Ellen's just finished painting in her lip color when there's a distinctive knock on her dressing room door and Oliver bursts in. "Oh, good, you're decent," he says, and presents her with a vase of three yellow tulips.
He has never once given her flowers, but she kisses his cheek and makes room for them on her dressing table. "Well, what did they say?" she demands. Oliver bounces a little in place, and she grins up at him in relief. "Of course they said yes, look at you!"
Oliver wilts. "Alas, the day they say yes to everything I propose will be the day I should retire, as where will the challenge be then?" He waves an arm. "Or, worse, perhaps I'll have stooped to directing only the dreary pabulum they'd dish out without me."
"Oliver!" She makes an impatient face and turns back to the mirror to finish the rest of her makeup.
He comes around behind her so she can see him in the mirror. "The bad news is they fear that reverse-gender casting would be seen as 'hacky' and 'beneath the dignity of a festival of our stature.' "
"Oh no." For half a moment Ellen feels crushed, but Oliver's face gives the game away enough for her to take a breath.
"However!" Oliver says, beaming, "The fine examples of Sarah Bernhardt, Asta Nielsen, and Eve Donne worked like a charm, along with your own impressive resume, of course—" He pauses dramatically and extends his hands to her. "—Hamlet!"
Ellen jumps into his arms, letting out a completely undignified shriek, and he spins her around, jubilant.
He puts her down and she kisses his cheek. "They said yes! Oh, that's fantastic!"
She hugs him again, tight and careless, and doesn't let go until he cries, "Ellen, remember your makeup!"
"Sorry, sorry!" She scrubs a tissue over his red-stained cheek and returns to the mirror to hastily repair her blush and lipstick.
Oliver takes a seat in the other chair and rubs his hands together, practically vibrating with excitement. She can't wait until they can decamp to their table in the theatre bar and talk this out. He clearly feels the same, since he's here instead of doing the usual pre-performance rounds of "Good show!"
"Listen to this, you'll just die," he says. "The board agreed to give us both Ophelio and Horatia, because—get this—they decided the homoerotic reading of a male Hamlet and Horatio is all well and good, but a lesbian Hamlet and Ophelia is outside their comfort zone."
Ellen screws up her face and tries to make heads or tails of that. "But a female Hamlet and Horatia are fine? Did they not read the part where they declare undying love to each other?"
Oliver's expression shows how little faith he has in the board's familiarity with the classics. "It gets worse. Someone then made the argument that keeping Horatio male would allow the audience to reduce the play to a mere love triangle between Lady Hamlet, her friend Horatio, and young Lord Ophelio."
Ellen's jaw drops. "No it wouldn't!"
Oliver nods. "Only if they were unimaginably stupid."
"Oliver, it's a fucking revenge tragedy!"
"Of course it is," he exclaims, "but there's a point when I must simply cease to argue with them, and by then I knew I wasn't going to get more than the three of you." He shrugs. "So I sat and waited them out."
Ellen turns on her bench and beams at him. "Hamlet! "
"Princess of Denmark," he croons.
Her smile vanishes. "God, I hate that word so much. It's so vapid." He starts to interrupt, but she stops him. "I mean it! We've been so poisoned by Walt Disney and his damned useless princesses. You know, Elizabeth I referred to herself as 'Prince'. Why can't Hamlet?"
"Darling, isn't the point of this to empower the women at court? That surely means using the feminine titles, too, to give them the weight that they ought to have in the first place?"
Ellen hums in reply, dubious. "Maybe. Have you told Geoffrey yet?"
Oliver smirks. "I rather thought I'd wait until intermission. We can't have Benedick seem too cheerful in the first half, can we?"
Ellen hides her snicker behind her hand and then raises her fist, imperious, and mimics Oliver's intonation, if not his accent: "Bitter, Benedick! You are a bitter, bitter man. They've replaced your gin with dry vermouth, and—it is all—Beatrice's—fault!"
"Wormwood!" replies Oliver with a cackle.
Ellen snorts. "Who are you thinking of for Horatia?"
Oliver's face shutters and he actually scoots in his seat as he hedges. "Oh, I have a few ideas, but until we have a final roster of who'll be with us next season…" He spreads his hands.
She levels her gaze at him. "You know who I want. Barbara would be brilliant, and even if she is trying to do television exclusively now, we know what the odds are of that working out."
"I do, yes, and, likewise, you know our budget constraints. Things will go how they go."
"Fifteen minutes, everyone!" comes the voice of the stage manager over the intercom.
"Shit!" Ellen's eyes dart to the mirror. Her makeup's fine and she's been living in pin curls for the duration, but she's still wearing her fucking dressing gown. "Damn it, Oliver!"
"Sorry, darling. Sorry! I was just so excited, I had to tell you." He squeezes her shoulders. "You'll be magnificent as always, Beatrice. Break a leg!"
He dashes out, bumping into Pauline, who knocks, thank goodness, on the open door as she says, "Fifteen minutes, Ms. Fanshaw."
Ellen screams in panic. Where are her fucking shoes? "Georgia!" she screams, because what is a dresser for if she isn't there to help dress her? Ellen drops her robe, slides up her thigh-highs, steps into a gown straight out of The Thin Man, and, just as Georgia finally knocks and enters, finds her shoes laid out in a neat row, in order of each costume change, precisely where Georgia had left them. Shoes, stockings, panties, dress, jewelry, hair, makeup. "Am I ready?" Ellen asks. All she can think of is Hamlet.
"Eyebrows," Georgia says, and proceeds to zip Ellen's dress as Ellen bends over the vanity to draw in the arches of her brows.
Hamlet, she thinks giddily, gazing into the mirror; but no. The woman in the mirror is Beatrice: relaxed, carefree, sarcastic, occasionally vulgar Beatrice. She gives the mirror a leer. "God help the noble Claudio! If he have caught the Benedick, it will cost him a thousand pound ere a' be cured." Georgia's smile helps, but Ellen's still brimming with the wrong kind of excitement.
She sits, careful of wrinkling the gown, closes her eyes, and tries to dispel some of her triumph, but it keeps bubbling up. She's going to be Hamlet! She has a million ideas, and she's only brought up a fraction of them in the endless hours she and Oliver spend playing "What if We Could Stage X". It's going to be brilliant. And Geoffrey's Ophelia—Ophelio. Between them, together, they'll make it a whole new play.
"Five minutes! This is your five minute call!" comes Pauline's voice, and Ellen lets out a maniacal laugh as Georgia slips a loud bangle onto her wrist. Fucking Oliver. It'll be all his fault if Beatrice is entirely too happy. Still, she feels radiant, and Beatrice should be radiant if she's going to put Benedick in his place. At the same time, though, she can't wait until intermission. The look on Geoffrey's face is going to be priceless.
"Really?" Ellen asks dubiously. She's plopped her bag into one of Oliver's office chairs, and now she's examining the sketches strewn over the desk.
"What?" he says.
She makes a face. "Well, it's awfully baroque. Denise will love doing the set design, but then she also might kill you for the sheer number of knickknacks on those tables."
"There aren't that many set changes!" he protests weakly.
Ellen raises her eyebrows. "Oliver? There really are. And this looks practically Italian Renaissance. I mean, yes, it would absolutely be stunning, but—please don't hate me for saying this, Oliver. You know I'm only being honest because I care—but all this detail seems more apt for a film version."
He lets out a gigantic sigh. "Shit. I was afraid of that."
"Sorry." Ellen pats his shoulder, and he drains the rest of his coffee.
"The thing is, I've been thinking of the castle as Gertrude's domain: how would she decorate the place, given all the money in Denmark? What sort of parties does she throw? How lavish is her standard of living? What if she's gotten used to a certain lifestyle and the idea of being kept on a dowager's allowance after King Hamlet dies scares the living hell out of her?"
"Yes, exactly! It isn't as if she has marketable skills beyond, what, embroidery? Greeting guests? Hosting fancy dinner parties? Of course she accepts Claudius's offer." Ellen stops. "God, can you imagine? I mean, otherwise, she would be made chief lady-in-waiting to Claudius's new queen. They would kick her out of the royal apartments and move her into some drafty old tower or something. It would be horrible for her."
"Although Hamlet can't see that," Oliver says, riffling through more papers.
"Well, no, obviously," she says. "Hamlet is all about vengeance, and dithering." Sifting through papers, Ellen finds a batch of costume sketches and drums her fingers on them. "What if the baroque comes through in the costumes and props?"
Oliver snorts. "You only want an excuse to wear silk."
"Of course I want to wear silk. Hamlet would have always worn silk! It's in character!"
"Pish. You skipped that week of European History, didn't you?"
Ellen drops into a chair and entirely fails to look contrite. "Well, what setting do you want, Oliver? Do we keep the line about my unbraced doublet?"
"Tell me, what are your feelings on wearing a doublet?" he asks with a teasing note in his voice.
She doesn't take the bait, but starts counting on her fingers. "Hamlet gets a soldier's burial, she fights with a rapier, she grapples with Laertes in a grave, she jumps onto a pirate ship when they try to board her boat to England—I don't suppose any of that is happening in a seventeenth century ball gown, is it?"
"You do have a point, yes."
"But she still might wear a gown to court and to see the play."
"There's your silk," Oliver says with a chuckle.
"You can't deny there are certain expectations of the royal wardrobe," Ellen answers haughtily.
Oliver writes something down and says, "This means doubling the costume budget, you realize."
"Sorry?" she says, sounding anything but. At his scowl, she adds, "Well, how many rooms does the audience need to see, Oliver? Honestly! They come for the speeches and swordfights and because it's Hamlet. They don't need to see—" She picks up one of the interior chamber sketches and runs a finger over the row of portraits on the wall. "—every last vase and chandelier to believe it's a castle."
"Ellen? Darling?" Oliver says.
"Shut up now?" she suggests.
"On pain of my giving you something to direct."
Ellen scoffs, but Oliver holds her gaze and her face contorts into a frown. "That's ridiculous. The company would never listen to me."
Oliver raises his eyebrows but still doesn't say anything.
"Right." Ellen gets to her feet. "I'll just go see if there's fresh coffee."
On the first day of blocking, Ellen watches two apprentices horsing around with practice swords and she can practically feel the color drain out of her face. She hadn't quite forgotten she was going to have to beat Laertes in a swordfight and make it look good for the audience. It was only that she'd been so focused on getting the soliloquies down.
A couple of seats away, Geoffrey looks up from his script, looks at her, looks at the apprentices, and says, "You have fenced before, right?"
Ellen nods, and it's telling that in three seasons's intimate acquaintance they've never once had this conversation. "In college. I know the forms, but I haven't done it in years. My arms are going to be like noodles."
There's a thoughtful silence, and then Geoffrey says, "Well, we still have a couple of months."
Ellen sighs. Even with a lightweight foil, she's going to need to practice daily to get her arm back. Of course, Oliver didn't think of that, did he? But then, neither had she.
"I would offer to practice with you," Geoffrey says, "but…" he trails off, making a fluttery movement with his hands, and Ellen grins.
"Can't wait to see it," she says in a playful tone. Oliver has Geoffrey enrolled in dance lessons because, in his words, "Ophelio has no idea how to be a fighter. He is the jewel of his father's house, while his older brother takes care of all that nasty swordplay business."
"He could have you learning the lute," she suggests.
Geoffrey huffs a laugh. "If only. I'm pretty sure that would be less embarrassing."
"You'll charm us all to pieces, whatever you do." Ellen stretches over and kisses him. "Ophelio."
"Hamlet," he answers warmly, and then Oliver is finally ready to begin.
Geoffrey hates dance class. The reason for this is simple: when he's been required to take dance lessons in the past, it was either in aid of rhythmically stumbling around a ballroom, or else it was something more theatrical, where the more he looked like a complete fool, the greater his success. He isn't built for dancing. He can play hockey—under duress—but you'll never, ever see him trying to figure skate.
Seth, his instructor, doesn't want him to look like a fool. It also isn't enough for Geoffrey simply to walk through the steps in rhythm. It would almost be easier, he thinks, if he were gripping a hockey stick. He at least understands that sort of fluid movement.
"I don't want to prance, though!" he says one day when he's finally had enough. "Ophelio doesn't need to prance or mince or flounce or—"
"Dance?" says Seth.
Geoffrey shrugs. "I don't want to be rude, but it's not a fucking ballet."
"But it's a version of Ophelia," Seth replies with remarkable patience. "This is someone who has nothing left in life but her physical body, her broken heart, and the terrifying royal court—or prison—she lives in. So let's look at your body, at your broken heart, and how you move within the confines of the castle. What does your body do?"
Geoffrey stares into the mirror and watches his body instead of his face as he speaks. "I shall th'effect of this good lesson keep as watchman to my heart; but, good my brother, do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven whilst like a puffed and reckless libertine himself the primrose path of dalliance treads and recks not his own rede."
As the words flow, he pulls a shroud of innocence around him, of unhappy obedience and romantic credulity, and bounces a little, takes a few steps, pivots, leans. For the Lady Hamlet loves him, and for all that Ophelio hero-worships his older brother, Laertes just doesn't understand. How can he? When did a princess ever choose him? Meanwhile, Father doesn't understand because Father hasn't been in love since the moon was new.
Quietly, Seth starts a new track on the CD player, slow and acoustic, and mimics a little of Geoffrey's movements. "I shall th'effect of this good lesson," he says, and Geoffrey sees something in the line of Seth's neck, shoulders, and elbows move like water.
"That," Geoffrey says, pointing. Because Ophelio is a beautiful creature soon to be broken horribly and drowned. He traces a line in the air and Seth does it again. "Yes."
The day gets a little better after that.
Geoffrey's hardly needed in rehearsal that afternoon, but that's fine. It's afterward that he approaches Oliver and asks if they can go over some things.
"Now, what's wrong?" Oliver asks when they're back in his office.
Geoffrey rubs the back of his head. "I'm concerned Ophelio doesn't seem frail enough. I mean, there need to be hidden cracks under the surface, and I'm not sure about how to best show his fragility."
Oliver snorts. "Darling, don't worry your pretty little head over it. Just do as I tell you and everything will turn out for the best, you'll see."
Geoffrey stares. He keeps staring until Oliver winks at him, and then he realizes and feels like an idiot. "Sorry, yes. I suppose, in a way, he's like an actor who doesn't have any more of the script than the scene he's in. Everyone is telling him what to do—tender yourself more dearly, get thee to a monkery—" Geoffrey trails off, thinking.
"And?" Oliver prompts.
"And by the end, his only sense of control over his life is through a kind of childish regression, playing in the stream, singing nonsense songs."
"But before we get that far, Geoffrey, remember that our mad princess puts the blame for her lunacy onto our naïve, young Ophelio, and he has no one, or at least no one competent, to protect him."
"Okay, yes," Geoffrey says, relieved. That's where the first emotional stress fractures need to appear.
"But here's where things really begin to get scary for him: Ophelio lives at court, where the royal family holds power of life and death. The princess has accused him of causing her madness, and he has no means of escape. He's desperately out of his depth. Worst of all, he believes Hamlet is right. It is his fault that she's gone insane, and that makes his father's death his fault, too."
"His whole life has fallen apart," Geoffrey says.
Oliver nods. "If only he'd spurned her advances from the beginning, he wouldn't be left there alone, helpless, and at the mercy of the proverbial wolves."
Geoffrey bites his lip. "Wolves might be nicer."
"They might, yes," Oliver agrees. "Tell you what, let's get takeout and go back to my house. We can't let the union think I've held you overtime, but there's no harm in running some lines, purely socially."
Geoffrey agrees, and after dinner they do just that. It's even extremely helpful, and the argument over how much mother-yearning to put into the flower scene with Gertrude is the best conversation he's ever had with Oliver. Oliver's eyes are simply glowing, and Geoffrey feels a pleasure he can't readily identify.
In hindsight, he's embarrassed that he fell for an invitation to run lines; he's used that ploy enough himself, before Ellen, that he ought to have recognized it for what it was. And yet, it's Oliver. The man is a genius and Geoffrey's been waiting, longing even, for the chance to impress him. For the chance to see if he could have with Oliver the barest fraction of what Ellen does.
Sex is not how he planned to go about it, though. But Oliver says, "Come here," with such focused attention, and the full spotlight of Oliver Welles's attention is a heady, heady thing.
Geoffrey gets into the shower to rinse off but he stays there a while to think. Ellen really likes sex. Her sexual history makes his own exploits seem prudish, though they really, really weren't. But they've been monogamous since nearly the beginning, and he's never wanted anyone else. He didn't, and doesn't, want Oliver, either, but he's so damned used to giving Oliver what he wants. And Oliver's direction has always led him to interesting places, most of which he would never have found on his own.
Back in the bedroom, he finds his clothes but no Oliver. Oliver is in the kitchen, dressed again, and pouring himself a stiff drink. "Want one?" he asks when Geoffrey appears, clothed down to his shoes.
"No, thanks," he answers, and wonders what the next act of this drama will bring.
Oliver drinks, swallows, drinks again. Finally, he says, "She won't understand."
Geoffrey frowns. "She might." She understands things like sex and appetite, and she knows Geoffrey's anything but infallible.
Further down his glass, Oliver shakes his head. "She won't, believe me. You may know her on a more physically intimate level than I do, but she and I have seven years of constant argument under our belts. Please don't tell her."
Geoffrey sighs. "Not tonight, anyway, but I'll think about it, all right? I'll see you at rehearsal tomorrow."
Oliver doesn't answer.
Ellen's lying on the sofa in her living room, fanning the pages of her Hamlet script and pondering what curtains would best go with the newly green walls. The old white ones are boring, but orange would be too garish and a pink floral would be too cute.
"Speak the speech, I pray you," she purrs, "as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue."
"Is lasagna thirty minutes or an hour?" Geoffrey calls from the kitchen.
"What?" she yells back.
"Lasagna," he repeats from the doorway.
She props herself up on an elbow and shrugs, which makes the throw blanket slip and lets the cold air in. "Look in the book? Sorry. I'm better with sandwiches."
