Just back from Chris’s short break in Stratford on Avon – and what a wonderful time we had! Three days of good company, excellent theatre and stimulating discussion. Both productions we saw – Hamlet and Don Quixote – were unusual and imaginative. Hamlet was set in a corrupt African country; this underlined the idea of there being ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’ but also meant that the stage was filled with African colour and music which worked astonishingly well.
This well thought out setting allowed for Fortinbras to arrive at the end of the play in almost exactly the same flashy dictator’s uniform as Claudius had worn at the beginning whilst the ghost of Hamlet’s father rose imposingly out of the mist in his full tribal robes. The sword fight, here done with staves, was genuinely thrilling.
All credit to the young, predominately black cast who played it like they really meant it – Paapa Essiedu, in particular, showed an understanding and sensitivity to his portrayal of Hamlet which belied his youth. One to watch for the future!
Then on to Don Quixote the following evening – another imaginative staging of the familiar (but not often read!) Cervantes’ novel. Some of our group liked the interactive element of the performance more than others but Rufus Hound certainly brought Sancho Panza vividly to life. The highlight of the evening was David Threlfall’s mesmerising performance as the Don, funny and tragic by turns but never losing his quiet dignity even in the most ridiculous of circumstances. It was a very funny evening but also profoundly moving.
I loved the moment where Sancho Panza has to decide whether to stay forever in the same dusty place with its unchanging horizons or to set off with Don Quixote on his mad quest. But, as Don Quixote tells him – ‘something is better than nothing’. Perhaps it’s better to have a dream – even a deluded one – than not to dream at all.
Our appreciation and understanding of both plays was considerably heightened by the entertaining and informative sessions with our literary expert, Liz Merry on Shakespeare and Chris himself talking about Cervantes.
Liz’s beautifully illustrated talks about Shakespeare and his world in general and Hamlet in particular made us look at the playwright and his works in a whole new light. It was fascinating to discover just how much religion, politics and the constant fear of plague overshadowed the Elizabethan world. She explained the dilemma faced by Shakespeare’s father, John, required by the Protestant authorities to remove the medieval paintings from the Guild church where he worshipped – murals he must have been familiar with for his whole life. In fact, he whitewashed over them and their ghostly remains can still be seen today.
Chris’s fascinating talk about Don Quixote emphasised the poignancy as well as the humour of this novel that changed the face of world literature. His infectious enthusiasm was such that those of us who, to be honest, had never read it have been encouraged to get hold of his recommended translation and try it for ourselves. In fact, it would have been much harder to understand the play without Chris’s introductory talk. We even learned how to pronounce ‘Don Quixote’ – not necessarily the way you might think!
Stratford on Avon basked in the spring sunshine and several of us strolled along the banks of the Avon to visit Old Trinity church to visit Shakespeare’s grave. This is still a solemn and beautiful place – and one which was important to Shakespeare throughout his life.
The Arden Hotel, as ever, was a delightful base for a stay in Stratford with its spacious rooms, delicious food and incredibly close proximity to the theatres. A highlight of the trip was the presence of Simon Russell Beale at the hotel which made some of us very happy!