By Alex Chalwell
It’s 6:30am and there’s egg in my kettle.
Not whole and perfectly boiled as my tour mate promised but cracked and leaking through the shell, globs of white rolling through the water, riding the bubbles. It’ll have to do – the hotel stove isn’t working. I empty it all out and scrub as much egg-foam from the heating element as possible. Good thing I don’t drink tea. Pity the next traveller who does.
We’re in Orange, 250 kilometres from home. It’s Week 6 of 21, and I’m still star-eyed with the newness of this gig, getting up early to prep lunch and do a few sit ups. Outside it’s 9 degrees and regulating hotel air-conditioning remains a great mystery to me, so any chance to warm my blood is worth taking.
After a few sleep-slow minutes of waiting as the windshield clears of fog, the three of us are off. Two shows today, just under the usual three, and both of them are Shakespeare is Dead (SID), our Shakespeare smorgasbord. The fastest forty-five minutes I’ve spent on stage. First show is for years 7-10 in a long, low room. We unpack quickly. I might still be in star-eyed new-job mode, but after a month-and-a-half you learn how to get everything ready fast. Especially if moving fast will keep you warm. There are two fight scenes in this show – one with daggers, one with foils – and we run through both, keeping the choreography tight. Then the students are in. Once everyone’s in they go quiet on their own, like the trailers in a cinema have finished and everyone is ready for the movie. A teacher at the back of the room gives us the nod. We’re off.
Mary starts the show with a eulogy for Shakespeare, the first word so overblown and reverent that she gets a laugh. A good sign. Every age group has a different sense of humour. In high schools, the distinction is very clear. Generally, overblown farce resonates with the young, while underplayed disinterest will get older groups. SID is a flexible show, and can play to either. But with such a broad reach of year groups, there’s a risk of getting one audience on side at the expense of the other. The show races along. As a team, we catch the eyes of people watching, reading the audience and adjusting our performance as we go. They’re gelling well. And then we hit the jackpot.
During a Romeo and Juliet fight scene, one teacher barracks a little too hard for the Montagues. It’s always funny when a teacher gets involved. Doesn’t matter how old you are. Wil takes the opportunity. The teacher is recruited as a Montague, ready to fight myself and a student as a Capulet. It works. There aren’t patches of laughter now. It’s the whole room, watching closely as we spit Shakespearian insults at one another.
Next up is a primary school on the outskirts of Orange. On a bluff overlooking a cherry farm. The hall is narrow – as we unpack we talk through a few changes we’ll have to make to accommodate. Once we’re set, the students trickle in. Years 5 and 6. Very young. Two schools have combined to make up this audience of 57, each too small for their own visit. Distinct patches of colour form across the room where the uniforms gather, the schools keeping to themselves. Until we learn a few students will be late, and one of the kids suggests a joke competition. Give these kids time. One of them will rival Shakesepeare one day.
Show start. My character starts SID with a deep apathy for all things Shakespeare, and given how young the crowd is and how warm they are from the joke competition, I take a risk that wouldn’t sit with an older, cooler audience. In heated defiance at the thought of having to study the Bard, I open a window by the stage and try to escape. They laugh. We’ve got them. Soon the room is filled with the tapping of hands-on-knees as they help us mark out iambic pentameter. You can feel their enthusiasm feeding our performance, into each choice and risk we take on stage. It follows us out after the show, as half the year group presses their hands into the chain-link fence separating the basketball court from the car park, biting their thumbs at us and proudly declaring their allegiance to the Montagues or Capulets as we pack our gear back into the car.
Back to the hotel. I’m shattered. The door is heavy – I force it with my shoulder to get it open. The first thing I see is the kettle. Lit in the rectangle of afternoon light the open door lets into the room, a grungy cloth beside it. 251 kilometres away is my girlfriend. The poached eggs she makes are perfectly formed, and tend not to destroy whatever appliances and utensils she uses to cook them. We all miss home from time to time. It’s the nature of this work. But to watch laughter dance across a room as it did today makes it worth it. Makes me proud of the people I work with. We’ll be home soon.
The Players tour nationally throughout the year performing Shakespeare in schools. Find out more here.