Stratford, then and now

Photo of the first page of Antony and Cleopatr...

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I’ve just got back from Stratford, where I saw the RSC in "Julius Caesar" and "The Winters’ Tale." Also, I read "Anthony and Cleopatra" for the first time in my life and, to be honest, I don’t think it does the fine actors of the RSC any disservice to say that it bowled me over to such an extent it overshadowed the other plays.

What an astonishing, epic love story it is. It’s about being caught between two worlds and having to find a way to live in both but remain true to yourself, even if it destroys you. It’s almost cinematic in its scope, covering about ten years and ranging over half the known world. It presents its characters, including a mature, sexy and powerful woman, in all their contradiction and complexity, and all in some of the most glorious descriptive lyrical poetry in the English language. It combines high drama and romance with a clear-eyed, mature acceptance of the world as it is. I have never stayed up late to read a Shakespeare play before but I did this time around – and it just stunned me. Time and again, I found myself putting down the book, getting a grip on my emotions and then re-reading a passage just to try and get my mind around it.

It’s almost a year since I saw David Tennant in "Hamlet" and fell in love with Shakespeare and Stratford. It’s strange, and a little sad, to pass the Stage Door after a performance now and see it quiet. The fans have gone. But so much remains to be savoured now and in the future. That night was a mountaintop experience for me, but you can’t live on mountaintops. You have to use them to inspire and motivate you, to help you select what really matters in life and go for it with all your heart and all reasonable means at your disposal. Sometimes it takes years to make your dream a reality. Although it seems that I transferred my nebulous desires into the concrete form of an MA course very quickly, in fact it was a dream that had been slowly growing for twenty years and had suffered various setbacks along the way, times when the conjunction of circumstances and motivation and confidence just wasn’t quite right, didn’t add up to enough momentum to make changes.

Stratford is always, to some extent, a magical place, but last summer was unique, and it isn’t always, or even generally, magical in that particular way. I could so easily have gone there and felt sad, but I didn’t. I was able to look back at the journey I’ve made this past year, one which "Hamlet" did so much to shape, and think with excited anticipation of all the challenges ahead of me. I can enjoy Stratford now as a place where I feel very much at home, where I can look up people for lunch, know the right places to go and setle down into – a place where I can relax into the kind of person I always wanted to be.

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who works for the RSC and we talked about whether knowing too much about how an illusion is created destroys the magic of it. And we both agreed that the answer’s no, at least where great drama is concerned. To learn about his sources, to analyse his language, to explore his world and to dissect the intricacies of his texts has only deepened my love of Shakespeare’s work and my admiration for his genius. I’m an incredibly lucky person. And I can’t wait to get back.

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2 thoughts on “Stratford, then and now

  1. You know what, I’ve never either read or seen Anthony and Cleopatra. Is it me or is it not put on that often, compared with JC and Macbeth and R&J?
    That question about the mechanics of illusion and magic is an interesting one. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not whether or not I know how it’s done that matters for me; it’s whether I notice while it’s being done – which is usually a function of how well it’s being done. Frex, if I’m watching a film or an episode of Who and think “Oooh, get the CGI” it usually means that either a) said CGI is clumsy or b) the story or the drama has failed, because it hasn’t sucked me in sufficiently to suspend my disbelief. Whereas when the writing and realisation are effective it’s not unusual to finish watching something and have the Resident Geek say “those FX were brilliant” and me mumble”Erm, I suppose… what FX?” (You mean that wasn’t really a Dalek invasion fleet? Oh, boo…)
    Glad to hear Stratford is becoming such a home from home:-)

  2. Agreed about the FX – and it’s so important that on either stage or screen, the spectacle doesn’t overshadow the performance. Even in the early days of very small budgets, DW concentrated on hiring good actors (well, at least for the big parts!)
    In every drama there has to be a suspension of disbelief, because it’s an inherently artificial medium. There has to be a contract between audience and performers, and I guess the genres of comedy, tragedy etc came about so that people were prepared for the experience.
    In a late Shakespeare romance, just like an RTD script, you willingly commit to the emotional truth of the story you see. Once you start complaining that it couldn’t really happen, the spell is broken. But I still maintain that the worst crime a dramatist can commit is to break faith with the emotional consistency of the characters he or she creates. I can accept that Rose somehow built a dimension cannon. I cannot accept that she’d settle for a substitute Doctor and let the man she loved abandon her.
    As far A&C, I think it’s comparatively rarely performed because it’s incredibly challenging and expensive to stage, with numerous characters and the need to create huge battles on stage, not to mention getting poor Tony up to the Monument at some point. It’s also a demanding play to watch. It’s very long and you have to work hard. Admittedly so is “Hamlet”, but with its enclosed setting and general lack of epic spectacle, it’s less demanding to stage.

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