One last day in Stratford-upon-Avon

June 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday was my last day in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The very first thing I did was march on down to the cruise dock and demand that they accept my ticket from the day before.  Okay, I didn’t demand… I asked sweetly (sometimes I am willing to abuse the fact that I look younger, more vulnerable, and completely innocent).  I was readily informed that although the ticket says it’s only valid the day it is purchased, it is in fact valid whenever you choose to use it.  Well, they should probably stop printing them with the statement: “VALID DAY OF SALE ONLY.”  I was happy to be able to use the ticket, although I was perversely disappointed that I didn’t get to be snappy and assertive (my favorite thing to be when my sweet and innocent act doesn’t work – made all the more effective when used one right after the other).  But that’s just me being twisted, so never mind.

The next cruise was leaving in just a few minutes, so I hopped on.  The tour guide for the cruise was a young man who thought himself a bit of a comedian.  I’m sure that much of his act was scripted by the cruise company, but there were certainly segments that he was inventing on the spot, and, well, they weren’t stellar.  He was friendly, though, and amusing enough not to be obnoxious.  He asked us a few Shakespeare trivia questions, and I proudly got them all right, even the trick question about his birth date.  I am so good.  If my brazen nerdhood shocks you, you clearly haven’t been paying attention to my obsession with Shakespeare.

From the cruise, I wandered over to the final of the five Shakespeare houses (Hathaway cottage, Arden farm, his birthplace, and Hall’s Croft being the other four), which has the peculiar name “Nash’s House/New Place.”  New Place is the name given to Shakespeare’s final home, which he lived in for just under a decade after returning to Stratford from London; this is the house where he died.  The story goes that the house passed to Shakespeare’s daughter, then to her daughter, who married the man who lived next door (somebody Nash) and moved into his house; the house that Shakespeare had lived in was then sold.  Eventually, it was sold again and wound up in the hands of someone who was not a fan of Shakespeare.  He got sick of all of the tourists knocking on his door, and, after various other events, tore down the house.

gardens at New Place

Today, the Nash house still stands and is a museum of Tudor life while next door there is an open plot with exposed foundations which are currently being excavated in the search for artifacts from Tudor times (if not from the Bard himself).  Behind the foundation, there are beautiful gardens.  While Shakespeare lived there, gardens were present as well, although the property was not as big as it is today.

From Nash’s House, I took myself out for a lovely lunch across the street from Shakespeare’s birthplace (it’s hard to escape Shakespeare landmarks in Stratford even if you want to, which I didn’t).  After lunch, I wandered back up to my hotel to drop off some purchases and figure out what I was doing for the afternoon.  I considered using one of the walking guides I’d purchased, but a closer inspection revealed that I’d already been to all of the sites on the Historic Stratford-upon-Avon walk and the Shakespeare-themed walk (which, by the way, are practically the same thing… Shakespeare is Stratford-upon-Avon’s history).

Without a plan, I wandered back into town thinking that the worst that might happen was me spending a few hours reading on the banks of the Avon River.  Not a horrible fate, I figured.  After taking an extended stroll through the town on my way to the river, I decided to see what was playing at the Swan Theater.  The Swan and the Royal Shakespeare Theater (okay, theatre) share a building and a box office.  The show currently running at the Swan is Dunsinane, a recently written sequal to Macbeth (how clever to run them at the same time).  There were still seats available (and cheap, too!), so I bought a ticket.  I had about an hour left before the show, so I took another stroll around the town center, read for a bit, and then headed in.

Just one of the many Tudor-style buildings and Shakespeare-themed establishments in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Dunsinane was interesting.  It wasn’t great, it wasn’t awful, and I’m really not sure if I liked it or not.  The show starts before the end of Macbeth, as Malcolm, Macduff, and Siward make their way toward Dunsinane.  The battle in which Macbeth is killed happens shortly, and then we’re in new territory.  I am pretty sure that Dunsinane is more historically accurate in some ways than is Macbeth, which explains why certain details don’t match up between the two (Macbeth was king for many years, not just days/weeks; Lady Macbeth was actually Duncan’s wife before she married Macbeth, making Malcolm Macbeth’s son but not hers).

The first act was a joke-a-minute and quite funny, the action punctuated by monologues of one of the young soldiers who is ostensibly writing letters to his parents.  The second act was completely dark and humorless, with the exception of a few slapstick and off-color jokes that seemed entirely out of place and therefore not funny at all.  The two acts were, in tone, completely unrelated to each other.  It was hugely disjointed.  There were elements that were not (where the first half mocks Scotland – the landscape, the food, the people – the second half reassess more seriously and poignantly, which worked well rather than seeming like the two halves were at odds with each other), but overall it was as if I’d watched two different plays that just happened to share characters and each with only half a plot.  The ending, too, was a bit of a letdown, inconclusive (and not in a thought provoking, make the audience consider things kind of way).

Finally, the two leads (Siward and Lady Macbeth) were… not great.  I’m no theater buff and can’t claim to be, but I thought they were overacting to an extreme.  In the first half of the play, it worked because the tone was lightweight and mocking; in the second half, it seemed like I was watching a soap opera.  A bad soap opera.  I know plenty of people didn’t share my opinion about this; the woman sitting on my right repeatedly told anyone who would listen that the lead actress had done a lot of TV and radio work and wasn’t she just fabulous??  My neighbor told me twice that, seeing this actress perform live, she really felt in her element.  I’m glad that she enjoyed it so much, but I question her taste.

Regardless, the show was interesting, exploring ideas of what happens after a throne is won (when the people have not been won over) and, not so subtly at times, exploring the purpose of participating in a war in which one army has nothing personal at stake (in the case of the play: England helping Scottish Malcolm exert control over his subjects and fight the former Queen, Lady Macbeth).  Some of the writing was excellent, with certain standout lines that really struck home for me.  I’d be interested to see the play performed again; perhaps in the hands of another director it could be convincing.  I also thought the young soldier with the monologues was great (his tone was spot on, always), but he hardly got any recognition despite being a lead and the only decent one at that.

One big plus in this production was the presence of a live band (drums and other percussion played by the same musician, an electric guitar, and a cello, plus two women singing), which rocked.  The music was great for the show and added a great deal to it.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Additionally, the ensemble cast of soldiers was also quite good.  In a number of scenes, the dialogue is very snappy and moves at the speed of light, and they carried it off without a hitch; it was fun just to hear them doing it, and I imagine it was even more fun to perform.

So, I’m torn.  On the one hand it was funny, clever, thoughtful and thought provoking, with well-composed and performed music and some great performances.  On the other hand, it was disjointed, the leads were not convincing or good, and the ending left me wondering why we were all clapping when surely there must be another scene.  Regardless, it was a fun way to spend an evening, and for that I most certainly can’t complain.

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