15 November 2008

Happy Birthday, H.R.H.!

Friday, 14 November 2008

I adore Prince Charles. I always have. And I don’t really care what anyone else thinks, or has to say about it, him, Diana, Camilla or whatever. I respect and admire him. And have had a crush on him as long as I can remember.

His life, however comfortable, has not been easy.  Consider this: spending your entire life in stasis, in training, in-waiting for a job that you can only obtain through the tragic loss of a dearly-loved parent. Now that is a double-edged sword if ever there was one. I love the Queen, and I hope that she continues to reign for many, many years to come, but I also hope that one day Charles may be King. Tricky stuff.

Shakespeare explores the dilemmas of kingship beautifully in the Henry IV plays, and he tackles the burden of majesty exquisitely in Henry V. I recall hearing Prince Charles recite one of Henry’s wonderful speeches from H5 (“Upon the King”) many years ago.  He read it as part of the lecture he gave for the Shakespeare Birthday celebrations here in Stratford-on-Avon in 1990. That seems a very long time ago now. And here is how it began…

They needed a boy and a girl. Two students were needed to officially represent The Shakespeare Institute at the annual Shakespeare Birthday celebrations. The annual Shakespeare Birthday celebrations are serious business here in Strat-ville. The celebrations for 1990 were no exception. In fact, the Birthday celebrations reached an all time high that year with His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, giving the official “Shakespeare Birthday Lecture.”

For this special occasion, The Shakespeare Institute wished to show itself modern, progressive and equitable. The then-Director of The Institute, Stanley Wells selected one of his favorite students, a Simon Pegg look-alike, also called Simon, and me. Even though it earned me the ire of more than a few of my fellow students, I was honoured. I did wonder, albeit fleetingly, at Professor Well’s choice of me. Until that point in time, I thought I moved within his sphere virtually unnoticed and undetected. However, upon reflection, I have surmised that of all the young women that inhabited the Institute at that time, I was probably, to his mind, the most effable and certainly one of the better dressed. (Thank you, big pearls and cashmere!)

The Shakespeare Institute at that time was populated by a small gaggle of British women who were on the whole sweet, stoic and silent; a few women from Asia (Japan and China, to be precise) who were less stoic, equally sweet, and even more silent; a handful of Europeans (mostly French) who were blisteringly intelligent, chain-smokingly elegant, and utterly aloof; and a legion of American women who fell into two distinct camps: loud, serious and somewhat dowdy feminists, with bad hair cuts and sensible shoes; and frilly, frothy “Ren Faire” princesses, with lissome limbs, flowing locks, and not-so-secret ambitions of playing Juliet. My guess is, to someone like Stanley, I seemed to fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum of femininity, a sort of United Nations of academic womanhood.

At any rate, I was chosen as the female ambassador to the most spectacular gathering of the 1990 Shakespeare Birthday celebrations: an invitation-only, morning coffee soiree atop the Swan Theatre, with His Royal Highness, Prince Charles. This was not the sort of event that could be left to chance, or in the hands of a drippy, doe-eyed Ren Faire princess—who might swoon at any moment—nor an anti-disestablishment feminista, with an axe to grind tucked in her Dr Martens. Stanley had entrusted me with this task, and confident though he was that I would represent the Institute well, he insisted that we practice my royal introduction ad nauseam.

“Um, Alycia,” he would call out to me in the courtyard, stressing the last syllable of my name with a long “s,” routinely and incorrectly, with firm and adamant British resolve. “I’ll be the Prince, and you be you.” he directed. Very simple instructions, followed by even more simple stage directions: He beamed. I curtsied.

On one occasion, during one of our numerous rehearsals, the actor within me awoke from her slumber, and grew brave. Perhaps my bile had been raised as a result of overhearing the bad haired feministas gossiping about me in the tearoom: “Who’d want to be Stanley’s trick monkey, anyway?” I’d heard them screech. I needed to assert my humanity, reclaim my dignity. So, in this last rehearsal, I grew bold and brazen. I dared to improvise.  Following my deep and graceful curtsy, I lifted my head, my eyes met Stanley’s, and I began to speak: “It is a such honor to meet you, Your Royal Hig...” Abruptly breaking out of his regal character, Stanley balked: “No!! Oh, no, no, my dear! Don’t say a word. You mustn’t speak to him. He will shake your hand, and he will move along. He will not talk to you.” 

