Because I’d been at work that morning, it was well after lunch before we even set off on the 60 mile trip to Shakespeare’s home town. We knew before we left that there would not be enough time to explore properly, but the main aim of the trip was to get photographs of the Shakespeare memorial. We also planned to visit a pub and take a look at the manor house where Stuart had lived when he worked for the BBC. The manor is just outside Stratford, in Alveston, and to continue the literary connection, the village was once home to author J B Priestley and his wife, author and archaeologist, Jacquetta Hawkes.
The memorial was to be our first stop, but we had parked at the far end of the town and so, as we walked, we were able to see that characteristic mix of Georgian elegance, Victorian opulence and medieval timbered buildings that typifies the town.
Many ages of history are illustrated in the architecture here, with every period nestling close on the narrow streets. There has been a settlement at Stratford since at least Anglo-Saxon times, but it is the survival of so many ancient buildings that makes today’s town so interesting. That, and being the birthplace of the Bard and home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
It is curious to see the old timbered buildings in a shopping precinct, especially when many of them still house businesses such as shops and inns. They are easy to spot amongst the later imitations, being lopsided, often covered in strange carvings and exuding a presence that their later counterparts cannot match, with their pristine angles.
There is art everywhere too, from sculptures and fountains, to music and carvings. We were lucky that the poor weather and closed shops over Easter had discouraged the hordes of tourists, though it was still busy. We were able to see much of what a mass of humanity and busy roads might have hidden.
We walked down to the memorial by the river, taking in the edges of the market and the basin where the narrowboats are moored, with me at least weaving dreams of such an existence.
This, apart from a couple of businesses on the outskirts to which I had delivered in the past, was as much as I had seen of the town before. I had rowed down the river with a friend a decade or so earlier, one hot summer’s day. I was glad to be able to explore, at least for a few hours.
This time, the rowing boats were moored; the river was high and fast flowing, no place for a gentle meander. The swans, like the water, had invaded the riverside footpaths. The stately birds are everywhere represented throughout the town. The theatre is the Swan and Shakespeare himself was called the Swan of Avon in Ben Jonson’s memorial poem, published a few years after the Bard’s death. But it was another Swan we were after.
The Black Swan is better known to my guide as the Mucky Duck, and locally as the Dirty Duck. It has been an inn since at least 1738, and it originally occupied three fifteenth century buildings, one of which may have been an even earlier inn. It is one of those places that just feel ‘right’, as if they are serving the purpose for which they were meant.
We stood for a while, glass in hand, before taking a seat, just looking at the photographs on the walls of some of the hundreds of actors and actresses who had frequented the pub over the years. The Swan theatre is just yards away and this is the haunt of those great names who have played there. Many of the more recent faces were unknown to us, but all the greats of stage and screen who had come to Stratford to play Shakespeare were there.
Everyone seemed to be surreptitiously looking at everyone else, hoping, perhaps, to recognise a face, for there has always been a mystique about actors. When the world was much younger, theatre was intimately linked to the Mysteries and, still today, there is something about those who can take on the persona of a character, heart and soul, that reminds us of that ancient link to those who consorted with the gods. Perhaps that is why the great actors are still revered.
Who knows who else was in the pub that day? The magic of theatre happens as much out of the spotlight as in it. We might get to know the faces of the players, but never see the wardrobe mistress, lighting engineer, or any of those who work behind the scenes. It was only after we left that we realised that, between our vaguely Bohemian appearance and our talk of past and future ‘productions’ of the Silent Eye annual workshops, some of the odd looks we were getting might have arisen from a mistaken idea that we too were associated with the stage.
I suppose that, in a sense we are… at least in as far as the Silent Eye writes and produces a new script for a five act drama every year. But although they adhere to the Shakespearean model, and we fret about costumes, props and lighting, they are not so much plays as vehicles for spritual exploration. We are closer to the origins of theatre than to the modern stage. Our journey is that of the Fool and the characters we seek to bring to life are our own.
“The fool doth think he is wise,
but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
~ XCXWilliam Shakespeare,