previously done no more than swap words when they were in different productions at the Sheffield Crucible. Thus they were still in the earliest stages of mutual discovery.
Peter Fortnum was slim, fresh, and twenty-three. Gillian Soames was rather plain, beginning to be dumpy, and was a stage veteran of eight years in small parts. She had had her share of theatrical disasters and had gone on from them to other disasters or to the occasional minor triumph. She knew that this was a festival production, which would
run its allotted course of twelve performances and never be heard of again, quite irrespective of the merits or otherwise of the production. Peter Fortnum was a nice lad, she was saying to herself, but you could spot the wetness behind his ears: He still believed that stardom might be just around the corner. Gillian knew that hard work was.
“So be prepared to swallow your artistic conscience,” she added darkly.
“He's got a tremendous reputation,” Peter ventured.
Gillian's tone seemed to contain a limitless scorn for drama critics. Thus did Lady Bracknell dismiss cloakrooms at railway stations. Peter wondered whether Gillian wasn't, perhaps, a Lady Bracknell in waiting. But if she meant that directors' reputations were gained over the bodies of actors who knew better, then Peter could go along with that.
“People do say he does interesting things,” he amended.
“The sort of director who gets that said about him,” said Gillian, still with the same unruffled composure, “is the kind to run a mile from. What does it usually mean? If the play cries out for a simple, direct approach, he decks it out with moving sets, Wurlitzer organs, and so many spots it looks like the Battle of Britain. And if the play is weak and needs a bit of gingering up, he puts the characters in body stockings and sets it in the Gobi Desert. That sort of director's motto is âDon't notice the play; notice
“Well, he can't play about much with an Elizabethan stage,” Peter pointed out.
“That's true,” conceded Gillian with all the reluctance of the born prophet of doom. “At least you wouldn't have
he could. The critics will come down on him if he tries any modern tricksiness, that's for sure. Stillâ”
She stopped short in her stride as she and Peter noticed simultaneously a poster for the play in an arty little
bookshop. They peered into the window, and Peter read out the title with a reverence the play hardly warranted:
THE CHASTE APPRENTICE OF BOWE
The poster was done in the form of a playbillâof the Restoration rather than any conceivable Elizabethan type. Peter's and Gillian's heads slowly dipped down as they read through the list of the players' names. There at the bottom they were: Peter Fortnum and Gillian Soames.
“At least we got on,” said Peter.
“Which is more than the author did.”
“It was published anonymously.”
“Nobody willing to own up,” said Gillian cheerily. “It does come rather into the âjustly neglected' category, doesn't it?” They resumed their lithe stride in the direction of the High Street. “Actually, I'd do a walk-on part in the worst play of Robert Greene just for the pleasure of working at the Saracen.”
“It must be fabulous,” agreed Peter. “Like getting back to one's rootsâstarting again at the beginnings of drama.”
“Something like that,” agreed Gillian, who distrusted enthusiasm.
“And actually staying there, too! I thought we'd be shunted off to some crummy bed-and-breakfast dive, with rooms at the Saracen reserved for the stars.”
“That's not how they do things at Ketterick. The theory is that there
no starsâwhich is bullshit, but useful bullshit. Of course, a lot of the names have flats or houses in London, anyway. Some of the rest prefer to take theatrical digs. I've got a poky room in north London which I've loaned to a friend for the summer.”
“And I'm living out of a suitcase at the moment. I could have got cheaper digs, but just the idea of staying at the placeÂ .Â .Â .”
“Precisely. It has an aura. And at the Saracen's Head somebodies and nobodies rub shoulders and swap pints. That's something Arthur has insisted on fromâ Oh!”
“Dear old Arthur. The landlord of the Saracen. I'd forgotten for a moment that he'd died.”
“Was he nice?”
“The dearest old man. And one of the masterminds behind the festival. He treated everyone alike, from Hamlet to Second Gent. I suppose the place must have been sold or something. Anyway, we'll soon see.”
They turned a corner into a wide but not too busy street, and Gillian pointed histrionically. “There it is,” she said.
As if they had but one mind, they set down their cases and gazed.
