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Nor Woman Neither

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"To stage or not to stage, that is the question." Oliver Welles sighs profoundly.

"Very good, Oliver," says May Silverstone, sitting on the other side of his desk. "But there isn't any question about this. We have to do Hamlet. We haven't put it on for seven years."

"I don't see why. Seven years is nothing; we haven't done Coriolanus for a dozen."

May smiles patiently. "You know that's different. You can do Coriolanus if you want to, but a Shakespeare festival without Hamlet is like..."

"Hamlet without the Prince?"

"Quite."

"And there's the rub. We haven't got a Prince."

"You'll find one. How are your talks with Henry Breedlove going?"

"Rather well, actually. But that's for Macbeth."

"He might like to do Hamlet in New Burbage, though?"

"He probably would. He's a very good minor-league Hamlet, but I can turn him into a major-league Macbeth."

"I hope that's not how you're pitching it to him."

"Well, of course not."

"In any case, I refuse to believe you can't find someone in Canada - or America - capable of playing Hamlet. Surprise us. Pick someone out of left field."

Oliver snorts. "The board won't like that. They'll want someone bankable. Bums on seats."

"They're not mutually exclusive," says May thoughtfully. "You could cast someone well-known who no one's ever imagined as Hamlet."

"Well, in that case," he says, trying to make it sound as if it's only just come to him, "there's someone right here already."

"Really? Who?"

"Ellen."

"Oh, no, Oliver. You really can't do that."

"It's hardly unprecedented. Sarah Bernhardt did it more than a century ago."

"I do know that, Oliver. And Sarah Siddons before her, and Eva Le Gallienne after, and dozens more. I saw Diane Venora play it in New York in the eighties; she was good."

"But you don't think stuffy old New Burbage is ready for a female Hamlet?" he sniffs.

"I think it could be done; it would certainly be a publicity coup. I also think Ellen could do it, if not for her history with the play. But there is no way we could ask her to act the part that drove her lover mad, on stage, while she was watching."

"She's tough. She played Ophelia for the rest of the run."

"She is tough, but the pressure would be ten times worse. Just imagine what Basil and the rest of the press corps would do with it. We couldn't hide her, she'd have to do the publicity, and they'd all ask how she felt about taking on Geoffrey's role, and her memories of what happened..."

"They'll ask about that even if she's Gertrude."

"If she agrees to play Gertrude, which she'd be entirely within her rights to refuse, it would be easier to shield her. We can turn down requests for interviews with Gertrude, but Hamlet will have to be out there, shouldering the brunt of the promotion."

He can't think of a good comeback to this, so he pulls out an After Eight mint and eats it as slowly as possible.

After a short silence May says, with infuriating kindness, "I know this is very difficult for you, too, Oliver. You shouldn't feel you have to direct."

"Not direct next year's flagship production?"

"It's entirely up to you. But we have to do Hamlet, and you have to find someone to play the lead. Someone who isn't Ellen." She gets up to leave his office, then looks back. "I'm sorry, though. If things had been different... I'd have liked to see her Hamlet."

 

So would Oliver. Of course, May's right: they couldn't ask Ellen. But he has imagined her in the role from time to time. She was brilliant in Shakespeare's breeches parts, and he's sure she could still do it. After all, the Gravedigger says Hamlet is thirty years old, so it's not like Viola or Julia or Imogen, who are supposed to be young women posing as younger boys - and she was still pulling off that trick well into her thirties. He thinks she raised her game once she was acting with Geoffrey; he occasionally spotted a hint of Tennant in her body language, presumably because she came to know that particular body so well.

