This is Illyria lady…

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In Twelfth Night Viola and her brother Sebastian survive the
shipwreck but are washed up on different parts of the coast.

[Enter VIOLA, a Captain, and Sailors]

Viola. What country, friends, is this?
Captain. This is Illyria, lady.

Tweflth Nigt Act I Scene II

Well it wasn’t really Illyria but the stage in the hall of Weston-super-Mare Boys’ Grammar School at the beginning of a performance of Twelfth Night. The sea captain and two sailors standing there guffawing to each other did not have to imagine that a pasty-faced sixth former much like themselves was actually a pretty girl washed up on the seashore. This was a rare joint performance with the adjoining Girls Grammar School.

I can’t recall what Viola looked like other than that she was female. In case you don’t know the plot, she spends most of the play masquerading as her brother Sebastian and being fancied by Olivia who I do remember as being extremely attractive.

Anyway, to get back to Illyria. The sea captain was played by a rather sardonic character called Ian (second name eludes me) who had the same villainous air as his two companions, who did a boisterous ‘ho ho ho’ and nudged each other meaningfully.

I was one of the two hearty seamen. Try as I might I can’t bring to mind any details of my costume, apart from the fact that I had a large curtain ring clipped to one ear, and my footwear – like most of the male players – consisted of a pair of stockings rolled down to just above the ankle in attempt to look vaguely Elizabethan. (No nonsense about modern dress productions for the Weston Grammar Players!)

You’ll note that Shakespeare didn’t actually specify the number of sailors with the captain and it’s actually the only time they appear. No doubt in a professional production they would turn up in the same kind of spear carrying role in another scene in another costume but there was none of that nonsense about doubling up on roles in this version. Once our only scene was over, we just had to retire backstage and wait for the curtain call.

I’d only ever trodden the boards once before. At the age of five (going on six) I played Peter a little boy who was accompanied through a wood everywhere he went by the god Pan. I’m not sure that I had any lines, or about any details of the plot of this primary school epic. I suppose Pan must have been played by a girl of ten or eleven. I vaguely remember her speaking kindly to me when I got nervous. At the end of the play we stood in front of a woodland backdrop and sang Land of Hope and Glory along with the audience of proud mums and dads.

It’s quite possible that this production was in honour of the new queen coming to the throne in 1952. There were lots of pageants celebrating the new Elizabethan age at this time, and this may have been a humble version of that kind of thing. It didn’t really give me a taste for theatricals though, and it was another eleven or twelve years before I had my thirteen seconds of fame as the second sailor.

During the times I wasn’t on stage as Peter the friend of Pan, I sat in a classroom and started to read a book. This was curious as I didn’t know I could read, but suddenly all the words made sense. Today it would be called an epiphany – but I just took it for granted, and it is one of the most enduring memories of that small episode of my life.

My memories of my second foray into the thespian world are not nearly so profound. I sat through a few dire rehearsals where the actors stood around woodenly reciting their lines with the emotional fervour of someone reading out a shopping list but I did enjoy the play, and it’s still one of my favourites in the Shakespeare canon.

But if you leave the stage at the end of the second scene, there’s a lot of time to kill and I have no idea how I spent the first two days of the run. On the third and final night though, there was to be an after-show party – with sandwiches and sausage rolls and crisps, I expect, but it was a self-evident truth that there would be no alcohol on school premises being served to mostly under-age drinkers.

Someone had to act as provider and I set off on a long career of volunteering to do things I’d rather not do. So sometime in the evening I slipped out of the school – still in costume, though I imagine I put some shoes on – and headed for the nearest off-licence. God only knows what I looked like, with a dangling earring, a thickly pencilled moustache, and a vaguely Elizabethan costume. I was also of under-age though that was rarely a problem in Weston-super-Mare.

Of course nobody batted a bloody eyelid, did they? “You in the play up at the school?” said the bloke behind the counter as he put a couple of large bottles of pale ale in a bag and I nodded and went on my way to my after-show party and the end of my theatrical career.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Twelfth Night, Act V, scene 1

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