How Juliette met Shakespeare

This story starts in a train. Oh, no! … It started in a circus. Or rather, in a circus school. It definitely didn’t start with a book, nor with a stage.

Let’s begin with the setting, this circus school. The old three-or-four-floor massive ruin was made out of pebbles from the Gardon, the river in Alès, a French city at the foot of the Cévennes. It had been restored in order to create a big open space. Only the floor, the roof and the four walls were kept. The air was chilly most of the time because the house was so big and difficult to heat but nobody cared, as everyone was busy learning or teaching the arts of the circus. It was a very beautiful place.

When Juliette came for her first lesson, she noticed straight away that people were special here. The flying trapeze’s teacher was a dwarf. The fashion was over washed black sport outfits. Some teachers had tattoos, which was something quite unfashionable at the time. Most of them had funny haircuts. But nobody cared; and when she came for her second lesson, she didn’t even notice it anymore. The atmosphere was very peaceful and open-minded. Everybody was smiling and people talked to everybody the same way. She wasn’t treated like a kid there but just as one member of the school. There was no hierarchy. Everybody was nice, trying to help, calm.

The most striking difference from what she had experienced elsewhere is that she was offered a set of different activities, which were changing according to what the teachers, who were present that day, could offer. The pupils could choose the activities they liked best. And after Juliette chose the activity she liked best, the teacher did not ask her to do the same exercise as the others. The teacher proposed exercises according to each pupil’s abilities. If you needed more time, you had it. If the exercise was too difficult, the teacher suggested an easier one. If it was too easy, a more difficult one was recommended. Which means the pupils were learning together, giving each other’s advice, but doing different things; each specializing either in what the enjoyed the most or in what they were the best. There was no pressure, no judging and no competition. That’s why she enjoyed going there, every Wednesday afternoon, for two hours, during four years. Before joining this school, she had uncoordinated movements, could not catch a ball for instance. She could easily see she was very slow at learning juggling; but as I told you, nobody cared. At the end of the four-year training, not only her uncoordinated movements had disappeared but she was also able to juggle with four balls and alternatively three training clubs. What she
enjoyed the most was the flying trapeze and after four years there, she was able to practice it without a rope, and she started learning very acrobatic figures to perform on them. Going from one trapeze to the other, using the body to its full potential. It felt like flying and she just loved it.

Why am I telling you all this, and how is it connected to Shakespeare? Wait, you are going to understand.

In this circus school, there was also sometimes a clowning lesson. She had her first lesson when she was 11. It was a very simple one but she will remember it for a lifetime. The pupils had to pretend they were animals. She chose the lion and roared, ROAARRRED and ROaArrRED so much he felt amazing. This was her first experience of acting; an experience she will try to experience again and again through her whole life. (As an adult, she had tried to share that experience with her kids but her roaring had become so impressive that they had been scared and the younger ones had asked her to stop.)

When her mother announced, they were moving to Nîmes; the first thing Juliette asked was: “Is there a circus school there?” But there wasn’t. Juliette was awfully disappointed and her mother thought that the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique was probably the place that was the most similar. And also, she thought it would sound awfully educated to state: “My daughter is a pupil at the Conservatoire” to her bunch of friends. A good opportunity to use her daughter in order to behave snobbish.

Here you are, we are getting closer to a stage…

So, Juliette went there, out of curiosity and also because she desperately needed to feel what she had felt at the circus school. And her mother was right. It was very similar and Juliette found again that atmosphere she had enjoyed so much at the circus, the atmosphere in which she knew she would improve herself by exploring her abilities and improving them.

The teacher’s name was very promising: Mme Oliver. It immediately rang a bell with Laurence Olivier. She was only 14 and didn’t know much about him but she knew that he had a great career and that he was linked to Shakespeare. She had seen their names on her mother’s bookshelves. She knew they were mythical but she had never read or seen a Shakespeare’s play and she had never seen Laurence Olivier on the screen.

Mme Oliver was teaching in her own way.

She would have a few exercises that the pupils would repeat before each session. The beginning of the lessons were made out of tongue twisters in order to have a clearer diction, exercises to learn how to make the mask vibrate and the air come from the belly. She set only three goals: one had to speak loud enough to be heard in a theatre, make its mask vibrate the proper way, so as to have a pleasant voice and the diction had to be perfect. It was hard work but Mme Oliver would always be very patient, speak in a very benevolent voice, repeating the words badly pronounced by repeating them simply, nicely and serenely in the right way.

