Louis in the Merchant of Venice at the UnionLouis Hadfield

It is a peculiar feeling stepping out onstage, where a tense cocktail of anxiety, anticipation, and exhilaration bubbles up and threatens to overspill. The first scene is always the strangest. There is a sense of foreboding the moment the spotlight hits me – am I going to forget my lines? What if the audience doesn’t laugh at my jokes? I am constantly split between what is happening in the moment and anticipating what is happening five lines later. But then I open my mouth. There is a pause. I steel myself. And then I speak, and everything fades away until there is nothing left except me, the audience, and the words, standing in the harsh glow of a spotlight.

“It was coming here that I began to feel the stirrings of an old desire to get back on stage”

I was about four years old when I first “performed” – at a party with my parents, where I seized a microphone and began a five-minute improvised set of rather ruthless jokes tearing apart the adults in the room. It could have been rather insulting had it not been a precocious pre-schooler spouting on about his dad’s shaved head! I think it’s fair to say I’ve been chasing the applause ever since – lapping up the attention gluttonously with every performance, savouring each time as if it were the last.

From the moment my parents saw me at that party, they began to nurture my “Laurence Olivier” tendencies and shipped me off to a performing arts school every Saturday morning, where I quickly discovered that the stage was a second home. Small roles became larger ones as I became older and more confident, finding myself acting alongside students older and more experienced than myself – although I’d like to think I held my own. I had this rather odd habit of learning everybody else’s lines and I remember quite vividly reciting all my scenes singlehandedly for my family, who I imagine shifted between pride and utter bemusement at my theatrical quirks.

Nanny Burke performing in her heyday Louis Hadfield

My family has always had an association with the stage, so perhaps performing is in the blood. My great-grandmother, Nanny Burke, (or “Burko” to us) was a very talented singer in the early ’50s and performed on some of the greatest stages in the country – the Empire, the Royal Court and even the Royal Albert Hall. I’m told there was only 50p between her and Shirley Bassey when they were both gigging back in the day. Although my Nan enjoyed listening to her records (if my Grandad Burke hadn’t taped over them!), I did learn never to say how good she looked for her age in front of her.

Some of my fondest memories of my Nan are listening to her reminisce about her time at a convent school when she was a young girl. Finally, away from the stresses of a post-war life in which she had to grow up far too quickly, she could enjoy herself and be a teenager for the first time. It was here that she expressed her love of the performing arts, and her incredible singing voice. Even in her 70s, I remember my Nan reciting all the lyrics word-perfectly to her solo in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (a production probably put on in the 40s).

“I suppose it’s no coincidence that I took a step back from acting in the years after her death”

I suppose it’s no coincidence that I took a step back from acting in the years after her death. One of the last things I performed in, about a year after she passed away, was a Shakespeare festival alongside two other schools when I was fifteen. It was by far the most intimidating yet rewarding experience I’ve had in the theatre. It was made especially poignant because it just so happened the theatre was down the road from the street where my Nan grew up. A mixture of grief, a heavy workload as I made the leap from GCSE to A-Level, and later a global pandemic, all contributed to my “early retirement” at the grand old age of sixteen (how dramatic).


Mountain View

The Merchant of Venice is timely and ambitious

By the time I turned eighteen, I was convinced I would never step out on stage again. But then the most amazing thing happened: I received an offer to study at Cambridge. It was coming here that I began to feel the stirrings of an old desire to get back on stage, though I’m not entirely sure when this fire was relit. I decided to go looking for opportunities after the Christmas break, though this wasn’t without its challenges – my grandfather passed away unexpectedly, leaving us all grieving and in shock. Now, there was a man with a flair for the melodramatic, though his stage of choice was a pub rather than the Royal Albert Hall. Nevertheless, there’s something quite circular about the death of a loved one making me step back from acting and then the death of another loved one pulling me back in, and I’d like to think I’m honouring both.

To make it even more daunting, I had to throw myself in the deep end and audition for The Merchant of Venice – one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays staged in the Union Chamber, by a cast of intimidatingly talented and experienced actors – to dust the cobwebs off.

The moment I stepped out on that stage, the tense cocktail of emotions swirling around in my stomach, I opened my mouth and smiled.

Me, the audience, the words.

That’s all that matters.