For some people, St George’s Day (this past Friday) represents folklore and myth, dragons and slayers. For others, it’s more an excuse to feel extra patriotic — or, in the case of two people in my village, a reason to enquire ask why the old church wasn’t flying an English flag (sigh).
For me though, this time of the year marks a chance to celebrate surely the greatest playwright of them all, William Shakespeare.
He was baptised on 25th April, 457 years ago, supposedly two days after his birth on St George’s Day. The parish records also show that he was buried on 25th April in 1616. Therefore many have come to the natural assumption that he must have been born and died on the same day, two days before each parish record entry. There’s definitely a handy timeliness to this assumption, though it wasn’t a very good final birthday, was it…
Anyway, as a way of celebrating the great bard in some way, and because we’re all still starved of much of the joy of journeys, here is a worldly whistle stop tour of earthly theatrical delights, past and future. There are four(ish) stops, to be precise about it.
It’s worth saying at this point that it’s not thought that Shakespeare ever left England in his lifetime. He just leaned on those two stalwarts, imagination and curiosity. A lesson for us all?
The wooden O
…But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Henry V, Prologue
What I wouldn’t give to have been around in 1599 to see Henry V and other plays put on the stage of the new Globe playhouse in Southwark, London. The ‘wooden O’ referred to in the prologue was the Globe theatre itself. Shakespeare wanted to emphasise its power to take his words and transport his audiences away from their cares and their troubles, over to vastnesses elsewhere.
The wooden O was rebuilt 398 years later when I was 10. Old enough that I could have pestered my Dad to take me to see Henry V when again it kicked off opening proceedings.
I’ve made up for it since though. I actually don’t know exactly how many times I’ve stood or sat, enveloped within the Globe’s circular walls (which, psst, are actually not technically round) — absorbed by a history play, tickled by a comedy, distraught in the hands of a tragedy.
But I’ve easily seen over 40 plays there and if I had to pick one place in the world that I probably miss the most, it would be that little corner of south London. Two of my friends passed it on a walk recently and sent me a selfie. They knew.
I am therefore incredibly keen to return this year, perched somewhere under the thatch, cider in hand, Shakespeare on tap.
I recommend… booking now for the summer season. The usual capacity seems to be greatly reduced, so dates are likely to start selling out soon, if they’ve not already. I’m excited to see screen and stage star Alfred Enoch (yes, Dean in Harry Potter) in Romeo & Juliet, opposite Rebekah Murrell.
A vintage year
Five summers have I spent in farthest Greece
Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia
And, coasting homeward, came to Ephesus.
The Comedy of Errors, Act 1, Scene 1
I know I’m heavily biased because I lived in London at the time and I went to so many events during the 2012 Olympics (sorry), but if you were ranking great years we’ve had in the past decade, 2012 has got to be top of the list. So many sports, so much support — and what a coming together of cultures it was too. In theatre especially.
Shakespeare’s Globe held a season called Globe to Globe, putting on almost all of Shakespeare’s plays (plus one of his narrative poems), each in a different language.
Sport brings nations together, but ultimately it’s to compete against one other. But here the arts were, bringing people from all across the world together in one theatre.
From Love’s Labour’s Lost in sign language and The Comedy of Errors in Dari Persian to Venus and Adonis in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana and Afrikaans; Julius Caesar in Italian, Troilus and Cressida in Maori and King Lear in Belarusian. I attended as many as I could squeeze in, but King Lear remains one of the most vivid of nights.
The Belarus Free Theatre who performed it so electrically were in a position of not being allowed to perform openly in the Lukashenko-led regime of their home country — they had to perform in secret, private locations, such a garages belonging to the cast.
I remember that the director delivered an impassioned speech on stage at the end, urging us theatregoers to remember how lucky we were to have the freedom to choose what we wanted to watch. That most performers could get away with simply performing whatever they felt like performing. Buckets were passed round as the audience emptied the Globe and spilled out towards the Thames, inky by night. A humble request for donations to enable them to keep touring and the light flickering.
What’s changed for them? They’re still standing up to the regime, which hangs on by a thread. One which many of us hope will snap soon.
I recommend… renting some Globe to Globe films from Globe Player.
A family forest
O, how full of briars is this working-day world!
As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 3
The Forest of Arden in As You Like It. The Athenian woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those moving trees in Macbeth. Storybook woods, alluring in their depth and spellbinding mystery.
Shakespeare clearly enjoyed writing folklore into his woodlands – merry outlaws with Robin Hood qualities, potions, fairies and magic – but it doesn’t mean he didn’t draw on places he knew, forests he had walked through.
I always thought that the Forest of Arden had to be a real forest. His mother’s surname was Arden after all. But then I couldn’t see a mention specifically of a wood on a map (if I search it now, I get a Marriott Hotel) and so I thought that maybe Shakespeare had led us all on a merry chase though pure fantasy forest.
But: the National Trust to the rescue, it did exist! Shakespeare must have walked through it regularly if not frequently. And some of it still exists today, albeit in pockets, mostly converted to farmland now. Sadly that is often the story of Britain’s woodlands, but at least we now recognise (again) the important role they play in an ecosystem.
I recommend… the beguiling pull of nature that weaves its way through the utterly compelling novel Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell. The title refers to Shakespeare’s son (born a twin with Judith Shakespeare) but actually I found it painted a completely real and true-seeming picture of another important Shakespeare family member too. But I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t read it! I wish very often that I could wipe my mind of the memory of reading it, and read it for the first time all over again.
Now is also a great time to go in search of bluebells and wild garlic in your local woods.
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…
Romeo and Juliet, Prologue
Fair Verona… not quite how I remember it when I visited, but they sure know how to market the hell out of a fictional tragic love story.
Juliet’s house and balcony? Tick. Juliet’s tomb? Tick. Romeo’s bathroom? Just kidding. ‘Juliet’s balcony’ was built in the 1930s and ‘Juliet’s tomb’ is literally just an empty sarcophagus in the church of San Francesco al Corso, but it is a pretty setting nonetheless. Oh, and don’t forget a sharpie when you visit the balcony for a selfie, if you want to graffiti your message of undying love to whomever you wish to declare it to, on the way in. I won’t fill you in on what some people pinned to it instead…
Poking fun aside though, I had a lovely time when I visited with my friend Kim a few years back. Yes, there was some touristy tackiness going on but under the balcony we met a pianist who was on holiday too, decided to hang out together and have a delicious meal in a local restaurant. A wonderful evening under a starry, late summer sky.
All that glisters is not gold…
A little more haunting but peaceful nonetheless, I wholeheartedly recommend heading to the north west area of Venice at night, walking through the Jewish quarter, once the Jewish ghetto, instituted in 1516 to segregate the Jewish population. In English we in fact have taken the word ghetto from the Venetian use of the term. I dare you to stand in the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo square and not feel the past tap you heavily on the shoulder. Or hear the hushed lines of The Merchant of Venice rushing by, woven into the blustered breeze. Am I over-romanticising it? Maybe. But trust me.
I recommend… If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching it, the 2006 BBC TV series Venice with Francesco da Mosto is a delight. He’s lived in Venice all his life and what he doesn’t know about the city is almost pointless knowing.
For something tasty out of the kitchen instead, give this recipe by Nigella: tagliatelle with chicken from the Venetian Ghetto. It is inspired by recipes from Claudia Roden, a cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist.
And that’s that. A very whistlestop tour. There’s so much I didn’t fit in, so I’ll leave you with my 6am ramblings this morning: