Theatre online? Why then the world’s my oyster

It is a bit late in the lockdown to have discovered the wonders of theatre on YouTube. The theatres remain shut and barred, but Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre and others have been putting filmed performances on YouTube. I recently watched the Globe’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I last saw at Tollethorpe Hall many years ago (and Tollethorpe productions are always excellent). The National has a good selection too.

It is almost a shock to find that YouTube is not just cat videos and the fortnightly Moggcast.

There is a different dynamic sitting in your own house watching the grand scene, the inns, grand houses and fields of Windsor, first encompassed in a wooden O, then crammed further into a box in the corner of the room. It is done well though. The Globe is a more intimate theatre experience anyway, with the actors playing to the groundlings and often bustling in among them for their exits and their entrances. Coming into my own front room is just the next obvious step. It does not replace the theatre – the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, the immediacy with no physical barrier between me and the action, but it is good.

The play? It was done in an energetic, chummy way. The Merry Wives of Windsor needs its own review (yet another task for another day). It is noticeable as the play where the women lead the plot more than any other. Shakespeare, alone among his contemporaries, wrote good parts for women, letting them be real characters, not passing extras with a one-dimensional role. In the Merry Wives the nominal central character is Falstaff – he is the comic turn and in a way the McGuffin – but it is the wives themselves who take the lead, ably assisted by their own comic turn in Mistress Quickly. It is said that the play was written at the specific request of the Queen herself: it shows, and is better for it. The scenes, the quips, the clever women and the befuddled men, the local folklore, the comic Frenchman and comic Welshman (whose best scenes were missed, unfortunately) and all pomposity punctured – only Shakespeare can achieve all that in a play so neatly tied together, and all in my front room and all for free.

I will have to look for more on YouTube if I can get past the cat videos.

The main point though is not to spread culture to the masses, good as that is – it is to remind us of what we have lost without live theatre, while the lockdown closes it. They are suffering and many might not survive – and it is not because of COVID-19, but because of the lockdown. When the theatres open they will bring life to all the pubs and restaurants around them too – they are vital to the local economy, in London’s theatreland more obviously, but all around the country. The limitations of the small screen should whet our appetites to see the real thing. That is the point. I will go back to Tollethorpe when I can. In the meantime though we have the theatre coming into our homes, if we just care to look.

Dane-geld

I have watched the press-pack and timorous MPs demanding a human sacrifice as the price of leaving the government alone, and making the news not breaking it, so today I leave the field to Rudyard Kipling:

IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: –
“We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: –
“Though we know we should defeat you,
we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

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I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Another day draws past, undistinguished from other days, and weeks pass. Is this what retirement is like? But I am not retired and I work, now from home, and occasionally London now that this is smiled upon with an askance look.

Day runs into day, hour into another coffee waiting for the dishwasher to fill – that is how time runs.

This cannot be any new normality. It is a collective coma. If I become despairing, what must it be like for those who suffer mental stresses? Many new MPs of a few months ago (it seems forever ago) spoke to say their major concern is mental health, which is as worthy a cause as one can find (and I will write about Hobbes’s observations on the subject before too long), but of all the things to do, this lockdown is a mental health disaster, and for years after the last coronavirus patient has risen from their bed, the trauma of confinement will haunt many, many in their homes, leading to rash actions and choices, and worse disasters ahead. For the sake of sanity it must end.

Another week looms though, unreleased. I can stretch my legs, and take long, long walks from home, but I have to work proper hours, distracted, staring at the work to be done in the garden – and remembering how fortunate I am to have a garden when many are confined to two-room flats. How must they be at this time?

I have long since lost track of time, the weeks, which day it is sometimes, because there is no familiar rhythm beyond the call of the stomach, which is dangerous so close to the cake cupboard, and with loss of time comes the temptation to head out to clear my head in the fields – and each time I think of those who do not have that luxury.

Lethargy loses its charm soon enough. End the lockdown, please, Mr Johnson. I would rather get the disease, even if it is as bad as you had it, then last through more of this. I am resolved though never to retire if this is what it is like.

Another coffee. Another coffee spoon. Whatever the time is, I do not know any more but by counting the used spoons in the bowl.

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Scarcely a street, too few houses

Silence, even in the edge of the suburb. There’s a big town nearby, but R S Thomas comes back to me again, the silent village. “This last outpost of time past”.

I am as far from Lleyn as I could be in space and form but not maybe in mood. Here the once busy local streets (never called streets here – too urban a word – but no shortage of houses), are silent as of the tarmac were no more than one “that leads nowhere and fails at the top”.

I wander in my mind back to those little places, scarcely villages, which the poet wandered amongst, away from any road, where I automatically, without thinking switched to speaking in Welsh, before realising that I don’t actually speak Welsh enough to complete a coherent sentence, but there is no other way to speak of the bracken-clad hillsides wandering down in their own time to the cliff and the inevitable sea.

There are houses here, and neighbours, and the way between the one tavern and the one shop, both shuttered, but stillness in the way.

So little happens; the black dog
Cracking his fleas in the hot sun
Is history. Yet the girl who crosses
From door to door moves to a scale
Beyond the bland day’s two dimensions.

Take me back to Lleyn and its embracing sea.

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Waiting for the storm

I keep coming back to R S Thomas, and to the landscapes he described. These days remind me of his Abersoch, and every day of uncertain suspension of life it whispers itself.

I have trodden in his footsteps amongst the timeless crags of Lleyn and the little, ancient villages clinging to the coast endlessly more ancient. I have only walked there though in summertime, while he, the poet and pastor, served all year, in bright summer, industrious harvest and punishing winters and he saw more than a passing visitor may.

I remember Abersoch. It was not as he described it, but I was there in the summer, and the whole little town had been transformed by summer visitors. The fishing boats were there are the men working on their nets, but bustling all over the streets and beach were families in gaudy holiday clothes with buckets and spades and beachballs, speaking English. There was no gathering storm – it as bright and sunny. A clamber round the cliff presented a little more of what it must have been like, and as the wind began to rise, I remembered the Abersoch only read about in those pages.

Elsewhere on Lleyn I wanted to find the village of another poem “Scarcely a street, too few houses” or the places where he found the universe and all of history wrapped up in the stillness of the village church. In Abersoch though I wanted to find “that headland, asleep on the sea, The air full of thunder” and imagine the girl riding her cycle, hair at half-mast, as a carefree symbol, but found families busying themselves into misery with their determination to enjoy the day.

Instead, I found it at home in these recent weeks, enclosed but for long, daily walks, waiting for the stroke while might fall or not, or for the return of normality, or knowing that a release to familiarity may still be followed by the clasp of the deadly disease.

….. There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break

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