UK: Stratford-upon-Avon sets world's stage

By Anthony Looch

The restored 16th century home where it's believed William Shakespeare was born in 1564. Photo / AP
The restored 16th century home where it's believed William Shakespeare was born in 1564. Photo / AP

I feel awe, and some emotion, as I stand in the dark beamed Tudor schoolroom where William Shakespeare was taught in the middle of the 16th century.

I am in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Warwickshire town where England's most famous playwright and poet was born, and which always remained his home, despite long stays in London pursuing his theatrical business career.

I am viewing some of the many preparations in the town to commemorate his legacy, as the 400th anniversary of his death on April 23 approaches.

On that day the schoolroom - and the ancient Guildhall in which it is situated - will be permanently opened to the public, following a huge restoration programme.

Two pairs of children's shoes on display inside the "Birth Room" at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo / AP
Two pairs of children's shoes on display inside the "Birth Room" at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo / AP

Visitors will be invited to step into the shoes of the young Shakespeare and take part in a live Tudor lesson with a schoolmaster. They will also be able to learn about the role of the Guildhall, which was at the heart of Stratford's civic governance and where Shakespeare's father served as mayor from 1568-69, when William was a child.

In his play As You Like It, Shakespeare memorably describes the Seven Ages of Man and talks of "the whining schoolboy, with his satchel. And shining morning face, creeping like snail. Unwillingly to school".

Would he have been like that when he came here in the mornings? One will never know, because of the lack of intimate, personal information about him. But he must have been a highly intelligent boy with a curious mind, and one can reasonably assume that he would have enjoyed gaining knowledge, despite the strictness and physical confinement of the classroom.

I move on to the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) complex, at the heart of the town. The main theatre, which seats more than 1000 people, principally stages work by Shakespeare. Many of Britain's greatest stage stars began their careers here, at what must be one of the most illustrious theatrical venues in the world.

I have a tasty lunch at the Rooftop Restaurant on the third floor of the theatre, and take the lift up to the viewing platform in the building's 36m-high observation tower, which provides stunning views of the town and the river Avon.

Then I return to earth, to explore substantial new developments inside the theatre complex, which consists of the main theatre, the smaller Swan Theatre, and the Other Place.

The Other Place is the RSC's research and development hub, and is now home to a new studio theatre, rehearsal rooms, costume store and cafe bar. It's re-opened with a new discovery tour bound to delight theatre buffs of all ages.

Visitors will be taken on a From Page To Stage journey, showing how preparation for a play begins on the first day of rehearsal and eventually ends up with the opening performance.

Head Verger Jon Ormrod tends to the grave of William Shakespeare in the Chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford Upon Avon. Photo / AP
Head Verger Jon Ormrod tends to the grave of William Shakespeare in the Chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford Upon Avon. Photo / AP

For the first time, people will be able to view the company's store of 30,000 costumes. I am particularly struck by the astonishing range of women's shoes, many of which date back to the middle of the 20th century, and some even earlier.

In the RSC's Swan Wing, a new family-friendly exhibition will open in the autumn. It will celebrate the magic of Shakespeare on stage, and reveal secrets and stories from a century of theatre-making at Stratford.

I also visit a building that, to me, is one of Britain's greatest historical gems - the little house in which the Bard was born, and which amazingly has survived for so many centuries.

The low-ceilinged, heavily beamed dwelling has a parlour, hall, workshop and bedchambers, which are furnished as they would have looked in the 1570s, when William and his siblings lived there with their father John, a glove-maker, and their mother, Mary.

When William grew up and became one of the most prosperous men in Stratford, he bought the second-largest house in town close by, in 1597.

It was called New Place and, after it passed out of the Shakespeare family's hands, it was demolished in 1759, and the site has remained a garden ever since.

Eventually, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust acquired the site and the house next door. This is known as Nash's House, and it was once home to Thomas Nash and his wife, Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth.

It is among several properties related to Shakespeare, which are owned and cared for by the trust, the headquarters of which are in the fascinating Shakespeare Centre next to the birthplace house.

The highlight of the global celebrations will be the re-opening of New Place in July after what the trust describes as a "transformation". That, it says, "will showcase artworks, contemporary landscaped and traditional gardens, as well as a major new exhibition in the restored and extended Nash's House next door".

In the evening, after dinner and a rest in my quiet room at the comfortable four-star Arden Hotel, I go to the nearby RSC theatre to see an exciting new production of Hamlet. This is my favourite Shakespearean play - the first one I ever saw, and the one I know best.

Hamlet is played passionately by 25-year-old actor Paapa Essiedue, who is joined on stage by a predominantly black cast. Although the setting remains nominally Denmark, we are clearly in an African country, and are reminded of this by the use of powerful drumming and vivid costumes.

I am fascinated by the production, which proves to me once again that Shakespeare's brilliant words, with their eternal truths, lend themselves well to virtually any setting, timeframe, or interpretation. Nor are his plays quite as incomprehensible as some people believe.

As a child growing up in the 1940s, in a small coastal town in South Africa, I knew Shakespeare had been a famous playwright in England in the olden days, and no more than that. In 1948, I went with some friends to see Laurence Olivier's newly released film adaptation of Hamlet at the local cinema. It was my first Shakespearean experience.

Far from being confused or bored, we were riveted, and although much of the dialogue passed over our heads, I substantially understood the story. Afterwards, we could talk of little else and had great fun dressing up and enacting scenes from the story, especially those involving sword fighting.

My mind is still full of Shakespeare and his works as I buy myself a copy of Hamlet, which I intend to read again.

Along with his great plays, I want to know more about him, and although scant information exists, I hope the amazing innovations in Stratford-upon-Avon will shed light on one of the world's literary greats.


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