Saturday, 14 October 2017

To Malham and Back

Birthday treat
As part of my 57th birthday celebrations, Sally took me to Malhamdale near the source of the River Aire. I’ve been before and I hope I’ll go again. It’s one of those places once seen never forgotten – whether you encounter it first on the big screen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – or whether like me you were brought here by Geography teachers in mass groups of teenagers to be amazed at the clints, grikes, limestone pavement, sink holes, rocks galore and the realisation that the planet is a heaving, living, destructive, beautiful force of nature.

Malham Cove
It’s at the top of Malham Cove that Harry and Hermione rest and try and figure stuff out. The colossal waterfall that once poured over the top of it is long gone, but the sight of the curving cliff, from below, from above, from the sides and from afar is a wonder of the Yorkshire dales. Enough to make a Muggle marvel. Priest Thomas West in 1779 described Malham Cove as like “the age-tinted wall of a prodigious castle.”

Malham Tarn
No less weird is walking to and around Malham Tarn, the glacial lake which seems to sit like a spooky infinity pool in a flat patch of desolate moorland. An atmospheric place to sit in the rain among the sheep shit and eat your sandwiches…. tasty. Charles Kingsley was inspired to write The Water Babies after visiting the Cove and Tarn – child chimney sweeps forever rejoiced.

Janet’s Foss
As a teenager Janet’s Foss was my first sight of a waterfall in real life rather than in the pages of an Enid Blyton book. And on this trip we happened to visit twice – the second day after torrential rain the night before and the bigger volume of water made the magical place seem like a completely new location. Does a fairy queen live in the cave behind the fall? Is the pope a Catholic?

Gordale Scar
And the other oft-visited place is the terrifying ravine, Gordale Scar. It’s somewhere to visit if you want to feel insignificant – a crack or chasm in the crust of the Earth with humans staring up at the immense cliffs. On our Geography Field trip – back in the 1970s – the teachers led us UP the Scar which is still possible when the two waterfalls are not heavy but at my age now – and having been a teacher – it just seems to be such a reckless, dangerous, impossible thing to have done. But I know I did.

Beck Hall Hotel
After two days hiking (well over 20,000 steps each day) it was gorgeous to come to rest each night at Beck Hall, a gorgeously-sited and whimsical place to stay over a clapper bridge. A fireside snug, jigsaw/games table, hearty food, welcoming staff, a comfy bed and the sound of Malham Beck running by all night, having poured down from the Scar, over Janet’s Foss, through Malhamdale and joining the River Aire to flow back home through Saltaire.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

To Infinity and Beyond

Boldly going....
Bradford’s National Science + Media Museum
Guess what’s on display at the Science + Media Museum in Bradford? It’s the final parachute and the small (savagely-burned) Soyuz capsule that brought Tim Peake back to Earth in June 2016 after his six month mission to the International Space Station. The capsule is remarkable – it looks ancient, it looks small, it contained three crew members! You can take a selfie in an astronaut suit and (book to) experience a Virtual Reality descent to Earth wearing goggles, guided by Major Peake. The display has already been to London and will be going to York, Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. If you can’t make it to Bradford (between now and November 19th), then try and catch it elsewhere. It didn’t take long to see everything in the display but it filled up my imagination for many days.

"The smells of Earth are just so strong"
Tim Peake’s mission covered a distance of over 100 million kilometres and orbited Earth around 3,000 times. The pictures he sent back for publication were incredible and made a mockery of the ephemeral political intricacies of the human race. Asked how he felt after landing, Maj Peake said: "Truly elated, the smells of Earth are just so strong, just so good to be back on Earth. I'll look forward to seeing the family."

Into the stars
I’m still on a breathing space break from writing my YA trilogy after finishing Book One Draft One but, if I haven’t mentioned it before, I’ll reveal that it’s set on another planet – over a thousand years into the future when Earth has had to be abandoned. I feel confident that I’m writing speculative fiction rather than fantasy because the Tim Peake/Soyuz display and follow up research convinces me that humans could survive on a number of planets in the universe. If we rechannelled the money we spent on arms and weapons of mass destruction to the exploration of outer space we would soon be giving our future destinations names. Maybe one could be called Rhenium like the planet in my book…

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Anne Lister and Shibden Hall

Shibden Hall, home for a time to Anne Lister (bottom centre), "wife" of Ann Walker (top right), subject of Sally Wainwright's forthcoming series, Gentleman Jack, as played by Maxine Peake (in 2010) and Suranne Jones in the new series

Gentleman Jack
Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, Scott and Bailey, To Walk Invisible, Unforgiven amongst many others) is currently preparing an 8-part mini-series about a Yorkshire heroine/anti-heroine/larger-than-life personality, Anne Lister. Anne is going to be played by Suranne Jones, having been played in a one-off film by Maxine Peake in the 2010 Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. The production should be broadcast on the BBC and on HBO during 2018. A family outing to Shibden Hall perched on a south-facing slope in Halfax’s happy valley revealed plenty and to spare about the remarkable Anne Lister.
Images of Anne Lister, Maxine Peake (top right) playing her in 2010, and Helena Whitbread (bottom left) whose careful work has helped decode the millions of words of Anne's secret diaries

A woman ahead of her (and our) time
Determined to become an independent, commercially successful woman, the free-thinking Anne took on the testosterone-heavy might of Industrial England and, in many ways, triumphed. In surprising ways. Having had a passionate affair with a doctor’s daughter, Mariana Belcombe, (an affair that continued after Mariana’s marriage to a wealthy man, an affair that combusted during a weekend in Scarborough), Anne inherited Shibden Hall without the means for its upkeep or to fulfil her plans to enter the coal industry as a mine-owning entrepeneur. She was also lonely. So began a campaign to woo wealthy heiress Ann Walker. Unbelievably (but truthfully) they had their union blessed in a church and wore wedding rings. Despite the sneering of the gentry who nicknamed Anne Lister Gentleman Jack (the title of Sally Wainwright’s script), Anne and Ann were notorious celebrities and were invited to the unlikeliest of soirées.
Shibden Hall
Go to Shibden Hall
Anne’s ambitions to climb mountains and travel to Persia proved her undoing and she contracted a fever aged 49 in what is now modern day Georgia. The grieving Ann had Anne embalmed and took six months to transport the body back to Halfax – you can only imagine the trauma of that journey in the winter of 1840 to 1841. Ann Walker’s own story is just as astonishing as Anne Lister’s. What happened to both women and how we know as much as we do owes a great deal of thanks to a woman called Helena Whitbread who narrates some of the features of Anne’s life in a display at Shibden Hall. The hyperlinks in the first paragraph of this blog will reveal more. I’m looking forward to Gentleman Jack being broadcast but, in the meantime, a visit to Shibden Hall is to be recommended. And, to recover from your awestruck wonder at Anne’s life, call in to nearby Dove Cottage nurseries and hidden garden (open March to September.) Smell nature. Anne Lister, you are remembered. You were a marvel. A force of nature.
The hidden garden at Dove Cottage Nursery near Shibden Hall

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The School's The Thing

A leaf on The Greenwood Tree, Michael Thompson and Robert Lister
Back to the street across the ford at the River Avon
And so back to Stratford-upon-Avon, this time for a retirement present for my Shakespeare buddy, Michael. We’re enthusiasts for productions of Shakespeare and, in particular since the mid-1970s, the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company. And so I planned a geek day of exhibitions, walks and tourist attractions; things that you can fit in when the demands of paid work are in the past. Luckily for me, I also had a secret weapon for two bits of the day: actor Robert Lister, the partner of Pat, one of my long-standing friends from the world of drama teaching.
The Play's The Thing exhibition at the RSC and the view across the Great Garden at New Place to the theatres
A leaf for his pages
I included a picture of The Greenwood Tree in my blog about New Place, but I didn’t know that Rob and Pat already had an engraved leaf there so it was a thrill to find it on the wall when Rob helped us envision the outline of the roofspace and floor plan of New Place.
Busts in the Schoolroom decorated by pupils at the current school on site
Ripe voice of Raconteur
Rob is a journeyman actor, known for work with the RSC, National, English Touring Theatre, one-man site-specific shows and as Lewis Carmichael in The Archers. On this occasion he was a vivid storyteller bringing to life not only New Place but also the extraordinary Schoolroom and Guildhall, renovated in recent years and opened to the public.
The cradle of the bard's imagination and a very very early Tudor rose (the first ever depicted?)

The child is father of the man
It is inconceivable that Shakespeare didn’t attend the Schoolroom above the Guildhall in Stratford, given the status of his father, John Shakespeare, as alderman, chief magistrate and bailiff at various times. One of the more romantic concepts illustrated in the displays at the Schoolroom and Guildhall was how likely it was that the child Shakespeare would have observed petty trials and travelling actors as his father presided over the Court of Record and granted licenses to the touring companies. The trial scenes in plays like The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale surely had their seeds sown here. And did the young Shakespeare leave with one of the companies when he was in his early 20s, father of three young children but, critically, son of a man who was facing financial ruin by then? Shakespeare travelled and then started to commute between Warwickshire and the capital, desperate to find a level of success – as he eventually did as actor, writer and, most significantly for his family’s economics, as theatre shareholder and landowner in both London and Stratford.
The Guild of the Holy Cross, next door to the Guildhall with a stained glass window depicting Edward VI and John Shakespeare and extraordinary wall paintings

Saturday, 23 September 2017

God's Own Country

The four principals of Francis Lee's film: Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart

Atop the Yorkshire moors
There have been several memorable films shot on Yorkshire locations: the TV Brontë biography by Sally Wainwright To Walk Invisible is a recent good example. I have vivid memories of the visceral 2011 Wuthering Heights directed by Andrea Arnold. From childhood there are of course The Railway Children and Kes. There are notable black and white films of This Sporting Life and Billy Liar as well as popular comedies like Brassed Off, Four Lions and The Full Monty. An American Werewolf in London famously started on the moors and A Month in the Country showed parts of North Yorkshire other than the famous rooflines of Castle Howard (Brideshead Revisited.) The moors are hard to capture but a recent cinema trip has done just that – in a stunningly-photographed tale of muddy love among farmers.
Filmed in Yorkshire: Brideshead Revisited, Billy Liar, The Railway Children, Wuthering Heights, An American Werewolf in London, Brassed Off, Four Lions, A Month in the Country, Kes, This Sporting Life, The Full Monty
God’s Own County….
Angry, miserable, tormented Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) lives with his stroke-stricken Dad, farmer Martin (Ian Hart) and gritty grandmother, Deirdre (Gemma Jones). They struggle to “manage” even though Johnny shouts “I’ll manage” time and again. The family have a broken past and are clinging to their beasts and their land in the hope of making a living. Their lives endure, despite illness and scraping their pennies together. For one week only, Martin brings in the gentle, capable Romanian migrant, Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu) to help Johnny with the lambing – in the hope that Martin himself will be back on the farm before too long. You hope Martin will recover because it becomes obvious that not many people would want to graft such unsociable hours in such conditions; Gheorghe was “the only bugger who applied.” Thankfully, the film suggests, Gheorghe’s less rigid thinking might mean the farm will diversify after the credits roll and maybe survive Brexit.
Francis Lee, director, with cast and producer Manon Ardisson at the Edinburgh Film Festival and cinematographer Joshua James Richards on location in Yorkshire

Believable (grunting) masculinity
There was plenty to talk about after watching the film: in particular, how much sympathy does Johnny deserve given his frequent alcohol-induced vomiting, emotionless shagging and his thuggish refusal to say anything positive to the people who were making an effort to connect with him? (Patsy Ferran’s university friend, Robyn, gave a poignant hint of Johnny’s potential in the eyes of his old school friends)  I felt that Josh O’Connor’s performance was a pitch-perfect portrayal of an emotionally stunted man – and, for me, the film’s depiction of his agonising steps to a better way of being was one of the most moving things I’ve seen in cinema for ages. And all against the background of the Yorkshire moors!

