I failed my Theatre Studies A Level in dramatic style back in 1991. It was the part of the exam where each student had to perform a soliloquy in front of the course tutor, the examining board and the other students. During that year, I had fallen in love with ‘Volpone’, one of the plays we had studied.
For anyone not familiar with it, it’s a Jacobean play, written by Ben Jonson back in 1606. Yes, indeedy, that means it’s in the same era as Shakespeare. Anyone who has had to learn Shakespeare will now be wondering what they hell was this girl thinking (as well they should).
For some bizarre reason, I though I would give myself the “interesting” task of trying to learn one of the soliloquies in 30 minutes. I chose the story spoken by one of the comic fools, Nano, in the play. (The fact that I chose a fool’s speech makes me smile these days).
Here’s the fated soliloquy I tried to learn in all its Renaissance glory …
Nano Now, room for fresh gamesters, who do will you to know, They do bring you neither play, nor university show; And therefore do entreat you, that whatsoever they rehearse, May not fare a whit the worse, for the false pace of the verse. If you wonder at this, you will wonder more ere we pass, For know, here is inclosed the soul of Pythagoras, That juggler divine, as hereafter shall follow; Which soul, fast and loose, sir, came first from Apollo, And was breath'd into Aethalides; Mercurius his son, Where it had the gift to remember all that ever was done. From thence it fled forth, and made quick transmigration To goldy-lock'd Euphorbus, who was killed in good fashion, At the siege of old Troy, by the cuckold of Sparta. Hermotimus was next (I find it in my charta) To whom it did pass, where no sooner it was missing But with one Pyrrhus of Delos it learn'd to go a fishing; And thence did it enter the sophist of Greece. From Pythagore, she went into a beautiful piece, Hight Aspasia, the meretrix; and the next toss of her Was again of a whore, she became a philosopher, Crates the cynick, as it self doth relate it: Since kings, knights, and beggars, knaves, lords and fools gat it, Besides, ox and ass, camel, mule, goat, and brock, In all which it hath spoke, as in the cobler's cock. But I come not here to discourse of that matter, Or his one, two, or three, or his greath oath, BY QUATER! His musics, his trigon, his golden thigh, Or his telling how elements shift, but I Would ask, how of late thou best suffered translation, And shifted thy coat in these days of reformation.
Anyone with half a brain would have been able to see that it was going to be slightly challenging. Back then, when I was 18, I had been learning vast numbers of scripts for a couple of years. I knew I was taking a risk, but the confidence of youth spurred me on.
My fellow students, however, were worried that I’d bitten off more than I could chew with this one. I knew they were right, but I couldn’t let that sink in, or else I’d be doomed.
I remember pacing up and down in the tiny dressing room, desperately trying to learn this bloody speech. Then it was time. I walked out onto the makeshift stage, arranged my little set around me and began my soliloquy.
I remember the sensation of the examiner’s eyes boring into my skull as I spoke the first few lines. I could feel my friends holding their breath in the room as I managed to recite one line, then another.
A bout a third of the way through the soliloquy I dried. Completely and utterly. I knew I was done for. I knew I had failed the exam in that moment. Two years of hard work gone in an instant all because I had chosen to try and learn such a bloody difficult speech in 30 minutes for my finals. MY FINALS FFS!
After what seemed like 500 years, standing frozen onstage, I broke. I dissolved into tears and ran offstage. Obviously, there was no applause – why should there be? Nope, just a resounding silence – as I left the stage.
Later, my friends were so kind and “swore they thought I was going to make it through the speech”. Bless them all and their sweetness on that day.
If you’re expecting a happy ending to this salutary tale, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you (in one way but perhaps not in another). Understandably, I failed my exam miserably. Fair enough.
I didn’t set foot on a stage again until I was nearly thirty years old. I had one line, as a barmaid. My nerves were shot, and I loathed having to go on stage every night. That tiny role was nearly twenty years ago, and I have never gone back to being onstage.
I now realise I was never cut out for the performing arts. I love the craft; I love the atmosphere and I love working in the theatre. Would I have loved to be an actor? Absolutely. Would I have crumbled at the first rejection? 100% yes.
I am not tough enough to work onstage. I accept that now, but it has taken me thirty years to realise that I don’t have to torture myself about it.
During my time working backstage in both amateur and professional theatre, I’ve loved everything I’ve done. I think my favourite position was Stage Manager. I loved helping a play run well and working with the whole team. I never envied the cast – but I had never accepted my failure during that one exam all those years ago.
Now, I see that it was my way of telling myself that I didn’t really want it enough. I often see it as the 18-year-old me protecting my future self by de-railing my plans to become an actor. “Be careful” her young bones seemed to be saying – “be careful what you wish for.”
We all have wisdom in our bones. Our bodies are soaked in ageless knowing. Our job is to become still enough to try and listen to what they are telling us at any given point.
Today, I’m extremely glad I didn’t try and make it in acting or show business. I now know it would have destroyed me. So, thank you, eighteen-year-old me, for knowing that in your bones. Thank you for choosing the soliloquy that ultimately stopped me in my tracks and gave me a moment to breathe. I applaud you.
With love and gratitude,