There are many good things about Stratford upon Avon, and many remarkable people who live there. Not least a doughty crew of scribes, of locally-based journalists, authors and other thinking, articulate folk, who meet under the banner of “Bran and Chaff”. Each year they hold a lunch to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, an alternative to the annual Shakespeare Birthday Lunch and procession, an event dating back to 1824.
The “official” Birthday Lunch involves presenting a trophy sponsored by a Stratford jewellery company, the Pragnell Award, to a distinguished theatre practitioner, academic or organisation. This year it went to the celebrated Polish Shakespearian Professor Jerzy Limon, and previous recipients include many theatrical dames and knights, such as Judi Dench and Anthony Sher.
The “Bran and Chaffers” offer a slightly lower-key, Not-the-Pragnell award, to someone who has served the Shakespearian cause, but with perhaps not quite so noticeable a profile, such as the quietly brilliant actor David Troughton, Liz Flower of the Flower’s Brewery Family (who organised for years the “official” lunch) and the poet and former director of the Stratford Poetry Festival, Roger Pringle. So I was hugely honoured to be offered their 2019 award, on the strength of my having steered the training of a number of today’s eminent Shakespearian actors.
Now, while it’s true graduates from my time as head of actor training at RADA feature strongly on any recent list of great classical performances, I would be the last to claim any personal credit for their achievements, or for those of the extraordinary team of specialist tutors who actually delivered the teaching I was tasked to co-ordinate. But co-ordinate I did, and with my wondrously wise and caring colleagues Patricia Myers and Nick Barter did our best to look after and guide these unique, special young talents on their way into an uncertain, unpredictable trade.
Since then we’ve seen some amazing work, including for instance a range of Hamlets – Ben Whishaw, Maxine Peake, Jack Laskey, Tom Hiddleston, Michelle Terry – plus, with reference to Stratford, Ed Bennett’s famous 2008 short-notice RSC take-over from the injured David Tennant, recorded by The New York Times as “Bennett…an actor who had been given the opportunity of his career and knew just what to do with it.” That’s our boy!
I had two bites at this particular cherry. Sandy Holt, the moving spirit behind Bran and Chaff, had persuaded the outstanding Irish artist Eve Parnell to create as the award a Shakespeare-inspired picture, and Eve had agreed to fly over specially to present it at the lunch on April 27. But that was the weekend, if you remember, when the British isles were hit by a hurricane-level storm, and all flights out of Dublin were cancelled – so we proceeded with the lunch, and I was given a photo of the picture instead! And we had a terrific meal in the restaurant atop the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and were treated to tales of Performing the Bard by two brilliant former RSC company members, Nicholas Day and Hannah Young.
Later, it was decided that another date would be set for Eve to present the award in person – and so on a July Monday, the Bran and Chaffers hosted another gathering, at the Falcon Hotel Stratford – and this time the winds from Ireland were fair, Eve arrived and bestowed on me her lovely piece of work.
It’s an ink drawing of Touchstone in “As You Like It” and he’s saying “The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wisemen do foolishly…”
We can only hope there is a Touchstone somewhere in Downing St…
And so here’s the summer, and it finds me at new location. Instead of each morning staring at Canada geese swarming a reservoir in east London, I now start each day with Canada geese swarming the river to the capital’s south west, and witness a parade of river-users – rowers, swimmers, skullers, sailors, fishers, fishes, ducks, gulls, geese and cormorants. Upstream is Kingston, Hampton Court and Garrick’s Villa, downstream is Teddington Lock – where the the tides reach – Richmond, Twickenham and after a few winding miles, London. These are places resonant with the nation’s history and sometimes with my own, so watch this space for further reflections as the year unfolds.
So how is your summer reading? I have three recommendations to offer TYA blog readers. For those intrigued by the ways in which the craft of acting can be taught and learned, Vladimir Mirodan’s The Actor and the Character is now available in paperback – a rich, detailed exploration of how the acting process has intertwined with our understanding of human behaviour throughout history.
Hot off the press is a wonderfully succinct, practical book on how to make sure people people really listen to – and remember – you and what you’ve got to say. No surprises that it’s written by a terrific actor and director, now also a highly successful international business trainer, Dominic Colenso. The title says it all – Impact.
And for those hungry for more about a glove-maker’s son from Stratford who became history’s most celebrated playwright and poet, seek out Nicholas Fogg’s Hidden Shakespeare – a book about a Stratford lad by a Stratford lad, taking the reader into fascinating new and unexpected territory.
Meanwhile, are any of you still thinking of joining a summer school? If you like the idea of studying performance skills in the Mediterranean, I hear quite cheap flights can still be found this year even though this is peak season. And it may still be possible to find a late place on a course in a wonderful location by an olive grove in Greece, where several of my distinguished former RADA colleagues have put together an intriguing programme. Check out the Kalamata Drama web-site on the link at the bottom of this page.
Back in Stratford in April, although I was the only guest collecting a Bran and Chaff prize, Sandy made sure we actors all went home with a really clever “goody bag”, including mini-sculptures by local artist Claire Brierley. Here they are – Shakespeare again, this time the King and the Fool, fashioned from small shards of wood off-cuts. Good aren’t they? There’s a link about Claire below – check out her work when you visit Warwickshire.
And now I find there are three Fools in my room…Touchstone on the wall, the wood-chip Fool on the shelf…and then, when I moved house, in a dusty case I found this picture, a 1970s black & white image taken during a camera rehearsal for a Thames Television version of “King Lear”.
Who might be the goofy wispy-haired Fool gazing wistfully at Nuncle? And observe the King – played by the late great Irish actor Patrick Magee – seen here flicking the ash off his cigarette…You can read more about this amazing, sadly missed star on the link below.
And while we’re on Stratford and its remarkable inhabitants, few are as remarkable as the traveller, admired writer and revered teacher Jay Norris, who this year on Bastille Day celebrated her birthday with an enthusiastic swim in the pool on a ship circumnavigating the UK – Happy 99th, Jay!
Links – click to visit the relevant web-site: