Martita led the way out of our dressing room to the stage for rehearsal. I expected Daisy to whisper to me about how rude she had been, but she kept her mouth shut, and only gazed thoughtfully at the back of Martita’s head. I didn’t mind that Daisy was quiet – I felt wobbly all over with nerves, washed again and again with utter terror.
We threaded our way through the wings, and then I was stepping into the spotlight again.
But it turned out to be not quite as dreadful an experience as the audition, for this time the stage was filled with talking, laughing, shouting people, and crowded together they reminded me of something.
For a while, I could not think what it was – but then I realized. The people on this stage might all be grown- ups (or at least older than us), but the way they were chattering and clustering together was exactly like a group of Deepdean pupils at the beginning of a new term. They had already made their alliances like the second form had when I first arrived at Deepdean. At the Rue, Daisy and I were the new girls.
I breathed a sigh of relief. This was all right. I knew how to wait and watch until I understood the situation – and it helped that each of these people looked as though they expected to be the centre of attention. Their clothes were so gorgeous it took me a few moments to notice the patches on their knees and the rips at their hems, the places where things had been twice mended with slightly different threads. The men all wore jewel- bright cravats, and looked (I was reminded of Bertie and Harold at Cambridge) rather long-haired and terribly aesthetic, and all the women were wearing a fearful lot of make-up.
Martita looked back at us once more – and then she let out a sigh and rolled her eyes.
‘Oh, come on,’ she said. ‘I suppose I have to introduce you to the company. Remember I don’t want to be doing this at all !’
But, despite those words, her expression was kind – as was her offer to show us about. I wondered whether Martita might be the sort of person, like our friend Lavinia, whose bark was worse than her bite.
She dragged us across the stage to where a short, stocky, dark-skinned man was standing. He had a broad, smiling face and short dark hair, and he wore a shirt with brightly coloured braces. He looked very young for a grown-up too, only a few years older than Martita. When he saw her, he held out his arms to her. She put hers round him and kissed his cheek.
‘Simon!’ she cried.
I thought that they might perhaps be in love, and I saw from Daisy’s scowl and narrowed eyes that she did too, but then they began to chatter away to each other about people I didn’t know, leaning their heads together just like our schoolmates Kitty and Beanie, and I realized that they were simply very good friends. If Martita had chosen this friendly looking person as her ally, then she really might be quite kind.
‘Daisy, Hazel, this is Simon Carver,’ said Martita, turning back to us at last. ‘We were in Measure for Measure together in our last run. Simon, these girls are apparently part of the cast now. They’ve been given to me to look after.’
‘Oh, hey, poor you,’ Simon said to us with an American accent that gave me a start, for it was rather similar to Alexander’s. ‘Martita is a horrible person.’ But he winked and grinned, and Martita thumped him on the shoulder, looking furious and fond at the same time. ‘I’m kidding, obviously. Martita is amazing and we’re the best of friends – the two of us have got to stick together among all these English people.’
‘We do,’ said Martita, the corners of her mouth quirking up. ‘But it’s dreadful, Simon. It is! Rose has taken the good dressing room and now I’m sharing with these two.’
‘So? They seem great! Rose does have a lot to answer for, though,’ said Simon, his face falling. ‘I’ve got to tell you what she—’
‘Martita!’ called out another male voice. ‘My darling!’
Martita’s blooming smile shut off like a light, and I saw her draw into herself as she turned to the speaker.
This man was tall and slender, with pale skin and rather long brown hair flopping about his temples. He had his arms out to hug her, and Martita stepped into the hug – but there was something about her movements that told me she did not really want to be hugged at all.
‘Hello, Lysander,’ she said.
Simon stepped backwards, frowning.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to these two?’ asked Lysander, gesturing at Daisy and me.
‘Girls,’ said Martita, ‘this is Lysander Tollington.
He’s playing Romeo.’
‘I am Romeo,’ said Lysander, stroking back his hair and smiling at the two of us with all his teeth. They were very white and even, but somehow it wasn’t a nice smile. ‘And you are . . . ?’
‘The Honourable Daisy Wells,’ said Daisy. ‘And this is Hazel Wong.’
‘Ah, an aristocrat,’ said Lysander. ‘Sent by your papa, were you?’
‘My uncle, if you must know,’ said Daisy. ‘And what’s wrong with that?’
‘Nothing, apart from the fact that you didn’t need to show any talent to get a part,’ said Lysander, sneering. ‘The English class system is ridiculous.’
Daisy was still gasping with rage at this cutting but not entirely untrue statement when Miss Crompton came striding onto the stage. She was wearing the same square brown dress as yesterday, and no make-up at all, but everyone hushed and turned to her as though she had a crown on her head. Next to her hurried a small woman with light-brown skin carrying a clipboard, her thick greying hair twisted up into a complicated plait.
