Ambassador Naomi Westerman writes about her day performing and honoring William Shakespeare
It's 9pm, and the craggy face is starting to sag under the weight of tinsel, party hats, and silly string. But then, he is 448 years old. I was in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Shakespeare Birthday Celebration, an event which takes over the town every April 23rd (or the closest weekend). I arrived bleary-eyed after catching a 6.30am train from London and was greeted with a town-wide carnival, complete with fairground rides. It's hard to overemphasise the importance Shakespeare holds to Stratford-upon-Avon. Everywhere you look are Shakespeare-related businesses, bookshops devoted to his works, even Will gingerbread men and action figures. On this weekend the street teemed with costumed figures, both Shakespearian and traditional (Morris Dancers performing outside Holy Trinity Church, Shakespeare's burial place, shared space with a 20 foot Chinese dragon); either street performers, or just there to enjoy the atmosphere.
I had been cast as a performer for an event the Stratford -based theatre company 'Tread the Boards' (who run Shakespeare in the Attic) was holding, where actors would perform monologues and short scenes from various Shakespeare plays. I was to perform two pieces, Constance's "mad" scene eulogizing her dead son from King John, and an extract from Act V of Measure for Measure where Isabella confronts the Duke (played by Shauni Greenwell) and exposes the wicked Angelo.
We gathered at the Shakespeare in the Attic... uh, attic in Cox's Yard, and stored our bags while the members of Tread the Board got into costume for their parade appearance. At 10am we gathered for the grand parade, behind the Mayoral party and several groups from local schools and colleges, but ahead of a party of elaborate anthropomorphised swans. As we walked, I spied former RSC artistic directors Trevor Nunn and Michael Boyd watching. The parade route covers much of the town centre and always finishes inside Holy Trinity Church, where walkers place flowers on Shakespeare’s grave.
After lunch, it was time to perform. The last time I performed in Stratford-upon-Avon it was the middle of a bitterly cold winter, and I was in the debut production of the newly-opened Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This time I would be performing outdoors, on an Astroturf 'stage' surrounded by benches and wooden tables. Fortunately the sun was shining, though later performers carried on valiantly through some heavy rain showers. Despite the schedule, the format was very free and easy-going: performers were encouraged to simply leap up and deliver their speeches as they saw fit, creating a kind of Shakespearean cascade, the audience never knowing who would appear next. The first few scenes were all from the comedies and fitted perfectly with the celebratory feelings of the day. My first piece, Constance, proved quite an abrupt shift in tone, but the audience was attentive and appreciative. I was thankful my second, equally serious piece was a duologue, though our choice to use an audience member (albeit another actor) as our ‘Angelo’ and mute target for my rage, provided some amusement. The quality of all the pieces was very high, and some of the RSC company members came to watch. After the individual pieces, Tread the Boards performed a modernised adaptation of Hamlet, “Ophelia’s Story,” which was an equally fine production.
Elsewhere, Stratford-upon-Avon played host to a range of events: The RSC offered activities for all ages, including stage-fighting workshops and opportunities to try on RSC costumes, and company members performed in Holy Trinity Church's special Shakespeare Service. Various musical acts, from folk singers and brass bands to more contemporary artists, performed, and for the more academically inclined there were several lectures. Or for those who just wanted to help William celebrate the big 448, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invited visitors to sign a giant birthday card and partake of a giant birthday cake. I might have missed out on the birthday cake, but I can’t think of a better way to honour our greatest playwright than by performing his words in the town that meant so much to him, and him to it.