I’D like to take you back 56 years to an afternoon that changed my life. It was the spring of 1965, I was 15 and in the fifth form at grammar school with O-levels looming. For English literature we were studying Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a book called Ten Twentieth Century Poets and Shakespeare’s Henry V. I don’t think we were well taught – we would take turns to read aloud, and that is not a good way to tackle any book, in my opinion, let alone a challenging one – and I had paid no attention whatsoever to the Shakespeare. I found it incomprehensible. (My principal interest was pop: I had seen the Rolling Stones a couple of weeks earlier at Croydon Fairfield Halls.) At last some sense of self-preservation kicked in and I realised I had at least to read the play. Living opposite was a girl who had left my school the previous summer after her A-levels. How it came about I cannot remember, but she lent me her own copy of Henry V and one afternoon, with a couple of weeks to go to the exam, I forced myself to get down to it.
I can remember the scene: I was at our dining table, a 1930s black oak gate-leg with barley twist legs, one semi-circular leaf extended. My chair was one of the matching set with a dark green faux leather seat. To the left was a hatch through to the kitchen. I opened the book.
Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Unlike my school text book, the explanatory notes were displayed as footnotes on each page – no turning to the back of the book and searching for the right number; you could read the verse and take in the interpretation at the same time. Suddenly I got it! It made sense, and not just sense but beautiful sense! It was like the sun coming out.
Later I bought a hardbacked notebook and copied some of my favourite verses and passages into it, from Shakespeare and elsewhere. I still have the book and here is the ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech from Hamlet in my 16- or 17-year-old writing, complete with crossings out.
The next few summers I went with three school friends to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in action. At that time a certain number of tickets were available on the day for each performance to stand at the back of the stalls. My recollection is that they were five shillings each, which is 25p now. Can they really have been so cheap? Tickets went on sale at 9am or maybe 9.30, so to be near the front the dedicated theatre-goer would bring a sleeping bag and spend the night in the queue. This is what we did on several occasions, having studied the schedule to pack in the maximum number of matinee and evening performances covering the maximum number of different plays in a few days. As soon as the evening performance was over, and we had waited outside the stage door to see the actors leaving, we would head to the front and take our places in the queue, usually with 20 or so others. Though it was summer, it was cold and the pavement was hard. It was a most uncomfortable experience but we never had any worries about our safety. (I don’t know how my parents felt about it.) It was also exhilarating.
Living in London, I had the RSC at the Aldwych and the National Theatre company at the Old Vic too. I saw some legendary productions: Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Laurence Olivier as Othello(stage and screen), Paul Scofield as Macbeth. They say your first Hamlet is the one you never forget and mine was David Warner in Peter Hall’s production which I saw in 1966. He was then aged 25 and I fell in love. He never knew.
My horizons having been expanded, I saw many other productions including Tom Stoppard’s funny, painful and stunningly inventive Hamlet spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with the original leads, John Stride and Edward Petherbridge, Hair, with onstage nudity in lighting so dim you couldn’t see anything of interest, and possibly the funniest play of all time, Peter Shaffer’s one-act Black Comedy, which starred Maggie Smith, Albert Finney and Derek Jacobi.
Today, April 23, St George’s Day, is the 458th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 (the date is an educated guess) and the 406th anniversary of his death at the age of only 52 in 1616. It breaks my heart to think that in another 50 years he will be a niche interest, like Ancient Greek, and in 100 probably forgotten altogether.
Shakespeare is said to be irrelevant today. Yet his themes of love, lust, jealousy, power are still central to us all. His language may take work, but for me the reward is a glimpse of the heights a human being, constructed of the same basic components as me, can reach. Dazzling and inspiring.
Now that I have exceeded my three score years and ten, I have made plans for my funeral. I have asked for this speech from The Tempest (Act IV, Sc 1) to be the final reading.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Thanks, William, my friend, my hero and my lifetime companion.