Taranaki: All the world's a stage in Stratford

By Chris Samsara

Romeo and Juliet from inside the glockenspiel Elizabethan clock tower in Stratford. Photo / Chris Samsara
Romeo and Juliet from inside the glockenspiel Elizabethan clock tower in Stratford. Photo / Chris Samsara

Shakespeare could have been born at the ludicrously named towns of Ugley, Crapstone, or North Piddle - but he wasn't. He was born at sensible Stratford-upon-Avon.

So when it came to naming a new Taranaki town that had a river running through it, William Crompton of the Taranaki Waste Lands Board thought naming it after the bard's birthplace was the sensible thing to do. He hadn't got his way with calling Inglewood Milton but where there's a Will, there's a way, and the new town became Stratford-upon-Patea.

Ever since, it has flirted with Shakespeare and the town of his birth; Stratford Borough's crest featured a spear from the Shakespeare family's coat-of-arms, reciprocal tree plantings and mayoral visits between the Stratfords, that sort of thing. And next week, visitors from there and other Shakespearean-themed Stratfords in Canada, the States, and Australia descend on Taranaki's Stratford.

As they enter Stratford-upon-Patea, a small sepia-toned plaque of Shakespeare's face and quill in hand will greet them. But they will have to look for it as one's eye is drawn by much larger, higher, gaudy signs, advertising today's tragic comedies like a radio station and a real estate agent.

That's a sad story perhaps, but there never was a story of more woe than that of Juliet and her Romeo. And every day, among the merchants of Stratford, the star crossed lovers pop out of New Zealand's first and possibly only glockenspiel clock.

As Elizabeth was crowned queen five years before Shakespeare was born, the clock tower has an Elizabethan style about it. But this juxtaposed architecture is more sinned against than sinning as across the street, a small audience watches the pair's performance from outside a featureless bank. These daily performances may mean you are more likely to see Shakespeare in Stratford than any other place in New Zealand.

It's the famous balcony scene where Juliet thinks out loud; "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?" This is a good question because at the time she met him, Romeo was in love with Rosaline. And we're meant to feel sorry for Romeo and Juliet?

It seems there was no rhyme or reason from the blinking idiots who selected almost 70 of Shakespeare's characters as Stratford street names or their relationships with each other. Rosaline didn't even make it. Romeo and Juliet did, but not together. They are two blocks apart. As are Orlando and Rosalind.

Yet the lunatic Lear gets to meet with his virtuous and merciful daughter Cordelia. The very one he cleared out bag and baggage because she didn't inflate his ego enough. And one of his stony-hearted villains of a daughter, Regan, is one of Stratford's longest streets. But as good luck would have it, Portia St is segmented; once for Julius Caesar, once for the Merchant of Venice, and once more is, well, it's all Greek to me.

But where Portia meets Fenton St, there's an entrance into King Edward Park. These magnificent grounds that consume over half of Stratford's 36 hectares of reserves is stuffed with rewarewa, rhodos, and riverside walkways. Within one minute of entering it, just past the Scout and Guide Den, is the site of the 1870s ford across the Patea River. This is Stratford-upon-Patea.

It's all because of John de Coutances, the Bishop of Worcester. In 1196, he decided to form a town among his rambling estates where the Roman road, or "strete", crossed the Avon River, the ford. It would be almost 400 years before Shakespeare was born at "Strete ford"-upon-Avon and another 300 years before Stratford-upon-Patea's birth. But this is the place of that ford.

It's also the site of the annual Baldrick's Big Day Out. It's more Elizabethan than Shakespeare but I laughed myself into stitches at the jugglers, jesters, and jilted gigolos, but most of all at Baldrick, who gnawed parsnips - gormlessly. Then there were knights and, of course, poetry.

Back in the 1870s, Crompton fantasised that, "England had a poet born at Stratford-on-Avon and might not New Zealand produce one likewise at Stratford-on-Patea?" If only it were that easy. However, Janet Frame did live here for three years in the late 1970s. Although she never found the silence she sought, she wrote, "I still have faith in the town because it has a river and Shakespearian names."

And like the Patea River, I'm sure she was thankful that Shakespeare wasn't born at North Piddle. But regardless of the name, its character streets of Romeo and Lear and Hamlet will, like the bard himself, still be here when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

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Further information: If you'd like to visit Stratford and check out the Shakespearean connection, see tourism.net.nz.

- NZ Herald

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