Friday, 1 July 2011

The Quality of Mercy is not Strained

Watching the umpteenth re-run of Lewis the other evening, this one entitled "The Quality of Mercy", I was reminded of an audition I did back in about 1951.

An enthusiastic (schoolgirl) actress, with a half a dozen performances of various kinds (and qualities) under my belt I was quite convinced no-one could teach me anything about Shakespeare.

Dedicated nerd that I was I read his plays intensively for pleasure, rather than because they were required reading.

Never having set foot in the professional theatre, all I had as a point of reference was the very occasional film - Hamlet, Richard the 3rd, etc.  Since in my mind, there was no difference between my agonisingly amateurish performances and those of the greats (Olivier, Burton and so on) there was no reason to cringe at the thought of auditioning for the part of Portia.

Merely a question of learning the words and declaiming them I thought.

The company which was holding the auditions was a travelling repertory company called "The Osiris".
Two pieces were required both of them classics.

How much more classic than our William could one get I thought?

Having taken poison and died extremely theatrically as Ophelia, I then launched into Portia's great speech,
The quality of mercy is not strained it droppeth etc.

The two women who were holding the auditions somehow contrived to keep straight faces and asked me gently whether I had any actual theatre experience.

No, not on the professional stage I said I'm only sixteen and will be leaving school in a couple of months.

They asked me if I would be prepared to work as a stage hand, dresser etc.

Of course, I had to say yes but 'what a cheek, ' I thought.  Fancy asking an ACTRESS to do that sort of thing.

Eventually they offered me the chance to work backstage with occasional small parts and I would receive the princely sum of three pounds a week and my food.  I would sleep in a caravan with other members of the company and tour the Midlands.

Full of enthusiasm despite the fact that I was mysteriously not being offered the lead, I rushed home to my astounded parents to tell them about my great career opportunity.

Still stunned they assured me that I would do no such thing, that I was underage,needed and would not get, their permission and with the further assurance that i would be working in an insurance office in a month or so and could reconsider my options in about five years time.

Sadly, that was the end of that particular attempt, but even now I sometimes find myself quoting the great 'mercy' speech (just in case I ever need to audition again).    


  1. Oh, Ray, I memorized that soliloquy for school, too, and am amazed how often a line of it comes to mind! I love how you describe your parents' reaction to your job offer!

  2. Hi Penny
    The way my parents reacted to that particular bid for escape was just the first of many.
    I finally made it when i was 20 and joined the WRAC.
    Not what I had aimed for, but it served a purpose!

  3. At the residential lodge I go to every Thursday - I asked the other evening what they would have really liked to have done/achieve if they'd had the oppportunity..I was amazed at the response!! one gentleman, after the service, said to me that he had also wanted to be a chef but his father told him he had to follow the family line and work on the barge boats. He showed me an album of the cakes he had made and decorated over the years, they were just out of this world.. Now, well in his 80's, it is he who makes the tea etc after the service every Thursday, I would be lost without him.

  4. Sadly Judy I think this is true of many older people, brought up in the do as you are told era. Only the supremely confident ones ever really managed to buck the trend.
    Females, in particular, were tied by the prevailing rules and some of us never totally managed to be our selves as we were meant to be.