Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Brief Interlude in Stratford

Shakespeare as Plump Burgher
It being that dreary time before the fully-fledged December debacle we headed over to Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday last to see the RSC do Antony and Cleopatra at the Swan Theatre.  Getting there involves a flight to Birmingham and then, if you're brave, a rented car the 30 mile journey to Stratford.  This trip involves a nightmarish criss-crossing of the spaghetti junctions around Birmingham so the expense of a taxi might be best for the well heeled or the nervous. We made it thanks to the excellent GPS aboard my Audi A4 - a most unexpected surprise from Herz.  They must have been out of Astras.

If you're just going for a short trip you might as well large it so we stayed in the Arden Hotel, a beautiful boutique hotel directly across the road from the theatre.  It has fine old photographs of RSC alumni in the reception area and I was drawn to a striking one of Helen Mirren in her prime.  There was also a moody shot of Vivien Leigh - an equally alluring woman.  The rooms were large and luxurious and the wi-fi worked - so no complaints there.  They did a pre-theatre dinner for our party which allowed us to eat two courses before the show and come back afterwards for cheese and dessert. Civilised stuff.

Talking of formidable women, I noticed Hilary Mantel sitting at a nearby table when we came into the bar.  I know her husband from an old technical writing gig I did in Winchester so I went over to say hello.  She was very amiable telling me about two plays based on her recent novels that are forthcoming at the RSC - so this was a scouting visit for them.  My erstwhile colleague had slipped his technical writing yoke to become her manager.  She has extraordinarily bird-like features. Very short and very lady-like.  A bit Womans Ownish in demeanour.

We had prime tickets for the play - sitting within spitting distance of the action just  above the circular stage.  The show began with an arful nude scene where Cleopatra bathes in milk (I think - it was done in subdued lighting).  She's a well upholstered black actress and she plays the role as a woman of fleshly appetites rather than a seductive siren with political motives.  A Juillard graduate called Joaquina Kalukango, she seems very young for the part.  Antony is played as a posturing stud (sort of sub Erroll Flynn) by Jonathan Cake, who has form in Desperate Housewives.  There's a live orchestra above the stage and there's plenty of dance, colour and life in the production.  The text however is cut and minced in a fairly radical manner.  I recognised a few lines - but not many. Good fun but hardly a classic production in every sense of that adjective.  And you certainly never felt the real shock and awe that tragedy should engender.

Breakfast the next morning was entertaining (oh and the food was superb).  Most of our fellow diners had the vaguely raffish look of actors, or former actors - the age profile suggesting the latter.  One larger than life character came down in expensive white pyjamas and dressing gown and elaborately kissed his waitress before settling down to breakfast.  His booming delivery ensured we heard his every utterance to the mute and chastened looking woman who joined him.  Later he appeared in the lobby in an ankle length astrakhan coat - still booming away.  A Michael Gambon type but not the man himself.

After breakfast I went across the road to watch the early morning rowers on the Avon - mostly women doing their double sculls training amid the many swans.  Girls in smart leggings pass by on their way in to the RSC building - presumeably rehearsing for the next show.  Next stop was the Holy Trinity church nearby to have a look at Shakespeare's grave.  Not much to see really, just a flagstone in the chancel with the famous words inscribed - and reproduced rather shoddily in an adjacent sign.  Above the grave in an alcove was a plaster bust (much restored) of the great man.  Its supposed to be a good likeness. If so, he looked like your average middle-aged burgher with good capon lined. Hardly a romantic figure.  Who knows?  Who cares?  His legacy is secure.  The town teemed with tourists but our work was done and we hit the road back to Birmingham.