He’s just going to be a runt
The rest of the actors were equally believable in their characterisations: Alex Secareanu played Gheorghe with integrity and magnetism. Gemma Jones and Ian Hart inhabited their steadfast roles with raw naturalism. I don’t want to include any spoilers but those who’ve seen it will know what I mean when I say Deirdre’s laundry/ironing scenes and Martin’s bath-time scene displayed acting skills of the highest order. The poster gives away that the film becomes a love story between Johnny and Gheorghe and their relationship drives the film’s plot, but the unfussy visual symbols (the white trail of an aeroplane, hands, gloves, jumpers/skin, clothes or lack of them, food, milk/cheese, spit, vomit, blood, mud, water, stone, walls, fences, doors, lambs, flowers, the fragility of living things) meant the film operated on a sweeping landscape bigger than two men in love. Sometimes you can’t let a runt fail…. people, like premature lambs, deserve a chance to live a life. They might only need a new coat (or jumper) –  I know this to be true, both from my years of teaching and from life’s bruises. Congratulations to the director, Francis Lee, local lad, for creating a celluloid work of art. And hats off to cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, for capturing the bleak beauty of what is, in my view, a universalised Yorkshire story with a beating heart.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Fish Finger Butties

Back in Yorkshire
After a week on Anglesey it was good to touch down in time to catch the final afternoon of the Saltaire Festival. The beaches, castles, walks and bridges of north Wales will appear in a future blog but, for now, I’m commemorating the joys of tucking in to a Fish Finger Butty (with a glass of prosecco!), listening to the music and soaking up the atmosphere of my adopted “village”, Saltaire. (I noticed I was not alone in gravitating towards the Fish Finger Heaven stand….)
A sense of place; images of Saltaire including the day of the Tour de Yorkshire
Sense of place
I’ve written elsewhere about the concept of “home” (having felt roots in Wakefield, Manchester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Helsinki, Sheffield, Leek, Bingley, Badby, Dorking and even in Sorrento, Italy and Wengen, Switzerland….) One good thing about Saltaire, though, is that it has risen to a sense of itself through a series of cultural and entrepreneurial decisions. When Jonathan Silver invested in the purchasing of Salt’s Mill in 1987 he boosted the local economy, leisure and work opportunities and promoted David Hockney’s work through gallery space in the converted mill. Regular events like the Advent Windows or the Open Gardens ensure there are often reasons to walk around the World Heritage site. So it’s always good to come “home.”
2017 Saltaire Festival - band at top = the excellent Backyard Burners

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Soaring Tethered

Breakfast, dinner, tea
School dinners were always school dinners during the 1960s and 1970s. You gave the teacher your “dinner money.” I can’t remember when I started talking about lunch when I meant dinner. I haven’t graduated to dinner to mean tea and still say “what’re we having for tea?” (meaning what many call dinner.) Supper was always supper. Then a few years ago I learned some people talk about “kitchen supper” but I always thought of supper as being in your pyjamas sitting in front of the coal fire….(usually bread and dripping or a crumpet toasted on a toasting fork.) I can’t imagine sitting in the kitchen having supper….

I imagined as a child I would always be working class. Then I did A Levels, went to the University of Manchester, lived abroad in Finland for a year and became a teacher. At what point on that journey did I become middle class? Does it matter? Why even think about it? Is it a social invention to keep people in line and control them? Does class exist? It clearly obsesses the British nation, and often troubles, niggles and unsettles me. I think it confuses and divides people. Two related memories have stuck in my mind.
Memory One
The first memory was on the night before being taken to university (in my older brother, Mick’s, car; my parents never owned a car.) I sat on the stairs in my house on Eastmoor Estate in Wakefield and wept like a baby – barrels of snot pouring down my chin – wishing I wasn’t always called the “brainy one.” Within a month or so at university I’d got over that feeling and was reading like a madman and writing essays that were competitively brainy (so brainy that when I came across one recently I didn’t understand the argument one bit.) So my grief about leaving home was short-lived. Something drove me on to devour education and aspire to be as brainy as possible. (Though lacking in common sense, as I think my wife, daughters and sister might testify….)

