THE RSC STORMS THE TEMPEST

Gregory Doran’s astonishing production of The Tempest needs a pause for thought over its very conception. A play that is quintessentially about what it truly means to be Human has now joined with that sticker on our billion laptops, ‘Intel’, and their production facility, Imaginarium, to potentially take us on a journey further from the Human, shipwrecked or saved. Yet of course imagination and technology are human products too and what they have produced is a really miraculous piece of theatre, in a visual and electronic spectacle that triumphs because it so serves the actors and Shakespeare’s mind. The theatre is the one place you should ‘keep it live’ and they do. I think it will run and run and may spark a global franchise.

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I don’t truly think it’s primarily about the Technology though, as so many careful and ambitious Corporate words in the programme might have it, and with what took two years to develop, although I have never seen so many children in an evening performance exulting in it all. What astonishes in this wonderful show is the conjunction of really marvellous special effects with such a fine cast that so honours Shakespeare, his language and the craft of acting – breathing, thinking, feeling, speaking – itself the most human of acts, amid the bewildering light show of life, and now of technology too.

That’s what the Tempest is about too, well, if we can ever understand any Brave New World that hath such people in it ; that every generation is waking to the ever repeating Shock of The New, while The Tempest is so much about a total recognition and exposition of a genius’s relationship with his own Art. If it is a ‘Magician’s play’, from a world that still believed in Magic, it is also one in transition from the magical and fantastical to that distinction The Romantics made between fancy and the true power of human imagination, one so superbly mastered by Shakespeare.

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Imaginarium’s effects are not always marvellous. The initial Tempest loses the human voices in a storm that is noisy and badly realised, despite the wonderful Jonah’s rib set of a ship’s hull. That humble Boatswain’s cry right at the beginning is precisely because the whole play asks the question ‘who is in charge of the craft’? The political relationships of complex characters on stage are also sometimes a little wooden. Yet what technology and art have done is very remarkable indeed and precisely because the Technology so evokes that ‘isle full of noises’ that is Shakespeare’s mind: The summoning of a terrifying harpie, the lava flows of hell, the encasement of Ariel by Sycorax in the earthy roots of thought, the backdrop that even throws in Van Gogh. Nothing seems unachievable, worthy of Prospero’s power, or Shakespeare’s, so we are delighted to receive the work in its entirety, complete with very perculiar ‘Masque’, with the descent of Juno to bless a consummation, those gorgeous and beautifully done songs “Full fathom five” and “Where the bee sucks” and with wonderfully ephemeral human sprites too giving us several tricks worthy of Darren Brown.

I think it’s partly because of the imaginative effects achieved and realised on stage by Imaginarium then, but especially these particular actors, with their near living Avatars descending from the heavens projected on suitably dreamlike strips of cloth, that suddenly, as if you had popped an LSD pill and welcomed back Timothy Leary, without quite dropping out,  Shakespeare’s words take such gigantic flight; the consummation of Shakespeare’s art. Perhaps it’s simply enough to say those actors are inspired to breathe that ever living poetry into being with such a bewildered, delicious, yet also humble grace that somehow tops it all.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero is tremendous, if lovely Miranda must stop bleeting like a beautiful sheep, (far too much vocal quiver), because Russell Beale is such a committed and multi layered actor, who combines all the intricacies of a loving father, trying to protect and yet let go of his daughter, with an almost petulant wrestling with despair and truth. Who also knows that Prospero’s final appeal, the breaking of his magic staff and drowning of his book, is an act of needed humility that can only truly be about the impotence of art too, yet the call to love and humanity in the real world, and, it must be so obviously said now, the often unreal world of technology too.

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I have never seen a production of the Tempest though that has so wonderfully puts Prospero, Ariel and Caliban as total equals on the same stage, as they must be inside Art, Human Consciousness and physical being. Perhaps it would be impossible without the effects, but at last, and precisely because of Imaginarium’s work alongside the RSC’s, Ariel, that held sprite of fancy and fire, explodes into reality, in a performance from Mark Quartely that is utterly visceral and totally memorable. But to pause on Joe Dixon’s Caliban, who so grounds everything and works so wonderfully with the tour de force appearances of Stefano and Trinculo. His ‘monster’ though is tender, real, enslaved and yet delivers the astonishment of Shakespeare’s finest poetry too because, as Auden knew, earth ridden Caliban is the slave and yet poetic force in all of us. That thing of darkness we all acknowledge ours. To be sappy about it he is the most loveable Caliban you’ll ever meet, because he is so solid, so innocent and so bemused.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made of and out little life is rounded by sleep.” Indeed, but wake up and rush to see The Tempest.

David Clement-Davies 2016

David saw The Tempest courtesy of the RSC. The Production photos show Prospero, Ariel, Caliban and Miranda on stage in Stratford and some of the miraculous effects of Imaginarium.

 

 

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VISITING THE TOWER OF BABEL!

Well, if Paradise is a garden, as they knew from the Arabs to the Elizabethans, then Heaven is a garden-come-winery in the Cape. Babylonstoren it’s called in Afrikaans, Babylon’s Tower, or the Biblical Tower of Babel, and since so much has been written about Shakespeare at Phoenix Ark Press, nothing could have been more appropriate than to find a cutting from that Stratford mulberry tree in the Bard’s garden (apparently!), transported here to South Africa. It brought to mind too that 16th century painting by Lucas Van Valkenorch, The Tower of Babel, very possibly depicting the Rose theatre in Southwark, in the back of which they found an old map of walled London.

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Babylonstoren is the brain child though of some modern ‘Rand Lords’, who made their huge wealth with an online website in China, hence the signs around Babel in several languages, including Chinese. If the world must speak different languages, here though they share the common language of Nature. They chose a garden designer who had cut his teeth in a French monastery, then took the design of a 17th Century Dutch garden at the Cape, indeed almost the official garden of the Dutch East India Company, renowned in its day but ruined, according to the blurb, when the British annexed Cape Colony during the French Revolution. The result, as you crunch through the sunlight across paths of old peach shells and wood clippings is an absolute delight. The myriad beds, vegetables gardens that serve the popular restaurants and Farm Hotel, pools, streams and walled enclosures, nestle among old vernacular style Dutch gabled farm houses and you might have stepped back five hundred years, or forwards a thousand.