Geoffrey's eyes linger, as if he isn't equally naked. After a moment he says, "I'll, uh, check the recipe, then," but she's already back in the play, mentally giving different readings to each and every sentence.
Shortly, Geoffrey appears again, this time bearing two glasses of wine. She shifts enough to let him burrow into her blanket nest with her, and for a while, there's little but warm red sips and deep friendly kisses.
He hums into her mouth, finally, and murmurs. "This." Then he kisses her again.
"It's nice, isn't it?" She's never been this comfortable in a relationship, and it strikes her suddenly that she loves Geoffrey more than she's loved anyone before in her life. She doesn't always like him, but then she's not sure how much of the time a woman is supposed to like the person she's sleeping with. Her family wasn't much of a guide, there. Her parents's divorce was acrimony personified. She doesn't like her sister at all, a fact that is probably mutual, and most of her other relatives spent Ellen's impressionable years bitching loudly about each other's failings. There were reasons acting came naturally to her; it was a survival mechanism, that was all.
They're kissing again, and it's good enough for her to ignore that her feet are cold where he's stolen the blanket away. "I love you," he says, and pauses, gazing into her eyes, "so fucking much there aren't words for it."
"Geoffrey," she murmurs, and he kisses her again.
"I kept wondering if it was only the play. I mean, Romeo and Juliet—" he breaks off and she takes his next kiss, remembering. It was more than two years ago now, but she can still feel the way he grazed his teeth over the heel of her hand, the way he made her gasp on stage and off.
"I remember," she says between kisses.
"But this is who we are," he says.
"It is, and I like it. And I really like that," she adds, shifting Geoffrey to a better angle and pulling him down and, after a moment, in. And it isn't only the orgasms, although she enjoys the hell out of the sex. It's the way they spark off one another.
The only other person who will argue with her in the right way is Oliver, and their chemistry is strictly platonic. She knew the moment she first set eyes on Geoffrey that she had to have him. It was his audition tape, which technically, she wasn't supposed to have seen, but it wasn't her fault Oliver was multitasking through their fight over The Cherry Orchard. He hit play on the VCR and within thirty seconds, she had completely forgotten Chekhov. She was smitten, and said so.
"You could at least meet the man before devising your plan to seduce him," Oliver had groused.
"I plan to," she'd said. He'd sighed dramatically, and she added, "Please. You can have all the rest of the apprentices."
"What if he's gay?"
"Then I suppose I'll take the rest of the apprentices." But she hadn't had to. No sooner had Geoffrey arrived than he was chatting her up—she was at the theatre bar to celebrate being cast as Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The rest was history.
The timer for the lasagna buzzes them out of a delicious post-coital nap, and after dinner, Geoffrey slides right into Ophelio. "Alas, my lord, I have been so affrighted!" He crosses the living room, still nude, and perches on the coffee table, looking up at where Polonius would be.
"With what, in the name of God?" Ellen answers from her corner of the couch.
"My lord, as I was sewing in my chamber," he says and breaks off. "Am I really sewing in my chamber? I know we're defying gender conventions, but why would this boy sew?"
"In order to defy gender conventions?" Ellen suggests, and Geoffrey practically growls with frustration. "Sorry," she continues, "but if we change it to something gender neutral, then we undermine the reverse casting. Besides, tailors sew, and they generally get paid more for it than seamstresses doing the same work."
"Except a chamberlain's kid, male or female, will never be a tailor or seamstress." Geoffrey slumps. "Right. Sorry. I'd just rather him be out picking flowers or something instead of locked away in a stuffy sewing room."
Ellen doesn't answer until he looks up and meets her gaze. "Ophelias don't get that freedom until they go mad, darling."
He swallows visibly. "I…yeah. Sorry. I keep being surprised by how different it is from the other side. Aren't you?"
She hums. "A little, maybe? I do keep reminding myself that Hamlet is a woman who leaps aboard an attacking pirate ship to escape execution, after forging the death sentences of two dear childhood friends. I mean, you know how it is. Outside of Lady Mac, we don't get much of that for women in the tragedies. Usually, they're not even allowed to rightfully defend themselves."
"Ophelio is helpless."
"He's trapped," she agrees. "Poor, innocent boy."
Geoffrey closes his script. "You know how they say this play does a number on you—on the actor playing Hamlet especially."
"Yeah? Are you asking if I'm going mad?" Geoffrey chuckles, and then leans forward to kiss her. Ellen kisses him back eagerly, and then takes his hand. "You know, the truth is, right now is probably the happiest I've ever been in my life. I mean, I've got you, and then there's the play, and I'm so fucking excited about this season, you don't even know!"
