Tag Archives: Shakespeare


I must confess to a dastardly crime against the Theatre, or myself, in not staying for the second half of Loves Labours Lost at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Perhaps it was the difficulty of the play, or too much slapstick, the industrial scale milking of comic moments, or some of the more bizarre accents too, that turns John Hodkinson’s Don Amardo into a mixture of Shylock and Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It all got rather exhausting then, as did the constant word games and rhyming couplets, though I think it was wanting to gas with an old friend over a drink that really did it. There was a moment of hesitation too when, right at the end of the first half, Berowne erupts into a speech of true Shakespearian power and poetry, presaging deeper things to come, but the friend and the drink won out, no matter how terrifying the price of a Brandy Alexander has become in Central London.


The regret came seeing the deliciously exuberant and utterly charming production of Much Ado About Nothing the next night, so also getting a clearer picture of why director Christopher Luscombe both twins them and sets the plays pre and post First World war.   A deeper understanding was only aided by sitting next to the actor Andy Wincott, who plays Adam Macy in the Archers, and no less than Tara King from the Avengers, charming Linda Thorson, whose eyes are as beautiful and foxy as ever, the cause of many adolescent labourings of lust, and who was so effusive about Love’s Labours Lost, darling, she could have walked straight into the magical cast. Linda convinced me I had missed a true theatrical moment though when all that unnatural idealism falters, though the passion is not spent but so rudely interrupted, both by the women banishing the men in the play and here by the horror of a World War, beyond the ceaseless war of the sexes. Then American novelist Phillip Roth is convinced that the reason we still respond to myths like the Iliad and Odyssey, is that the fight for Woman really lies at the bottom of all conflict and all Art.  Well, obviously life itself.


As for theatrics, Much Ado About Nothing is very stagy too, yet what indeed is a far richer and more complex play, given added depth of frame by the characters now returning from the Hell of Passchendaele, and the rest, quickly evoked by the stage presence of metal hospital beds and echoes of The Shooting Party, became a tour de force. Here then what was for me far too Norman Wisdom in Nick Haverson’s Costard in Loves Labours, grows into a marvellously rich and wounded Dogsberry, perhaps Shell-Shocked, who had the audience both howling and squirming with genuine human pity. Though not as painful, in the tremendous all singing and dancing sets, as the shaming and apparent death of pretty Hero in the highly dramatic wedding scene. Much Ado is potentially far darker and more cynical than this version, especially in the Iago-esque malevolence of Don John, maybe not so inexplicable in motive considering what had just happened in this time frame, and the venom that lies only just below the Social surface, but that is kept firmly under control and the show fizzes. Steven Pacey is tremendous both as Donnish Holofernes and especially Leonato and though Beatrice and Benedict are very well matched, Edward Bennet’s lovely Benedict steals the laurels, in scenes that must have been a joy to improvise in rehearsal and brought some delightful audience interaction too, punters so love.

The reason for twinning them at all is the echoes the plays share and the theory that Much Ado is in fact the lost Loves Labours Won, so perhaps a sequel, mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia, published in 1597, that book that also sounded the murder of Christopher Marlowe. To me the jury is very much out on that, probably still wanting to believe that the lost ‘Won’, like that vanished version of Don Quixote, Cardenio, is still out there somewhere. Yet finding a line through both is convincing and certainly seems to energise the actors in this inspiring ensemble cast.


Meanwhile a very plausible RSC Land has been achieved by the Downtown Abbey style set, reflecting the real and very beautiful Charlcotte Manor in Stratford, the home of the Elizabethan grandee Sir Thomas Lucy. That could lead you wandering off down the fustian halls of Scholarship itself, if to an entirely different play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Since that manor where legend has it Shakespeare was hounded for poaching deer and had to flee for his life, may find its way into the play’s references to lice, a pun on the ‘Luces’ of the Lucy crest. It is also the scene where Justice Shallow first appeared, and Shakespeare was probably taking a swipe at the London Sherriff and obvious crook, Sir William Gardner, relation of Mary Tudor’s Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, who had Shakespeare and others up in late 1596 on charges of Murder and Affray. All more or less convincing speculation in what is still a pretty threadbare biographical patchwork of Shakespeare’s life, swamped by the imaginative astonishment of the plays and his mind. But the firm grounding does no harm at all, though must raise costs over the Elizabethan chimney pots. Then it is an extremely generous production, in the lovely setting of the Theatre Royal (if I still think the RSC needs a London home), much aided by Nigel Hess’s specially commissioned score, that gives it a touch of the Musical, the verve of the cast and, since Donald Trump is about to redecorate The White House in Gold, the post fin de siècle sense that we might all be entering very interesting and ugly times indeed.

The photos show Costard and Don Armado, Beatrice and Benedict and the inspiring ensemble cast in the RSC and Chichester Festival’s twinned productions of Loves Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, currently running in London at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Tickets by kind courtesy of the RSC.




Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, London, Poetry, Uncategorized



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.






Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Environment, Language, Poetry, The Arts, Uncategorized



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.




Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Culture, Education, The Arts, Uncategorized



king-lear-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-ellie-kurttz-_c_-rsc_202320Andrew Graham Dixon’s article in the programme made me realise why the RSC’s coldly magnificent King Lear stumbles in trying to make us see, and feel too. As the art critic says, Lear is all about blindness and seeing, the loss and recovery both of perspective and true moral vision. Whether or not England had been ‘blinded’ during the Reformation, with the whitewashing of frescos and Religious paintings, so its dislocation from thousands of years of history and experience, or only through that could discover an entirely new way of defining reality: The hard Modern World.

Sight though, in all its meanings, is epitomised in the myopia of the mighty King, and ultimate father figure, failing to read the cynical language of his ambitious daughters Goneril and Regan, in his unnatural parental search for the unconditional, as Lear abdicates responsibility and divides his Kingdom and himself. With his banishment both of his favourite daughter Cordelia, for refusing to unpack her true heart with words, and the loyal Kent for defending her.

