THERE IS an almost imperceptible frown on Honeysuckle Weeks' face as four men enter the bar and begin an animated conversation in Venetian dialect and unnecessarily loud voices. Honey (as she is known to her friends) is trying to explain the plot of her play, Waiting for Vaporetto. Tonight she is holding auditions. She has a tight schedule: she started writing the play only a week ago and it will have to be performed within four weeks, when the coursefinishes.
The John Hall Pre-University Course has been bringing 18-year-olds to Venice since 1965 and provides a rich introduction to Western civilisation during the six-week term. The man who started it, a former English teacher, is still at the helm.
John Hall says that he gave up his job at King's School in Canterbury because he felt frustrated and wanted to do something different. He set his eyes on Italy because of the "sheer density of culture".
The course offers lectures by world authorities on art, architecture and music, and practical courses in photography, life drawing and Italian. This year's lecturers include conductor Jane Glover on Mozart, Deborah Howard, a fellow at St John's College, Cambridge, and possibly the foremost authority on Venetian architecture, and Lord McAlpine on collecting.
At close to pound;4,500, the course will not be within reach of many pockets. "The Guardian said the same thing when the fees were pound;168, 30 years ago," says Mr Hall. "Since then a ticket for the vaporetto has gone up more in proportion. And in all those years nobody has suggested we didn't offer value for money."
As well as the full programme, the fees include travel, accommodation, meals and resident support staff - and an introductory week in London in January. Two weeks in Florence and in Rome at the end of the course are optional extras.
Henry Wilton, who is going to read mathematics at Cambridge, worked for four months in a bank to help pay for the course, and will probably go back there afterwards if he can't find a job somewhere in Italy.
Honeysuckle is funding herself in full. This summer she was in a five-part drama for BBC television called Close Relations. ("I'm the brattish daughter in a well-off family, who gets pregnant," she says.) She has acted since she was nine, and recently turned down a part in Tim Roth's film The War Zone because she feels she wasn't offered enough for nude scenes.
For Honey, the Venice course is a time to relax. In October she goes to Pembroke College, Oxford to read English. "An Oxford degree should give me something to fall back on," she says.
Honey is discussing Waiting for Vaporetto with Vicky Burn, who did Spanish, English and History A-levels at Putney High School, south-west London, and is going to Bristol University to read English. Vicky is on a classic gap year itinerary of work experience followed by travel, with this course scheduled in the middle. She has worked for Commercial Union and in an antique shop. Soon she is off to Cuba for a spell at Havana University, then to a primary school in the Mexican desert on a voluntary teaching programme, followed by Buenos Aires and another teaching job in a little Catholic school.