Stratford-Upon-Avon Journal

Saturday, May 22nd, 1999

Being a fan of theatre and now living here in England I have always wanted to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon (or Stratford-On-Avon, or simply Stratford depending who you ask) to see Shakespeare in the town in which he was born. Stratford is located about 100 miles north east of London in the 'Midlands' just south of Birmingham. A long drive and one that I started relatively early on Saturday. Since time was not on my side I was forced to take the motorways, that is, the driving was a tedious 2 1/2 hours (thank god for my car CD player). Eventually I made it to Stratford, where this small town is regularly besieged by the tourist. Parking is difficult, scarce and, if you find a spot, expensive. I eventually parked at the somewhat spacious Leisure Centre, walking the two blocks to the centre of the town, well, essentially.

Interestingly, I felt the best approach was to start with a tour. Generally, when visiting a new place, if a tour is offered, I take it if only to get my bearings about where things are located so I can visit them later. I took a bus tour (Guide Friday's if you are interested, they operate in many towns throughout England and even Europe, interestingly NOT in London) which allows you to get on/off at various places along the route. The tour took us around the core area of the town, driving by Shakespeare's birthplace (called, simply, 'The Birthplace') but it took us outside of Stratford to allow us to visit Shakespeare's wife's home and his mother's home also located a few miles out of Stratford (along rural roads in a double decker bus, up and down the hills and along the winding roads is quite an experience, did I mention that we were sitting on the second floor with no roof above our heads?). This was very interesting to me as Stratford is really just a small town that is NOT a museum but a real town where people live, so, therefore, not a lot to see in the city centre.

I took the complete tour (about an hour), getting out where I started. I was pleased to find a nice park all along the Avon with river boats and various birds. I walked easily along to where there was a chain-ferry (hand operated, the operator turns a handle which uses a chain attached to each bank to pull it across to the other side), only 30 pence…Made my way past the Swan and Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The Swan was just recently open and is a reasonable copy of the original Swan located in London, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is the official theatre for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The outside of the theatres is not terribly impressive…The RST is basically just a big brick box though nearer to the Swan is a bit more ordained.

I made my way up a cobbled street to visit Shakespeare's birthplace which turned out to be an exhibition attached to the property, so I made my way through the very good exhibits before wandering around the house itself. Shakespeare's father actually only originally owned one room on one side of the building but, as money improved, bought up the rest of the rooms, one by one. The house had been passed down in the family over the years until it was bought by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (which also now owns all Shakespeare sites in and around Stratford) at an auction (where, evidently, P. T. Barnum wanted to buy the house to tow behind his circus). The house is in quite good shape with stone floors replacing the original dirt floors. There is not much really to see in the house, very sparse in terms of furnishings (mostly exhibits in glass cases and the like) and what furnishings were there were not original to the house and even period reproductions, not enough to give you a sense of what the house was like. Good garden though (with a famous large Cedar of Lebanon tree). The exhibits were by far the most interesting.

I made my way to the next stop on the tour bus and took it to see Mary Arden's house (Shakespeare's mother) north of the town. This area is quite impressive as in addition to the old house (with VERY knowledgeable guides and good, authentic, furniture – still not 100% authentic but much better than the Birthplace) they also had a farming museum and falconry exhibit (though I have NO idea what that has to do with a museum, fun to watch the handler though trying to talk a hawk down after it landed on a nearby roof). Really interesting but I did not have a lot of time to explore as I had to be back in the town.

I caught the bus back to town and made my way back to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for a tour I had arranged earlier. They showed us inside both theatres where the stage hands were busy changing from the matinee to the evening set. Each theatre had two (different) shows every day. Evidently this is to provide entertainment for the large number of visitors they get simply for theatre in Stratford. They were also commenting on how it is difficult to get funding as the national government considers them a local theatre so subject to community funding but the community considers them a national entertainment organisation (it IS the ROYAL Shakespeare Company). The RST is very art deco, as it was built in the 30s (the most recent incarnation – they have suffered fires in previous centuries) and was highly criticized by the tour guide who indicated that they are working on refurbishment (subject to funding). They really cannot change too much about the theatre since it is a 'listed' building (meaning it is identified as an important historical building that is to be protected, hence, limiting any changes you can do to it). The Swan reconstruction is quite good but does not seem as authentic as the (now) Globe in London which does not have ANY electrical aids (unlike the Swan which is enclosed - also different than the original Swan - and has massive quantities of electrical equipment hanging from the wonderful woodwork of the theatre), the production they were preparing for was very elaborate and it was fascinating to see them build up the stage for the evening show (the earlier show had used quite a number of tons of sand and water but the evening show required it to be removed and replaced with a massive box-like object on tracks that move it from the back of the stage forward).

I only had about half an hour so I returned my camera to the car and returned to the theatre for the evening show (I picked up a ticket about two weeks ago). The show was in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (not the Swan) but was very good – a modernly staged version of a Midsummer Night's Dream which I had previous seen quite a few times. Very good performance though with VERY strange things happening on the stage (one of the things was to deliver the love potion from a flower to the sleeping lovers the flower, dirt and all, was placed on their heads while they were sleeping – very odd).

After the show, it was getting fairly late but I figured that I knew I was going to be home late so I might as well have something to eat first so I wandered around the corner to a local Indian restaurant which was quite good (though lacking in any good service – not surprising though, not for here). Eventually I arrived home after 2 am. I was quite tired. Good I had something earlier as I just went straight to bed – tomorrow was another day out.

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