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Everything at Babylonstoren is superbly ‘organic’, with the trellises and borders made entirely of wicker and hazel, interspersed with fascinating additions, like an Insect Hotel, bee hives, dove Cote, ‘ puff adder’ half covered walkway hanging with strawberry baskets, or the snoozing white hedgehog we found in a box when we popped inside a shaded kitchen garden. In mid November it was the perfect time to visit and breathe in the scented airs, or look about the sweeping vineyards that surrounded the place, along with abundant peach, peer and apple trees. In the shops selling candles, soap or their own cheese, the spa, and of course the bright glass sided wine tasting centre everything exudes style, elegance and grace, but also a kind of natural humility. Of course the place is not especially cheap and there is a clever Company acumen yet there is also a delightful openness, and on the free garden walks they encourage you to taste the fair. Hundred year old trees were moved to Babylonstoren, along with reconstructed and new old-style buildings, but here is truly a place to touch a Universal language and find some peace out of the sweat and noise of it all.

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The photos show a flower and vegetable bed, white hedgehogs and the half covered walk at Babylonstoren, South Africa.

 

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ON ROBBEN ISLAND

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There were two key moments that went straight to the solar plexus on a visit yesterday to Robben island, the maximum security prison thirty minutes ferry ride from Cape town’s bustling Waterfront harbour where many black Freedom and anti Apartheid fighters were incarcerated, in Nelson Mandela’s case for eighteen of his twenty seven years in prison. His tiny cell in the block where ANC and black leaders were kept, the fourth barred window on the right as you stand in the courtyard, is distinguished from the others only by the presence of a bucket and bed roll.

But the first shock was the enlarged black and white copy of the feeding instructions for prisoners, I won’t call it a menu, that not only showed the paucity of the daily diet but distinguished between Coloureds and Asiatics, who got slightly preferential treatment, and Bantu prisoners. In my head a harsh Afrikaaner voice came echoing straight out of the film Cry Freedom, scornfully addressing ‘bantu’ Steve Biko, who was of course murdered by the regime. That somehow rubbed home the pernicious nature of institutionalized and legally enshrined Racism, creating a hierarchy of human value even within the twisted ideology, with the Negro at the bottom.

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Then there was the first glimpse of the prison proper. So far, on a beautiful, sunny day, the ferry bouncing through the surf, the thing that had struck was the powerful presence of the city of Cape Town receding into the distance, and above it dominant Table Mountain, that for Mandela and I’m sure many other prisoners had always represented the visceral hope of freedom. Then had come the twenty minute bus tour around the tiny island. Nothing much to see, except the lime quarry where, pointlessly, prisoners were made to endure hard labour and break rocks. The tor of a thousand stones was there too, laid by ex convicts at a reunion in the 90’s, redolent of the pile of stones laid by 5000 Afrikaaners when they revolted against the British. The lighthouse too, that at only 18 meters above sea level sits at the centre of the island.   Also the mournful lepers’ graveyard that showed how Robben island was first established as a place of exile and attempted quarantine. But it was getting off the bus in front of the barbed wire fence that the human reality of it was brought home by the voice of a new guide and a former political prisoner, Seepu Mimosi, who himself had spent five years imprisoned here.

I think a Zulu from Durban, Mr Mimosi then went on to describe how he and five others had been arrested, four kidnapped by the security services from Lesotho, and tortured, one of their number dying in custody, before he was sent to the island. So he led us through the gates, describing too how not only their own resistance to constant attempts to break their spirits with torture, mistreatment, malnutrition and solitary confinement, but the influence of outside pressure from the likes of the Red Cross and Amnesty International had led in the seventies and eighties to improved medical care, diet, excercise and limited sport facilities too. It was, in defiance and awareness, a journey back to human dignity and walking passed those cells, the Censor’s office, the Guard rooms, punched by the brutal sparseness of it all, I was ashamed not to have read Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. The title itself represents the astonishing internal journey he and others took to emerge from such treatment not only intact but offering vision and reconciliation to the World.

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I don’t know if the likes of South African journalist John Matison    is right or wrong to suggest the vision of the Rainbow Nation was never a reality, or that President Zuma has morally bankrupted South Africa. What I know is that the destruction and dismantling of Apartheid in the way it was defeated was an utter triumph of the human spirit.  Its positive human effects, for everyone, since in the end both prisoners and warders become the victims, is all over South Africa today and shared by visitors to Robben Island from right around the Planet. Therefore, with the forces of Brexit and now Trump’s election calling to an older atavism, maybe South Africa does have something unique to teach the World. As we left though, among the private yachts day tripping into the bay and all the sparkle of tourism, Mr Mimosi commented ruefully on attempts to bring in new, young tourist guides. He was renting a house on the island, to do his job, and you could not help wondering if his experience will somehow always make him a prisoner to the island somewhere and a terrible struggle. But it was an extraordinary thing to be guided through by a man who had actually been there.

The photos show Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, former prisoner and guide Seepu Mimosi and the frieze in the harbour ‘Freedom cannot be manacled.’

 

 

 

 

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THE ULTIMATE VERDICT ON THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY!

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Photo taken outside Olympia cafe, Cape Town, South Africa

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The Artists of Kalk Bay

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“Ya, artists of all kinds flock here” says Arabella Caccia, as we look down on the skillful little milk swirl paintings of some very convincing birds floating in the top of our cappuccino in Ohana café. A distant descendent of the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Arabella tells me about the never so fraught life of South African painters and sculptors. Of course here it is as tough to survive, let alone make it, as it is for any artist, probably made more so for a white half-European like Arabella by the moves towards ‘decolonialisation’ that have dried up municipal commissions and been encapsulated by the recent ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaigns.

The difference being that as the little single rail metro train chuggs along the sparkling coastline, it’s commuter carrying coaches covered in garish graffiti, roughing it in Kalk bay, Cape Town is a much more pleasant place to do it than many. I have penetrated deep beyond the so called ‘lentil curtain’, south of the city toward the Cape of Good Hope, to visit what might be described as the Greenwich Village of Cape Town. It is just edging toward High Season when tourists descend to enjoy churning turquoise waves, cloud curled blue skies that turn every day into an impressionist painting, restaurants, coffee bars and the many curio, antique, art and souvenir shops that crowd the Main Street.

Like Africa, Kalk bay is a very colorful place, and some lively and appealing art work leaps out at the eye. The witty, highly glazed Greyson Perry style ceramic pots in the window of the gallery Agapanthus, one emblazoned with the jolly motto ‘Holy Shit’. The landscapes, portraits and abstracts that pop out of every window, like those of the appropriately named Artvark. The huge hammerhead shark ever flicking statically past the little Shark Centre, fashioned out of endless strips of galvanized tyre, and bolted together with a thousand screws – recession-beating stuff back in the day, considering the price of casting bronze. On street corners poor Africans try to compete with their touristy trinkets – animals fashioned from twisted wire, metal friezes of the townships crafted out of old coke and beer cans, and piles of bangles, bracelets and beads. They are an echo of the finer but also tourist orientated African artwork on sale on the roadside near tourist destinations; endless animal woodcarvings of giant giraffe, elephant  or hippos with seats for open mouths, but also the often very skilled polished stone carvings, also commonly on sale in places like Kirstenbosch botanical gardens.

