A tradition revived

A bad habit had become a tradition, only to be broken in January 2014. The tradition (if that’s what it was) saw the Captain and Boatwif spend a few days in Stratford-upon-Avon in early January. There they would attend as many plays, events and exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as time and money would allow. Last year block bookings of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies meant theatre tickets in January were unobtainable – and the tradition was disrupted.

Then, just before Christmas 2014, eyes glued to the computer screen, the Captain made an announcement: “I am booking our Stratford trip…”  So the bad habit, tradition, call it what you will, was resumed.

The appeal of Stratford, even in cold January, remains. There’s Bancroft Basin, all the mooring pontoons vacant now.  B15-02-28    No throngs of summer visitors, no clamour of crowds to watch, intrigued, as a boat passes through the lock between the canal level and the River Avon.

On a grey first day a splash of colour around a tree near the Tramway Bridge caught the eye.  B15-02-04a    Hundreds of knitted squares sewn together were wrapped around the tree, its branches wearing sleeves it seemed. It’s the Remembering Tree, where local people remembered loved ones while also raising awareness and funding for HIV-Aids sufferers in Southern Africa.

Nearby is the Gower Memorial. Here, whether there is a tourist audience or not, Lady Macbeth continues to rub her bloodied hands, Hamlet still broods about death, Prince Hal contemplates history and Falstaff carries on carousing …

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A few hundred metres beyond the Royal Shakespeare Company complex is the graceful spire of Shakespeare’s burial place, Holy Trinity Church. On a fiercely blustery January Saturday morning a rowing eight battled to straighten their racing shell and head downstream towards the church. B15-02-08   Neither did the cold winds deter the Bancroft Cruiser sight-seeing trip boat which cruises from the Holiday Inn upstream to the Old Bathing Place and then back downstream to the Church.  B15-02-11

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The tall viewing tower is familiar now.  B15-02-07   It might look at first glance like a fire station hose drying tower but from across the town it is a bold indicator of the RSC’s location. Back in January 2009 cranes and scaffolding dominated the building,  undergoing then its three year long transformation.

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January 2009

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                       January 2010                                                    January 2015

What about the theatre then? First show seen, Love’s Labour’s Won, was a pure delight. It’s the name of Shakespeare’s lost work, but proposed here to be an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing. If you are a purist, expecting to see a play written in 1598 /99 presented in the dress of that period, this production is not for you. This performance is set in 1919. When the soldiers return from the First World War, the officers are allocated to a hospital ward in the library of a grand house modelled on nearby Charlecote Park. The impressive Elizabethan gatehouse, visited two days later,   B15-02-26     is replicated superbly on stage. Not many other theatres have the technical capabilities offered by the RSC’s main auditorium: ultra-smooth scene transitions were achieved by a large stage area on rollers which allowed other sets to pop up from below floor level. The main lovers Beatrice and Benedick have magnificent spats, the production is enhanced by glorious music and the slapstick routines are side-crippling. Verdict? A wonderful production.

Next came The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a Jacobean play by Thomas Dekker, staged in The Swan Theatre.  B15-02-05   “Buy a programme beforehand, and read up on it before you see it,” was some timely advice offered by a fellow theatre goer. Conscripted armies for wars in France, the power of the guilds, the status of shoe-making, (“SHOES. SEXY SINCE 1599” says a promotional leaflet) and two love stories … it is unusual for so much of a play’s action to be focused around the lives of the lower status characters. Humour and near tragedy intertwine and again you emerge from the show wonderfully entertained and totally impressed by the combined skills of cast, production and technical teams.

Could there be more to see and do at the RSC? Well, there are the costumes

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(and the bear    B15-02-24  ) displayed in public spaces, a dressing up area B15-02-20   and currently an exhibition featuring the life and work of local artist and famous cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather.  B15-02-23

The RSC’s Christmas family show this year is a newly commissioned work, The Christmas Truce. A talk cum workshop (Unwrap: The Christmas Truce) was led by actors and the assistant director. Cast members talked of the creative process that transfers script from page to stage, then came audience participation: Stand up and breathe like an actor… Prepare your vocal chords… Tune your diction… March like a WW1 recruit.  B15-02-09   There were no clues as to the show’s plot but the Girls and Grandmas Treat is not many days off now…

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