As for the acting, she would never make any judgment. The pupils would practice in another room and show her, when they felt ready, once at each session. They would go on stage and show her. Sometimes, she would ask the other pupils what they thought and it was a general understanding, although it had never been said, that the comments would always be made in order to help, never to criticize. One is so vulnerable on stage; critics are so difficult to stand up with. The only think she repeated regularly was: “don’t act, be”. But generally, she would simply say that the pupil needed more practice or that he should try another text or that he was ready to move on to another scene or another monologue.

Oh! I haven’t told you the most interesting part. There was no play to be performed at the end of the year, as I have told you, there was no pressure here. Pupils had to find the monologues they will have to work on, and also some dialogues and of course, pupils would find their partners themselves. Nothing was imposed. And, if someone wanted to perform a play, he would have to find the pupils for each part. She would only make suggestions and try to help if the pupil didn’t manage on his own. If the play went on well, Mme Oliver would find a theatre and a vacant time so her pupils would perform on a Friday or a Saturday evening; if it didn’t, the project was just practiced as an exercise and then ignored.

Thanks to the freedom Mme Oliver gave to her pupils, letting them find their own way of acting, judging only by yes this is working or no, you need to keep searching, Juliette met Shakespeare in the best conditions.

When Juliette had to look for her first monologue to work on and as she had a very busy week, she hadn’t had time to look for one. And even if she had had time, she wouldn’t have known where to look for. She thought about going to the library, but thinking about all these books and the perspective of looking in all of them made her feel dizzy.

So, she went to her mother’s bookshelf. She recognized a familiar word: “Shakespeare” and saw that her mother had several volumes of this playwright. She must really like him, she thought. It must be good.

So, she took a book, and opened it.

On the first page, there was a dedication signed by Traduttore Traditore. She looked at the cover of the book and realized he was the translator. Juliette was intrigued and opened the other books. They were all signed by the same handwriting. She tried to read it but the handwriting was difficult to decipher. But she recognized some words of love. She thought it was personal and decided not to read them. Moreover, she was in a hurry to find a monologue.

She took Macbeth. She had no clue what the play was about. She went through the book and what she found there were witches. She loved witches so she began to read, and here is what she found:  

Trois fois chat tigré miaula.

Trois et une fois hérisson piaula.

Harpie crie : c’est l’heure, c’est l’heure.

Autour du chaudron tournons
Jetons-y tripes et boyons
Pleins d’un âcre venin,
D’un crapaud, endormi trente et un jours et trente et une nuits,
Sous la plus froide pierre
Qui sue en venin gonflé.
Jetons ses entrailles en premier
Et tournons autour du chaudron.

Redoublons, redoublons de travail et de soins
Feu, brûle ; et chaudière, bouillonne.

Filet de serpent des marais,
Dans le chaudron cuit et bout,
Œil de salamandre et doigt de grenouille,
Duvet de chauve-souris et langue de chien,
Dard fourchu de vipère et aiguillon du reptile aveugle,
Jambe de lézard et aile de chouette,
Pour faire un charme puissant en désordre,
Bouillez et écumez comme un bouillon d’enfer.

Redoublons, redoublons de travail et de soins :
Feu, brûle ; et chaudière, bouillonne.
Écailles de dragon et dents de loup,
Momie de sorcière, estomac et gosier
Du vorace requin des mers salées,
Racine de ciguë arrachée dans la nuit,
Foie de juif blasphémateur,
Fiel de bouc, branches d’if
Coupées pendant une éclipse de lune,
Nez de Turc et lèvres de Tartare,
Doigt de l’enfant d’une fille de joie
Mis au monde dans un fossé et étranglé en naissant ;
Rendez la bouillie épaisse et visqueuse ;
Ajoutez-y des entrailles de tigre
Pour compléter les ingrédients de notre chaudière.

Refroidissons le tout dans du sang de singe, Et notre charme est parfait et solide.”  

She thought it would be fun to play, especially as her first monologue, so she decided to change the three witches into one (and without a spell!); and she began to memorize the text.

But, she wondered why her mother had loving dedication from a translator. She would ask her at dinnertime. And that’s what she did.

“How come you know a translator of Shakespeare? Why do you have several of his books? How come he speaks to you in terms of love?”

Then, her mother told her about how she had met Shakespeare, or rather Traduttore Traditore. She had met him in a train.

Her mother was a doctor. She enjoyed reading all sorts of books but was never going to the theater; no never. However, she had chosen to call her daughter Juliette because she had been so moved by Prokofiev’s ballet. It was probably the only time her mother had been to see a ballet because Juliette had never seen her go to the opera or even mention an opera.

Juliette’s mother wasn’t admiring nor Shakespeare nor Prokofiev but thought it would be posh to claim that she had chosen her daughter’s name after she had been moved by a ballet; a way for her to feel superior to the others while she understood absolutely nothing about these two forms of art. She had probably kept these Shakespeare’s books on her shelf all this time just because they made her look like an intellectual. It worked most of the time, as people usually do not pay so much attention to Shakespeare and Prokofiev. Juliette doubted her mother had ever been moved at all by this precious ballet.

Juliette thought there was probably an explanation about this relationship of her mother with the translator that would be similar. She may, at the time, have claimed to whoever was likely to listen to her that her new boyfriend was translating Shakespeare. That would have sounded so super posh!

Her mother told her she had met the translator in a train. Traduttore was sitting next to her and when he said he was translating Shakespeare she had told her usual story about why her daughter was called Juliette, and that she had been moved for life by Romeo and Juliet’s ballet.   They had begun talking and their relationship had started straight away, in the toilets. Their romance had flashed in a few months; but, as Juliette’s mother pretended, it had been intense. And he had offered the books one after the other with a special dedication.

“Oh! Good! So, you know the play. Could you tell me what (she looked at the title of the book again) Macbeth is about?” Juliette ventured. “I like the witches.”

– Why do you want to know? her mother inquired.

– Well, I am looking for a monologue for the Conservatoire, and I really like that passage. Just wondered what the play was about. As you know the plays, …”

Her mother cut her short:

“Who told you I knew the plot? I have never read these books. Why would I? I don’t like plays.

 – You haven’t read the plays! You were in love with one of Shakespeare’s translators and you have never read his works?

– I’ve heard it’s boring and anyway, my love affair with him was so short I didn’t need to know him that much considering what we were doing. He…”

 – Mum, stop it. I do not want to know these details. You are always so gross!” Juliette said, leaving the room. I know that all my horny readers are going to be disappointed but remember that this takes place in Nîmes where having sex with strangers and boasting about all the sexual details is something quite common. Juliette was not interested in this kind of conversations; she had heard horny jokes and horny details since she was a baby. Her mother was a gynecologist and her conversations showed. Anyway, she was conscious that her mother had managed to cut the conversation short without even losing her usual panache.

Her mother may not have met Shakespeare in a train, after all. Or rather, she met him but didn’t know what an honor it was. Nevertheless, Juliette was glad she did. Without this train, Juliette might not have bumped into these books.

But, as she was in a hurry, she mimicked her mother and decided she would perform the witches without reading Macbeth. As she could sense that Shakespeare was a huge playwright, she did not dare ask who he was to anybody at the Conservatoire as she feared she would be laughed at. You see, she wasn’t a proper pupil there as, normally, one had to be 15 in order to start the Conservatoire. She was 14, and only an “auditeur libre”. She was the youngest and some of the pupils were ten years older than she was; she didn’t want to be exposed to ridicule. And at the time, nobody had Internet to make a quick research on Wikipedia to keep up with appearances.

So, here we are. Juliette was discovering Shakespeare’s witches, little by little. Performing them week after week; understanding them a little bit more week after week; dreaming about them; repeating the text in her head while waiting for the bus and this way, gradually, the monologue became part of her (twenty years later, she would still remember
the first five lines…)

But still, she hadn’t read Macbeth. You see, Juliette was scattered and she was interested in everything: she was very interested with what she was learning at school, she was studying solfeggio, the violin; she played in a band and she organized an exchange between a French school and a Senegalese one in Badiana. Did it mean she hadn’t met Shakespeare? Even if she worked on a translation, she had met his sense of rhythm, the fun he could give to the actor, the potential show the text provided, the pleasure of changing one’s voice and adopting another. In short, his genius. If she had to choose between all her activities, she would probably have chosen performing the witches. What she had learnt at the circus helped her to find her own interpretation of these lines, each time different but each time hers. The circus had helped her understand that art is within oneself, revealing the best of in each of us. She wasn’t trying to make the monologue look like something she could have seen. She was just performing her monologue, she wasn’t performing Macbeth; she was just using Shakespeare as an inspiration to create her own acting, her own art.

She knew only these few lines; and yet, she was under the spell.

This is how Juliette met Shakespeare.  She had met him in the best conditions. She was open-minded, ready to transform the text into her own show; repeating it each time in a different way, making it her own each time in a different way.

This is just the beginning of a long, passionate love story that will last more than ten years.

Juliette performed Shakespeare’s texts and studied his plays at university finally to realize that Shakespeare is just a word; referring sometimes to a man, sometimes to the group of people who helped him write his plays but more often to all the people who have fallen in love with him and let him live through centuries, reinventing him, making him part of themselves and giving his words a new meaning, a place in their lives and in their societies.

But that’s another story…

Aurianne Or

Aurianne Or by Aurianne Or is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0