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Considering how much is around, everywhere, you wonder how anyone makes a proper living, but then there are the more experienced fine artists like Arabella Caccia, or Andrei Stead, whose interesting sculpted human half-cutaways  being appreciated in the Christopher Moller Gallery in the centre of town. Nearby at the Everard Reid gallery they were celebrating their 20th anniversary by inviting a young curator to stage an exhibition that was all student-style installations and anguished videos that did not do it for me. They are places it is important for any artist to cultivate and yet with the very high percentages galleries take, perhaps Arabella and her colleagues and friends have come up with the perfect solution. Near always popular and very artsy Olympia café and bakery, that thrums with locals gorging on some of the best seafood in town, they now share studios, foundary and their own gallery too, a hopeful and enterprising solution to any artistic woes.

Four artists work out of the space, Arabella Caccia, bearded Jan Smutts look-alike Jean Tiran, his green motorbike parked in the forecourt, whose fine abstract bronzes and stone carvings also adorn the space, and who doubles as the bronze caster, patina specialist and master craftsman, and ex dentist Chris Bladen, who does some wonderfully realistic bird and fish sculptures. The whole place is owned by a former salvage diver Peter Strydom, whose often humorous bronzes add a fantasy element to the enterprise. Not yet open, their pieces already dot the airy main room, and adorn the long table where they plan to host several dinners to encourage interest. The problem for any artist is their engagement with their own work and unwillingness for the hard sell or to act in the role of gallery owner, even here, which is itself a full time job. Thus their mutually supporting enterprise is unlikely to replace the need to exhibit elsewhere too, while at times they do face the odd complaint from neighbors. The week before I had seen some of Arabella’s lovely symbolist sculptures in the beautiful gardens of Grand Provence winery in Franshoek, which is also showing her paintings in their dedicated gallery. But now their outfit at Kalk Bay is not only a great place to work and be, but a certain place to exhibit too.

Arabella Caccia, who until recently had her studio in her little garage at her home in Kalk bay, is clearly delighted with the new space, not least with the company and working with people she clearly likes. Art can be an isolated business. But now, achieving new success at places like Grand Province, and still hugely interested in the art scene in Central Cape Town, as well as galleries in London, New York and abroad, she is really able to spread her wings. “It’s freed me up for new ambitions and dreams,” she says as she gaffers a giant piece of artist’s paper to the wall, soon to be blooming with a livid Rothkesque red. Arabella has interest in many artistic forms, a firm believer in knowing the classical rules before you break them, and her wonderful oils of often isolated and ethereal yet also grounded woman provide a powerful contrast to the fine masculine sculptures in the gallery. But recently she has developed a series of images and colours she half jokingly describes as ‘visual Haikus’, inspired by her time in the Tsitsikamma forests east of Cape Town. In the forms of tree bark and flowers she is finding shapes not only echoed throughout nature, but also in human lettering itself. Formed into wax casts too by the crafts men and women in the attached workshops she is also turning the shapes into some highly original sculptures. If what I have seen in Kalk bay is anything to go by she and her colleagues are about to take wing.

The photos show the work of united artists Arabella Caccia, Jean Tiran, Chris Bladen and Peter Strydom in their new gallery space on Windsor Street, Kalk bay and work in progress in Arabella Caccia’s studio.

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RAISING YOUR GAME IN PLETTENBURG BAY? A VISIT TO AN ANIMAL RESERVE

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Perhaps all is managing expectation and when I dreamt of a South African Safari it was certainly dreaming of the real wild. For that though you will have to go up to the Karoo or the Kruger National park and give its perhaps a couple of weeks. Instead, in the Southern Cape, and for a short visit, come the smaller Game Reserves, often in danger of carrying the label of a zoo. But which also allow you to get very close to some wonderful animals you might not even see in the real wild and taste something of the ‘Safari’ experience. One example is the two and a half thousand hectare reserve just above pretty Plettenberg bay. Plettenberg being a place worth a visit in itself, for its delicious golden beaches lapped by the warmer Indian Ocean, lunch at the eccentric Grand hotel, or some Rock n’ Roll among the young at the ‘Plett Rage’, when wealthier finishing students make for the beaches for a party.

Plett game reserve, in life’s weird synchronicities, was, until 2004, a grand farm where my companion Arabella had stayed with the owner for a local wedding. Now it has been converted by the new owner Leon de Kock into a somewhat faded, old colonial style residence, its grounds, little kloofs and water holes populated by bontebok, wildebeest, small herds of zebra, spring and many water buck, hippo, five lolloping giraffe and more. They have just taken in a group of Elephants from the neighbouring Knysna park, though these are Africans, not the smaller Knysna elephant indigenous to the region. At first, in learning the ropes, they lost many animal to cow ticks and tick fever, which must have been distressing, but now the animals seem to be flourishing.

For a start, in beginning to discover the Safari thing, among the endless tourist leaflets here advertising Monkey world, a wonderful bird park, a snake sanctuary, shark diving or the highest buggy jump On Earth, if you’re guaranteed ‘the big five’ raise an eyebrow. Those are the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot – Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo – though by the end of it we decided it was time for a bit of linguistic social re-engineering and that the term ‘Game’ should be dropped altogether! But the point being that unless they have a caged animal, like the Cat Conservation centre we visited too, you will very rarely see the still plentiful Leopard. Like the roaming packs of wild baboon, Leopard sometimes come over the fence at Plett, sadly at the park recently taking one of the baby Giraffes, but Leopard are not creatures you should expect to get up close and personal with, or especially want to. It always fills me with anguish to see a Leopard prowling a human fence, though all those centres have some benefit in educating the public.

Plett have a little herd of African buffalo, those big horned beasts with such a determined nature that if you get on their wrong side they will start to circle like any predator and hunt you instead. We got close with our guide Kiviet, who had previously worked in Law Enforcement with Cape Conservation on the floral front, in one of the reserve’s open sided tour vehicles, to see the park’s two white rhino – interestingly it was meant to be ‘wide rhino’ from the shape of their mouths – couched in their dusty holes nearby too, their horns cut to deter poachers, one of which is pregnant.

If running such a park as Platt is probably a rich man’s game anyhow, there is certainly the potential of money in the ‘Conservation’ business, in breeding and selling on animals to other parks. It is closely monitored by the Government Environmental agency Cape Conservation, but apparently one stud Buffalo went for close to a million pounds. Its darker side, as we learnt at the Cat Conservation centre, gazing at the slinking Lynx-like Caracal, the Servil cats, or the magnificent White lion showing off his huge, pearly teeth in the sunlight, is something called ‘Canned Hunting’. That is the breeding of Lion, the charging of fees to idealistic foreign students to nurture, study and rear them, but their eventual certain delivery to the gun and easy bullet of some macho moron, paying a premium to feel like a Man. Lion are certainly endangered, as are Rhino, while Cheetah nearly went extinct twice, so perhaps breeding and reintroduction programs are their best hope. Interestingly Elephant do not have a particular value to the breeding business because they are so destructive to the flora.

