Shakespeare and Company

The road takes us into New England

Well, we’re a little behind with our posting. We’ve actually just arrived in Nashville, Tennessee (at 2am this morning, though we then went back an hour). It literally has been non-stop for the Shakespeare on the Road team since we left Harlem last Thursday…

From Harlem we travelled up into beautiful New England. We paused briefly to visit the grave of the actor and activist Paul Robeson (the cemetery had already been closed an hour, but we pleaded with man on the gate). He let us in, but told us to see his manager in the garage who might be able to help us. We went to the garage and couldn’t find anyone, so we started our search. Then the man we’d chatted to briefly came looking for us and said he was going to call the police. Ho-hum… He returned with his manager to whom we explained everything. ‘I’ll take you there,’ she said, ‘but you have five minutes only.’

So, we paid our respects to the great man. There is many a time I’ve heard stories of visitors who turn up at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon just after they’ve closed and plead with them to see Shakespeare’s grave. Usually, as I understand it, these moments end happily, as ours did.

We were in Lenox, Massachusetts for two days with the wonderful Tina Packer and Shakespeare and Company. Tina, the founder and visionary, is from the West Midlands and had worked with the RSC. But she needed to get away because she felt there were better ways for artists to listen to one another. In starting Shakespeare and Company in the late 1970s, she also happened to save the novelist Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, which was derelict and about to be pulled down. A trust was set up properly to conserve the site whilst a programme of regular Shakespeare performances took place there and in the surrounding grounds. In the full irony of time, the Trust decided that the performances should move out, and Shakespeare and Company had to leave the very environment it had created. But, as always, wheels continue to turn and it was The Mount we visited on the Saturday afternoon to see this season’s Romeo and Juliet performed in a dell with a back drop of tall, white cedar trees.

The season felt like it was in full swing. We also saw a conflation of both parts of Henry IV and Tina’s own Julius Caesar, politically-edged and urgent: a lean, mean, Caesar-machine, as I dubbed it in the interval. And then half a dozen interviews, a meeting with the Board of Directors, a presentation and a reception. And so our two days whizzed by.

Tina herself is fearless, powerful, influential, needing to be heard, and trusts that the dramatic art comes from a human interaction which holds within itself a truthful intention, open to the possibility of something life-changing. In our interview with her (which will we intend to uploaded in the next few days) we watched her wide-eyed playfulness unfold the story of how her world-class company came into being and how it has remained true to its founding principles and practices.

They are hoping to build a replica of The Rose Theatre on the grounds and have already marked out its footprint, covered with a tent, a place for performances. We were able to catch a glimpse of the actors in rehearsal there. I was surprised to feel how small it seems – much more intimate than the Globe – and Tina is keen on the way it relates the actors bodies to the space, the open sky.

From Lennox we drove ever such a long way and time to Stratford, Ontario (five shows in three days, interviews and a presentation). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

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