Metaphor becomes physical fact in the vicious blinding of Gloucester, played admirably by David Troughton, and achieved in Niki Turner’s bold designs by placing Gloucester in a huge glass interrogation box, worthy of The Cube, symbolic both of trial and the  separations of blindness and madness, that soon becomes smeared with his and Cornwall’s blood, as an eyeball bounces off the pane. The odd giggle in the audience was either a reflection of deep unease at real horror, or our own desensitization in a world that sees so much in film and the news. Yet for all the agonies of Lear, the blinding is a very specific act indeed, far from the simply bloodcurdling violence of a play like Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare is very rarely pornographic or gratuitous. In fact the real horrors of Lear are about the inner agonies of mind and imagination, when truly exposed to the whole world. Just as Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom imagines suffering, and the Foul Fiend too, as much as experiencing them, in an act of feigned madness akin to Hamlet’s.  Lear’s is not quite an arbitrary moral Universe either, just a blasted heath, since Lear’s vanity and Gloucester’s fatherly hypocrisy to his bastard son Edmund, not stressed enough by Troughton, directly unleash what always potentially lurks beneath and engenders the attempts at Judgement and search for poetic Justice. Or rather it puts them on trial too, whether more sinned against than sinning. In the vexed paradox too that if the truth of the World really is violence and the abyss, why should you not be as amoral, vicious or corrupt as the next man?  Pre-empting Nietzsche’s remark that if you stare too long into the abyss, you will find it staring back into you.

So to Lear’s journey towards recovering humanity, or death, his travels with his fool and encounter with Gloucester, after Edgar’s leading his father to a faked suicide on the beetling cliffs of Dover. Graham Dixon quotes Frank Kermode calling that “the most beautiful scene in all Shakespeare” and so it may be. It is more than that though, it is part exorcism and precisely what Shakespeare has Edgar call it too, “a Miracle”.  Or an attempted human miracle, in a now Godless Universe. In that Gillan Doran’s sparse, metallic and pointedly pagan production, raising Lear on a great plinth at the start, among a painted Sun and eclipsing Moon, and their inevitable, ceaseless peregrinations, in an age that still profoundly credited astrology, and used it as excuse, prepare for Anthony Sher’s studiedly formal but now ultimately impotent invocations against his daughters, or the World. Lear as King Priest too, though curses in Shakespeare usually turn on those invoking them.

It also might frame the play in terms of how others have described King Lear, as old fashioned Miracle play, banned in the secularisation of the Reformation, springing from a profound tension in Shakespeare’s own rooted ‘Religious’ instincts, although that is not its main purpose here. This Lear certainly approaches the grandeur of the Miracle cycles, yet the miracle Shakespeare tries for, and so must the actors, is now a secular and imagined one, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner forging its own language of artistic symbolism, reached with only the artistry of mind and language itself, balancing journeys of inner and outer perception and perspective.  Also as Coleridge did, making the distinction between mere fancy and true imagination, which can only be touched with real feeling. Just as Shakespeare’s poetry and vision, the stamp of his imaginative wonder, is always a constant movement between the minute and the universal, a specific act of ‘seeing’ and almost physical entering in, akin to Keat’s “negative capability’. So Edgar leads his father Gloucester through a frustrated act of self-slaughter, in an almost Christian sacrifice to the absent Gods we fear treat us like flies, then provides a minutely precise rebalancing, in describing what did not happen, now from the bottom of the abyss. So reimagining everyone’s place in the Universe, in the recovery if not necessarily of hope, then at least perspective. “Half way down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger than his head”.  It is an act of profound psychology that could give rise to the very word Shrink.

Of course, as Graham Dixon also compares Shakespeare and Lear to the arrival of an artist like the blood spattered Caravaggio, though still connected to Christian and Catholic iconography, Shakespeare is a painter too, but with words, in what was the Age of the Word, as opposed to ours of the image. It is a given then he was and is the greatest word painter who ever lived. Therein lies the rub though, if one you might expect from a strong director like Gillan Doran, also Artistic Director of the RSC. Doran’s production does not cleave enough to the source power of Shakespeare’s language and poetry, and his players discovering them in the intimate act, always the route in my view, through every character, to his ultimate vision and meaning.

Instead, ala Graham Dixon, Doran presents this Lear as almost a series of set piece paintings; Lear on his un-heavenly dais, Lear on a chariot-funeral bier that presses forwards on the essentially framed Proscenium stage, Lear at dinner with his fractious Knights, or a back-lit static battle scene that evokes the Bayeux Tapestry. The tree at the back seems to be trying to win the Turner Prize. If words always paint pictures, a play is not a painting though, it springs alive from the frame, as living theatre.

The production, which seems to have been a sell out, is startling and innovative, at times, like Lear and his fool raised again into airy nothing, not in the calm eye but the curled tear of a swirling storm. It is also somewhat superfluous, because that is exactly what Shakespeare is explaining, through the Gloucester moment, and Lear lost on the Heath, with the movement of his own language and ‘vision’; the nature and miracle of imagination, and how to see in balance again, or go Mad.

For me Lear’s true miracle then should still be achieved through the unaccommodated intimacies of the round, both the humanisation and de-humansisation of suffering, the humbling encounters with Everyman, framed by the world’s blasted heath, not something so distant and lofty. That is what ultimately rakes the heart and dislocated soul, pierces the hurt mind, and might turn terror to tenderness, to make it a play that really is a miracle of creative humanity. Also how Dr Johnson described King Lear though, and which this production is frustratingly not, namely “unbearable”. Instead it remains for me a rather cold tableaux, admittedly exacerbated by my restricted-view seat up in the ‘Gods’.

Sher is of course a marvellous actor, but only truly recovers Lear’s magnificent humanity in the second half, now a foolish, fond and human old man, but if a fool, one with a new wisdom and beauty. Too late to save him and Cordelia, but such is life, if the play or art cannot humanise or change us, and perhaps anyway. The point too though is that for all Lear’s kingly tyranny, what is at times obscene in his life denying cursing of his own daughters, engendering that terrible Nothing, he must also have the love and greatness of the Father King, to elicit the loyalty of the morally positive characters in the first place. Sher is not allowed to show that nearly enough in the long first half, despite the original and intense clinches with his ‘bad’ daughters, an actor who certainly could. Let the actors burst from the frame.

