Dear comrades, May Day is past, the Merry Month is upon us! And yet – so foul and fair a season I have not seen. Teeth-chattering, biting winds and squalls one day, fitful sunbeams gleaming through breeze-blown blossom the next. This restless Spring has found me in Amsterdam, in West Sussex, in Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Kent – never knowing how best to dress for the weather – my dear, it’s been frightful!
Actually it’s been good. My ever-alert art-loving pal Robin, despite being stuck for the winter in a beach-side apartment in Mexico – poor soul, it’s the only alternative to Birkenhead he could manage – reached across the Web to spear a pair of tickets for the now legendary Vermeer Exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. So on his return off we went, to envious mutterings from all and sundry – the hottest exhibition ticket in Europe, and boy does it merit all the fuss! Mind you, the weather there was dire – having spent much of my youth in East Yorkshire I recognised straight-off the bitter, skin-smarting north-sea rain – but you don’t go to Amsterdam for the weather. You go for canals, for happy-cake cafés, for dotty sex shops, and for terrific restaurants with weather-beating fare. Sheltering at the Stoop & Stoop café we had a fantastic pea and sausage soup!
And then there’s the ART…During a recent TYA workshop actor Will Hopkins asked me “What’s the difference between good acting and great acting?” Good question – one you can bring to any creative activity, I guess. With acting, as well as the indefinable quality of God-given charisma, there’s something to do with sheer concentration, that draws the audience in and holds the attention, that suspends disbelief utterly. And watching and listening to a great musical instrumentalist or singer, there’s an all-else excluding focus on the flow of theme and variations, taking us into the very soul of the music. Is defining great visual art more elusive? Is our reaction to pictures, sculptures and artefacts more subjective? I know, for instance, people who declare themselves left cold by Picasso’s work.
And yet I can’t imagine anyone standing in front of almost any of the Vermeer pictures on display in Amsterdam without feeling that here is something remarkable, something fundamental about life… Brighter brains than mine have produced long books on the impact of art – and clearly perceptions change with the generations. For instance, there’s no doubt that many of Vermeer’s pictures “tell a story”, yet seem to provide far more insight into humanity than those – admittedly often finely painted – Victorian dramatic tableaux like “When Did You last See Your Father?” or “The Long Engagement”. But there my ability to explain grinds to a halt, so any thoughts on this, anyone?
Everyone at the exhibition was taking ‘phone-pictures of the pictures. What makes being in their presence more impactful than looking at photos of the images they represent? Here’s two I took, each of a painting reflecting a possible “back-story”. The lady in blue looking at a letter is, I assume, pregnant. And why is the woman receiving a note while practising lute chords being observed from what may be the inside of a broom cupboard…. ?
Leaving these musings to finer minds, focus now shifts to the Sussex County Cricket Club at Hove, and thence via Zoom to a fishing village in India.
My deeply missed friend GwynethPowell was a serious and active supporter of the Venkat Trust, an educational project in India, appropriately for someone so well known for years as the fictional school headteacher in “Grange Hill”. The Trust’s founder Sylvia Holder last month hosted a lunch at the cricket ground during which Gwyneth’s husband, the actor Alan Leith cut a ribbon to open a roof-top garden the Trust’s school has created in her memory, watched from the school in Kovalam, India by a video link . The work of the Trust is amazing – the project evolved from Sylvia sponsoring a single child’s education into a Trust gathering funding for a fully-fledged local school where previously none existed, providing both primary and secondary learning – and thus vastly improved career opportunities – for hundred of young people. You can read about it on the link at the end of this post.
Sylvia with the new garden – and Alan cuts the ribbon to applause on two continents!
A milestone each April for theatre folk is of course Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd – and this year the estimable “Bran & Chaff” group at Stratford on Avon (previously featured in these pages) held its “alternative” celebratory lunch at the Town House, at the same time as the “official” much more expensive one in the RSC’s marquee by the river. The Town House is a fine hotel/restaurant with links to the Jubilee which kicked off the whole Shakespeare “industry”back in 1769. The recipient of this year’s Bran and Chaff Award is that fine actor and Radagrad Edward Bennett, star of a celebrated RSC “Much Ado” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” double bill. Ed was prevented from attending the lunch in person by filming commitments, but once again technology came to the rescue and post-lunch digestifs were eased down by a showing of a happy and interesting chat Ed and I had recorded on Zoom the day before.
After making his mark in the theatre – a previous triumph was famously taking over Hamlet on press night when David Tennant was injured – Ed now has a family to feed, and his agent is concentrating on TV and film. So look out for him in “Bridgerton” on Netflix, “Joan” on ITV and “Rogue Heroes” on the BBC.
Meanwhile, in Stratford on the 23rd as usual flowers were paraded through the town to be laid at the church, near to where Will is buried alongside his wife Anne, who died 400 years ago this April.
Stratford sixth-formers passing the school Will attended; Anne and Will Shakespeares’ resting place – and a salute in the church to a delegation of theatre-makers from Ukraine, visiting to join in the annual Birthday service. Thoughts are with my colleague the young theatre producer Anastasia Yevchenko as she, her family and friends brace for the next stage in Putin’s wicked war.
And so to Kent – do try to keep up – and a recital in another ancient church, St Andrew’s at Wickhambreaux, a village once owned by Joan Plantagenet, known in medieval days as the “Fair Maid” of that county. She was mother to one of our less happy English Kings, Richard the Second. As part of the concert I read some lines from Shakespeare’s play about him, along with other poetry, and songs were provided by the superb professional choir from St Bride’s Fleet St. (This well-attended event was sponsored by Vyvyan Harmsworth, whose family’s charitable Trust has for decades supported students at RADA) If ever you’re in those parts, this church has stunning art nouveau stained-glass by a Danish artist with a pleasingly Shakespearian name, Arild Rosenkrantz.
The concert was prompted by the crowning in London of a more current monarch – something you may possibly have read about elsewhere, or perhaps caught on TV?
(By the way, I’m told the show at the Abbey was in fact a trailer for a new Westminster adventure series called Penny the Swordbearer……)
And so with stirring choral harmonies by the likes of William Byrd and Edwin Hawkins ringing in the ears, away down the A4 to Wiltshire, to the ancient Borough of Marlborough. This is a town that takes its civic life seriously. Their Mayor-Making ceremony may have no fine-tuned choirs, no military bands nor sword-bearers, but it has beadles, and a Town Cryer, and a Deputy County Lieutenant – and fine red mayoral robes to adorn the stately figure of this year’s chosen civic figurehead – my old friend Nicholas Fogg, MBE. Nicholas is, as it happens, a native of Stratford upon Avon, a stalwart Bran and Chaffer, and author of (as well many other notable publications) a fine biography of the Bard. And this is his third time as Mayor, a hat-trick well worth a toast!
Beadles stoutly guarding the Town Hall; Nicholas with the Deputy Lieutenant of Wiltshire, otherwise known as former BBC broadcaster Shirley Ludford – an expert in Community Radio…if you live in Wilts, stay tuned…
And amidst all this gadding about the Shires, what of London theatre? A production I enjoyed was at yet another church, St Martins in the Fields, of The Chevalier, a play-with-music about Joseph Bologna, the black composer at Marie Antoinette’s court, featuring brilliant violin solos by Braimah Kanneh Mason. And there were two London theatre visits to The Barbican – one to The Meaning of Zong by Giles Terera – a striking production from the Bristol Old Vic, about one of the most shameful events in British slave-trading, with TYA actor-tutor Remi King putting in sturdy work underpinning the unsettling, disturbing narrative.
The other was an “in progress” workshop introduction to an ambitious, intriguing project by The Faction, in which actors and directors in at least five countries are developing a multi-national, multi-language international tour of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. You can read more about this on Simon Tait’s excellent blog – link below.
Warmer than Amsterdam – sunshine at the Barbican, London, last week.
The Venkat Trust: https://venkattrust.org.uk
A Good Read for lovers of Shakespeare: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Shakespeare-Biography-Nicholas-Fogg/dp/1445607697
SIMON TAIT on the Pericles project:
https://www.artsindustry.co.uk/feature/3063-taitmail-when-shakespeare-isn-t-about-language-anymore-it-speaks-to-the-21st-century#:~:text=Home-,TAITMAIL%20When%20Shakespeare%20isn%27t%20about%20language%20anymore%2C%20it%20speaks,in%202the lovely sweep of the river016%20with%20Paapa%20Essiedu.
Historic footnote. This blog has previously mentioned an intriguing landmark quite near where I live, Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, on an attractive sweep of the Thames at Hampton. I’ve recently become a volunteer guide there during its summer Sunday afternoon opening times, so if you’re passing that way, please call in. And if by chance you live in the area, and are either interested in theatre history or know someone who is, full training (usually with cups of tea and cakes) is available for new guides, so please come and join us! There’s more information – and a relevant contact – on this link: