Roses in strange places
To Stratford in January for a glut of plays and theatrical experiences…
This habit of galloping off to Stratford-upon-Avon early in the year for some theatre performances seems to have become a tradition. “When are you going to Stratford this year?” folk asked. “What will you be seeing?”
Months ago (at least six!) a deal was brokered, ten tickets for The Tempest to be booked for a January Saturday matinee, a matinee so that the Cleddau and Tentatrice granddaughters could attend, supported of course by parents, grandparents and an aunt. And it was good, breathtakingly good. (See review and stage pictures here.)
Much nearer Tempest time other performances were booked, The Two Noble Kinsmen (Shakespeare and John Fletcher) and what turned out to be a new and very exciting work, The Seven Acts of Mercy by Anders Lustgarten, a drama that was disturbing, exciting, funny, sad – and very thought-provoking.
The RSC Theatre is good for a wander and some free exploration. 2016 (400 years since Shakespeare’s death) saw a new installation in the Swan Theatre, a three dimensional shape of the playwright’s head, its form created by a multitude of suspended stars.
So, returning to the title, why ‘roses in strange places’? The Royal Shakespeare Company prides itself on making within Stratford absolutely everything needed for every production. All costumes, props and sets are created right there in the town – all that is except for stage blood. (Ox blood from abattoirs is no longer permitted and a substance suitable for stage use has to be bought in from outside). And roses? A rose needed on stage would be grown or made right within the town.
A separate arm of the RSC deals with merchandising. Attend a performance and it’s hard to not to shop! To reach the Box Office desks you have to navigate your way past bookshelves, displays of Shakespeare themed gift items (mugs, masks, posters, cards) as well as items from playscripts to magnets directly related to the productions in the current run. It being still the Winter Season (of plays) there remained a hint of Christmas in some charming hanging tree ornaments. Beetling through the shop area to collect reserved tickets Boatwif was astonished to see a Tudor rose… This was a mainly red and gold padded and beaded hanging cushion, about 3.5 inches / 9 centimetres in diameter. A place surely could be found on Cleddau for one small Tudor rose, as a visual aid if nothing else to explain the signage on the cabin side…
Two productions down and the Cleddau crew were enticed into a “new attraction”, old though it is. A young man in King Edward VI School uniform handed out a flyer. On Church Street next to the Guild Chapel stands the medieval Guildhall and above it is the very room where Will Shakespeare did his lessons, in a room still used by pupils from the King Edward School.
“Let me show you our walls,” gushed the Guildhall guide. She shone a light on a section of wall protected by glass; slowly the images from a medieval wall painting of John the Baptist emerged. “Now look over here,” the Guide insisted. Faint but unmistakable in the medieval wall were outline shapes of roses. Upstairs in the Master’s Room are two more roses, high up, under the rafters, hidden for a long time by a false ceiling and unaffected by sunlight. It is thought these were early versions of the Tudor rose. To be safe in the 16th century one design was white on red and the other red on white!
The building is one of only a few surviving examples of a late medieval provincial Guildhall, used for courts and business meetings. It has long been part of the Grammar School and has been open to the public only since last April. Next door to the Master’s Room is the schoolroom where Will Shakespeare learned his Latin and his Greek. Here boys sat on forms learning and practising their writing skills on wax tablets. At the far end of the upstairs room (now set out as a Georgian schoolroom) the Bailiff (Mayor) used to sit. To stand in the same space where Shakespeare learned to write and where he watched travelling players impress his father, the town’s Bailiff, in their efforts to gain a licence to perform is a rather singular experience.
So, January 2017 in Stratford: three plays watched, two production talks attended, one backstage tour made. The weather was cold, in Bancroft Basin ducks strutted on ice but just across the grass Bottom was gazing at Titania in front of the theatre.
Though no roses were in bloom in the garden the magic of Stratford still prevailed.
(Ssh, tell no-one, the Captain went and bought a second hanging Tudor rose…)