Perhaps that is why the others seem at times dislocated from one another too, in their own frames, and what are vital and very intimate transformative journeys. Which must be enacted with a commitment and love too that raise them to the spiritual and mystical, not the somewhat throw away joke by Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar, preceding Gloucester’s jump, nor Cordelia’s unsymbolic recitation of a bunch of herbs. Cordelia, played by Natalie Simpson, is at once very flesh and blood and symbol of Shakespearian earth magic, as Kent is of a neo Christian duty. I shed a tear at Lear’s description of her death, yet had not been able to love Cordelia, as you must if the play is also to achieve an insight Shakespeare is obsessed with throughout his work, the danger to the powerful masculine if the positive and honest feminine is ripped away, inside or out. That is often the very route to violence, inflation and madness. Also grounded in the story of a mythical character never really mentioned but profoundly operative in Shakespeare, also a story of sight and blinding, King Oedipus.

For me Graham Turner’s fool has skill but is too belligerent to be lovable either, first by shrugging off the audience, to break the fourth wall, and secondly in not truly discovering that tenderness that constitutes some act of healing of the Self too. What is also lost is the seething power of the sub plot, driven by the primal forces of youth and sexuality, along with those ‘New Men’ in a violently changing Elizabethan world, that can make Lear cry “let copulation thrive”. Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund is not bad, but too coy. Edmund is a life force, if a death force too. You must, in Edmund’s “now God’s stand up for bastards”, somewhere want him to succeed, as if you too would overturn the Monster Custom and an unjust and blind social order, even though the consequences may be too horrible to contemplate. It is Lear’s profound question about what Nature and human nature truly are, for Nature was Shakespeare’s Goddess too, but one that would come to cause him a lot of trouble. Essiedu gives Edmund far too much moral doubt at the start then, perhaps to justify his later attempt to save the King and Cordelia. The agony of the play must achieve that understanding and change by earning it, not pre-empting it. With a magnificently visual King Lear then you still want to come out sobbing, not left intellectualising about a walk through the Tate Modern, for as Lear comments “Life’s better at breaking hearts than art is.”

The picture shows Anthony Sher as King Lear, consoling David Troughton’s blinded Gloucester. Copyright Ellie Kurttz. Lear was on the main stage in Stratford on Avon. Ticket courtesy of the RSC.


Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Poetry, The Arts


UKIP achieving in the polls, mutterings of the final break up of the BBC, yawning questions about the reality of recovery or the direction of this country, a feeling that social differentials have returned to the 16th Century, without the patronage, and what greater place to look on its real greatness and courage again than through the tradition of its writers and that greatest age of theatre, the English Renaissance! It seems you do not need a rebirth when the kind of productions the Globe company just staged as The Duchess of Malfi are screened on BBC Two, in the new covered theatre next to Sam Wannamaker’s Globe Theatre on Bankside, now called The Sam Wannamaker Theatre. It is a beautiful little house, in fact much smaller than the real Blackfriars Theatre over the water from the original Globe, that the Burbage brothers fought so long to open, and where Shakespeare staged a performance of Henry VIII, in the very place that Henry had announced his Divorce to the Bishops, and the restructuring of the English Church. Perhaps art was never so far from truth as we think. So Ben Jonson referred to the new trend in theatre in The First Folio, with the audience sitting on the stage, the arrival of more expensive seats, candlelight that ended open air rounds and precursored ‘the limelight’, but also the darker, more intense tragedies of Jacobean theatre, in an age tipping towards Civil War.

But so you’ve had a bit of schooling or University and think you know it all, yet to rediscover Webster through this performance was almost miraculous. Perhaps that is the very point of reconstructed houses and doing it as it was, taking you back to the power of individual words and an individual consciousness. It is not the period costumes that naturally get in the way, it is the attempt to make things ‘modern’, when perhaps everything was always the same. It was written in 1612-1613, five years after Shakespeare’s brother’s death, probably the year Shakespeare wrote The Tempest and has all the flaws of the bloody revenge tragedy. Yet so does Hamlet, a stage strewn with corpses at the end, or King Lear, and what is so astonishing about both that age and the play is its profoundly revolutionary nature. In the creation of a woman as ‘The Prince’, and such a remarkable, articulate woman, raising up a man and steward because of his virtue and her love, but destroyed by the coiled lusts of near incestuous family possession and male power, it is feminist par excellence. Yet neither Shakespeare nor Webster would have placed themselves within the constraints of Feminism either, reaching to sound out the source of human tragedy, or the power of theatre to explore the human condition, in the empty glass of life’s performance. When men and woman are at war tragedy must ensue and Art is the struggle to understand. It remains a running question how, after the age of that greatest and most impossibly challenged Queen, Elizabeth I, and the death of a strangely female centric faith like Catholicism, with all its roots in female nature worship too, Puritanism so defined the model both of English power and English brutality, in the explosion of world capitalism that defines almost everything we do.

It is very hard to do such bloodletting on stage without it becoming comic, and yet this production, seemingly perfect for that little, powerful TV Box too – please give us more and you can have my license fee – proved that that very transition to intimate theatre was the movement from external symbols of faith towards the exploration of more intense individual human psychology, perhaps stripped of the life-giving link Shakespeare has to the generative power of nature itself, but set against the attempt to give meaning on any kind of wider philosophical life journey. Does it compare to Shakespeare? Well sometimes, if you see it within the movement of its age and what happened. But above all it and this production underlined the sacred place of theatre, to sound the heights and depths of the human ‘soul’, both foul and beautiful. Funny, careful, perfectly lit by candle light, sinister and deeply sexy, Gemma Aterton as the Duchess was brilliant and, though he will inevitably draw comparisons with Alan Cumming, David Dawson was utterly courageous. Dominic Dromgoole’s direction was a masterpiece of modern ‘period’ theatre, which frankly is just great theatre. Boy, having tried Kickstarter here, do we wish that world Globe venture with Hamlet had succeeded! But have no fear, British theatre is alive and well and living on Bankside (if you can afford the seats) and sometimes on the BBC too.


Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Culture, London


I had a very eccentric little treat this week, doing the Lambeth walk from my home, down to St Mary’s relatively recently deconsecrated church, right by beautiful Lambeth Palace, and thanks to the endeavours of a dedicated local couple today The Garden Museum. It takes its theme from the lovely and very rare tomb of the Tradescant family, in the traditional Jacobean Knot garden behind. John Tradescant senior being a man of many plants, plots, travels and fascinating schemes, first for Elizabeth I’s chief advisor Robert Cecil. They don’t make them like that anymore. Like father, like son, under King James I, but one of the testaments to a King’s many errors being the large, crook branched Mulberry tree nearby. The Scots King James, dreaming of his Greate Britaigne, the hope of legal Union with Scotland that foundered for 100 years and is perhaps about to collapse again, tried to compete with the silk trade but imported the wrong kind of mulberry, the black variety that silk worms do not like! So perhaps people have been making excuses about the wrong kind of snow or leaves ever since.

But the fascinating Tradescants, brought to life in a colourful historical novel by Phillipa Gregory, opened the very first public museum in what they called The Ark, on their estate on the edge of Lambeth Road. Appropriate stuff for Phoenix Ark Press then. It would become the basis for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford when Elias Ashmole, mason, social climber, Herald at the College of Heralds and highly self-serving fellow, co-opted it from John Tradescant the younger, then fought a court case with his wife Hester, who was allowed to keep the contents for her life time. Hester died in somewhat questionable circumstances. A cabinet of rare curiosities, The Ark may have cost a hefty six pence to visit, when an average theatre ‘ticket’ was a penny, but it was technically open to all. Then the ‘democratic’ nature of that age before James I and then a Civil War ruined everything is also the fact that in 1612 The Virginia Trading Company had opened its first Free Standing Lotterie for anyone with a ready Twelvepence, to fund ventures in the Americas. It was soon taken up by all thirteen original colonies, so is a remarkably early origin to that so-called “American Dream” and straight out of that always very capital minded and adventuring London.

The Tradescant tomb stands right next to the monument to the Bligh family, and that Captain of The Bounty and mutiny fame, who lived just opposite the coming Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road, a man of Bread Fruits, tough navy values and the most extraordinary feat of survival and navigation, when he was set adrift by his men. As my volunteer neighbour Kay and an ex ambassador to Mongolia pointed out though, the delicate carvings on the Tradescant tomb, restored four times now, have mythical rather than religious themes, like the seven headed and heavy breasted hydra guarding a skull, masonic pyramids, and curling stone groves and grottos. All good grist to the mill of Gary, another neighbour, friend, scholar of the esoteric and expert in Chinese textiles, who has a special interest in the likes of Dr John Dee and Simon Foreman. Foreman was a self taught astrologer, geomancer and proto Doctor, who was hounded by the licensed Doctors in the City over the water, with their surgeon’s hall on Silver Street, where Shakespeare lived a while, until he got his own licence to practice from Cambridge in 1603. Repeatedly locked up in those litigative spats so beloved of Elizabethans, constantly thinking of taking ship, and a man of somewhat rampant reputation with the ladies, who called sex to halek, Foreman lived in the house of a Mr Pratt in Lambeth, hence Pratt’s Walk, right over the road. A practicing Christian, while also casting his horoscopes, helping Elizabethans dig for buried treasure, providing love charms and tokens and tending to rich and poor, but not retreating from the great plagues either in that astonishingly fragile world, he was doubtless just as good as licensed Doctors of the time. He married in St Mary’s at 7am in the morning, in 1599. That year the famous wooden and thatched Globe Theatre rose on Bankside in Southwark and it is of course from Foreman’s diaries that we have one of the only accounts of visits to Shakespeare’s performances, in Foreman’s case Macbeth, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale.

Foreman, who is also buried somewhere in the church, was of course most interested in the witches in Macbeth but is a man whose reputation was especially blackened by being linked not just to that Occult that influenced so many, including Shakespeare, but to the famous Overbury murder, even though the poor man had himself been dead two years. As he was lampooned on stage by Ben Jonson, Foreman was described in court by Sir Edward Coke as “that devil Foreman“. Coke was of course the lawyer who changed the world, and built his own fortune too, when he gave the ruling in 1606 that the King could arrest no man except by good cause of the English law. Early soundings of a Civil War. A woodcut of Foreman with bristling necromantic beard adds to the dark myth, as does the legend that he predicted his own death in a journey across the Thames from Puddle dock, crying out “an impost, an impost“. As his biographer AL Rowse says, no doubt he had a natural intimation of the stomach ulcer that probably ended things in a straining boat trip, and in a world very fond of “mystergoguery and hermetic nonsense“. Perhaps it is about a different kind of language too. Elias Ashmole is buried in St Mary’s as well, although we only got closer in our pilgrimage when our guide kindly snuck us into the office, where his grave is somewhere below the photocopy machine. She also showed us the exquisite ‘Peddlar’s Window’ though, a little gem of stained glass and the bequest of a local man made good. Though it may be a restoration, since most of the Church windows were blown out when a WWII bomb droped on Lambeth palace, despite the Nazi’s famous avoidance of St Paul’s (not quite, in fact).

With strange purpose-built wooden exhibition rooms inside a remarkably large and impressive church, which in the days when Lambeth, or ‘the lamb’s bath’, was near open country must have dominated the edge of the river and that ‘horse ferry’ crossing that set the topography of today’s Lambeth Bridge, long after only covered London Bridge was the gate into the City, the Garden Museum is rather oddly done and awkwardly laid out too. Indeed, although I did not see the permanent exhibits, in such a place it is the suddenly discovered curiosities like that window that really delight, or a plaque to a D’Oily Cart, along with perhaps the finest cake in England, tasted at the nice little bar restaurant. It hums gently with older folk, pretty girls in their tiny jumbled office or students sketching plants in the garden, although it has the security and capacity now to have exhibited a Canaletto, among other things. But it should take the lead of John, Hester and their Ark, not nasty, grandiose Elias at all, and revel in sharing the eccentric, archaic and the curious.

It’s very existence is a testament to the moving tenacity of individual lives and passions, people who know that we are all really plants, that need good soil, nurturing and our time in the sun too. Perhaps then some of the pieces from the Ashmolean will be brought here, or an Ark will really sail the river’s edge once again. Get mayor Boris on the case and tell him to stop going on about Dragon Feasts, or protecting The City. Much meat for such a fascinating area as Lambeth, stretching, in that dramatic near Ox Bow bend of the river that made this such swamp land, and seems to fold the whole world back on itself, straight to Southwark and theatreland, that centre of our own research, based on lost St Margaret’s church there. This is an epicentre of study though for such an opaique and fascinating time and one that of course completely rewrote our internal and external landscapes. You can capture that in the 17th century plaque on the wall outside St Mary’s, courtesy of a Mr Turberville. The family made a bequest of £100 a year to support two poor local boys of an extremely poor but burgeoning district, of the ‘Stink trades’, like tanning, glass making, pottery and butchery too, kept on that famously detrops ‘South of the River’ side. An area of course dominated by thousands of watermen too, the spitting cabies of their day, and there is a Sail street by Pratt’s Walk, for the cottage industries serving the all important river. But that self proclaiming bequest was made with the proviso that the good offices of the parish should not be directed towards “fishermen, watermen, chimney sweeps or Roman Catholiks“! So of course the last words must go to the master, Shakespeare, and his line from Cymbeline that “All golden lads and lasses must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust”. At least with a Garden Museum we can all be reminded that life’s ashes are always good for the beauiful roses.

DCD Phoenix Ark Press

Admission to the Garden Museum varies from between £5 and £7.50 for adults and £3 for Student concessions. The cafe is its own delight. To visit their website CLICK HERE

1 Comment

Filed under Community, Culture, Environment, The Arts



In the vein of not being so churlish about Stratford tourism, today’s trip to Charlcote house and grounds was eye-opening and again I met some very warm and interesting folk, as I have in other travels this week. Oh the lovely scale and proportion of Tudor houses, not to mention the colour of the stone, but the place is especially interesting because of that legend about Shakespeare stealing deer from Sir Thomas Lucy and having to flee Stratford for his fairly successful London career! Potential references to Lucy are all over The Merry Wives of Windsor, in the figure of Justice Shallow, so why do we doubt the word of mouth legends so much? The counter argument is it would have been too dangerous to expose such a thing, but are we not capable of imagining that by the time Shakespeare was a successful playwright, composing a work for Hunsdon’s inaugeration into The Garter, the Tudors too were not capable of forgiving the transgressions of youth? The spot was also two miles from the house itself, so Germaine Greer is wrong to knock it down on terms of it not being possible, having to bleed the meat and so on. It doesn’t matter, the legends are part of the fun, and Charlcote is fascinating, not least for the Lucy family themselves, with that Coat of Arms sporting three Luce, sometimes called Lice, a kind of Pike. Appropriate for fishy Shakespearean tales, although if it’s true and Shakespeare had been caught, at the time he could well have been hanged. Of course, being on the side of players, it begs the question what kind of landlord Lucy was, who died in 1600.

I suddenly had an idea to do a kind of Tudor Downton Abbey there, only to learn the Lucys married into the family that owned the home where it was shot, Highclare. They gave their home to the National Trust in 1946, just after the war. My version of Upstairs Downstairs would of course be a lot smellier, filled with plague, Pox and the battles of the Reformation. When Queen Elizabeth visited Charlcote though she liked the place so much she stayed an extra day, which must have worried Sir Thomas a bit, because her train of retainers stretched back down the Stratford road for something like eleven miles. The bill was over £10, a sixth of the price of Shakespeare’s purchase of New Place in 1597, but the Lucys got to put that carved Royal Crest over the doorway, with Honi Soit Qui Mali Pense and ER patterned in red stone. Still, it could be expensive being a Gent, because when the Lucys backed the wrong side in the Civil War, and Charles and Prince Rupert camped in the fields beyond, they kept their estates by paying Cromwell the equivalent of Six million.

The ‘modern’ family were just as interesting, because in the nineteenth century Grand Tour style the Lucys, children and a devoted footman suddenly set off around Europe, with a new-born infant in tow, who died on their two year travels. Another baby was conceived and born en route though and they finally returned, replete with foreign knickknacks and European influences to deck the rebuild on their home, creating a library and dinning room at the back. The great hall, complete with decayed Minstrel’s gallery, was completely remodelled, since Lady Lucy found it so dank and depressing. Back in the day the grounds were first rather oddly redesigned by Capability Brown, absurdly destroying the Tudor Water feature, and straightening the Avon too, right at the back, but they give a lovely sense of the open Warwickshire countryside and all sorts of ideas are underway to bring new things to the house. We learnt this on a very funny little walk with a charming ex mounted policeman, Bob, who had saddled up during the Miner’s Strike and was on his very first day as volunteer and highly enthusiastic tour guide. As we joked about what we did and didn’t know he took us past the Victorian Church, a bit unforgivably built on top of a Norman one, courtesy of Lucy droit de seigneur, where the actor Michael Williams, husband of Dame Judy Dench is buried. I met him when I was working at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre but apparently the great actress, and M in the Bond films, has a home nearby.

It was actually very moving too to see how the volunteer system works, not only there, but in places like the YHA, and Stratford’s is one of the most relaxed, and had given Bob for one a new purpose and lease of life. His house is on a distant hill opposite and we almost had a tour of that too! Bob also works at the RSC, and a good many of the houses and events in Stratford, including The Birthplace, both draw on people’s talents and help create living communities. At Charlcote they are raising the number of volunteers from 300 to 500, apparently, or perhaps that’s around the Trust, so I hope an exploitation culture is not too much underway in strapped times, a kind of 21st Century feudalism – The National Trust were not nearly as generous about letting me in as The Birthplace Trust – but down the Stratford Youth Hostal they were also handing out prizes and plaudits for long-standing volunteers. It reminded me of a trip to the Grand Canyon, and learning about how Roosevelt engaged regeneration with a national works programmes. Is there such a thing as National imagination these days?

Bob’s first little group of precisely three parted ways warmly, just by the bee hives and Tamworth pig enclosure, beyond the old eel trap that once-upon-a-time let through the elvas for their journey to the wide Sargasso sea, but caught the fatted parents for a bit of Tudor eel pie. To prove how the drama is as important as history though we agreed it was more fun making half of it up, and Bob promised to read the play Lettice and Loveage, that really thrills the crowds when the guides introduce a bit of Elizabethan flanneur, or just sheer romantic lies. Like the doubty spinsters of the piece perhaps we should all meet up again one day in London and plot to blow up Renzo Piano’s Shard in Southwark, to get back to Shakespearean basics on Bankside too. (Only joking, officer!)

The piture shows the Wikepedia image, which is NOT the original Stratford road. On Google Earth you can see that that avenue also runs beyond the Avon on the other side. Entry to Charlcote costs £10.50 for an adult, but a year’s membership will return the cost of entry

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, The Arts, Uncategorized


So, the game’s afoot today (quote – Will Shakespeare not Sherlock Holmes), The London Olympics, and not remotely a chance to plug the sporting thriller The Godhead Game, with its kidnapped athletes,Click here. But, as the Torch was held high at the modern Globe in Southwark, a wonderful little article about politics, history and the show of it all, London Struts on The World Stage, appeared in the New York Times by Sergie Lobanov-Rostovsky, Click here, which proves America (not Abrams) has some culture and sense of it all.

This blog has been much caught between London and New York, ‘old’ and ‘new’ worlds, but we make the point in Shakespeare’s Brother, as American academics like James Shapiro, Bloom and Greenblat hold the field and rekindle that interest in Southwark and the time, that perhaps they only need Shakespeare to really interpret it all, especially out of nasty Reformation struggles. Though, if ‘The American Dream’ was, in the founding of the Virginia Lottery, (taken up by all thirteen colonies), after 1612, dreamt up by tempestuous Elizabthans not Arthur Miller, perhaps America, bankers, politicians, the City of London and the entire world are really stuck in the past, 400 hundred years ago. John Harvard came from Southwark too, though we don’t think much of the signature in the Christening record. But Good God, did Mitt Romney really say he could understand the spirit of the Olympics better than Obama because he’s an Anglo-Saxon?! Set Othello’s wrath on him, or, Doh, invite him to the Olympian, Greek foundations of the Games. “Oh brave New World, that hath such people in it!”

But guff to that, for now, and good luck to all those Olympian players and team GB.


Leave a comment

Filed under America and the UK, Culture, Education, London


The Ralph Fiennes directed Coriolanus, that stars him too, looks promising, in contrast to the high production but low truth value Roland Emerich movie Anonymous, asking “Was Shakespeare a fraud?“, and peddling the tedious Edward Devere, Earl of Oxford theory about authorship. In interview Fiennes talked about how as relevant Shakespeare is today as he ever was, despite any difficulty with language, and, as a footnote, a project here on Shakespeare and Southwark has noticed how the Fiennes family name, though not a theatrical family then, turns up in Southwark Cathedral, 400 years back. It was of course his brother who played Will himself in lovely Shakespeare in Love. But without seeing the film, we wonder how true the film stays to a fascinating play. Coriolanus is not only the high patrician, who scorns the ‘democratic‘ voices of the mob, or the hopes of Republican Rome, but the essential soldier, whose life and power is undermined by the matronly Roman virtues of his mother Volumnia, when he is banished. In that it is much about male identity. The Nazis initially banned the play, then changed their mind and put it on the school curriculum! No doubt they completely misunderstood Shakespeare’s purpose, in the act of the play, and the journeys towards comedy or tragedy, in human beings over reaching themselves. But it is a work that asks two vital questions too, in Gaius Martius’ Coriolanus’ journey away from all-powerful Rome – “There is a world elsewhere” he cries, but also “as if a Man were author of himself“. It is a question about individual freedom and human identity so essential to Shakespeare, but one he repeatedly asks in seeking the almost Godlike power of his own writing, that it makes it a much neglected work.

Coriolanus is released on January 20th

Leave a comment

Filed under The Arts


I AM? by David Clement-Davies

With all the splendid regal hoo-ha today, perhaps the nicest blessing to a marrying couple would be not to write about the Royal Wedding at all. Especially avoiding the kind of trashy, invasive comments from a former-Sun editor on being bald young, or why a man, ‘Royal’ or ‘Commoner’, but in this case very rich, might actually win or love a beautiful woman. That particular celebrity editor’s empty beer-glass on something also private and intimate, and probably and hopefully completely wrong. On Royal Wedding days the difficult ‘private’ is what this Cultural Essay is about then, especially the inner mind and heart. Perhaps the ‘sacred’ too, in a world where we no longer seem to really know what it means, or how to value it privately, or collectively either.

Perhaps the Media strain on things like love is just the modern world, and the sometimes difficult hypocrisies of that vital ‘freedom of the press’ too. Too often debased by the hunt simply to sell papers, in no one’s real interest but Newspaper proprietors. Although journalist Andrew Marr did the right thing to apologise recently for his own injunction. Dodgy super-injunctions in mind, the law becomes an ass if you can just look up ‘restricted’ facts via Wikileaks, as Julian Assange well knows, or on the Internet. But Obama was right too about the idiocy of having to disport his birth certificate on the internet, and wanting to get on with far more important things. On the other hand, in former days of real Kingly power, in Hampton Court or Versailles, there would have been very little privacy, because then we owned our Kings and Queens too, and glared very intently, especially at the Royal bed. It’s just the audiences get bigger and bigger, and everyone’s holding the camera.

You might of course say that in the world of Einsteinian physics Royalty itself is nuts, and in very hard times, give a loud fanfare for the common man, and especially now, woman. It is something everyone comments on with Kate Middleton being ‘one of us’, although massive popular and moving support proves indeed we are still instinctive Monarchists, despite the little scandal of two Labour Prime Ministers not being invited to what is inevitably a ‘State occasion’. Or you might say that purely materialist communism was far madder and nastier than democratic Monarchy, where our figure heads to aspiring ‘us’ are a family, and real human beings, or that the American equivalent of royalty becomes a ‘class’ of pure money and connections, or Hollywood human inflation.

I don’t want to throw too much gloom into the fun, but there could not be a figure more removed, from royalty and it all, than the ‘Commoner’ and poet John Clare. I thought of Clare recently, researching a book about Rome, and writing about the figure of Violet Albina Gibson, who at 50 shot at Mussolini, in 1926, was released by the Fascists, and ended her days ‘back home’ in St Andrew’s Hospital, ‘up North’. St Andrew’s was, in a former incarnation, the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum, where John Clare had been locked up too, in 1841, and it brought back to mind his startlingly moving, very English sonnet ‘Lines written in a Northampton County Asylum.’

‘I am. Yet what I am none cares nor knows
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tossed’

Perhaps it’s the very proof of Oscar Wilde’s quip about there being ‘only one thing worse than being talked about’, although of course one of the agonies of ‘madness’ must be how others, or society, perceives you. Although Clare was a poet who necessarily sought fame, his true story is much about that inner Kingdom of the mind and psyche, the dangerous, vital stuff of artists and writers, and perhaps ultimately Wiki-leaking inflationists too – or, variably, ‘media heroes’ – like Julian Assange. Clare has been described as ‘the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced’ and his is the most remarkable story, in part recreated in the Booker prize-winning novel The Quickening Maze. In his own fracturing consciousness, his disconnection – that saw Clare moved from his first stint of private voluntary medical care, into that General Lunatic Asylum – he rewrote the whole of Byron’s Child Harold, but in his own image, and also told newspaper editors he was Shakespeare. It shows the danger of over identification, jealousy, or too much empathy, or maybe ‘years of poetical prosing’, as the dismissive admission report had it. Clare wanted to move in a sphere consummate with his talents though, torn between his illiterate countryside companions, and clever, critical London, but by then the ‘spirits’ of past and present writers were certainly moving inside Claire’s hurt mind and imagination. As Martin Amis had it, when the attacks on The Satanic Verses began, books and by extension writer’s minds are their own countries. Then, unlike your average hack, blogger, or rooter in Grub Street, Clare took great writing, the value of literature itself to really speak to all, much to heart…and obviously to mind too.

It’s interesting today though how many people aren’t royalists, and don’t believe in God either, but are going to wedding lunches. Quite right, because if Clare’s story means anything it is about the sometimes agonising inability to escape the Self, high or low, and the maxim ‘only connect’! It is also a testament to the eternal need to be involved in theatre, a theatre the British Establishment understands in its life blood. In terms of social connections, the real Shakespeare wrote much though on how the journey of ‘great ones’ – like those fairy powers of A Midsummer Nights Dream, flitting above all us ‘Rude mechanicals’ – can frame and inform lives, quite beyond the obvious facts of power, or of ‘cultural’ influence. Although a little in love with Princess Diana myself, as a teenager, too much champagne and Southern Comfort at a pre-nuptial party meant I missed that particular view of a Royal Wedding, groaning in the dark in my adolescent bedroom. Very rude indeed, and probably a little mechanical too, but perhaps my fairy-tale fantasies were already heartbroken, and I wanted to be a happy prince! Sixteen years later, a lost love meant that Sunday Times headline announcing Diana’s death in Paris was another kind of hard right of passage,that added to the crash of private experience, and grief, one the once lofty Royals took rather a long time to wake up to, in the public consciousness. William and Kate’s obvious and genuine openness to the crowd is just the right approach, backed by that police defence against the ‘fanatical’, ‘fixated’ and the ‘foolish’. Diana was loved for several reasons, a victim of an often nasty establishment, for several others, but perhaps the hurt and violence of famous celebrity deaths can be shattering, above all, because it slaps each of us in the face with the fact of our own mortality. Human grief is then iconised, and Elvis, Jim Morrison, or Princess Diana replace the saints of old, in our ache for comprehension, connection, and not to go down to the undertow. In fact, despite the BBC puff, as we all sell Business UK to the world, and people on the street last night wanting to be part of history, this is not a ‘truly historic moment’ at all. But William probably knows you’re nothing without a woman, and with Shakespeare in mind, today one could venture into intruding on the simple happiness of real human beings, with the words of unruly, dangerous Puck, when remastered by Titania-appeased Oberon, and not talk of the sad past at all.‘Not a mouse shall disturb this hallowed house, I am sent with broom before, to sweep the dust behind the door.

I suppose you could say that if Titania lost the plot by falling for a mortal commoner in her ‘dream’, today Will must be Kate Middleton’s upturned ‘Bottom’, except that the royals have succeeded in becoming rather real, too real if you take Furgy’s example, and you hope the authorities too do not make the law an ass today. If the novel on Clare though, The Quickening Maze, is noted for being brilliant on that shadow-land between the sane, the odd, and the truly or dangerously nuts, watching some of the ‘Wedding Fans’ on telly, getting their places near the Abbey, or indeed watching some of the Middletons themselves, you know that madness, or certainly out-of the circle eccentricity, is alive and well in merry Britain, and always will be. But then Mark Twain joked that when your realise everyone is mad, the mysteries of life disappear and life stands explained.

Most at ‘the top’ become adept at trying to keep it all out, even Andrew Marr, although if the lowly John Clare suffered from ‘madness’, one of the eternal problems of Kingship, indeed any extended forms of leadership, was always the potential imperfections of the individual. I always loved the fact that Henry VI, that ‘saintly’ King who so abhorred the fashion of exposed breasts at his Court, and would cover his eyes in horror at the good and no-doubt scheming ladies, spent most of the battle of Tewksbury talking to a tree. But then Henry was related to the French King Charles VI, who thought he was made of glass, and might soon shatter. Perhaps modern head doctors would simply talk about inflation, as possible for a leader like Gaddafi, isolated by power, as for a poet failing to be Shakespeare. One of the most profound takes though on a state that might afflict countries, parties and groups too, as much as people, travelling through time and change towards modern psychoanalysis, and individual freedoms, is Allan Bennet’s marvellously humane The Madness of King George. The tale of a royal line affected with porphyria, and touching the wild disconnection of King Lear, but with a take on the very healing power of theatre, the very point of writing, while Ian Holm’s stoutly ordered Doctor tries to keep George III ‘in his eye’.

As for any sad past stories though, John Clare’s own agony highlighted not inevitable or sometimes tragic mortality, that Undiscovered Country that ‘we know not of’ , but in that Northampton Asylum, alone, and without the union that is the very stuff of partnership and connection, or dare we talk marriage still, Clare faced something far starker, and in fact more relevant to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ too – a kind of living death, in isolation and disconnection, cut off from the vital world, and effectively powerless. A terrifying journey into…

‘…the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams

How and why that disconnection happened had many reasons for Clare, himself a clarion voice on the unstable and alienated Self; reasons in his difficulties of supporting his family of eight, in the growing destruction by industrialisation of a rural idyll, in drink, and in his failure, a common failure for artists, to win his audience in his lifetime. Today writers might talk, in the face of Royal expenditure and a party, of the slashing of arts grants, a deep publishing crisis, the failure to lend to small business, and ordinary people of the closing of libraries, and above all the cost of education. But in terms of Phoenix Ark Press we might be warned too by the failure of Clare’s Shepherd’s Calender, in trying to beat the ‘system’, by peddling it himself! Don’t develop a kind of Tourette’s Syndrome either, in public outpourings – although writers are made to feel and speak – or stand up in the middle of a performance of The Merchant of Venice, like poor John Clare did, and have a rant at Shylock! But today art sensitive psychologists like Oliver Sachs might remind us too of the extraordinary and fragile nature of consciousness, and the very worst response to difficulty sometimes being the negative judgement in easy or dismissive terms like ‘madness’. Diana herself was accused of it, in the public eye. Sachs represents that growth of awareness that moved us out of brutal places like Bethlem Hospital, then to become Bedlam, and turned that General Lunatic Asylum in Northamptonshire into St Andrew’s hospital.

That journey Clare took into the shades though, although he was treated humanely by the enlightened head of the institution, and encouraged to write – and writing may have been his salvation because it to be allowed a communicator to communicate -was a tragic country where…

‘… there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest -that I loved the best –
Are strange -nay, rather stranger than the rest.

That ‘vast shipwreck’ is a phrase deluged in grief, and captures the true monumentality of his mental and emotional suffering. Why should ‘the dearest’ though, that Claire ‘loved the best’, be ‘rather strange than the rest‘? In the alienations of lost loves, and friendships too, the violent flipsides of temporarily grasped happinesses, and mutual understandings and confidences, that seem sacred at the time, we all know why. But then to be hipper ‘people are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone.’ Those failures and losses seem to challenge the very meaning of the private trusts and vows we can make, or don’t make these days. As Yeats put it ‘tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.’But then it is clear that something had dislocated inside Clare, and for the masculine, perhaps it lay far beyond the beginnings and consumations of marriage, but always has something to do with the loss of connection with the feminine, inside and out.

King Lear knew it above all, in his blindness to Cordelia’s real, sane and balanced love, but Clare’s re-writing of Child Harold is a lament for lost love too, and Clare’s first love for a girl called Mary Joyce was blocked by her prosperous farm-owning father. The country boy Clare, who was a farm labourer as a child, a pub Pot-boy, a gardener, a lime-labourer, and a Gypsy camp follower too, had not yet made any impression as a poet. But even if he had, and there was more money then in poetry than now, while he was supported by friends and patrons, you can imagine the scorn Mary’s powerful dad might have thrown at poets. Walking home from his first ‘mental home’, Clare was lost in the kingdom of fantasy, believing he was returning not just to his wife, but Mary too.

There is a kind of tragic purity too in Clare’s yearning for peace, in that real asylum, a sort of holy innocence, beyond the potential scorn and noise of life, or mankind, politics or power, or today the ever-present invasion of the ‘news’ hungry cameras. Or what deeply sensitive Clare at least imagined in his head to be that scorn and noise; the nasty whispers of the nasty world. Clare’s great I AM, undercut though with that bitter and yet…, is the author’s revolutionary defence of his and human identity, and of the so-called ‘common man’ too, as relevant today as then. But perhaps the Ego itself had to inflate, and then retreat, to see life and the world once more, and restore its glory and wonder, as the filmstrip of memory flickered through his lonely consciousness, in a way that could certainly ruin a good party.

‘I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:’

Sleep – ever the natural Shakespeare’s ‘balm of hurt minds’ – but then there is for Clare, beyond hurt and near suicidal pain, the desire no longer to affect or be affected by life, and agonised memory. He should have read Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. As if the greatest drama though is the one where nothing happens, and in a sense perhaps love is actually just that peaceful ‘un-drama’ of absolute connection, and a journey achieved. Where far beyond a great structure like Westminster Abbey, and the connectedness or supposed connectedness of rightly happy public events, a rural poet and natural and much suffering commoner was bound and healed again in the arms of beautiful nature.

‘Untroubling and untroubled where I lie, –
The grass below -above the vaulted sky.’

Return to Cultural Essays

David Clement-Davies April 2011. The public domain photos are John Clare, Landseer’s Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum in 1848. David is a best-selling fantasy author, a journalist and the founder of Phoenix Ark Press. You can visit his website by going to DavidClementDavies.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Culture, London, Poetry