CRY ‘GOD FOR HARRY! ENGLAND AND SAINT GEORGE!’
This week, the first of three ‘Bard Blogs’. And, after all last Sunday’s talk of England, my inaugural Shakespearean post takes its cue, literally, from a speech I made nearly two years ago on St George’s Day:
Madam Mayor, my lords, ladies and gentlemen, such is the honour of being asked to speak at this the final fundraising event of the mayoral year in Reigate and Banstead, on the august occasion of the double celebration of St George’s Day and William Shakespeare’s birthday, that you will sympathize with me, I am sure, when I tell you I’ve been rather exercised by the weight of the responsibility – the duty to hit an appropriate tone. In fact, I have gone so far as to take advice. That is to say, I wrote a letter of advice – to myself.
I hope, for your sake, it has proved useful.
I have it about me. (Takes a letter in an envelope out of inside pocket.) I read it through on my way down in the train this evening, having failed to get the Evening Standard. I thought I might do worse than read it to you. A device, you must admit, that will let you in on the act. (Opens the unsealed envelope and reads out the letter.)
My first advice about the charity dinner at which you have so recklessly agreed to speak is: check your dinner suit well in advance. It must be five years since you wore it and, although it’s been kept in the condition it was in when you last wore it, the same might not be said for you. If it will not do, there are five charity shops to choose from in the High Street that might fit you out, and you could start your preparation for this charity dinner with an act
I began my researches on your behalf by enquiring of Google – a lot depends on how you phrase your enquiries to Google – I tried ‘Shakespeare and Reigate and Banstead’ and there was some confusion while Google tried to match the Bard with a comic double act. There seem to be several Shakespeare Industrial Estates (one near Epsom Downs), and I was furnished with a J. B. Shakespeare, a family business in Croydon – Undertakers and Monumental Masons.
But the human brain itself is an awesome Internet and its speed and breadth of thought rival cyberspace. For example, the phrase ‘monumental masons’ put me in mind (to use a psychological term) of the 16th-17th-century monumental mason Geerhart Janssen (though I had to get his name from Google). He was the sculptor responsible for the monumental bust of the Bard in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. His workshop was in Southwark, near the Globe Theatre. You’ll probably go right under the site of it by the Jubilee Line Tube on the night, on your way to catch your train for Redhill at London Bridge.
Imagine: Geerhart must have looked into the face of William Shakespeare, drunk with him at the tavern, watched him act the Ghost in Hamlet or the little part of old Adam in As You Like It. Did he realize how privileged he was? Had he read Socrates’ advice to sculptors in Xenophon’s Memorabilia to represent ‘the workings of the soul’ by accurately observing the way ‘feelings affect the body in action’?
Think of it! executing the noble art of sculpture and able to take the afternoon off any time to see, a stroll away, a performance in the most profoundly exciting theatre in the world since the palmy days of Athens and Epidaurus.
I’m afraid it did Geerhart Janssen no good. The bust he created for Shakespeare’s monument in the Bard’s own parish church gets no nearer to a living portrait of the great dramatist, supporting actor and our nation’s pride, than your Jubilee Line Tube train will get, however near it zooms to the foundations of the vanished workshop in Southwark where it was made.
Might I suggest that you tie this thought up with ‘thought’ – not the speed or breadth of thought necessarily; rather the portrayal, the expression of it – as Socrates advised – represent the workings of the soul by accurately observing the way feelings affect the body in action.
That bust at Stratford, you will remember, is looking dead straight ahead, but you could tell your distinguished assembly about the movement guru who taught you at the National Theatre in the mid-1960s, and how he confounded a class by saying, in his Swedish accent, ‘Just remember; thought is expressed diagonally.’ And then you can pause in your speech, looking dead straight ahead, and you will immediately look as if you’ve dried and it will make them nervous. Then do another pause – tilting your head onto a diagonal – or two or three – and immediately you will appear to be thinking. This will have a reassuring effect. It might almost carry an air of profundity, even inspiration; the point being that a similar tilt would certainly have improved the bust of the Bard at Holy Trinity Church. He’d have looked as if he’d just thought of something, instead of being sculpted into a state of writer’s block for nearly four hundred years.
I don’t suppose you’ll want your speech to be too locked into the historical. The title of the
influential book on the interpretation of the plays in your time has been Shakespeare Our Contemporary
by Jan Kott, but I blush to remember it was first published as far back as 1961. It influenced Peter Hall.
Google presented me with the website of Hall’s new Rose Theatre at Kingston, where I read of the building: ‘Unlike the Globe, it eschews twee traditionalism [!] in favour of clean and unpretentious modern design.’ That’s an example of denigrating the competition worthy of a US presidential campaign.
I also read: ‘There are cushions on the floor right at the foot of the stage which create a noisy informality.’ They stage the classics, of course, but there’s a reference to evenings of ‘stand-up comedy’. So we’re back to our old friends Reigate and Banstead and you, standing up, freshly dinner-jacketed and, hopefully, setting the tables on a roar.