Oliver had raised his game, too, when he had Geoffrey and Ellen to direct. It had been a joy having them to express his vision. Not that they'd been passive instruments for him to play on; he'd enjoyed the long arguments about what the plays meant and who their characters were, which continued long after rehearsal ended, in the bar, in the street, at Ellen's house... Often their ideas had ended up in his productions. It's no surprise that Geoffrey moved into directing once he recovered. If Ellen was still on proper speaking terms with Oliver, he'd suggest that she try it too; he knows she worries about what will happen as she ages and the parts dry up, and it would be good for her to put more thought into other people on the stage. That's one of the things that went wrong after what happened; despite her sexual adventures, she's never let anyone else get close to her, so she's become too focused on her own performances. She needs to open out again.

That's her weakness, a fear of taking risks with her life, which is ironic when she used to be so good at taking them on stage. And that was one reason why it all went wrong, seven years ago, after the astonishing first night of Hamlet.

Geoffrey had started it, upsetting that beautifully balanced three-sided partnership with his talk of babies and weddings. Oliver had just proclaimed he loved them more than he loved himself, and suddenly he was reduced to a joke, designated their bridesmaid, not even best man - the only time he'd ever suspected Geoffrey of homophobic prejudice. Stumbling home alone, he thought of As You Like It, which had opened the season, and his namesake Sir Oliver the priest, abandoned by Touchstone and his bride Audrey. Not o sweet Oliver, o brave Oliver, leave me not behind thee. But wind away, begone, I say, I will not to wedding with thee.

Still, he felt brighter in the morning (the rave reviews for Hamlet helped). Geoffrey would beg him to be best man once they'd come down off their cloud. And godfather, probably. Oliver could announce the birth of a great actor from the stage of the Rose, like Laurence Olivier when Vanessa Redgrave was born.

Then, that night, he'd walked into Ellen's dressing-room to give her a note on the mad scene, and she'd responded with panic, fearful her art was already on the slide, like the girl in Dorian Gray who couldn't act once she fell in love for real. It was ridiculous, of course - she'd been doing great work while in love with Geoffrey - but somehow she had convinced herself that marriage and motherhood would derail her dramatic powers.

He'd only meant to comfort her when he took her in his arms, to tell her she didn't have to get married, because Geoffrey would always love her anyway. It hadn't occurred to him that she'd respond to it as a sexual advance, even if she was more highly sexed than either of them, and he knew she'd slept with a few of her directors in the past. They'd flirted happily for years, safe in the knowledge that it didn't mean anything, because everyone knew he was gay and she wasn't the one he fancied...

Except he did. Because one night, when Oliver had been watching her on stage in As You Like It, he'd felt a stiffening down below. He wasn't surprised, at first; it wasn't unusual to find himself hard when he was watching Geoffrey. Then he realised it wasn't Geoffrey who was making him twitch in this scene - Rosalind flirting with Orlando, pretending to be the boy Ganymede pretending to be herself. Come now, I will be your Rosalind in a more coming-on disposition. But it wasn't Rosalind either - it was Ganymede. That was the measure of Ellen's gift: she was the most beautiful boy he'd ever seen. And once he'd seen it, he could never quite unsee the boy in her.

So that was the final element in the perfect storm that had swept them away. When Ellen unexpectedly flipped into a coming-on disposition in her dressing-room, he didn't pull back as he should have done, because - without Ophelia's long wig - what he saw was Ganymede, demanding to be fucked.

He knows Ellen has plenty of ideas about why he did it: to punish her for keeping Geoffrey out of his reach, to show Geoffrey she wasn't worth loving, to salve his frustration because it was the closest he'd ever get to what he really wanted. And maybe some of all that is true, too, so he lets her believe it. The time he went to see Geoffrey in hospital and faced his furious denunciations, Oliver swore blind the sex was meaningless, just part of some power game.

Sometimes, however, alone at night, he remembers and knows that's not entirely true. Even though he's never felt any desire to do it again, whereas he still wouldn't say no in the impossible event of Geoffrey turning up on his doorstep. But it's always been the loss of that co-operative love the three of them shared that has haunted him. He misses Geoffrey every day. And, when she stares coldly down at him from the stage of the Rose, he misses Ellen.