When is a house a home? When you have Elizabethan actors declaiming on the lawn, obviously.
I'VE DECIDED TO put on some Elizabethan theatre and a poetry and music evening, at my house, Upton Cressett in Shropshire, this summer. After two years of building work, I need to get the house breathing, living and working again. Almost anytime you read an article on a property in Country Life or look at any of the private houses featured on the Historic Houses Association website, the owners will invariably talk about their property being a 'much loved family home'.
This line is as much of a cliché as when I hear a banker or family office talking about how his firm offers a 'holistic approach' to wealth management. In my case, I have no family, and – when not in London on Spear's business – I rattle around the place alone. So I am planning some events to keep myself busy and – hopefully – provide some entertainment. (I am not so deluded as to imagine that putting on open air Shakespeare will ever make any money – but breaking even would be nice.)
As a teenager, I remember seeing the late Edward Woodward playing a crippled Richard III in the ruins of Ludlow Castle at the Ludlow Festival. I loved it, not the least as there has always been a long-standing tradition that the young Edward V stayed at Upton Cressett in 1483 on route to the Tower on his journey from Ludlow Castle which is almost exactly seventeen miles away. That's why medieval castles were built at distances of between fifteen to twenty miles apart from each other – a day's march was seventeen miles.
The idea is to get people to 'bring picnics and own seating' and pray for good weather. Because part of the old moat that surrounds Upton Cressett was levelled about 200 years ago to make a large front lawn, this makes an ideal open air seating area. Even better there is a raised lawn area above this front lawn which is like a natural stage (except for the occasional mole hill), all with the dramatic backdrop of an Elizabethan gatehouse behind and an avenue of Spanish chestnuts (ideal for hanging spotlights in the branches) that were planted in 1815 to mark Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo.
So that's the stage and set sorted. But where do you find a find a troop of Elizabethan touring actors or minstrel players, or a serious travelling Shakespeare company, these days?
The trouble is that most of the acts that you can book these days are not far removed from the sort of Olde England pantomine jolly performers that you might expect to find rolling around in leather doublet costumes on the sawdust floor of an air-conditioned Tudor Banquet hall in a themed Las Vegas casino hotel.
WHEN I LIVED in LA, back in the Nineties, I actually lived for a while (camping on a sofa ingrained with car hair) with a friend who began his Hollywood career in the 1970s dressing up in medieval costume and singing (he was opera trained as a baritone) Ye Merry England songs in a restaurant in Anaheim, next door to Disneyland. He has the unlikely name of Baron Clement von Franckenstein (correctly spelt with a 'c' before 'k') and – after such an inglorious start to his career – went on to appear in over 40 Hollywood films, including, appropriately enough, Robin Hood: Men in Tights with Mel Brooks.
That sort of Disney-style prancing around in badly fitting tights is exactly what I do not want to provide as entertainment at Upton Cressett. Before I describe what I am looking for, a brief aside on my friend Clement. His father George was the former Austrian Ambassador to the Court of St. James for 18 years before the war and refused to be recalled to Vienna when Hitler ordered him to return. He stayed in England and was knighted in 1938 but was killed (along with Clem's mother) in a plane crash in Scotland in 1953. An unreported fact of the circus of publicity surrounding the new acclaimed Danny Boyle production of production of Frankenstein at the National is that Clem – who still lives in LA – is the last living descendant of the aristocratic Austrian family from whom Mary Shelly adapted his family name (changing the spelling to Frankenstein) for her 1818 Gothic horror thriller.
Although Mary Shelley claimed that maintained that she simply dreamt up the name “Frankenstein” in a dream-vision, the truth is – as Clem has his father's old family history to prove it – that she borrowed the name after having tea with a member of the Frankenstein family at the Frankenstein castle when she went over to visit with an English doctor friend.
NOW BACK TO my quest to find some strolling players to put on some authentic – non-Disney outdoor Elizabethan drama poetry. Where do you start? I remembered from my days as a student reading English, there used to be a touring company called the Medieval Players (formerly the Cambridge Medieval Players, started in the 1970s by Carl Heap) who went around colleges, country houses and variously eclectic outlandish venues – from the Australian outback to the Outer Hebrides – performing obscure Mystery Plays and early Renaissance plays, as well as new verse translations by poets like Adrian Mitchell of works like Piers Plowman, Gawain and the Green Knight and Rabelais’ The Marriage of Panurge.
Acrobatics, stilt-walking, fire-eating, juggling, singing, dancing were all part of the performance, which often went so far as performing medieval texts in their original dialect. Hmmm. That might explain why when I tried to track the Medieval Players down I learnt that they disbanded in 1993 after a 'continual struggle for adequate funds from both the Arts Council and corporate sponsorship'.
