Last month I went with a friend, Lorraine, to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Antony and Cleopatra. Well, does you good to get out once a decade or so. Tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre go fast and the B&Bs are much contended for, wherefore get ye fixed up with your earliest, ye were best: we booked in January for April 10th, which was none too soon.
We put up at the sign of the Travelodge. The man at reception was a cheeky cockney sparrer type, tiresomely bantering and chortling as he signed us in and handed us our swipe cards.
'Dashed familiar, that chappie at the desk, I thought,' I said to Lorraine as we rode the lift to our floor.
'Dunno what things is coming to, truly I don't,' she replied.
The hotel was a newish building that looked like lots of places you've been in before. With its blue-grey carpeted corridors and floor-to-ceiling windows on the landings, it might have been a health centre, a university admin block or... where do I know that faint, soap-powdery smell from?... the nursing home where my dad spent the last three years of his life. Shit. Still, we would use the rooms only for showers and sleep, the beds were comfortable and you can put up with Nescafe for breakfast once in your life.
I hadn't been to Stratford for ages. I saw Glenda Jackson and Alan Howard do the Peter Brook Tony and Cleo in 1978. I remember in the bar at the interval overhearing a lady offer a trenchant observation on Jackson's performance: 'well, she's very good, isn't she, but she's not wearing all that Egyptian jewelry Cleopatra should wear.' In the early eighties I led at least three trips of overseas students from Cambridge every summer. In 1983 a colleague and I took a coachload of adult students to see a matinee performance of Twelfth Night. The students had been well-prepared by their teachers for one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. On the outskirts of Stratford we decided to distribute the tickets, and Lynette and I each took a wad to hand out. They were for Henry VIII, one of Shakespeare's least popular histories. I don't know who'd fucked up and never found out what any of the students thought about sitting in the Stratford dark for three hours on a sunny afternoon, in utter incomprehension. Or maybe I've erased it from memory.
Anyway, apart from that occasion, I always liked visiting Stratford. This time, I hardly recognised it as we walked into town. The hotel was quite a bit further from the town centre than its publicity would have one believe, situated on a charmless dual carriageway lined with terrace houses, Subways, KFCs and other franchises with garish signage. My mental image of a small town of half-timbered houses, their gardens teeming with delphiniums, hollyhocks, lavender and phlox was way off beam, probably deriving from repeated visits to Anne Hathaway's cottage. The town centre was dull as beans. Everything on Henley Street was closed and had anything been open, we wouldn't have wanted anything they had to offer. Shakespeare place mats, Shakespeare pencils, Shakespeare pens, key-rings and pessaries, all manner of Shakespearey tat to be carted off to Italy, Spain, China, Japan. (I made up the bit about the pessaries.)
|Not much like this at all, really.|
We wandered over to the theatre where heaps more Shakespearoid tat was on offer (L:'Who the hell wants this stuff?') and took our very good seats in the stalls. The production was a good one if a little on the tame side. (One reviewer characterised it as 'all dressed up with nowhere to go.') I couldn't make my mind up about Josette Simon as Cleopatra. Why, alone among the Egyptians, did she employ an unidentifiable foreign accent? Why the odd inflections and swoops in her delivery? Why was she so like Eartha Kitt? I prefer, overall, Eve Best in the Globe production of 2014, which I have on DVD. Her Cleopatra is like a nice Rodean girl gone Alternative, and she handles the dynamics of the Globe space beautifully.
I don't know how well fed the citizens of Stratford-upon-Avon are; there might be some fantastic spots to eat, but why, in a town where several hundred hungry visitors are emerging from the theatre at half past ten every evening, is only one bloody restaurant open? We had booked our table weeks in advance at the only establishment willing to feed you after ten in the evening, this an OK but unremarkable curry house. The alternative would have been to go back to the hotel where they could do us a microwaved spud with baked beans, so to hell with that.
'Well,' said Lorraine as we drove home, 'was that a worthwhile expedition or not?'
Overall, I think it was. At least we know that if there's a next time, we'll do a matinee and be able to choose a better place for dinner. We'll take our own wine rather than pay the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's absurd prices for interval drinks. And most importantly, we will not stay in a hotel that reminds me of my dad's nursing home.