Monday, 14 March 2011

The Hollow Crown

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well-grac’d actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious;
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on Richard.

Richard II, Act V, Scene II

Thus the Duke of York describes Bolingbroke’s triumphant entry into London with the deposed King Richard riding in his train. This is a playful inversion of the drama for me for, as far as I am concerned, the play is dominated by Richard, not Bolingbroke. It’s Richard my gaze is fixed on when he’s on the stage; when he leaves it my interest takes a little dip. Of course, I soon ascend from the dip: this is my favourite Shakespeare play. It’s fair to say, though, that for this play-goer if Richard isn’t up to the job the rest might as well not bother.

I’ve seen Fiona Shaw’s Richard, Kevin Spacey’s Richard, and a couple of other unfortunately unmemorable Richards. Now I’ve seen John Heffernan take on the role in a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF) in Bristol (8 March 2011) and have no hesitation in entering him into a trinity of sublime Richards with Shaw and Spacey. Heffernan played Richard like a king and like a man. Here was the anointed sovereign who thought himself guarded by angels, God’s representative on earth, something higher than mortals who “was not born to sue, but to command”. Here too was the defeated and deserted man, a mere mortal after all: “I live with bread like you, feel want,/Taste grief, need friends”. There was a wonderful clarity to Heffernan’s portrayal. You saw Richard in all his moods: cruel and capricious, haughty and humbled, raving against his fate and philosophising bleakly about the human condition.

SATTF have reinstated Shakespeare’s spelling and pronunciation of "Bullingbrooke" for the eighteenth century “Bolingbroke”. This gives, according to the programme, the twin sounds of “bull” and a running stream. These are, no doubt, metaphors one can make much of in relation to the usurping Duke of Lancaster. I, however, hear the word “bully” (“They well deserve to have/That know the strong’st and surest way to get”). He is marvellously played by Matthew Thomas, particularly after his success when he begins to realise that kingship might not be all it’s cracked up to be. He can no more get his quarrelling nobles to make up than Richard could; nor trust their oaths of loyalty any further than could the ousted king; his son is cavorting in the London brothels; and to top it all his carefully constructed fa├žade of the legality of his reign is destroyed by Richard’s murder.

Seeds are, of course, sown for the wonderful plays that follow, but for me Richard II stands alone as one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful and profound works. I’ve never thought of it as a history play: it’s a poet’s play. The marvellous cast of SATTF brought out the poetry in every truly-spoken line, and with it the play’s psychological and spiritual depths. This fantastic production runs until 19 March 2011.

Richard II at Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (includes links to reviews).

The Guardian Review

The British Theatre Guide

The Stage

Monday, 7 March 2011

Elms and Bees

I had another wonderful evening in Chepstow’s Drill Hall on Saturday (5 March 2011) at a Poetry on the Border event. This time I went to see Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke: a tremendous double bill. William Ayot, who organises PotB, introduced them as two “great” poets, reflecting on the fact that “great” is a word he often uses of poets, but is particularly applicable to these two. He’s right of course.

Duffy offered us a range of poems, many of which touched on things we are losing, precious things that are slipping away. Elm trees, decimated by disease, and now the survival of the remaining few threatened by government spending cuts which decrees no more research into its cause. Old pub names full of meaning - local, historical, agricultural - replaced by rootless, manufactured nonsenses. Bees, gone with disastrous consequences for every growing thing. County names: this last a protest against Royal Mail’s instruction that we no longer need to include the county in addresses. But I want to speak to the Lincolnshire Poacher, protests Duffy, in a wonderful evoking and naming of place.

She speaks of personal loss too, such as that of her mother. She imagines getting to know her mother from the time of her death, going back in time and calling up memories that are more like meetings. Another verse records her mother’s last word, a request for water, and recalls how as a child she called for water in the night, and how as a mother herself she took water to her own children when they called out for thirst in the night.

Gillian Clarke too used a backward-looking vision in a poem about her mother’s childhood, looking at how the child still exists inside the old person. Her mother was one of ten, five boys and five girls. The poem was inspired by a letter received from a woman who as an only child played with her mother; it enabled the poet to approach her mother's childhood. These beautiful verses of Duffy’s and Clarke’s made me think of my own mother and what her life has been, now she is wandering and weeping in the darkness of dementia.

Clarke’s latest obsession, she told us, is ice – cold - snow. She described the River Ely beneath her Cardiff flat, frozen and refrozen until it looked like a zebra. As a child she loved a polar bear skin on the floor of the house she lived in, and her poem imagines a time in which we had not melted the ice cap or shot the bear. The evening ended with her poem about a swan in winter. She had watched a pair of swans nesting in a lake formed by a curve of the river for years. This year the male came back but the female did not. He is waiting for her still. I left the Drill Hall with tears blurring my eyes for this and the many other beautiful, heart-touching verses I’d heard that evening.

For this is what the power of words is. Real, true poetry said out loud. Stories told and insights shared. This is when words and meaning become music so that like music you play them over in your head, driving home through the drizzle. Ideas and words, words and ideas, singing.

William Ayot announced at the end of the evening a plan – a dream – to establish a Centre for the Oral Tradition in Chepstow, a place for poetry, storytelling, oratory. It’s a fantastic dream and one that I for one hope is realised. If you do too send money! Contact William Ayot – he’s got a website and he’s on Facebook. Let’s not allow our great traditions of poem and storytelling to slip away with the elms and the bees.

For information on future events at Poetry on the Border -

Carol Ann Duffy -

Gillian Clarke -

William Ayot -