Some of us have long suspected that Shakespeare was Welsh. The writings John Milton called “native woodnotes wild” surely sprang from a land of song, of hills, trees, and tumbling streams – a prodigious infant perhaps spirited by some hobgoblin down the drover roads to Stratford, to be left as a changeling in the home of a slumbering glove-maker? Who knows….silly speculation of course – and God knows there’s no shortage of that when it comes to Will and his world – but there’s no denying his stuff sits well amongst those hills, and among the native multitude of poets, singers and actors.
Some twenty years ago two theatre folk, Sue Best and Philip Bowen set out to provide a haven for Shakespeare’s plays on a small farm amongst the green slopes of mid-Wales. Their creation, the Willow Globe, gives focus to The Shakespeare Link – a project you can read about below, and allows actors a rare space to spin those amazing words, those breathtaking ideas and stories, for increasing numbers of locals and visitors.
Last weekend found me there, in the land of my fathers catching up with Philip – an actor of distinction, with whom I gleefully shared a stage in Scotland some decades since, and had lost touch with until a mutual friend, Alison Skilbeck, took her show “The Power Behind the Crone” to the Willow Globe, and put us back in contact.
On Saturday Phil and Sue played host to one of Shakespeare’s more troubled couples, the Macbeths, by arrangement with a theatre company called The Factory.
This professional group has existed for over ten years, meets on a weekly basis in London, and workshops major plays in an unusual way. As I understand it, each part is learned by several actors, irrespective of gender, and for each performance the roles are played by different combinations of performers, each cast bringing a entirely new take on the way the story is told. A 20-odd strong Factory troupe had arrived by bus and car on Saturday morning, had dress-rehearsed in the afternoon – and then gone on to perform in the evening with completely different casting from the afternoon rehearsal!
On this occasion, for the first half of “Macbeth” the genders were reversed, the Thane played by a woman, the Lady by a man. They were both excellent actors, and we the audience went along with it all, the story unfolding clearly and arrestingly. Come the interval, it was rather wonderful to see the recently-succeeded King of Scotland chatting with audience members while clutching her recently-arrived baby to her breast….Overall it was hugely enjoyable – a big audience drawn from far and wide, the first half of the show played in the open-air theatre (which is contained within a copse of willow trees) and the second half by candle-light in the yellow open marquee beside the farmhouse. It was truly refreshing, because this was genuine, spontaneous creativity – nobody was making a big deal about the gender-swap, for instance – they just asked us to suspend our disbelief while they, a troupe of actors, acted out a story. Just as actors have always done, sometimes with all-male casts, sometimes all-female and sometimes mixed, sometimes with masks or face-paint or wigs, each and every show displaying and sharing a talent to pretend.
One of the current Factory team, the brilliantly multi-skilled Caroline Kilpatrick, is one of our Radagrads, and she’s going to keep in touch about future projects – I will report back.
My companion this trip was my old pal Robin who, when Phil and I worked all those years ago at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, was our company stage manager – so this was a glorious reunion, and we left on the Sunday vowing to return soon, as Phil and Sue settled to planning the next Shakespeare link…
And so in bright sunshine the Cherry Red Motor carried us north, following the River Wye along the English border, then along the River Severn, then crossing the River Vyrnwy – stunning border country.
Did I mention the Land of My Fathers? (For non-Celts, that’s the English name of the Welsh national anthem).We were were driving through a village right on the border, when the place-name I’d just read suddenly lurched from the back of my brain to the front – Llanymynech. Llanymynech! You have to pronounce it carefully, and don’t try while drinking, it can be disastrous. It’s a quiet, unpretentious village, with a canal, a small heritage museum, and not a lot else – but it’s where my ancestors lived, and I’d never been there! My sister Olive in her role as family historian has visited and told me about it, so when I spotted the canal-side information centre I immediately hauled over. There outside by the water was a lady singing folk-songs, and inside another lady serving coffee and information. “Is this your first time in Llanymynech?” says she “Yes”, says I, “But my ancestors came from here – it’s not easy to identify individuals – mostly they were called Bill Jones”. “Ah yes, that can be a problem for me too, I’m called Davies… ”
Visitors Centre Lllanymynech – for pronunciation guide see bottom of this entry.
Then from the land of my fathers to Robin’s roots. After years of globe-trotting my pal has returned to his home town Birkenhead, on the southern flank of Merseyside, and has taken a fine apartment in a lovely Georgian Square. Useful fact for the pub quiz : it seems there are more surviving Georgian houses on Merseyside than in either Bath or Bristol. These of course grew with the wealth rolling in when Liverpool was the great gateway of empire, a constant reminder of the days of cotton and slavery, the wicked triangle of trade which swelled our country’s coffers. But once built, Merseyside spawned some good and wonderful things – amazing buildings, pioneering social reform, and of course a rich vein of art, poetry, plays and music.
Victoria monument and Town Hall, Birkenhead
Everywhere there are reminders of the Beatles – here’s a plaque on the side of what was the Majestic Cinema, Birkenhead, now a Chinese restaurant, and around Mathew St over the river in Liverpool city centre there’s an entire post-Beatles industry, the site of the Cavern Club a scouse answer to Gracelands – plastic and nylon mementos by the score, t-shirts, wigs, guitars, the lot.
But there are other things Merseyside gave the world – its first truly public park, the first steel-framed “skyscraper”, the first mail trains – between Liverpool and Manchester in the 1830s – plus the first transatlantic mail ships, started by Samuel Cunard, in 1840. Some years later Robin joined the Cunard company as a teenage crew-member, and has heady tales of trips in and out of New York in the late 1950s.
On Wednesday last we took the colourful Ferry ‘cross the Mersey. Robin said the first person to sing the song would be heaved overboard – in fact the recorded commentary on the loudspeakers inevitably started with Gerry Marsden singing his 1964 hit, tho’ only about 15 seconds’ worth, probably to limit royalty payments.
The sun shone again as we walked down the gangplank at the Liverpool Pier Head, past the life-size statues of the Fab Four, and up the hill to the Cunard building, where we looked in at the old booking hall where thousands bought their tickets to the New World. Then to the elegant Oriel Chambers, built in 1864 by an architect with the oddly-familiar name of Peter Ellis. This was the first building with a metal frame from which were suspended outer walls of steel-framed glass – opening the door to the creation of thousands of “sky-scrapers” throughout the world.
Close by in Water Street is another elegant building, the former HQ of Martin’s Bank – cue for another pub quiz moment. Did you know that in Word War 2 the bulk of the UK’s gold reserves were moved from London to the vault of Martin’s Bank in Liverpool? Robin reckons there were 3 frigates on permanent stand-by in the estuary in case of German invasion, one for the King, one for the rest of the royal family, and the third for the gold bullion – all to be whisked off to Canada.
Another first, echoing the city’s close ties with Ireland, were the sermons preached in each other’s cathedrals by bishops Warlock and Sheppard, Catholic and Anglican leaders who did so much to heal their communities after the Toxteth riots and the football stadium disasters of the 1980s, and indeed helped pave the way for the Good Friday Agreement . The two cathedrals, at either end of Hope St, are both extraordinary modern buildings, one by Frederick Gibberd, the other by Giles Gilbert Scott. If you’re in Liverpool let me know which you prefer…
Enough already – look at the time – and I haven’t even mentioned Wilfred Owen. I’ll write more about Merseyside poetry and plays next time.
After April’s visit to Humberside (see the blog before last) it was grand to visit the “book-end” estuary, 107 miles down the M62 – and compare two rich cultures, one rooted in fishing, the other in cotton, both indelibly linked to our economy’s seminal, shameful profits from human bondage.
And now I’m off to Europe….as you know this blog tries to avoid politics, but…oh dear, oh dear what are we doing…?
Please respond to any of the above if you’d like to – just scroll back to the top of this page and click on the word “Comments”.
For previous entries, just scroll down
Read about THE SHAKESPEARE LINK here: http://www.shakespearelink.co.uk/about/
Llanymynech pronuciation guide:
“Ll” at the beginning – start to make a noise like a WW2 fighter plane, but only for about one second, and merge it into the normal pronunciation of the letters “la” as in “lad”
The two “y”s are pronounced like the “u” in “gut”, the “e” is short like in “get”
In this word you begin and finish with more or less the same sound – the “ch” is like a short guttural burst of a Messershmitt fighter engine, but unlike the “L” sound at the start , it stays open. Try not to spray the person you are talking to.