Not surprising. To be honest, I think this level of 'authenticity' would be going too far anyhow. I want the plays, poetry readings (and possibly light opera) to be accessible and memorable for a local audience as well as die-hard Elizabethan purists such as myself. Then I had another memory jolt from the 1980s: the Marlowe at Cambridge. The Marlowe is Cambridge's oldest and most prestigious drama society whose very raison d'être and founding principle I seemed to recall was only putting on classical Jacobean and Elizabethan drama.
Founded in 1907, the Marlowe quickly became well known – internationally – as the leading dramatic force against the dusty drawing-room traditions of Victorian theatre and, notably under the directorship of GHW Rylands before and during the war, was responsible for reviving Shakespeare in the theatre (no Shakespeare play had been performed in Cambridge since the 1880s) and raising the standards of verse-speaking by actors. (In 1964 Rylands and the Marlowe were commissioned by the recording label Argo to do the first ever complete recordings of the Shakespeare canon, a recording that remains iconic. The Observer stated of the recordings: 'They are the most important thing that has happened to Shakespeare's work since Heminges and Condell saw it through the press.’)
The Marlowe has long been a talent crucible and performing stage for the next generation of top British actors and directors, as well as being a radical counterblast of high culture. A production of Measure for Measure went to Berlin in 1948 as an official part of the Foreign Office's efforts to offer an educational alternative to the Red Army choir; a production of Romeo and Juliet in 1952, starring Peter Hall as Tybalt and John Barton as Mercutio, transferred to the Scala where it was applauded by Winston Churchill; a 1958 production of Edward II starred Derek Jacobi and directed by Tony Robertson was filmed by the BBC. In March 1988, I recall seeing Sam Mendes' (a contemporary of mine) Cyrano de Bergerac at the Cambridge Arts Theatre – one of the plays that lead to him getting first noticed as an unstoppable talent (alongside cricketer Mike Atherton).
SOUNDS IDEAL. BUT would they pack their costumes and van it up from Cambridge to play on a raised lawn in a remote Elizabethan hamlet in Shropshire?
The only way to find out was to ask, and at least offer to pay their expenses as well as suggesting a possible philanthropic dinner that might help with any funding difficulties. According to the Marlowe website, the Marlowe used to be kept afloat in the form of an endowment set up and given by no less than Maynard Keynes, a former Cambridge alumni and theatre lover.
Not without some irony, that endowment ran dry after the Black Monday crash of 1987 (when I was at Cambridge, but of course I had no idea that the society was about to go broke). In the 1990s, the Marlowe's precarious finances were partly alleviated by a donation of £5,000 a year by bankers Kleinwort Benson, with the bizarre condition that the Marlowe host an annual dinner for them to schmooze Cambridge College bursars in the hope of taking various Cambridge colleges on as private clients. That ended in 2002 and from then on they relied on passing the hat around some TV production companies.
Unfortunately, I have no idea what the current situation is (ominous, I can only guess) because the society website that I found had no updated information since they put on since a production of Comus in the Fellows’ Garden, Christ’s College in June 2008. So reaching the Marlowe to extend my invitation is proving to be a problem. The only information I have managed to find about them was through a Facebook page posting for a recent performance – last month – of Much Ado About Nothing staged at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. But since I refuse to sign up to Facebook I wasn’t able to reach any of the actors by sending them a message to their ‘member’ page.
So I have had to become more industrious. From the online production notes on the Much Ado, I managed to ascertain that Beatrice was played by Giuila Galastro, a third year PhD student at Emmanuel. And Claudio was played by a finalist reading English at St John's called Tadhgh Barwell O'Connor. So I called them both up – hoping to leave a message at their respective colleges. In my day, if you wanted to leave a message for an other undergraduate, you just called up their Porter’s Lodge and left a message that was then dropped by the porter into their pigeon hole.
But that system doesn’t exist any more. When I called up St John’s College, I was curtly told: ‘We can’t give out email addresses and we don’t take messages. You’re best just writing.’
So, because I refuse to use Facebook, I have now resorted to sending letters to the above two Marlowe actors, asking them to put me in touch with their secretary or producer or whoever decides such matters as whether they can van it up to Shropshire for a performance or two. In a way, it's fitting I've had to resort to old fashioned pen and ink and a postage stamp to reach them. On the HHA website, I rather pompously say that anybody wanting to visit the house has to apply in writing for an appointment. Why should the Marlowe be any different?