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
Even from a distance, viewed through the clutter and bustle of an outer-London suburb, the Saracen's Head looked like something special, something rather out of the run of old English inns. You noticed first its long frontage, which straddled a huge pair of gates. Through these, coaches had once rumbled to disgorge their passengers in the great yard beyond, for Ketterick had been a stopping-place between the north and Dover for fast coaches that had shunned the center of London. As you moved closer, you noticed that, apart from plaster over the half-timbering, it had been neither renovated nor tarted up, but had been left blessedly alone. The Saracen's Head had benefited over the centuries from a family of landlords who were quite remarkably slothful, men who could just about bring themselves to pull a pint but not much more. One of them, it is true, had in the mid-eighteenth century attempted
something in the way of modernization, but fortunately he had died, and in his son the family inertia had reasserted itself. In the nineteenth century the railway had removed its principal function, and in the twentieth century hideous shopping precincts and malls had diverted a lot of traffic from Ketterick High Street. The Saracen's Head had slumbered on until it was rediscovered by architectural and theatrical historians in our own century. The sleeping princess had been reawakened by the kiss of the Ketterick Arts Festival.
As Peter and Gillian approached, past the modern facades of video shops and Marks and Spencers, the great gates at the center of the facade were pushed open.
“Half past five,” said Gillian, licking her lips with satisfaction. “Opening time.”
Peter, seeing it for the first time, took in the details of the frontage as they stood on the other side of the road, waiting to cross. It was an untidy, welcoming facade. To the left of the great gates were the Massinger Bar and the Webster Bar. To the right, Reception and the Shakespeare Bar.
“The Shakespeare Bar's ours,” said Gillian authoritatively. “Not that the festival ever does Shakespeare.”
“No, we're stuck with
The Chaste Apprentice of Bowe
“Anyway, they were just the Toby Bar, the Snug, and so on until the festival started. Even dear old Arthur wasn't averse to capitalizing.”
They crossed the road, and from an unspoken wish they walked straight through the massive gates and into the great courtyard. Here they stopped, and Peter looked around with reverence at the open space within which they would be playing. Here the Lord Admiral's Men and the Lord Chamberlain's Men had played when forced from London's South bank by the plague or the hostility of City aldermen. The Saracen was, at ground-floor level, the usual array of bars, dining rooms and kitchens, and the other inevitable
offices of a large hotel. But at first- and second-floor level, on three of its four sides, it had kept the balconies from which the better class of Ketterick spectators had watched the entertainments provided by the traveling players. On the fourth side, the inn's proprietor of the eighteenth century, in that brief and regrettable spurt of energy, had bricked in the balconies and enlarged the bedrooms behind. Enough remained, with the row upon row of seats in the great courtyard itself, to provide sizable audiences for the Elizabethan and Jacobean revivals that were the staple of the Ketterick Arts Festival.
Even as they stood, silent, antennÃ¦ a-twitch to get the feel of the place, a couple of late workmen came out with two more sections of the stage. They began fixing them on to the section already set up, which was beginning to project out from the kitchens at the far side of the courtyard to form an apron stage. It was on this bare platform that the festival company had performed
The Devil's an Ass, The Faire Seducer, The Roaring Girls of Cheapside,
and other minor masterpieces of our drama. It was on this platform that Peter and Gillian would perform lesser roles in
The Chaste Apprentice of Bowe
“Our stage,” said Gillian with satisfaction in her voice, and reverence too. “You're right. It's difficult to see what Jason Thark can do to bugger
They watched the workmen and the embryonic stage, silent and companionable, united in some powerful but indefinable respect for their own art and its beginnings. Their mood was brutally shattered by an interruption.
“Would you be the operatic lady and gentleman?”
The voice had an Australian twang, and when they turned, they saw a bulky presence, now running to fatâan ex-rugby football player, perhaps, or the regiment's champion middleweight boxer. He was dressed in a suit of good cloth but baggy proportions, was balding, and his
eyes were watery, shifting and ill focused. But what was most immediately off-putting was his manner, which was unpleasingly ingratiating, yet oddly combined with something cunning, something almost threatening. He oozed up to them, it was true, but his manner had as its subtext something of the bully, as if he were itching to get them under his thumb.
“I'm Des Capper, the landlord,” he said.