I suppose I shall start at the beginning, since I am less liable to become confused. We left in the middle of the night, despite numerous flood warnings cropping up around England. JP prefers to drive when most people are asleep, and I can understand this since this is a small island with a ridiculous number of cars packed onto it. Still the drive down was less than enjoyable, as there were still plenty of lorries (trucks) to deal with and every bit of light was reflected by the rain, threatening us with sudden blindness.
We arrived in Stratford just before 8am, with the whole day ahead of us for wandering and exploring. I took an inordinate number of photos of old buildings with skewed timbers that seemed to be barely holding the structures together. Some of the best examples of these were the house thought to have been Shakespeare’s birthplace, and another house down the same street which stands beside a vacant lot where once stood another of Shakespeare’s homes from later in his life.
Roaming through some of the tourist attractions we quickly learned how little is known about the man himself, about his beginnings and his early life, or the lives of his family members. There are more maybes and informed presumptions than there are facts. But this does not stop the shops from cashing in on “Will Power”- everything from First Folio Towels and Shakespearean magnetic “swearing kits” to pop up cards and William’s chocolate head on a stick.We took a short walk along the River Avon, through the graveyard to the church to visit the famous bard’s grave. It is an intensely strange experience to take photos of someone’s grave, to idolize a person so much that you feel the need to visit the place where their bones are held. Or perhaps humans come with an inbuilt capacity for the morbid and macabre. From public hangings to ghost stories, we are often drawn to the things that remind us how close we are to oblivion.
At that moment the wind plucked several items from her hand and tossed them to the ground. We watched her as she used her cane to drag them closer to her and then struggled to bend down to pick them up. After one successful attempt and several subsequent failures, I couldn’t bear it any longer. I bounded across the grass with a cheery “hello” and bent down to pick up the leaves (they weren‘t flowers after all) before she lost her balance completely.
“Oh, THANK YOU my dear,” she cooed in her Lancashire accent. Thus began nearly 40 minutes of me smiling deliriously while she talked about everything from Edinburgh (“isn’t it maaarrrrvellous…It’s been 11 years since I visited and I would love to go back. Perhaps in January - that’s when the National Gallery - I’m on their mailing list, you know- that’s when they haul their Turners out of the basement. Have you seen them?”) to the Black Watch (“My uncle was in the Black Watch, and when he was captured they tortured him by plunging a bayonet through his funny bone. Can you imagine?”) and Remembrance Day (“I wanted to attend the ceremony today but I wasn’t fast enough and I missed the eleven o’clock observance. So I thought I would come here instead. Isn’t it funny - when I got up this morning I had it in my mind that to honour the day I was going to spend it entirely in silence!”).
Lucy is 84 years old, and explained to me that she is also a “tree hugger.”
“I don’t believe in the NHS (National Health Service). You see the sun shines against the bark and what I do is lean my spine up against it and let the warmth soak into me. Oh, it’s wonderful.”
She was kind enough to let me take her photo and even arranged her “poise” of leaves and fallen flowers.
All this time, JP sat patiently reading on the other side of the park, and when I finally said goodbye to Lucy, he calmly spent the next hour listening to me rattle on about this gloriously unconventional creature. She was one of the highlights of my visit to Stratford and I can only hope she manages to make it to Edinburgh and that she pops into the office to see me. I have already decided where I’m taking her - to the Sheraton for high tea.
With several hours to relax before the play, we checked into our hotel, The Mercure. (Our first hotel stay! Fantastic water pressure! Huge bed! Use your imagination!).
A blank stage, with a series of tall, mirrored doors at the end (no photos allowed but JP was sneaky and snapped one before things got underway). JP and I have been to see many plays now and have become completely addicted to live theatre. But we agree that this production of Hamlet causes many of the other plays we have seen to pale in comparison.
I am glad that I knew the story of Hamlet and had read the play (albeit some years ago) before going in. This allowed me to take additional enjoyment from the use of language. I am so in love with Shakespeare now. This man who can still make actors convulse in agony or ecstasy, as they speak the words that pound or skip from their mouths, creating ripples in the air that reach our ears and make us shudder in pleasure. I’m telling you it gets into your bones.
What, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion! Fie upon’t! foh!
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and the production lasted more than three hours. However despite the uncomfortable seats that made our backs ache, we didn’t want it to end. All I wanted to do was go back, turn everything back so I could see it again. It was wondrous and shocking and heavy and furiously beautiful.
In July we are travelling down again, this time to see Julius Ceaser. I cannot wait.
So, you five (actually I think we may be up to seven!), do one thing for me today. Read something, even if it is one sentence, which moves you. Words that when spun together, stir something in your belly that is akin to arousal. Let yourselves become a little flustered. Then read it again, slower. And again.
Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee,
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flatter’d?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish her election,
Sh’hath seal’d thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suff’ring all, that suffers nothing;
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast at’en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well comeddled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee…