Friday, March 30, 2012

Thoughts from Places: A Pilgrimage to Stratford

I'm taking a Shakespeare class here at the ICLC, and there are two other theatre classes offered here, Drama in the London Theatre and Interrelationships. These classes are fantastic for us because we get to go see all kinds of different performances (obviously mostly Shakespeare, for me) and what's not to love about live theatre? But of course, a theatre class (especially a Shakespeare class) in England would not be complete without taking a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of the Bard.

Our trip last weekend started at actually a fairly decent hour of the morning. We walked over to school and hopped on the coaches (which is what long-distance buses seem to be called here) and headed off to the first stop on our trip, Warwick.

Although Matt and Lisa and I headed into the town itself in search of some lunch a bit later on, the main reason we were in Warwick was to look around Warwick Castle. William the Conqueror ordered a castle built in Warwick in 1068; I'm not entirely sure when the castle was finished, but even so, it was very cool to be clambering around in a building that old. I'm also not sure if it's been restored at any point, because it is quite intact; it was also one of the coolest castles we've been to, as it's set up as half a historical site and half a Renaissance Faire. They have people in costume giving demonstrations at different points around the castle - we had someone tell us about longbows (and rude English hand gestures), and we saw them fire their trebuchet, and inside the castle itself we saw a falconry demonstration. There is also one hallway in the castle that has wax figures (which are almost alarmingly realistic) and props all set up to look like the castle would have done in the 12th century. Tory also bought a wooden sword (which is now hanging above our mantle, of course), and I must admit I did enjoy gesturing dramatically with it as we went from one part of the castle to another.

After exploring the castle and having lunch in a very nice little fish and chip shop that proclaimed itself to be a diner (Lisa and I, as we are both from New Jersey, Land of the Diners, begged to differ, but it was a nice lunch all the same), we got back onto the bus and headed off towards Stratford.

(I ought to clarify slightly; Stratford-upon-Avon is Shakespeare's birthplace; Stratford is a part of London that apparently isn't very nice, although there's an Olympic stadium there now, so that might be better. In the interests of time, however, when I say Stratford, I mean the one that is upon the Avon.)

When we arrived in Stratford, we checked into our bed-and-breakfast (I suppose because we were only there for one night, and because I don't think there is a hostel in the town, we got to pretend to be fancy for the day), which was a really charming place with amazingly comfortable beds that Lisa and Tory quite quickly made use of. While they catnapped, I borrowed Lisa's internet and talked to my dad a bit about the trip we're trying to plan to Florence after my term here finishes (something I'm quite excited about, of course!!). When they woke up, we wandered around the town for a little bit, and I ogled the long rows of half-timbered houses up and down every street (I love Tudor houses), and we discussed how Stratford is really the definition of "quaint," before grabbing a bite to eat at a pub and then heading over to the Royal Shakespeare Company to see a production of Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night, I think, is my favorite Shakespeare play; at the very least, it's my favorite of his comedies, as I'm also quite fond of Macbeth. I love the mistaken identities and general chaos of Twelfth Night; I like that it's funny, but it has much more to it than sheer comedy; and of course I love that everything works out all right in the end. A lot of people on the trip don't seem to have enjoyed the production that we saw, but I absolutely adored it. I loved the set, the costumes, the lighting, Feste's songs. I thought all but one of the actors, and certainly the main four, were amazing - Viola and Olivia especially impressed me. And I thought the ending, when everything has been sorted out and mistaken identities revealed and each person has wound up with their true love, was just so sweet and heartwarming and perfect. I must admit I got a bit choked up, and it put me in an excellent mood for the rest of the night. We've been seeing quite a lot of dark and dreary stuff, and it was nice to see something that, while certainly not frivolous, was more on the lighthearted side, and was less about how much people can destroy one another and much more about how wonderful love can be.

The next day, we met in the graveyard at Holy Trinity church for a lecture on Shakespeare's life in Stratford (a note: all professors should lecture on sunny days in graveyards beside rivers), and then we went inside the church to see Shakespeare's grave. I was of course reminded of my high school English teacher (on the very off chance you're reading this, Mrs. Young, hello! Thanks for being awesome!), who has a rubbing of his gravestone over her whiteboard. It reads: "Good Friend, for Jesus' sake forebear / To dig the dust enclosed here / Blessed be the man who spares these stones / And curst be he who moves my bones." Pretty good reason that Will remains in Stratford, rather than in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, hmm?

After that, we went on a short Shakespeare walk through the town, where we saw the building where Shakespeare attended school and the foundations of the house he bought with the money he earned in London. After that, we were set free for a few hours, and we eventually made our way down to the Avon and, after avoiding the typical Avon swans, we rented a rowboat. Lisa's friend Stephen volunteered to row, and Lisa, Tory and I had a good time trying to warn him about things he shouldn't run into. It was a very enjoyable hour (although I think the sun on the water is why I got a sunburn that day), and after that, it was back on the bus to make our way to Oxford.

We only had two hours in Oxford, and I definitely want to go back. All of the buildings are so old and ornate, and it's a very pretty place. We walked through a chocolate festival (this same festival is in London this weekend... methinks we will go visit it) on our way to the Botanic Gardens. Because if you only have two hours in Oxford, you have to go and find Will and Lyra's bench. It was actually surprisingly easy to locate; luckily no one was sitting on it at the time. It's just an ordinary bench, but it has Lyra's name carved into it and a card next to it with Philip Pullman's name on it. Lisa hasn't yet read the last two books in the His Dark Materials trilogy, so we did our best to assure her that the bench was important without giving anything at all away.

After that, it was back on the bus, this time headed back to home-sweet-London. Our adventure wasn't quite over, however; that night, Lisa, Matt and I went to the British Film Institute's all-night showing of all three Lord of the Rings films, in a row, starting at midnight (thank goodness they had free tea in the intervals!). I'd never seen any of them in theatres before, so it was fantastic for me (even though I did doze off during the Shelob scene and a few other bits late in The Two Towers and early in Return of the King. It was 7am by that point!!). It wasn't in IMAX, but it was on the IMAX screen, so it was HUGE - seeing it in that format made the helicopter landscape shots that much more breathtaking, and the battle scenes that much more epic. The charge of the Rohirrim at Pelennor fields, quite possibly my favorite scene (aside from perhaps the "I am no man" bit of Eowyn awesomeness), is just astounding on the big screen, with the music in surround sound. It was so much fun, but needless to say, we got home and very quickly passed out. It was yet another most excellent - and exhausting! - weekend of adventures.

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