This, I thought, must be Theresa – the stage manager Miss Crompton had mentioned.
Behind them both walked a man who made me wonder whether Romeo and Juliet had already begun, for he looked like a character in a play. He was old, and his skin was very dark and slightly freckled. He had a halo of close-cropped white hair and he was wearing a long purple cape. He held his arms half crossed in front of him so that the material billowed down around his body and swept away behind him.
‘That’s Inigo Leontes!’ hissed Daisy like a prompter in my ear. ‘He’s a terribly famous tragic actor! He’s played Othello, of course, and Macbeth and Hamlet, all at the Rue, and now he’s Miss Crompton’s director, and the principal investor too. He’s put lots of his own money into the Rue, so really it’s almost as much his as Miss Crompton’s.’
‘Good afternoon, cast!’ boomed Inigo, flinging his arms out wide. ‘And to our two new members: welcome to our theatre and our play!’ He gave a deep, dramatic bow to me and Daisy.
‘My theatre, Inigo darling,’ said Miss Crompton, patting his shoulder. ‘Mine and Theresa’s. Your play.’
‘Of course!’ cried Inigo, not ruffled at all. ‘For the benefit of the new arrivals: this theatre, of course, belongs to Frances. But the production is mine. I am bringing the Bard’s great romance, Romeo and Juliet, to life at the Rue in only two weeks. I have a vision!’
‘You certainly do,’ said Miss Crompton. ‘And I agree with you on it.’ She frowned. ‘Actors have got in the habit of declaiming Shakespeare as though they’re speaking nonsense poetry and not simply talking to one another. We won’t have any of that in this production.’
‘INDEED!’ thundered Inigo. Miss Crompton blinked at him, and he coughed and said, ‘Indeed. This play will be realistic. It will be immediate. It will be GENIUS!’
There was a commotion at the side of the stage. Inigo paused, and then one more person burst out of the darkness into the glare of the lights. She was young, probably Simon’s age, and her face was beautifully painted; she had red lips and dark, long-lashed eyes. She was quite an ordinary height and size, with long blonde hair, but there was something about the way she moved that made it impossible to look away from her. She was like a magnet, and she made me gasp. She walked to the middle of the stage and shrugged her shoulders.
‘I’m here, darlings,’ she said.
‘Hello, Rose dear,’ said Miss Crompton. ‘Thank you for joining us.’ She smiled, and I felt rather surprised. Miss Crompton had not shown herself to be someone happy with lateness.
‘Darling Frances!’ said Rose, turning her hypnotic gaze on Miss Crompton like a beam of light.
‘Rose, this is the third time this week,’ rumbled Inigo. Rose narrowed her pretty eyes at him a little and pouted. ‘I was busy,’ she said. ‘I’m here now, aren’t I? What does it matter?’
‘Perhaps she got lost in all the space in her dressing room, which is next to the stage,’ said Martita quite clearly. Miss Crompton swung her head round. I saw Martita’s chin go up. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes glittered. And, from the middle of the stage, Rose glared straight back at her.
‘Now that Miss Tree is here,’ Inigo went on, ignoring Martita’s sharp words, ‘I can introduce our two new company members. Miss Daisy Wells will be making her debut as Paris’s Page and as the figure of Rosaline at the Capulet party, and her friend Miss Hazel Wong is playing the small but crucial role of Potpan.’
There was a roll of laughter and I flinched. Daisy bowed.
‘Girls, let me introduce the company to you. Our Romeo is Mr Lysander Tollington.’ Inigo waved towards Lysander, who bowed ironically. ‘And Juliet’s Nurse – a young woman in this production – will be played by Miss Martita Torrera. As well as directing, I will play Juliet’s confessor, Friar Lawrence, and Romeo’s bosom friend Mercutio will be played by Mr Simon Carver.’ He gestured at Simon, and as he did so an odd, disappointed expression flashed across his face.
He pointed out the actors who would be playing the Montagues and the Capulets, Paris, the apothecary – and at last he introduced Rose. As he did so, it was as though a bright light had been thrown on her. It was clear that she was the star.
‘Hazel, Daisy,’ said Inigo, ‘this tardy female is our Juliet, Miss Rose Tree. She comes to us fresh from her triumph in Happy Families last month at the Lyric, and this will be her first Shakespeare.’
I glanced around and saw that everyone was staring at Rose. Miss Crompton looked amused and fond, Lysander looked – the polite word, I suppose, is romantic – Inigo looked annoyed, and both Simon and Martita looked furious. Rose, meanwhile, stared straight out into the empty auditorium, posing for them with a little smirk on her face – and I wondered then whether all was well at the Rue Theatre.