Drama in sunny Stratford, as two actors lark about sightseeing. Is there enough drama, though?
Title: In the Shadow of Shakespeare
Language: British English
Synopsis: Four actors performing in “Hamlet” at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon are intrigued by the life of William Shakespeare. They discover an astonishing truth about his real identity. But the shadow of the Bard puts them in fear of their lives as the violent story of the play become reality.
“Oh no you don’t! Get off me!” cried Olivia, struggling to get out of Hamish’s grasp. But he had seized her from behind and bent her over the end of the sofa, and she couldn’t escape.
“And mind the coffee cups! It’s not our carpet, you know.”
“Oh, all right then,” she gasped. “Who’s there?”
Olivia couldn’t stop herself giggling.
“Ophelia very nice bezoomas!”
“GERROFF! And get your sticky hands off my bezoomas!”
“And very lovely they are, too.”
Hamish grinned as he pushed his hair off his forehead with the back of his hand. He looks too pleased with himself, Olivia thought. In a flash she had reversed the roles and grabbed him by the shoulders. She shoved his head down into the big leather cushion on the sofa.
“Knock, knock!” she squealed.
“Who’s there?” Hamish’s voice was muffled by the cushion.
“Hamlet,” said Olivia, squeezing his neck from behind. He winced.
“Ow! Okay, Hamlet, who?”
“Ham lettin’ you get away with that, just this once, but don’t you dare try it again!”
She released her grasp on his neck and they both lay back on the sofa, engulfed in each other’s limbs, hooting with laughter. She found herself running a thoughtful finger down his neck just above his pullover and pulled back abruptly.
“That Knock Knock worked rather well, didn’t it?” murmured Hamish. “But I doubt we’ll even remember it in the morning. I say, Ol, that weed last night must have been pretty kosher. Hey, tell you what – shall we have another drag before we go out?”
Olivia let out a sigh and sat up, tugging her pink T-shirt down towards her gym toned stomach. Was it a bit too tight across her chest? So little material, such a lot of money for just a silly label. She jumped up.
“Not now. Look at that sun outside! This is our first morning off. We’re going to do a tour of Stratford, home of the Bard, our Lord and Master and sole inspiration, remember? Your doublet’s all ungyved, Lord Hamlet – do yourself up. And have you got your scarf?”
“Of course,” said Hamish, still panting. “An actor without his scarf? You know perfectly well it means instant dismissal from Equity for an act-or to be seen in public without his casually knotted scarf.”
Olivia laughed again, knowing the truth of this. “Get your ass into gear,” she said.
“Then came each actor on his ass… You’re right, let’s go and explore. Where do you want to go first?”
“Oh, the Birthplace, I think,” said Olivia. “It’s only round the corner from here, in Henley Street, isn’t it? Then to New Place in Chapel Street before lunch. Okay with that? Right, I’m just popping into the bathroom to freshen up. Won’t be a tick.”
“You decide where,” said Hamish. “I’ll leave it to you. It’s ridiculous that it’s taken us all this time to do the tourist thing.”
He pushed his shirt back into his trousers and stretched his arms out. Time he went back to the theatre gym. He had missed a couple of days, and his body knew it. He grimaced.
In the bathroom Olivia pulled on a new pair of tights. She had a moment to reflect, checking her face in the mirror. After five weeks of rehearsals, the play had opened. But reviews were lukewarm and there were quite a few changes being made between performances. There was an uneasy sense of work in progress, which made for a tense atmosphere behind the scenes.
Today Griselda had relented and given the whole cast a morning off. Let’s make the most of it, Olivia thought. She put the lipstick away and gave her hair another quick brush.
“Right, I’m ready.” She glanced down at her legs, twisting her head round. “Are my seams straight?”
“Seams, madam? Nay, it is! I know not seams. Nay, is!” said Hamish, and dodged a blow at his head. He hugged her and gave her a smacking kiss. “They look wonderful. Very fishnetty and sexy. Come on, let’s go.”
A minute later, they were out on the sun-drenched streets of springtime Stratford-upon-Avon, where the tourists and shoppers were celebrating the end of a long winter. Everywhere were tulips, begonias and primulas neatly laid out in the municipal flowerbeds, and stalls selling souvenirs and snacks outside the theatre. Street acts were showing off their skills, with some of the performers in Elizabethan costume. The carnival atmosphere was infectious.
“Isn’t it just amazing to be walking the same streets as Shakespeare did, watching the swans flying onto the same river, drinking in pubs that he would have known?” said Olivia, taking Hamish’s arm and chattering excitedly. “Shakespeare, not the swans, I mean. But I can’t believe it, can you?”
“I know,” said Hamish, biting into a strawberry flavoured ice cream he had just bought. “Do you want a lick? Come on! I wonder what he’d think of it today. This billion-pound tourist industry, all these happy people, all in his name, this amazing Shakespeare industry – wouldn’t he have been so proud?”
They were walking past a bus stop where a crowd of chattering visitors were alighting from a coach that bore the name of a Lancashire tour company. As they passed, two elderly women were climbing carefully down the steps of the bus. One said to the other, a worried expression on her face, “The trouble is, I don’t really like Shakespeare, tha knows.”