Burst balloon – memory two
The second memory I have is of listening to one of my favourite writers, Alan Garner, lecture about his own dislocation from his “class.” He was lecturing about writing and mental health and being honest about a personal experience when he felt he had had a nervous breakdown. He saw education and moving away from home akin to being blown up like a balloon. The balloon gets bigger and floats away, getting bigger, seeing further and wider, getting perspective, gaining height. Sometimes the balloon bursts. (How he felt about his own nervous breakdown.) The balloon needs sticking back together. Patching up. Before it can be inflated again. Sometimes, though, the balloon floats but it remains tethered to the ground, to its base, to where it came from. And it can be pulled back to its roots and bounce back again freely when it wants. And soar. And return. And soar again. Soaring tethered.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Dance for me

The art world responds to the story of the dancing princess
Playwright in prison
On 11th February 1896, at the Comédie-Parisienne in Paris, Oscar Wilde’s play of the Biblical story of Salomé received its premiere. Rehearsals for an earlier production had begun in 1892 starring the famous celebrity actress, Sarah Bernhardt, but the London production was banned, supposedly because the Lord Chamberlain (the censor of the day) decided that it was blasphemous to portray Biblical characters on the stage. By the time the play was staged in Paris, Wilde had been imprisoned as a result of a series of tragic miscalculations and the fervid homophobia of late Victorian Establishment.
Aubrey Beardsley's original illustrations include Wilde in the moon (top right)

What the Bible says (Mark Ch 6: 14 – 28)
John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
15 Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”
16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”
17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married.
18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to,
20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.
22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.”
23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison,
28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.
Images copyright RSC taken by Isaac James. Actors: Matthew Tennyson, Ilan Evans, Jon Tranchard, Christopher Middleton, Simon Yadoo, Bally Gill, Johnson Willis, Assad Saman, Andro Cowperthwaite, Ben Hall

Influences and imaginative transformation
In crafting the play, Wilde:
  • takes the text (above) from the Gospel of Mark and the shorter version in Matthew’s Gospel;
  • considers the many classical paintings of the scene by da Vinci, Moreau, Rubens and Titian among others (rejecting some and admiring others);
  • and, like Shakespeare, steals phrases and rhythms from a number of other writings (Scheffauer, J C Heywood, Flaubert, Huysmans, Maeterlinck) and even
  • his own brother, Wiliam Wilde, who wrote a poem about Salomé in Trinity College magazine, in 1878.
What he does, though, is transform the story into something strange and ritualistic. The language is fluid and poetic, hypnotic and surprising. Salomé, in Wilde’s play, isn’t persuaded by her mother to demand the head of Iokanaan (John the Baptist), (as occurs in the Bible) but makes her own decision to do so and is explicit in Wilde’s play that she hasn’t consulted her mother. Thus Wilde’s Salomé is breaking free, growing up, upsetting authority, dancing on her own terms….
Isaac James photographs. Actors: Assad Zaman, Matthew Tennyson, Gavin Fowler, Suzanne Burden and Company
Owen Horsley’s production
It at first glance seems perverse to give a female role to a male actor in a 2017 Roman plays season at the RSC, given the few numbers of (textually) female roles available in Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus. But the decision absolutely works in the context of the rest of the production’s design and, in my opinion, gave Wilde’s play a frisson of repressed/unrequited/ambiguous/burgeoning love and sexuality that was wonderfully apt in this year of the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of gay (male) sex. Matthew Tennyson played Salomé with delicately eye-popping rage; he alternated between naïve expressions of desire, determined ferocity and intricate vulnerability. Standing up to his dementedly incestuous stepfather, Herod, played with lascivious cowardly torment by Matthew Pidgeon, Salomé was a heroic and tragic figure who struggled to know how to express her/his love. Circling them both was the accusatory Herodias played by Suzanne Burden with flamboyant gusto (often appealing to the audience directly and inviting us to judge what we were seeing.)
Isaac James photographs. Actors: Ilan Evans, Matthew Tennyson, Gavin Fowler, Matthew Pidgeon, Ben Hall, Bally Gill, Jon Trenchard, Christopher Middleton, Miles Mitchell, Andro Cowperthwaite, Robert Ginty, Byron Mondahl, Johnson Willis, Simon Yadoo