She leans forward and kisses him again. "Come back over here," she says, and in a moment, he's nestled back between her legs laying kisses along her sternum. She touches his face and he looks up. "Geoffrey, I really think I could be happy for the rest of my life like this."
There's a long, long silence, and there's something bright in his eyes when he presses a soft, serious kiss to her lips. "Was that a proposal?" he asks.
Ellen's breath freezes in her lungs. She hadn't even thought of that, but of course Geoffrey would hear it that way. Then she notices that she hasn't said no. "Would you want to?" she asks, still reeling. "With me?"
His smile is a little slow and his ears are going pink. "Actually, yeah. Yes."
She kisses him in sheer self-defense. She hasn't seriously thought about marriage since deciding it wasn't going to happen with her college boyfriend, and that was years ago. When they break for air, on the brink of having sex again, she says, "Okay." It's only afterward that she adds, "We should probably wait until the show closes to tell everyone, though. I mean—"
Geoffrey chuckles. "I suppose Oliver might kill us if we did something to throw everyone off."
"Forget Oliver!" Ellen exclaims, "This is my Hamlet! I don't want anything to jinx us!"
Geoffrey's smile straddles the border between fond and ludicrous, but then he's kissing her again and nuzzling her neck. "Your magnificent Hamlet."
She shivers happily. "And your lovely Ophelio. It'll be wonderful," she says as he kisses his way down. "Wonderful."
Rehearsals pass, and previews, and, at last, it's opening night. Ellen is a nervous wreck, never mind that it's exactly the same play as they performed in preview the day before. Oliver may have shifted some minor blocking, again, but there's no difference. Except that opening night matters and previews don't. And this is her Hamlet.
Everything's a blur until she's out there, seething with hatred for her formerly beloved uncle Claudius, who teams with her mother to take patronizing to a whole new level of offense. "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt," springs out of her mouth almost unbidden, and she has stopped being Ellen and is only Hamlet, doomed princess of Denmark.
There is something about this play in particular that blurs the line between actor and character, or maybe it's only that she knows it backwards and forwards, that she's devoted months and months to making it hers. To inhabiting Hamlet and inviting Hamlet to inhabit her.
She doesn't remember the cast party, at least not after a certain point. She remembers Geoffrey drunk and making ridiculous proclamations and toasts honoring her, his Hamlet, and somehow they got home because that's where she wakes up the next morning.
The reviews are the best of her career. Geoffrey's are very good, too, and Oliver gets credit for a bevy of things that were actually Ellen's ideas in the first place, but that's nothing of consequence, not next to the triumph of her Hamlet, and her irritation fades with her hangover. She might have to kiss Basil the next time she sees him. So might Geoffrey, as Basil's review is nothing short of besotted.
And deservedly. The opening was wonderful, and tonight they get to do it all over again, and tomorrow night, and two shows the next day, and then again the next night. She's still completely, joyously giddy. It is her Hamlet, by God, and that's enough to make her not care that Polonius still isn't quite working and Gertrude continues to look at her as if she's a creature from outer space instead of her own daughter. Granted, it's a valid interpretation, just not one Ellen prefers.
In the middle of the afternoon, Geoffrey comes in, front door banging shut behind him. Ellen's at the kitchen table with a script for A Doll's House. The table reading is tomorrow morning, and opening is supposed to be in six weeks.
"Lunch?" he says, dropping two white paper deli sacks onto the table and going to the fridge for drinks.
"I love you," she says, by which she means "thank you", but she's trying to be better about saying the actual words now. Because she does, even if she's terrible at expressing it. It isn't her fault it scares the hell out of her to feel this way.
Geoffrey sets two glasses of lemonade on the table and bends to kiss her. "Thank you," she says, feeling terribly lucky.
They eat and talk about A Doll's House, of which Ellen has yet to learn a single line, and about David Storey's play about the mental patients, in which Geoffrey is playing the lead. His first table reading is Thursday, but he already has half of it memorized.
It's when he goes oddly somber that she starts to wonder if there's a problem. Geoffrey has never been one to bottle things up. More than one of his rants has ended with her begging, "Please, Geoffrey, for the love of God, shut up!" Eventually she pokes his calf with her foot. He lets out a long breath and looks at her slantwise for a moment.
"What is it?" she asks. "Are you okay? Did something happen?"
"No, no." He shakes his head. "Nothing like that."
"But something." She pushes her empty plate away and waits.
He swallows visibly. "Have you ever felt like you were hurtling toward a precipice?"
Ellen hates suspense, always has. "Every opening night, as you know perfectly well. Now what the hell is wrong?"