That’s part of my letter of May 2008, but I can bring this blog more or less up to date by referring to a phone conversation I had last Sunday, the 14th February (though I am tempted to break off and try on that charity-shop dinner suit I wore at the St George’s Day dinner, to see if my waist is a little slimmer). My friend Caroline Blakiston, celebrating a senior birthday, had been to the aforementioned Rose Theatre at Kingston the previous afternoon to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which her friend Rachael Stirling, being tall, was playing Helena, and Dame Judi Dench, being … Dame Judi Dench, was playing Queen Elizabeth I playing the Queen of the Fairies, Titania.
Rachael Stirling, Caro said, brought a delicate, almost ethereal fragility to Helena; and it was a pleasure to hear Judi doing Titania’s long speeches, playing being in love better than she’d seen anybody play being in love on the stage. The ass’s head is borrowed from Glyndebourne Opera and Caro said it is a head easy to be in love with. In the dressing room afterwards Judi said that her favourite, much-loved cat had fur like the ass’s head, so she just thought of her adorable cat.
Production Photograph by Nobby Clark
That reminds me of another cat that assisted in the portrayal of a Shakespearean woman in love. Olivier writes of it in an essay on his production of Antony and Cleopatra in which he and Vivien Leigh played the name parts:
She followed her instincts like a cat, and a cat’s instincts are as easy to observe in life as Cleopatra’s are in the play – but what of her premeditations, her calculations? I remember a cat once, when I was small, that ran up a tree in order to avoid my too boring attentions. I followed it up the tree and when for a second it seemed that I would achieve my purpose of catching her, she started to purr and rub herself against my outstretched hand in order to give me false confidence. I put my hand back on the branch to steady myself for a second, and the cat was down the tree and across the field before I knew what was happening.
This kind of cunning is patent in much of Cleopatra, in her buoyant variations of opposites according to Anthony’s moods, in varying degrees of subtlety and obviousness throughout the tragedy, and most blatantly in her pretended death; but on the whole it is the enigma that tells, the enigma that holds us.
Photograph by Cecil Beaton
Leigh played Shaw’s Cleopatra and the Bard’s, of course. She once said: ‘Shaw is like a train. One just speaks the words and sits in one’s place. But Shakespeare is like bathing in the sea – one swims where one wants.’ (Quoted in a letter from Harold Nicholson to Vita Sackville-West, 1 February 1956.)
Did Will, walking on Bankside, put his arm round a boy actor’s shoulder and tell him stories of cats? Or did he explain how his lines were meant to be spoken?
Rachel Stirling had some sessions with Peter Hall on the text, after which she felt at last she knew how Shakespeare should be spoken.
Caroline and the friend she went with remarked to each other at the end of last Saturday’s matinee that they felt the same satisfaction as one experiences after hearing a good concert.
Perhaps musicianship and animal instinct are prerequisites for acting in Shakespeare.
There was nothing ‘twee’ about the Globe when I saw Richard Olivier’s production of Henry V in 1997. The company may have been seeking modern resonances in visiting and even rehearsing on the RAF airfields from which ‘The Few’ flew in the Battle of Britain, but on the rainy matinee I saw, a more immediate, if historic, effect was the rain running directly off the thatch onto the necks of the groundlings who had ‘prime’ front-row positions with their elbows on the very stage, the gutter and drainpipe not having been invented in Shakespeare’s England.
The purists have been defeated and gutters installed, and who knows if a Wimbledon-type rain roof may follow, but from my seat undercover in the second balcony round the side, the management of rainwear and even umbrellas was part of the show, and the age-old jokes by the French about the English weather can seldom have gone better since a wet afternoon in the Golden Age. There were cessations in the rain. It surprised me that there are no battle scenes at all; three comics take a Frenchman prisoner, as I remember, and yet one believed in Agincourt, merely on the strength of a beaten drum sounding from somewhere behind a door or curtain.
When Mark Rylance prayed quietly and alone on the eve of battle he had walked to the very front of the platform and knelt with his head bowed and his fingertips placed at the top of his forehead. The lady in the trendy mustard-coloured rain cape, the couple who had been crouching under a broken umbrella so as not to block anyone’s view, in fact a small detachment of groundlings stirred themselves and, unobtrusively, stepped back from the centre of the platform to give due reverence and room to the King. Miraculously, I, leaning over the balcony, and slightly behind Mark, heard every word of ‘O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts!’
A New Slant on the Bard
This picture enhances my blog
It features a bust and our dog
Both part of the family
And thinking diagonally
Aren’t you all slightly agog?
The bust I ‘rescued’ from a market, and repaired its chipped nose with polyfiller. After scrubbing the grime and moss off it, and daring to use sandpaper, I took it on tour. It got smashed during a show on the Edinburgh Fringe and I had to pass the mishap off as part of the performance by making a quip about breaking the mould. It is still in need of loving attention, as you can see, though the old stager managed the next and subsequent performances in various cities and towns, including Stratford-upon-Avon at the Other Place.
Although his hollow head has not a thought in it and he is a replica (1886 is the date on the back), he has his very own pensive smile of experience and a superior expression, I think, to the priceless bust in Holy Trinity.
Bean understands a few words but cannot think in them. In fact, my son Arthur and I found it rather a hilarious challenge when we attempted once to envisage how she does think – since we both tried and couldn’t manage without words.