Total theatre
The moon hung over this beautifully-lit and evocatively-costumed production, literally and imaginatively as the Roman soldiers, the Jewish and non-Jewish revellers and the Roman ambassador were all mystified about how to respond to both the dancing princess and the muscular prophet, Iokanaan (John the Baptist played by Gavin Fowler), emerging from his cistern beneath the stage smeared in dirt and booming out his intense warnings. The executioner, played by Ilan Evans, got to belt out the songs of Perfume Genius, an artist I didn’t know before this production but whose anthemic, heavily-percussive music seemed to fit the awesome, longing, desperate, romantic atmosphere of this theatrical presentation of the pangs of transgressive love.
Variations of the play: film, opera, Berkoff's adaptation

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Raydan Wakes

No blog
On Thursday 31st July 2014 no blog written by me existed out there in cyberspace. Today (Saturday 26th August 2017) there are 172 posts and, although the original intention of always connecting everything to Shakespeare hasn't been fulfilled, the regularity has settled into a 5 a month pattern and I've got better at incorporating pretty pictures which some readers tell me are (quite truthfully) the best bits. I can live with that. I've learned to keep to my own deadlines. The dream of course was to write a novel....

No words
On Friday 1st April 2016 there were no words for a novel but that's the date I started dedicating three days a week to writing. There was the play set in a doctors' surgery. There was the screenplay set on the banks of a river. There were the poems about birth and childhood. There was the book about growing up Roman Catholic.... and there was the story of a red-haired teenager who suddenly realised his parents and the world around him were not what he thought....

On Monday 1st August 2016 it dawned on me that all the other writing projects had fallen away and Raydan, the red-haired teenager on the planet Rhenium, had become real to me and scenes I had written were having consequences in my imagination. And I had to write more. So The Akolyte Wars were born. The story became The Rhenium Wars. The over-arching story is currently Rhenium Tales and the first book is Raydan Wakes.
On Sunday 7th August 2016 I finally started committing to the laptop and at 10:30am on Friday 25th August 2017 (yesterday) I finally printed the final chapter of my first draft for my first reader, Emily. It took me a couple of years of churning out blogs, 4 months of experimenting, a week of fear deciding whether or not Rhenium was The One, and then One Year And Eighteen Days to produce Draft One of 118,285 words divided into 15 chapters, each chapter having 3 distinct sections. (And bits that have been edited out are already waiting to be pasted into Book Two....) I have no doubt that the final word count will come down. The first version of Chapter 15 was 12,000 words, at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon it became just over 8,000 words. Today it's 6,521 words. Editing's the way to go. But I'm feeling weird at the moment - half Superman and half petrified/embarrassed/confused. What next? Keep editing. Keep writing. Just keep going.
Superman picture credit: Sacha Goldberg

Saturday, 19 August 2017

There is a world elsewhere

Productions during the 2017 summer school
70th anniversary of the summer school
I’ve just finished attending the 70th anniversary of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Summer School. There are some attendees who remember seeing Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh perform in Stratford in Titus Andronicus in 1955. Four years later delegates saw a season including Paul Robeson in Othello, Charles Laughton in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Dame Edith Evans in both All’s Well That Ends Well and Coriolanus (the latter also with Olivier.) Imagine.
Faces of the RSC summer school 2017: Janet Suzman, Katy Stephens, Ray Fearon, Tony Byrne, Nia Gwynne, David Troughton, Erica Whyman, Chuk Iwuji, Dr Elizabeth Sandis, Miles Tandy, Penny Downie, Suzanne Burden, Michael Billington, Jacqui O'Hanlon, Dr Maria Evans, Matthew Tennyson, Prof Michael Dobson, Prof Russell Jackson, Gavin Fowler
31st anniversary for me….
My first summer school was in 1986, the year I married Sally, and the year The Swan theatre opened in Stratford-upon-Avon. I haven’t been every single year since then, but more years than not and, like with Shakespeare himself, there are surprises every year.

