Next Season by Michael Blakemore
published 1968 chapter 7
[The actors are preparing for the dress rehearsal of a performance of the Duchess of Malfi] “I feel like Theda Bara,” [Amanda] said, but with some pleasure. She was lavishly dressed in green and gold, and wore a splendid copper-coloured wig. Sam wondered if she might yet be good in her part. Her throat and shoulders were bare, and as they talked he took surreptitious account of them. She was a little too skinny to play the part of a great voluptuary, but the designer had made the very best of her small bosom and the shapeliness she derived from the slight muscularity of her young body. Her clear skin was checked along the top of her shoulders by a faint track of freckles, mark of idle days in the sun (like almost all Australian girls).
“Full company onstage please. Full company onstage.”
John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is a bloodthirsty, macabre Jacobean revenge tragedy. Amanda in the extract above is playing the very sexy Julia, mistress to a Cardinal but with an eye for others. She will die (the spoiler is worth it for the bizarreness) by kissing a poisoned Bible. This play, running in London right now with Eve Best charismatic in the title role, is one that doesn’t treat women well, but does provide great parts for actresses.
The book is by a well-known theatre director, and describes one season in a provincial UK theatre through the eyes of a very much B-team actor. It is described as riveting by many theatre people: this is possibly less true for the rest of us, with its long detailed explanations of how a play is put on, and the inner thoughts of the not-terribly-interesting Sam as he goes about creating his minor parts, and pursues Amanda – the actress above, posh, theatrical royalty, not particularly good in her part but bound to succeed because of who her father is – and Valerie, a shopgirl in a pink nylon overall with a local boyfriend who must be avoided. The book does however also give a very convincing and off-putting picture of life in an English town in the 1960s: half a grapefruit with a cherry on it for your starter at a smart hotel (much better than the prawn cocktail), sex with Valerie after placing brown paper on the floor of the basement of the chemists’ shop [drugstore] where she works, everything shut on Sundays, the National Anthem before the play starts. And, surprisingly, a barbecue on the beach for the off-duty actors.
The picture is of the suicide of Cleopatra, believed to be by Michele Desubleo, made available of Wikimedia Commons by the Artgate Fondazione Cariplo.