Plett have two Lions we got right up next to, lounging langerously in their 4 hectare enclosure, like the shy Cheetah in his, or the little group of sadly endangered orange-black wild dogs. You need a license to breed Lion officially, with strict rules for space, much better at Plett I thought than the small enclosures at the private Cat Conservation centre. They had thought the male Lion here sterilized but this time nature got through and the Lioness had four Cubs, moved on I know not where. Actually even the hunting aspect of conserving ‘Game’ is more complicated, since if the entire planet has become something of a zoo, even in the huge African parks culling is often necessary, especially of Elephant, and some argue that re-legalizing the controlled ivory trade would destroy the poaching market and bring in money to the parks. As important is destroying myths like that Asian belief in the aphrodisiac power of Rhino horn, no different to human nails. “Hunting has its place though”, said Tim from Edinburgh, who has given up his family Kitchen business in the UK to become a ranger, still in training, “but don’t get me started on Canned Hunting.” Tim had read the astonishingly violent and graphic Wibur Smith novel I’m reading at the moment, Elephant Song, indeed his knowledge of a Leopard’s attack may well have been lifted straight from its pages.  Smith not only tells a rollicking if very bloody tale but is famous for his research and no holds barred take on Africa. If even a half of it is still true perhaps you’d do well to stay somewhat shy of the real wild, human and animal.

Meanwhile, wild or not, we were on holiday and despite the sense of Windsor Safari Park in the UK, it was delightful to get so close to them all and from our balcony at Baroness lodge to have such lovely views of the twisting Tsitsikamma forest, the burnt orange browns from last year’s fires, and beyond a sweeping range of blue remembered hills, under clouds like Cape surf. The baby hippo raising its little head and flicking its ears in the cool water, the motionless crocodile, the elephant munching magistically not twenty yards away, the little heard of remarkably tame Inyala antelope hiding in the trees by the Lodge’s wooden walkway, or grazing the lawn at breakfast, were all inspiration for a bigger adventure, and to learn more both about the animals and the challenges we all face in trying to honor and conserve them. With the facilities at the Reception’s big lodge they might do something to encourage and sell Conservation studies and conferences here too.

As for the park, the people were warm and friendly and it is precisely for that reason they might be encouraged to raise their game in the hospitality stakes, or take on a bit of the ‘Gordon Ramsey’ makeover. Visits here are perhaps slightly cheaper than other reserves, but it is still a lot of money for your average guest if you are staying, and so a pity that it rests too much on its old colonial laurels: The cracked kettle, the chipped floors, the African artifacts slipping out of their odd frames on the walls, the dim lighting, the tatty Reader’s Digest library, the odd urgency over serving supper by a set time, the lack of choice on the menu, the limited wine list in the land of vines. It’s often my experience that when they say it’s all about the animals, as they do here, they forget we human animals have expectations too for a hard earned buck, and that things so easily done might be attended to with a bit more style for their own business.

Against that I’d set the charm of the roaring fires when it got chilly, the smiling waitresses who like their job, the splendid thunder box of a loo up three stairs and the plentiful breakfasts in the veranda by the pond, beyond the big King Kong gates, flowering with purple water lilies, bobbing with the odd terrapin, and bombarded with beautiful yellow weaver birds urgently stitching their grass nests into pendant purses, in the hope of a colorful future in our very competitive world. Occasionally a hippo wanders up for a dip in the damn and the Hippo road signs add to the charm. We even saw a zebra crossing. I suspect the stock-in trade here are the day visits from Plettenberg and two are really enough to take in the whole park, the best experience being one drive and one ride, on the gently strolling horses, a walk on horseback right among the animals being a different magical adventure in itself. Though families come for Christmas they might encourage longer stays at the lodges themselves, one or two nights are enough, by injecting a new passion and style into the hotelier side of business conservation, though it’s certainly a place to share the love of animals.

David Clement-Davies stayed at Plett Game Reserve at 50% cost, in return for coverage. For information about staying at Plett or daily drives and two hour horse Safaris go to PlettGameReserve.com   The photo shows the Lion and Lioness at Plett.

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SNAKES IN PARADISE’S GARDEN

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A snake came to my water trough…” DH Lawrence

A morning stroll over gentle Elsie’s Peak for magnificent views of the curling Atlantic surf, down to Cape Point, proved I hope the most auspicious introduction to Cape Town. Since among the leathery, yellow green Protea plants and bright tipped wild flowers my hostess suddenly stopped dead. Not three feet away a bejewelled puff adder pulled its fat gold-black body across the dry earth right in front of us, back into the secret scrub. It sent an electric thrill through us both, at a vital touch of danger in paradise.

Despite the student riots that week then and the burning cars at Cape Town’s University, UTC, with demands for free Tertiary education from the much criticized administration of President Jacob Zuma,  in a ‘Fees must fall’ campaign, the press reports of 60 rapes a month in the nearby district of Phillipi, or ‘those stories’ of Africa that always keep you sharp, or vaguely nervous, so far my touristy experience of exhilarating Cape Town has been of a coastal paradise. If with twinges of guilt at joining the beautiful and select in what sometimes feels like a manicured Urban Golf Course, over yet another glass of delicious South African wine. Along the well mettaled roads, among the smartly streaming cars, afternoon traffic jams and many signs of considerable wealth are the black Big Issue sellers, the fly by night traders, the beggars, the corrugated township huts and those already lost to ‘tik’, Crystal Meth. Yet in the Pick and Pay supermarket at Constantia, black, white and colored pensioners were having a very jolly time at a local get together.

That sense of a paradise though, troubled or not, was confirmed today by a visit to one of Cape Town’s true jewels in her glittering and always colourful crown, the lovely Botanical Gardens at Kirtstenbosch. Opened in 1913 on farm grounds that once belonged to that very incorrect Empire builder, Rand Lord and chairman and go founder of De Biers, Cecil Rhodes, the sculpted beds, scented walks, manicured lawns, ragged gorges and winding forest paths, nestling in the haunches of mighty Table Mountain, are where the wild and well-watered find a perfect harmony.

Rhodes, who planted the Camphor Avenue here, now grown to deliciously shadey proportions, is so iconic, like History itself perhaps, good or bad, that I was surprised to find he died at only 48, with the probably apocryphal words – “so much to do, so little time”. When you know a little more of South Africa’s rich and anguished history, how recent Apartheid was and how recently abolished too, you cannot help but think how much has been done and lived through in so little time. How even that pales into insignificance too though in terms of the gigantic sweep of Geological Time you can glimpse at Kirstenbosch.

They’ve expended much time and great skill too developing the National Botanical Gardens, with its various beds, Arboretum and Concert Lawn, stocking it with a cornucopia of those rare plants that make the Cape quite unique as a botanist’s treasure chest. The gardens boast two and a half thousand species of indigenous plant. Though the likes of Rhodes are hardly figures happily talked about now, with a “Rhodes must fall campaign” too, and that militant trend much criticized and feared too by many white South Africans towards the ‘de-colonialisation’ of African history and culture, echoed in recent protests at Oxford University too, by seeking to remove signs like the Neo Classical Rhodes Memorial. Indeed, just today, Rhode’s statue at UTC was removed, to little concern from white friends here.

 

‘Sweet waters’ is the original name for Cape Town, and that astonishing cloud topped monolith, six times as old as the Himalayas, is the City’s secret and its true mystery. You can feel it when that bank of cloud that locals call the Table Cloth spills off the mountain’s edge, like the beginning of some Olympian banquet. Up there it clings to the defiantly hardy plants and the indefatigable shrubs, ensuring three times the normal condensation, so constantly feeding the myriad springs that rush down its slopes towards the chilly sea. It is part of the reason for the astonishing variety of flora and fauna at tranquil Kirstenbosch and the lushness of Cape Town too.  “I’ve never seen so many birds feeding together” said the guy with the shotgun Camera, as butterflies, Canary, long tailed Sugar birds and dazzlingly flourescent Sun birds darted, dipped and feasted around us.

There is something else at Kirstenbosch that might make it a microcosm for the whole of South Africa too, part of the fence and hedge established in 1660 right across indigenous cattle routes by the settler and Commander of the Dutch East India Company Jan Van Riebeeck. The very early beginnings of Colonialism and Apartheid. You half expect Donald Trump to burst from the foliage. Except that appalling and unnatural division enshrined as a social ideology and in Law by the Afrikaaners only in the twentieth Century is ostensibly gone in South Africa, and at Kirstenbosch what remains are a new explosion of well labeled plants, flaming choral trees and magnificently curling and splitting trunks – saffron, wild fig and giant mahogany. Ominously identified too in the Garden of Extinction are the 1500 species now in danger on our impossibly small Planet.

I was really won over though by Kirstenbosch’s brand new ‘reptile’. The “Boomslang”, or tree snake, is what they call the brilliantly designed little walkway now curling through part of the canopy, like the city twisting about the giant mountain, and opened in 2014. According to one knowledgble white old timer, who comes here every week, the walkway has increased the Botanical Garden’s visitor rate by 60%. As we listened to the strange quack of mis-named Egyptian Geese, he told me too about the Jan Smutts gorge above us, the famous Boer general had taken up his beloved mountain at the age of 80 to meet the British, who had used the nascent cable car. He was informed and friendly, also telling me how he had played with snakes as a child. In such serene surroundings then I voided wearing my Liberal credentials too heavily when he started talking about ‘them’ having no idea of design, over a book recently produced about Table Mountain and the ‘ugly’ Xhosa name on the cover. I found it rather beautiful.

The day before I had invited myself up to that visual banquet among the Gods, taking the slick modern revolving cable car to the top of Table Mountain. So among tourists as multi-cultural as you can imagine, with many from China, we had all looked down, not only at the city’s astonishing views, but the forbiddingly arid splodge of Robben island, lying ominous in the turquoise bay. It was of course where Mandela spent eighteen of his 27 incarcerated years, breaking rocks in the limestone quarry. In the Press meanwhile the Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the well respected Indian Finance Minister, had just announced new funds for Tertiary education. The recent corruption charges leveled against him have now been dropped. Meanwhile, today protests in Pretoria again turned to violence, with calls for President Zuma to resign. Perhaps, with opposition voices crying  ‘not on our watch’ this is a critical moment for South Africa.

The country’s challenges remain vast, with only 1% growth, perhaps a 35% unemployment rate and 738 corruption charges pending against Zuma alone. Though he has just withdrawn opposition to the release of the ‘State capture’ report  which may expose the true levels of corruption. The white Jewish journalist John Matison, who worked for Mandela, is not alone in saying then that the likes of Zuma have morally bankrupted Mandela’s vision of that Rainbow Nation, if beyond the symbolism, and with such vast differentials, it ever really existed.

You would not think that dream dead strolling through the sweet smelling Camphor walk at Kirstenbosch, nor visiting the ever popular Robben Island gateway Museum. Where wall plaques testify so movingly to the spirit that endured so much and yet answered hate, intolerance and fear with dignity and forgiveness. So creating a conscious monument not just to oppression but the vital possibility of human hope. That lies not just in the hands of blacks but all South Africans, and perhaps most especially reformists whites in positions of huge economic power. It is precisely the problem of easy ‘de-colonialisation’, too though, or a few wearing T-shirts like ‘Kill the Whites’, since it invites a pointless and dangerous forgetting.

Yet life’s stings are everywhere too, and I was still in search of my African adventure and our auspicious, if secretive friends. So stamping my feet loudly, I left the path in Kirstenbosch and set off across a little stream, then climbed one of the many stepped earth walks that ring the gardens toward the wilder edges of the mountain. There it was, one of the Lords of Life, as DH Lawrence put it in his poem The Snake, just to my left and making off fast through the tangled tree roots. Perhaps four feet long, it was only a juvenile, yet with the strong yellow brown markings of the Cape Cobra, barely flexing its hood in warning at my ignorant passing.

The thrill at that living reality was the same as the sight of our puff adder, and the gorgeous, intense vibrancy everywhere here. Where, again in Lawrence’s words, you would be a fool to miss your chance, or have any pettiness to expiate. As for old and lost arguments, there are still those voices that cling to some kind of fighting nostalgia about what happened in South Africa, but they are generational and will pass away, in the great sweep of time.

Of course there is another presence in Kirstenbosch now though, among the memorial benches to passed locals who loved the place, a little bust of sweet faced Nelson Mandela – ‘Madiba’. He opened a walk here flowering with pepper bark trees, ‘Mandela’s Gold’ they named the flowers in his honour, their bright yellow buds filled with a pointed purple magic. The pepper bark is a traditional healing plant here and that was always Mandela’s triumph. It was not just his though, but De Klerk’s too, though the astonishing inspiration of Mandela remains both his courage and then suffering, but that he could rise from it all speaking of reconciliation. It is far more than that though, like laying careful walkways and tending well watered gardens, so trying to map the future with a Constitution that is universally admired and will hopefully prevent Zuma copying the pattern of so many African leaders.

Never tempt the fates, nor the snaky auspices, but there is something about friendly, vivid Cape Town though and that joyous and dignified voice of Mandela too that makes this place still potentially so visionary, not just for Africa but perhaps the endangered World. Now we all need to hear the voices. Whatever that future holds there are few more serene and inspiring places to contemplate it all than in the magical gardens of Kirstenbosch.

The photo shows the new “Boomslang” walkway at Kirstenbosch national botanical gardens, Cape Town, South Africa.

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A THRILLING, RAUNCHY ROVER, IF SOMEWHAT CAVALIER PRODUCTION

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Non-stop fun is the stamp of Loveday Ingram’s exuberant, and very sexy production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover for the RSC, in the perfectly proportioned Swan Theatre, Stratford. Complete with hysterical Flamenco forays, touches of tango, a stilt walker, and excellent on-stage band. With a Conchita Wurst look-alike, the bearded lady boy among a tranch of devil masks, in what is very nearly The Rover – The Musical, I half expected someone to break out into Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

Except Naples is the setting for the late 17th Century Restoration play, at Carnival, to turn everyone’s Worlds upside down, then restore them to the same old cynical order. A steely 1920’s cast-iron stairwell backs the simple set, to represent both the keys to the Kingdom and the Whorehouse, in a very hard world, and for the arrival of four exiled English Cavaliers led by Belvile and our particular Don Giovanni, Millmore: Very possibly modelled on the notorious Earl of Rochester, he who penned poems about dildos and things and died at 33 of booze, syphilis, and genius. This production is good Karma, with The Libertine about Rochester’s life on at the Theatre Royal in London, and Millmore is played with wonderful gusto and skilled comic timing by Joseph Millson, giving a tour de force performance he revels in.

From the moment the Prologue is given to the charming and excellent Faye Castelow though, playing Millmore’s equal-to-be, Helena, so that we really know this play was written by a woman, indeed the first English female dramatist and also a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, we are in safe directorial hands. A knowing self-awareness breathes through all the strong performances, that liberates everyone to many kinds of play. Since Millmore is trying to play fast and loose with every pretty woman that meets his eye, so the director’s cuts have played loose too and streamlined things well, if you wonder if cries of “Mummy” or “Kinky” are quite 17th Century.

Then they have gone for knockabout comedy, and ad libs too, including some great audience interaction, not least when Millmore is drunk, that always delights a crowd. If turning a line about old men and impotence on a greying member of an audience that seemed predominantly over sixty might have been a bit close to the bone! No pulling of punches here then, in the lusty manhood stakes. The climax, with an explosion of rose petals from the ceiling, nearly had people up and dancing on their feet and crutches.

This Rover certainly underplays the darker side of Behn’s play, based on one by Thomas Killigrew, where even the finest women could hardly avoid being labelled Wife, Nun, or Whore. The shadows grow in the story of the very funny and then nasty Blunt, the stuttering English Gent with his hand on the purse strings, played wonderfully by Leander Deeny, who is gulled by a prostitute, described in the original cast list as a ‘jilting wench’, into believing he has found true love. There is little time in life’s seething energy for his brand of hurt though, his hatred of being laughed at, so he is driven off stage in the first half by the semi-demonic revellers. Only to return demonically himself in the second half on the edge of doing something very nasty indeed, where a comedy edges toward potential tragedy, to remind us what can happen in the real world.

What is revolutionary in Aphra Behn, and so provides the explosive energy of poetry and thought throughout, is her ‘feminism’ is no mere complaint about manly men, hate of them either, but a cry for woman to be equal in all. Or at least her and Millmore, since by the end you do believe the pair on stage have found their true match. Thus it is two sisters and their kinswoman who set the plot in true motion too, as Florinda longs for Belvile and Helena refuses to disappear into a nunnery. So, disguised as gypsies, they hit the town like the Cavaliers and paint it red.

The main plot sees the honourable Belvile trying to find his lady, against the machinations of the nasty foreigners trying to arrange marriages, and along with a joke about drawing the longest sword, a Toledo blade, a pair of splendid guilded boxer shorts appear, belonging to a very good Don Pedro, endless filthy double entendres ensue, and there’s even a burst of Rule Britannia. The secondary plot involves the Courtesan Angellica Bianca, and since Behn lived when the theatre was very close to the brothel, perhaps reflecting her own initials and sentiments too, who falls for lusty Millmore. Alexandra Gilbreath is both moving and funny as the whore who gives her ‘virgin heart’ away, to no avail. Though a special mention for her slinking side-kick in a bowler, Alison Mckenzie’s knowing Moretta, who gives a nod to Joel Gray’s compere in Cabaret. This is a world that in truth seethed with violence, sex and fear, where a true Courtesan might make much of herself, but the whore and the poor always paid the price in the end, although Blunt shows men can be victims too. Though since Behn was a Royalist – the play is also called The Banish’d Cavaliers – it is Millmore’s poverty, along with his wit and courage, that gives him his nobility and wins him the prize; not only Helena, but her lovely fortune.

You can read reviews of King Lear and Cymbeline below.  David Clement-Davies

The photo shows Faye Castelow and Joseph Millson as Helena and Millmore in the RSC’s production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, in the Swan Theatre Stratford. Copyright Ellie Kurttz.

 

 

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CYMBELINE FINDS HER TIME, OR BRITAIN ALSO LOSES THE PLOT?

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Thanks to the RSC, and Gillan Doran’s wonderfully ambitious programme for the 400th anniversary, not least for bringing me to a play I’d never even read, Cymbeline. Despite a sinking heart opening the programme to see a picture of Dave Cameron, and a journalist lecturing on about Brexit and why after being neglected for so long this is a play that has at last “found its time.” Hmmm. Shakespeare is always profoundly politically attuned, though better at exposing the imperatives and mechanisms, the nasty guts, than being didactic or ever lecturing. Was the graffiti on the concrete wall then, along with the programme’s nod to Banksi, or an anguished model of a Refugee boat, to make us suffer a Referendum all over again? I think the real irritation is that for nearly three and a half hours it had me imagining Gillian Bevan’s stout, very capable Cymbeline, part Britannia, part Boudicca, as Theresa May, (with respect, a bit of a look-alike), or is that Theresa-may-not? Not that Bevan is at all Lilly livered, and now I know Cymbeline means Cymbeline and there we are!

As for their Brexits, or their Entrances, in a proudly multi-cultural cast, what also irritated is directors (now trendily called Creatives at the RSC) thinking that a lot of running on and off stage and gabbling difficult lines passes either for theatrical energy or realism. Though when the actors settle into thinking and feeling through the words and poetry, there are some excellent performances. Not least from Bethan Cullinane as Cymbeline’s much tested daughter Innogen, the black actor Markus Griffiths as a very funny Cloten, James Clyde’s excellently malevolent Duke, and the Irish actress Jenny Fenessy throwing off the tyranny of the poor understudy to play Pisania, while a treasure chest of language is thrown open.

Jokes aside, busy director Melly Still it is quite right to suggest Brexit’s relevance, since Shakespeare was born out of the trauma and liberation of a disintegrating Christendom, (a reason today’s violent Religious and Scientific divides  or Terrorism might be even more pertinent), if Europa was a word and concept only just emerging at the time. As still Top Monarch, Queen Bess, who made a lot of cash from Hawkin’s African nastiness, and thugs like Francis Drake, saw the loss of any kind of Empire in France, though viciously trying to plant Ireland. While King James mooted but failed to achieve a Union with Scotland. So how did Britain really thrive and invent herself? By putting money in everyone’s purses, well those at the top, from little London, and ruling the waves elsewhere, away from the internecine battles  erupting in Europe. Oh brave New World.

You can argue then that much of Shakespeare is also inevitably about the very writing of a new English Imperial identity, if only through the most glorious expression of the English language. The world’s centre of Gravity was certainly shifting violently though by 1600, in a moment that probably did define how Globalisation and Capitalism would develop and which has not seen an equivalent sea change until now. It’s not just Brexit, of course, but how the Internet is probably the equivalent of the Printing Press revolution. Perhaps Shakespeare is a bit to blame then, at least for that outburst by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg limply invoking tigers, to give Cameron a prod. I think Henry V is about the conscious manufacturing of a powerful new political rhetoric, soon adopted by the ‘Establishment’.  Even as a once far more intimate Monarchy separated itself from the lower orders, and banished honest Jacks to the bilges and top sails, it conquered half the World, with planting, privateering trade and slavery, and owned it for a very long time indeed.Is that what modern Breixteers want? Not of course that Bill did all this alone, bless him. The Virginia Company was founded in the year the Globe went up on Bankside, 1599, just opposite that walled fortress of London, still a Global epicentre today in UK PLC, and the little Tudor cannons of the terrifyingly powerful and private East India Company were bristling from a fort in Madras by 1607.

That year Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund died at just 27, an actor too, and his daughter Susanna was married in Stratford. While ‘savages’ were attacking the new fort at Jamestown, King James’s town, and a little merchant ship called the Red Dragon, Henry Tudor’s badge, did performances of both Hamlet and Richard II off the coast of Sierra Leone. Britain had truly set to sea, and it was coming back in bucket loads. For hundreds of years the scholarly Establishment claimed that record had to be a forgery though, because the Common Man could not possibly understand their Bard, if still stuffing him down School children’s throats. To improve us all and claim Shakespeare was essentially Conservative and there’s nowhere like an England!

If we think Euromillions is an innovation though, the first free standing lottery was launched in 1612 to help colonise Virginia, soon taken up by all thirteen original Colonies, to give very early origins to that ‘American Dream’. Talking of which, having a snack in Café Rouge before the show I’d opened The Times to read with even more sinking heart that the usually balanced and liberal Matthew Paris had just suggested we toughen up on the asylum rules by suggesting what constitutes danger should now only be the threat of Death! Then that Donald Trump was ahead in the bell-weather State of Ohio, invoking the example of Brexit. If we think our own Liberal sentiments (or not) can sway US Politics though, when people were asked to email Americans to complain, they got some very rude replies indeed, about being stupid, Lilly-livered Brits and worse.

A little credence then to the relevance of the traumatised Brexit line, four centuries on, although the production has faced much criticism. Some slack too in Ms Still peopling a Roman court with Mafiosi Eurotrash in lounge suits, sipping cocktails and speaking in Italian, translated onto big screen sur titres, that then translate Latin too, when the big Romans claim their imperial tributes from the smelly Britains. Who dares to translate the greatest translator and interpreter of them all – Shakespeare? Well, Melly Still! That rather heavy handed moment is about the river of history, peoples and languages that made Britain and which Shakespeare’s astonishing English emerged from too. The first dictionary was only printed in England in 1604 and Shakespeare is profoundly a Renaissance writer. While to set us up for losing our heads, the set is dominated by a tree stump, in a glass box, perhaps to echo the production of King Lear. The rest is as hip, with film, and part concrete and vegetative back revolves, to suggest Nature will always break on through, complete with images of modern Rome’s Empire-littered streets and Dad’s Army Invasion maps to have you suddenly asking – Who D’yer Think Yer Kidding?

Actually I should underline that Cymbeline is a tragi-comedy. So to any grasp I got on the plot, untangling which might win you Brain of Britain. Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen and Posthumus are star crossed lovers, or most crossed by Cymbeline, so Posthumous has to flee abroad. There, boasting of Innogen’s love and fidelity, he is tested by Oliver Johnstone’s excellent Iachimo, who travelling to Blighty, as Rome seeks tribute, emerges from a chest in her bedchamber to discover Innogen asleep, nick her bracelet, and spy a starry mole by her breast, rude fellow. So being able to trick Posthumous into believing he has done the act of darkness and Innogen is false. Like Michael Gove Iachimo pays Manhood’s price later, when the War of Men without Women erupts into horror, or is that Boris Johnson?

There is a tangle of poison that isn’t poison and lots of people trying to bump each other off, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As Cymbeline revolts against Rome, Innogen flees to the forest, to encounter an exiled General good-of-heart, Graham Turner’s splendid Belarius, and her kidnapped brother and sister, Arveragus and Guideria, emphasising all the healing Nature virtues, and played very well by James Coonie and Natalie Simpson, especially Simpson as Guideria. Though in the tangle of tree roots or Brain-stem ganglia they first appear swinging from, and the whooping hunting cries, perhaps nicking far too much from Avatar. Mind you, did you see that article in the Sunday Times about tree roots being connected and talking to each other, even nurturing or throttling their young, in this global world of ours? With a very peculiar dream Mask, when Jupiter is invoked, to explain the meaning of names via a prophecy, everyone loses identity in going to war, or finds their manhood, though the Brits win, but still need a Cultural head, so pay tribute to Ancient Rome. So Cymbeline ends with the most astonishingly uncomfortable series of resolutions, more than any in Shakespeare, that had many laughing aloud, including me.

Cymbeline is certainly about a crisis of identity, but it sits not at all in Shakespeare’s overtly Historical or straight political plays. It comes among the later Romances, like Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, when politics, life and suffering had probably confounded the Bard a great deal and he turned his hand to achieving effects through acts of artistic magic. Perhaps his brother Edmund’s tragic death was influential in that sea change. Pericles was written in 1607, for instance, all about incest and lost daughters, but with a family crest that shows a withered branch only flowering at the top. It may be more true though that rather than Cymbeline not being popular for centuries because we had an Empire now, imposing its own tributes, it is because it is a very easy plot to lose. Melly Still throwing the baby and the bath water at it hardly simplifies, or leaves us quite knowing how to vote either. Even if Jacob Rees-Mogg should be told that despite the Histories, most of Shakespeare’s plays are set in interesting foreign and Renaissance climes. I thoroughly enjoyed Cymbeline though and it did not drag for a moment, though the bloke playing the School Master at the new Edward VI museum, backed I think by Mr Gove, told me, rightly or wrongly, it originally ran to five hours! Enjoyed it because just when you’re wondering how Cloten, chasing after Innogen, can get away with possibly being Posthumous in his very ill fitting clothes, so to trick Innogen into believing her lover is dead, his beheading by Guideria is almost hysterical. While Innogen’s burial, then waking to mistaken grief, and true horror, is probably one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Not least too because Shakespeare, inventing everything, even comes up with the phrase “Brain of Britain”!

 The photo is from the RSC’s rather startling and controversial production of Cymbeline, directed by Melly Still, showing a disguised Posthumous going to war with the Romans, as everyone wrestles for their identity and they try to shake us over Brexit.  Photo Copyright Ellie Kurttz. Ticket courtesy of the RSC Stratford on Avon.

 

 

 

 

 

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FINDING NEW GEMS IN THE STRATFORD-SHAKESPEARE CROWN

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It was the woman at the New Place ticket office grudgingly lending me a cheap biro, then sourly commenting that not even the Birthplace Trust staff get discounts from the RSC, that had me wondering how everyone really rubs up together in little and hugely over-commercialised Stratford-Upon-Avon.  The house on Henley Street is at the centre of it, Shakespeare’s family house, and the shop where John was a whittawer, a maker of expensive white leather gloves, though the name The Birthplace does give the Bard the gravity of some kind of British Secular Christ.  But the Birthplace Trust are the chief Guardians of Shakespeare’s historical and physical legacy, running, with Royal backing, his house, the archive, and several properties, from New Place to  Hall’s Croft, Anne Hathaway’s House and Mary Arden’s farm.

“The Jewel in the Crown” of all Shakespeare exhibits around the world is how the reopening of New Place is described, highly ambitiously, in the bumf. New Place being the site of the house Shakespeare bought in 1597 for around £120 (I thought it was sixty) and the second largest in Stratford.  The house is no longer there, though the gardens are, where that mulberry tree was, until it was cut down.  It now has a smart new wooden entrance, where Bill’s front door was,  and sculpture park, I’m afraid I found rather fey and underwhelming, with lots of weather veins and things. Though I liked the Shakespeare Processional frieze, if I think that there already. There is also a new walk through-exhibition and shop in the Jacobean house next door, that belonged to Thomas Nashe.  That isn’t at all bad, with the odd little period object in drawers about the place and good time lines to make it interactive, though very much designed for kids and families, to bring ’em in. Well, the folk in the shop, where you can buy imitation jewellery for £75 and £140, were pleased that since opening in August his year it has topped its target of 12,000 visitors.  Though I was annoyed at the door that tickets, which let you into several properties, are £17 but you cannot buy individually.  So you can make a deal out of the merciless Shakespeare industry that has developed,  if you get it right. The foodies were trying to get it right that weekend, with a three-day event of global cuisine, at the reinstated Food Festival in tents around the town, and a bright red Pimms teapot. While a Michaelmas fair at Mary Arden’s farm, my favourite in terms of hockey recreations of Shakespeare’s living world, had mummers, cider makers, basket weavers, archers, falconers and a fellow with a splendid eagle owl to delight the wide-eyed kids.

But for me the real jewels in the crown, if not owned by the Birthplace Trust at all, came just over the way from New Place. First was the splendid little Guild chapel, just across the road, I had never seen before and Shakespeare must have known very well indeed. Since the medieval Catholic frescoes have been somewhat uncovered, with excellent placards to explain and recreate, it perfectly elucidates Andrew Graham Dixon’s point in the programme to the RSC’s King Lear (see review below), about England being culturally and visually blinded in the Puritan whitewashing of images, so giving space to the explosion of the secular word to make us see again, or in a different way.

How thrilling though to stumble next door on Chapel street into a brand new exhibit, The King Edward VI School Museum.  I had often walked past, hoping to catch an imaginative glimpse at Shakespeare’s shining morning face, because he was very probably educated here, six days a week, from 6am to 6pm, for seven years, if his real education was a pastoral one, in life and nature.  So perhaps were his brothers Edmund, Richard and Gilbert. What better way to start to understand the man, and with a very mature exhibit?  Lo and behold, the grammar school itself, given royal charter in Edward VI’s brief reign, one of those 120 or so that still exist, with more mooted by Theresa May, and which is a State funded free school, have, with the help of a million and a half from the Lottery Fund, just opened the place up to pedagogy, or lovely private enterprise. Modern pupils still have morning lessons there too.

It is exceptionally well done, a beautiful building, with positive comments from theatrical luminaries like Sir Ian Mckellan blazoned on the wall, a great little film by the always infectious historian Michael Woods, in the old counting house, very welcoming staff and none-invasive but interesting touch screen displays. Upstairs in the schoolroom even a very knowledgeable Magister, in costume, to tell you about how they learnt Latin and Greek, though I’m not at all sure Shakespeare would have had fluent Latin, sat not at desks but opposite each other, and had to learn things by rote.  Quite enough to make any young Shakespeare play truant and run off to the grounds of Charlcotte to hunt deer, or to London to become the greatest and raunchiest playwright that ever lived. The Bard of course, that “upstart crow”, never went to University, unlike Robert Greene or Kit Marlowe, but still topped them all.  Probably one of the reasons people come up with their snobbish Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon theories, though what would it do to the Stratford gold mine if it was ever proved?

Still part of the modern school, that has created a trust to preserve and open the building, it is really the epicentre of the historical town too. For here before the Reformation was the Guild of the Holy Cross, that turned into the town council, one Shakespeare’s father John sat on, for all his naughty dealings.  Where a court was held too, downstairs, and upstairs perhaps professional players had to perform before snooty aldermen to get a licence. I say perhaps because with lack of records a deal is still speculation in the whole Shakespeare story, from the bogusness of Hall’s Croft, to certainties about most of the properties.  But it was there, and because it thrives as an active and artistic school to the present, that I really felt in touch with the living Shakespeare story. The ‘school master’ was a bit sheepish about how the Museum is doing, but then it is in competition with The Birthplace, and still has to be properly placed on the Shakespeare map.  It should and will be, because it’s very good indeed and should certainly have no one creeping unwillingly to school!

David Clement-Davies was given entry courtesy of The Birthplace Trust and independent King Edward School Museum. The photo is of the knowledgeable ‘Elizabethan’ school master in situ.

 

 

 

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