Roman season
This year it’s all about Ancient Rome. So all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays are being staged: Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus at the moment and  Coriolanus later in the year. There is a spoof new play based on Plautus by Phil Porter, charmingly titled Vice Versa (or the Decline and Fall of General Braggadocio at the hands of his canny servant Dexter and Terence the Monkey) which can only be described as the love child of Carry On – Up Pompeii – Panto On Weed. Sitting between these offerings was a gay-focused version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé with a male actor in the role of the dancing princess.

Decapitations, songs, stabbings, dances, neck-breakings, love scenes….
They say variety is the spice of life and the theatrical sights veered between grisly shocks and tender vignettes. All of the productions offered a new angle or fresh perspective on the characters or themes. Over it all soared the language of Shakespeare and Wilde (and the thumping doggerel of Phil Porter, acting like a satyr dance or bergomask to the season.) During the day lectures by people like the rigorous Dame Janet Suzman and the visionary Erica Whyman commented on the season, the plays, the RSC and the state of theatre and the world in 2017. As Coriolanus himself says, “There is a world elsewhere….” There were no overt attempts to make the plays relevant to today’s political upheavals but it was impossible to ignore the parallels and hear echoes of our current world. As Ben Jonson wrote in the First Folio,
“Soul of the Age!....
He was not of an age, but for all time!”
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Exhibition

All time and all places
As if to underline the Shakespeare Everywhere theme, a new exhibition at The Birthplace explores active involvement in Shakespeare in a group of Asian countries. To some Shakespeare is all about the overthrow of tyrants; to some he is the epitome of justice and mercy; to others he is the key to unlocking the freedom of the imagination and creativity. He is, to me, all these things and many more – a body of work, a fascinating point in history, an explosion of language and dramatic situations.
He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
Shakespeare Imagery: to Bard or not to Bard....

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Great Garden at New Place

A place in inspiration, a place of rest
New Place (previous blog) is, for me, an emotional place to be. On the whole I think the development there has been an imaginative success. To me is seems to be a place of inspiration with its quirky nooks and the roofline of the Guild Chapel, with its ancient wall paintings, looming over it. It is also a place of rest, somewhere I imagine Shakespeare would have appreciated given the death of his only son, Hamnet, one year before Shakespeare bought New Place. The house would’ve, I imagine, signalled a new beginning, a new leaf, a new page, a new act.

William, Fulke and Hercules
The family who sold New Place to Shakespeare have a shady history. William Underhill who did the original sale to Shakespeare in 1597 died two months after the sale. History tells us Underhill Senior was poisoned by his son and heir, Fulke (why does no-one name their son Fulke any more?) History is less sure whether Fulke died of natural causes or was hanged for the murder, but it was Fulke’s younger brother, the flamboyantly named Hercules who confirmed all the paperwork to Shakespeare including the orchards behind the property which became known as The Great Garden.

The Great Garden at New Place
In my own “olden days” (1980s and 1990s) The Great Garden was my favourite place to sit in Stratford-upon-Avon. It used to have open access to the public and was a green oasis in the midst of the tourist bustle. Now you enter the garden as part of your (paid) entry to New Place but, in my opinion, it remains a lush and evocative oasis. It is still populated with the offspring of a mulberry tree from Shakespeare’s day and with the ashes of Peggy Ashcroft and with benches to sit and dream. But it now also has a marvellous tactile bronze sculpture trail by American Gregg Wyatt.

Family weddings
Both Shakespeare’s daughters lived with Anne and William in New Place until they were married:
  • Susanna, aged 24, to Dr John Hall on June 5th 1607
  • Judith, aged 31, to (“bad boy”) Thomas Quiney on February 10th 1616

And one man in his time plays many parts
Shakespeare is known in 2017 primarily as
In his own time he gained most cultural prestige as a writer of narrative poems and sonnets
But he had the most influence on his immediate contemporary world as
(having bought a family coat of arms in 1596)
But visiting Stratford-upon-Avon as I do a few times each year and delving into the depths of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties, the Shakespeare Institute and the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I never cease to learn something new about Shakespeare as

living and loving (and dreaming and writing) in New Place and its Great Garden until the day he died.