Geoffrey takes a breath, glares at the saltcellar, and then glances up at her face. "I slept with Oliver."
"What?" The word is out without intent, and as he opens his mouth to, God forbid, repeat himself, she waves a hand. "No, I heard you." She's reeling. She has a terrible urge to punch him, and her sword arm could do some real damage now, but Ophelio can't go on with a black eye, can he?
"I'm sorry," he's saying. "I am incredibly, inexpressibly sorry. But I thought you had the right to know."
She's gaping at him. The right to know? Does he not realize they have a fucking play to put on in four hours? Her fucking Hamlet. Fucking Oliver. Finally she manages, "When was this?" and she hardly recognizes her own voice.
"When we were blocking act two," he admits.
That long ago. She stands up. She has to get away from him, but that's fucking hard since she asked him to move in. She hears his chair scoot back from the table and wheels on him, yelling, "What the ever-loving fuck were you thinking, Geoffrey?" He takes a few steps toward her. "And don't you even think of touching me right now."
He drops his hands, steps back a pace. "Sorry. God, Ellen, I'm so sorry."
It's only a moment, but it feels like she watches the rest of her life pass before her eyes and evaporate into nothing. All her plans, all her dreams. "Get out of my house," she says as calmly as she can.
His head snaps up, and there's surprise on his face. As if he thought she'd be thrilled? Or laugh it off? She can't even guess.
"Right now," she adds, because she's fucking not having a debate over it.
He scratches his head, but he can't meet her glare for more than a moment at a time. "You, ah—" he starts. "Never mind." He takes his coat, keys, and his script and leaves in her hands the choice of throwing him out.
She wishes she could throw Oliver out, and that's when the tears overflow.
Ellen has never figured out how to cry prettily. She's always cried the sort of horrifying, wracking sobs that echo in a room, that feel like her lungs are going to burst with grief along with her heart. These are the tears that leave her feeling wrung out and a little dead inside. Her face is still puffy and red when she gets to the theatre at seven for warm-up. She waves her presence at Pauline, and retreats to her dressing room before anyone can get a good look at her, and, more importantly, before she can set eyes on Oliver and potentially kill him. She can sing the warm-up drills as well in her dressing room as she can on the stage. She does so, dabbing Preparation-H around her eyes and watching the swelling fade. Her voice is a little hoarse, but Georgia brings her a cup of tea, and slowly she puts herself together.
She is still the fucking Hamlet of this production, and the show is damned well going to go on.
Her seething rage at Claudius hits a little harder than she intended, but the audience probably doesn't notice. By the time she's railing at Gertrude over her inconstancy, she's blinking back tears of fury. Fucking Oliver.
Then she's at Ophelio's grave, crying, "I loved Ophelio. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum." Only, Geoffrey's standing in the wings, watching, and her words are aimed at him instead of Gertrude.
She suddenly feels so desperate with loss that she can't breathe. She falls to her knees on the edge of the grave, with its neat piled border of potting soil, and finds herself vomiting, horribly, into the grave, down into the trap. The taste in her mouth is vile, but the show must fucking go on, mustn't it?
She sits back on her heels, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, and finishes the line: "What wilt thou do for him?"
It makes Claudius's, "O, she is mad, Laertes," a little premature, but Ellen makes up for it with Hamlet's threat to eat a crocodile.
Backstage, with Geoffrey looking on, she claims food poisoning from lunch, and that's the truth as far as anyone else knows. Geoffrey doesn't say anything and neither does she, because it's one thing to say her lines to Ophelio, but she cannot deal with Geoffrey right now. Not when he isn't in character.
What she can deal with even less is the sight of Oliver with his hand on Geoffrey's shoulder. She declines the usual post-show foray to the bar with the rest of the company. Instead, she takes off her face, changes her clothes, and goes home, where she locks the keyless deadbolts against the vision of Geoffrey showing up for his things—or worse, to beg her forgiveness—and thinks.
It doesn't take long. She can't blame Geoffrey too much. He's always had stars in his eyes when it comes to Oliver, and Oliver has always fucking known it. Just as Oliver knows perfectly well that Ellen's life is New Burbage, from her work on stage and behind the scenes to her relationship with Geoffrey and—most of all—her friendship with Oliver. If she can't trust Oliver, then what the hell is she supposed to do there?
She calls her agent, and screw the hour, because he's been calling her daily to set up meetings for the off-season. Then she calls Barbara in New York, pulls her out of her own post-show theatre bar, talks to her all through her cab ride home, and then listens, and listens, and cries yet again, and says yes.
She doesn't finish the run of Hamlet, but she does make her Broadway debut.
This is Oliver's tenth Dream, and it's the worst since he left Winnipeg approximately half a million years ago. Granted, Geoffrey's Oberon is rather scrumptious to look at, but the show lacks an ounce of truth. In his little backstage office, Nahum tells him about directing a production of Ken Saro-Wiwa's The Wheel, and somehow Oliver manages to feel both a little better and vastly worse.
"Switch to the hockey game, would you?" he asks Nahum. Nahum presses the remote, and the channel flips to the Tony Awards and someone jubilantly announcing, "—is Ellen Fansh—" before it hits the game.
"Flip back, flip back!" Oliver cries, and when Nahum does, they see Ellen going up to accept the award for Best Direction of a Play. Oliver stares, takes a swig from his flask, stares some more, and keeps drinking.
He slogs through the rest of the night, takes Basil's disparagement without blinking, suffers young Kate's old drama teacher at the bar and the faceless derision of the anonymous voices in the gents. Finally, with vomit on his wingtips, he takes a pocket full of change to a phone booth, begs a favor from an old school crony, and gets Ellen's personal cell phone.
She's at an after-party, of course, and she hangs up on him twice before losing her temper. "You will not ruin this night, Oliver! You are ancient history. Besides which, you're the one who stabbed me in the back, so don't you give me this 'woe is me' crap. If you're miserable, it's your own fucking fault, and you don't have any right to try to dump that in my lap, not tonight and not ever."
"Everything I do, Ellen," he says slowly, "and everything I have done in the last seven years, is compared to your Hamlet. Every single goddamned thing, and not a one measures up. They don't even give me credit for directing! They say, 'That Oliver Welles. He's never been the same since Ellen Fanshaw went to New York. Makes you wonder how much of the work she was doing all along.' "
Ellen snorts. "Well, good for them. I was busting my ass for years, Oliver, while you got the credit—years! And I didn't know any better! I thought I was doing it out of love or something. That you weren't just using me." He hears a wet noise and a tinkle of ice as she swallows. "Well, more fool me, but you won't ever do that again."
Oliver's mouth drops open and he finds himself gasping like a fish. "We collaborated," he whispers, desolate. Of course it was out of love. He hangs up before she can reply.
It's nearly noon when the phone's incessant ringing wakes her. Four rings, and it stops, then four more rings, over and over. Apparently, voicemail isn't good enough for some people? Ellen yanks the charging cable out, sees the area code, and fears it's Oliver again—or, worse, Geoffrey. "Hello," she says in a steely tone. Only, it's Anna's voice, and Ellen's heart is suddenly in her mouth.
"Something's happened, and I wanted you to hear it firsthand before you saw it in the news."
It takes a while to sink in, but Anna's crying quietly and doesn't sound in a hurry to get off the phone. "What are they going to do?" Ellen asks, finally.
"Well, as a matter of fact—" Anna sniffs loudly. "—sorry. Um. I shouldn't tell you this, but, well—" Then she stops cold and asks in her all-business tone, "Actually, would you be interested? It's only interim, obviously, but if you wanted to come back to the Festival, I could at least let them know that."
Ellen bites her hand to keep herself from letting out a rude laugh. Or shouting, "Hell no!" Instead, she manages a reasonably tactful, "That's awfully nice of you. I'm afraid my schedule is full for, gosh, we're looking at three years out. Sorry."
Anna sighs and Ellen can tell it's one of relief. "No, it's fine. It's just I had to ask because you would be the top choice if you were available, but you know…"
"So who are they looking at?"
"Well, it's funny, actually. You know that Darren Nichols has friends on the board, but he's in some European artistic commune doing something unpronounceable for at least another year. In the meantime, Mae seems to have her heart set on Geoffrey Tennant."
Ellen covers her mouth, and her stomach ripples with the horrible irony of it. God, poor Geoffrey, she thinks, but maybe he'll be happy there. Maybe this is his chance to get out from under Oliver's thumb.
"Are you still there?" Anna asks.
"Sorry, yes," she manages finally. "I'm surprised, I admit. But that's good, I suppose. Good for him."
Someone's yelling in the background and Anna has to hang up, leaving Ellen sitting on the edge of her bed, phone in hand, thinking of last night's calls from Oliver. Thinking of everything he had said and about the old days, when they'd been a creative team, when they'd been virtually unstoppable.
A fucking pig truck.
"Shit," she says at last. There's no way around it. She calls the airline and the car service. Then she calls her assistant and tells her she'll have to keep the ship afloat on her own for two days. Ellen has to go to Canada.
For better or worse, she has to return a book.