Smile and curtsey. That was all that was needed. I could do that. And what meant more to me, was that Stanley thought that I could do that, and that I was the best of the scholar-girls who could do it. It was approval. Odd approval, but still, approval nonetheless. Stanley’s approval was a high and heady thing back then, to all of us young and restless, wanna-be Shakespeare scholars. One look, one nod of his could place you at the summit of academic bliss, or so we believed. I recall a day – before the Prince of Wales event – as I scampered into the building, the Head librarian, came out of her office as I was checking my post box, “Stanley’s been looking for you,” she said. My heart stopped. I had recently given Stanley a copy of my undergraduate honor’s thesis (on Juliet and Cleopatra) to read as part of my application for the Institute’s Ph.D. program. Had he read it? Did he think I was a genius? Was he staggered by my brilliance? Was I in, or was I out? I crept up the dark, creaking staircase, his office was of course at very the top of the stairs. I meekly knocked on his door. Time stood still as I opened it slowly, after being commanded to “Enter.”

Clemency. It means: “Disposition to forgive and spare offenders; mercy. An act or instance of mercy or leniency,” and “Mildness, especially of weather.” But in this instance, “Clemency” was Professor Well’s daughter. He needed me to babysit her for the afternoon. She was, and probably even now as a young adult still is, quite adorable, and there are of course worse ways to spend a mild, sunny English afternoon. Skipping out to the garden, with delighted four year-old and her plastic clod-hoppers in hand, I took comfort in the fact that while I had yet to earn Stanley’s respect as a scholar, he clearly had no doubt of my abilities to amuse a precocious toddler. 

Stanley’s clemency, with a small “c,” would soon be put to the test, however. Fast forward to the “big event” with HRH, and another darkened stairway. Following Prince Charles’ brilliant lecture, those of us who had been selected to meet and have coffee with him (myself, my fellow student, the actor Michael Maloney who was playing Prince Hal at the RSC at the time, the Lord and Lady Mayor of Stratford, & etc.) were ushered up the back stairs of The Swan Theatre, to the rehearsal room, which led to the balcony where coffee would be served. As I made my way up the stairs, I heard someone whispering my name. It was my buddy, “Proud American Princess.” “Sneak us in,” she hissed from the corridor. The “us” she referred to turned out to be herself and (I could not believe my eyes) Sam Wanamaker. Yes, the incredible ‘I’m-going-to-rebuild-Shakespeare’s-Globe’ Sam Wanamaker. I froze, did a double take and thought I was dreaming, but before I could contemplate the gravity of my actions, I motioned to the two them to fall in behind me. And the three of us marched across The Swan rehearsal room, and out onto the sunlit balcony overlooking the River Avon.

It gets better. (Or worse, depending on where you stand on decorum and protocol.) Stanley Well’s plan for an orderly procession of regal handshaking and curtsying was utterly obliterated, as Sam Wanamaker made a swift beeline to  Prince Charles. And why not? Wonderful Sam should have been invited anyway! At least that’s what I thought as I snuck him through the door…

Following Sam’s cavalier lead, my sassy friend, “Proud American Princess” sashayed over to H.R.H., took his arm and threw me her camera. Although this is considered a huge, major, major and unforgivable faux pas—I did detect a faint gasp from someone across the room—Prince Charles was completely undaunted, and smiled broadly as “Proud American Princess” giggled on his arm. What could I do but take their picture, even though I knew it prove the last nail in my coffin.

As this royal Coffee Morning had now gone to hell in a hand basket, and as I was dead meat already, I went ahead and switched places with “Proud American Princess” when she urged me to do so. Though I did not take hold of Prince Charles’ arm, nor giggle by his side. (Just doing my bit for decorum, folks.) Then, after our photograph, the “impossible” happened. Prince Charles turned, and spoke to me.  He wanted to know what had brought me to Stratford-upon-Avon, why I had chosen to come here from America to study Shakespeare. Ultimately, his asked, “Why Shakespeare?” I was stunned -- and not just because I had been programmed to say nothing. I came up with some sort of witty reply that sufficed in the moment, but I have never really come up with what I feel is a truly satisfying answer to that question. It has become a life pursuit.

Charles, if I may, was in fact very keen to know what we thought, and what mattered to us. And his own thoughts about Shakespeare and education were quite inspired and inspiring. I don’t think Stanley Wells has ever, ever, e-v-e-r forgiven me for that day. To be sure, it was not most responsible thing I have ever done, but I have to say, if I could live that moment again, I would make exactly the same choices.

Happy 60th Birthday, HRH!

(and, God rest ye, Sam Wanamaker.)


Kelly said...

Prince Charles is getting a bit of flack here in New Zealand at the moment over comments he made to friends about his tour here in 1981.


I don't think he is the most popular royal here in NZ - that title would def go to William I think, but our women's gossip magazines love talking about him and Camilla!

SWC said...

What a cliff hanger! I wanted to know how you responed to "Why Shakes?"

And why the queen?