The other replied, “No, I know, love, but never mind. There are some reet good shoe shops in Stratford.”
This overheard exchange made Olivia and Hamish giggle.
“If we thespians ever need to look for a proper job…” Hamish managed, “…there are some reet good shoe shops in Stratford.” This set Olivia off again.
Very soon they arrived in Henley Street, and presented their passes at the entrance to the lovely half-timbered brick building proudly labelled ‘Shakespeare’s Birthplace’.
There’s something about drama productions that immediately interests me. I trod the boards myself many moons ago, and the wonderful summer I spent in the late Seventies as a teenager in a youth theatre group rehearsing Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat with a bunch of other hormonal actorly misfits was one of, if not the highlight of my teenage years. David Nicholls’ latest, Sweet Sorrow, brought back some happy memories.
So I’m immediately in a generous disposition towards this submission. (That’s a useful reminder of how random submission to agents and publishers is, by the way. If you gel with an agent, it’s just as likely to be something in the book that is intensely personal to that individual, as it is any literary skill on your part.)
But what about the text? The opening lines are a bit disconcerting, but that’s because I just finished an edit that included some fairly intense domestic abuse. It’s not immediately apparent that Olivia is enjoying Hamish’s attentions, but as soon as it is, I make a mental note to park my assumptions on one side, and start again from the beginning (always bear in mind where your reader could be coming from, especially at the beginning of the book, when you haven’t drawn them in to your story).
So Olivia and Hamish are mucking about (I think they’d call it “having a lark”) in a play-sexual physical entanglement, and fall back on the sofa, breathless. I’m not yet engaged with Olivia or Hamish at this point, so I’m not too sure why I should be interested in their sex-play, to be honest. This is my first exposure to these two characters, and first impressions count. They’re a bit giddy, a bit young and stupid, a bit carefree altogether, staying in their rented house. There’s something a little off in the choreography of their messing about, also. Olivia is bent over the sofa being felt up from behind, but she thinks Hamish is looking too pleased with himself? How can she see? The transition from her over the end of the sofa to her stuffing Hamish’s head in the cushion isn’t managed well. At this stage I’m mentally drumming my fingers – so what?
The first line that really grabs my attention is “She found herself running a thoughtful finger down his neck just above his pullover and pulled back abruptly.” Now that’s interesting. That’s tension. All the giddy horseplay seemed a little contrived, but now I’m thinking “Hmmm, undercurrents, subtly flagged.” Olivia “has a moment”. Why is she thoughtful when she’s running her finger down his neck? What’s she thinking about? And why does she pull back abruptly?
Reading on, is Hamish aware of what time of day it is? He mentions “the weed [they] smoked last night” but wonders if they’ll “still remember it in the morning”. Might they still be a little high? Whatever, but perhaps that explains why Hamish speaks in a kind of bizarre actorly dialect alien to anyone without an Equity card. Does anyone really start a sentence with “I say …”? Because of the strangely archaic dialogue, I wonder for a brief moment whether this is set in the 1950s, because there’s also a reference to the seams of her tights. I’m no expert on women’s hosiery, but I thought seams had gone out with Capstan Navy Cut cigarettes. But then there are references to a “billion-pound tourist industry”, gym-toned stomachs and designer exercise-wear (more undercurrents there, with Olivia’s self-image), and language like “get your ass in gear”, which seem very modern.
Hamish’s habit of turning every conversational gambit into a Shakespeare quote would, I’m afraid, earn him a quick but firm smack in the face from me, but perhaps that’s why I never made it to the RSC. I suppose it does go with the job description, but if it continues throughout the book I think most readers would get extremely irritated by it.
They go on a sight-seeing jaunt. They eat ice-cream. They giggle. Hamish wears a scarf even though the sun is shining. There’s one reference to trouble at the performances and tension within the troupe but overall I get to the end of a thousand words (roughly four pages of a standard novel) and I’m scratching my head. If it was a very lighthearted, frothy comedy, perhaps, but you’ve said this is a mystery, at some point in which they fear for their lives. What do I know, or care, about Hamish and Olivia at this point? I’m afraid it’s not really very much.
The technical standard of the writing is very high – you mentioned in correspondence that it has already been proofread – and just scanning through as a copyeditor there are a few rogue ellipses which aren’t necessary, and you should cut a bit of the maid-and-butler dialogue (“Will we go to Shakespeare’s birthplace which, as you and I both know, is on Henley Street?”), but I think this beginning could be a lot tighter. There’s no doubting your technical ability, and there are
flashes of it (those undercurrents), but otherwise we’re viewing these two characters on a fairly superficial level, almost, in a way, as if we’re watching them on stage. It feels as if you’re not wholly committed to the novel form, and would rather be writing a screenplay, or a script for theatre. Who are Hamish and Olivia, and what do they want? I couldn’t tell you, by the end of a thousand words.
Thanks for posting!
For more information on maid-and-butler dialogue, see this blog post.
Sponsored by editorial.ie