I used to be a theatrical agent.
A young actor from RADA, whilst deliberating whether or not to accept my offer of representation, asked, “What, would you say, sets you apart from other agents?”
I struggled to come up with an original answer. Then I caught sight of the engraved gold ring on the little finger of my right hand. I showed it to him and said, “I’m probably the only agent in town who’s received a present from all her clients together.”
The young actor in question – whose original and extraordinary talent, in my opinion, made him stand out among his peers – went on to become my client. I doubt it was my answer which swayed him, though.
As I said, I used to be a theatrical agent. I had a small office in Southwark, around the corner from Blackfriars Bridge. At six o’clock – official but rarely observed closing time – the chimes of Big Ben would float over the Thames and come tapping on the window panes I faced as I worked. On the wall on my right were arranged black and white portrait photographs of all my actors. The wall on my left, by which the kettle and biscuit tin stood, hung a British Library print of a Mediaeval music score. The frosted glass wall behind me was covered in Commedia dell’Arte pictures and Al Hirschfeld cartoons. Within these walls were sheltered many people’s dreams.
When I first joined the agency, I inherited a ready-made list of clients, none of whom I had actually seen act, so plugging them to casting directors was an exercise in histrionic ad-libbing, at first. What I needed, to do my job properly, was to see them all perform; ideally, as soon as possible; in a dream scenario, all at once, to save time. Soon enough, the perfect opportunity presented itself in a location I had loved for some years: the archeological site of the Rose Theatre, on Bankside, around the corner from the Globe. I had been bewitched by the place a few years earlier, when attending a party there. It helped that I happened to strike up a conversation with Peter O’Toole. A charming gentleman with extensive knowledge, he showed me a part of the archeological dig and told me some of its history. We talked about the symbolism of the rose throughout the centuries. Who could ask for anything more?
And so a fundraising event in aid of the Rose Theatre was planned for a cold February night, on the very site where Christopher Marlowe premiered some his tragedies and a few Shakespeare plays first saw the light. We called the show A Pastime with Good Company – a series of scenes from plays spanning several centuries, all starring my clients. Directors generously willing to give their time for nothing were roped in from outside the agency for the occasion. Casting directors and other showbiz people were invited. The rest of the tickets were sold to the public. The show sold out and there was a waiting list. It was a magical evening. Standing at the back, watching the show, with its fairy lights and flaming torches, smelling the damp rising from the excavations, I imagined Kit Marlowe looking down on us all, and hoped he was smiling.
After the show, as befits a company of thespians, we adjourned to the pub. That is where a surprise awaited me. All my clients had clubbed together to buy me a gift. A most perfect gift. A replica of a poesy ring found during the archeological excavations of the Rose Theatre. A gold ring, engraved with a heart pierced diagonally by two arrows crossing in the middle, and carrying an inscription in Old French: PENCES POVR MOYE DV [Deo Volente]. Think of me, God willing.
I have worn that ring every day since that cold February night.
In time, I took over the agency. Many of the original black and white portraits on my walls gave way to new faces, and each and everyone of them also became a part of my gold ring – even though they had not taken part in the performance at the Rose. Then the Credit Crunch sank its fangs into my agency. On Christmas Eve 2009, all the office walls were bare as I locked the door for the last time. Like everyone who has ever worked in showbusiness, I have my share of scars on my back. However, they have not tarnished the gold of my ring. There are a sufficient number of loyal and generous people, be it actors, casting directors, directors, theatre managers and others, who will always ensure that my ring is bright and shiny. Every good thespian who crosses my path gives me my ring anew.
* * *
For years now, I have wondered about the history of the posy ring of which mine is a copy. A few days ago, I finally rang the Museum of London, where the original Rose Theatre ring is displayed (although it is currently on loan to the British Museum for their Shakespeare exhibition) and asked if someone could tell me about it. That is when a whole new story unfolded before me. I had always assumed that the French inscription was nothing more than Tudor aristocratic pretentiousness. However, it transpires that the ring is, in fact, authentic French, 16th Century. The lettering on it is not engraved but stamped, which makes it a poor quality piece of jewellery, likely to have belonged to a low-status man or woman. It could have been a lover’s token or a wedding ring. It also seems that Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, ran a pawn shop, on the side. Although many other poesy rings are listed in his inventory, “mine” is not mentioned. Could he have forgotten to note it down? I think it unlikely.
How did this ring come to be buried in the dust of a playhouse for over four centuries? And what was a French ring doing in England? Did a Frenchman give it to his English sweetheart? A low quality ring, hence not the gift from a nobleman. Was he a clerk? A lawyer? A poet? Or a weaver?
PENCES POVR MOYE DV
Think of me, God willing.
Did circumstances keep these lovers apart, separated by the grey waters of the English Channel? If so, why?
Did a woman lose that ring, while watching Dr Faustus? Was it loose on her finger, and slip off while she applauded the actors? Did she frantically search for it on the ground, after the performance, among the broken hazelnut shells and the dirt? Did she weep when she could not find it? Did she keep running her thumb on the base of her finger, feeling a shock when the ring was not there? Was she young or elderly?
Please God, may you think of me.
Were the lovers reunited? Did he – or she – cross the grey waters of the English Channel? Did she leave the White Cliffs of Dover behind her, or did he rejoice at the approaching sight of them, knowing his beloved awaited him there?
I imagine all of us, who own a copy of that ring, have woven our own stories and memories into what could have been that of its anonymous original owner.
As for me, the faces and voices of the theatre folk who have enriched my life are reflected in the sunny gold of my ring. I see those who have graduated from clients to friends, and with whom I am still in touch. The mischievous smile of the talented Shakespearean actress who presented me with the gift ring. The quirky sense of humour and unwavering support of the Australian actor who was my first-ever signed up client. The actor-director with the warmest hug in the world – and a taste for cake. The actor-musician who never complained on an arduous tour, who has become a brunch buddy. The young actress-musician who offered to double her commission to me, when the agency ran into financial difficulties. I see the musical theatre actor I was trying to place with another agent, who said, “I’ll be fine – I’m worried about you! Who is going to look after you?”. The Irish actor who offered to come and help move boxes and furniture. The clients who volunteered to come and work in the office, so that I could take a part-time job to keep the agency afloat. The people with whom it was an honour to do business and especially those I was privileged to represent, as an agent. And, of course, all the extraordinary people I have yet to meet.
God willing, they may think of me, every so often.
* * *
With thanks to the Museum of London – most especially Ruth Rolfe and Julian Bowsher, for so kindly answering my queries.
An image of the original ring will be published on the Museum of London website in November.