How Camest Thou in Such a Pickle?
Shakespeare’s Stratford
by Jim Davies

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

From: j.benedick@tempest-tv.co.uk

To: l.shakespeare@muchadoo.com

Subject: Lost the plot


Hi Liam,

Thanks for your latest scene-by-scene outline. There’s the germ of something here, but to be frank, it’s not really floating my boat. We’re building a reputation for hard-hitting, high-stakes drama at Tempest, so this is probably a bit too light for us.

Also, the discovery of the handkerchief doesn’t work. No one uses them any more, particularly the monogrammed ones. I’m not even sure you can still buy them …

Best,

Johnnie

From: l.shakespeare@muchadoo.com

To: j.benedick@tempest-tv.co.uk

Subject: RE: Lost the plot


Hi Johnnie,

Of course you can. I saw some in a gentlemen’s outfitters window the other day. And there was an ad in the Sunday paper for personalised handkerchiefs last week – £9.95 for 12 inc p&p – 100 per cent Egyptian cotton, with 20mm initial embroidered in classic blue thread.

What do you suggest instead, a soiled tissue?

Regards,

Liam

From: j.benedick@tempest-tv.co.uk

To: l.shakespeare@muchadoo.com

Subject: RE: RE: Lost the plot


Liam,

At least that would add some gritty realism. That’s the problem. You’ve pulled it back too far. It’s all a bit twee now. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the kind of world where a black guy can work his way up to be a top general in the Italian army. And if he thinks his wife is sleeping around, he’s not going to be so reasonable and forgiving about it. “It’s just a phase …” The man’s supposed to be a killing machine! Where’s the jealousy, the aggro, the domestic violence?

I don’t understand why it has to be set in Venice either.

Johnnie

From: l.shakespeare@muchadoo.com

To: j.benedick@tempest-tv.co.uk

Subject: RE: RE: RE: Lost the plot


Johnnie,

Before, you said I needed to tone it down, that the indiscriminate bloody rampage was too violent for prime-time TV. So I thought I’d turn it into a romantic comedy instead. But with an edge.

Liam

PS What about Colin Powell? It must be even trickier in the US.

From: j.benedick@tempest-tv.co.uk

To: l.shakespeare@muchadoo.com

Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: Lost the plot


Liam,

Look, a spot of advice. Why don’t you set it in a hospital? O’Teller could be a successful black surgeon, who’s just married Desdemona, the fragile-yet-beautiful daughter of the registrar. That way you’ve got it all under one roof – life and death, blood and tears, power and corruption, class conflict, pathos, comedy, nurses’ uniforms …

And another thing. You really need to fork out for a scriptwriting programme, it makes you look like you know what you’re doing. Try Action!Pro or Director’s Chair. They’re only a couple of hundred quid.

J

From: l.shakespeare@muchadoo.com

To: j.benedick@tempest-tv.co.uk

Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Lost the plot


In my day, all you needed was a sharpened goose feather and a pot of homemade ink.

L

*  * *

plague upon all their production houses! What the devil do they know about drama anyway? I could serve them up a dish fit for the gods and they’d tell me it was overcooked. Toad-spotted promise-breakers. But hark, what’s this?

From: SaladDays.com

To: l.shakespeare@muchadoo.com

Subject: message from an old friend


Dear Liam,

You have a new message. But you’ll need to upgrade your membership before you can read it.

Click here to upgrade now

Kind regards,

The SaladDays team

Just to remind you, your login email is l.shakespeare@muchadoo.com and your password is H****t.

SaladDays – because time cannot wither true friendship.

Now let’s see … Zounds! A week on Saturday in Stratford? Well, well, well … every dog will have its day.


Stratford-on-Avon is a small gold mine in Warwickshire, the so-called Heart of England. If England actually was a person, it’s slightly down and to the right of where the heart would be, but if anywhere has a licence to be poetic, it’s Stratford.

Screaming Lord Sutch kick-started his raving lunatic politi-cal career here. Jack Profumo, whose well-tailored trousers couldn’t resist the Earth’s gravitational pull, was once its MP. JB Priestly, no mean scribbler himself, spent his last days in the ancient town before shuffling off this mortal coil. It boasts a butterfly farm and a bandstand, a museum full of old cars and another full of old teddy bears, a race course fit for the sport of kings, and a barge upon which you can buy baguettes.

But there’s simply no getting away from it. One person has left his distinguished inky imprint on virtually every street in Stratford. And that’s me.

I’m not laying it on with a trowel. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them … I’d say mine was part thrust and part achievement. But these days, I’ve become accustomed to the grubby reality of London, so the more I roam the mock-mock-Tudor avenues and alleyways of this town I once called home, the more my teeth are set on edge. Artifice and authenticity play fast and loose in a spot where even Pizza Express is half-timbered, and the townsfolk’s idea of olde-worlde charm is to be profligate with their use of the letter “e.” No wonder I left. If only the rest had been silence.

I say “roam the streets,” but this isn’t actually possible any more. The sheer volume of pedestrians means you’re snatched along like a small boat in a ceaseless storm, whirred by eager tourists from all corners of the globe, buffeted by rucksacks, street maps and camera cases, drowned in a babel of exotic and less-than-exotic accents.

What’s more, wherever I look, I’m reminded of mine own none-too-pretty visage, emblazoned on the most ludicrous of gewgaws. By now I’m immune to the mugs, tea towels, and the miscellaneous stationery that kids can’t get enough of on school trips. I’ve even come to have a grudging admiration for people who can bring themselves to wear those cringe-worthy “Will Power” T-shirts.

But some of the little shockers make your hair stand on end. Fridge magnets. Ceramic thimbles. Little tin crests to attach to walking sticks. Night caps. I even came across a lusty five-and-a-quarter-inch William Shakespeare vinyl action figure with removable book and quill pen. The pièce de résistance, though, is undoubtedly the £1.99 glitter “snow storm” in which a crude and understandably pissed-off-looking bard-bust is trapped forever and a day to ponder the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I can empathise – shipwrecked with no apparent means of escape in an uncouth, uncultured age where precious talent is given such short shrift.

Nevertheless, here I am … cutting a surprisingly inconspic-uous dash through the tat and the tour parties. And do you know why? Because I bear no more than a passing resem-blance to that ill-favoured caricature, which is based on an engraving of an engraving of a painting by a decidedly untalented Dutchman. Comparisons are odorous. OK, I’m thinning a bit on top, there’s a poet’s gold hoop dangling in my left lobe, and I sport the tidy jazz beard favoured by the burghers of Clerkenwell, EC1. But the smug, dome-headed, bug-eyed creature trying to pass himself off as the great “Swan of Stratford,” looks no more like me than a plucked goose.

I’m making my way to Precious Times in the old town, a photographic studio-cum-costumiers which purveys over 300 types of outlandish fancy dress. You can’t miss it, there’s a six-foot mannequin posing as a bipedal white rabbit guarding the front door. On the way, I stiffen my sinews as I pass the dodgy reminders of my glorious past – the Pen & Parchment pub, Thespian’s Indian restaurant, Bard’s Walk shopping arcade, The Food of Love café, the Shakespearience, and Mexican Hamlet. Forty-odd plays (yes, there are more), some of the most haunting poetry the world has ever clapped eyes on, and it’s come to this.

My choice of disguise for the night is a foregone conclusion. When in Stratford …

* * *

The evening air is thick with bravado and basso profundo. With their mangy, hop-coloured locks, full-blooded beards and pinch-tight leathers, these are the fearsome knights of the road, sitting bestride their growling, gleaming chargers. Passers-by on Riverside glance over anxiously, but these tattooed speed-chasers are supremely uninterested, lost in an arcane kingdom of their own, where chrome and horse-power are the only currency.

I scuttle past them self-consciously in my bard’s outfit, glancing over at the glinting Avon, bejewelled with midsum-mer sunlight. The sky is champagne pink, the atmosphere charged with a strange, invisible perfume that hits the senses. In the car park just outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a domed, gently billowing marquee rises upwards, its flower-soft fabric at odds with the brutal red brick of the theatre building. I’m greeted at the entrance by a pair of Elvises (or should that be Elvi?) – their respective girths suggesting differ-ent reference points in the King’s career. The young pretender hands me a fizzing glass, and they usher me in to a strange, enchanted indoor garden that beggars all description.

The centre-piece is a massive, gnarled oak tree, hung, like a blossoming spider’s web with flowing canopies of luscious woodbine, sweet musk roses and eglantine. Skirting the tent’s edges is a long, elevated ha-ha of grass and moss, prick’d with oxslips, primroses and violets, on which an unlikely cast of characters loll and laugh and look back in languor.

The place is already heaving, an exotic collision of per-sonae from every conceivable era and genre. On the far side of the marquee, Caliban has set his sights on a passable Marilyn. Groucho Marx vainly tries to out-aphorise Oscar Wilde under a leafy sylvan bower. Cleopatra, provocatively stroking her asp, tilts her head back and snorts heartily at an illogical quip from a scaled-down version of Mr Spock.

How will I know her? There were precious few clues in her suggestive message on the SaladDays website. A place, a time, a promise. To complicate matters, there seem to be two of everyone. The alpha-male duo who both hired gorilla suits are desperately trying to avoid eye contact. At least there’s some textual basis for the Tweedle Dee/Dum double-act. And there holding court, and truly lapping up the attention, is my alter ego. Clearly, he’s modelled himself on the five-and-a-quarter-inch vinyl action figure, complete with removable book and quill pen. Pah! What does he know? And yet, there they all are, the ignorant fools, hanging on his honey’d words, and dancing his attendance.

I weave my way tetchily to the refreshments table, festooned with ornate finger-food and leafy decoration that are hard to tell apart. The sweetmeats seem tempting enough, but the jellies look vile. In pride of place, like a precious stone set in a silver tablecloth, there’s a huge ice sculpture of a swan peering majestically over the proceedings. Three witches are hunched over the punch bowl, uttering delicious incanta-tions. Though they’ve done their utmost to make themselves look foul and filthy, their girlish vanity has kept them in check, so for all the amateur prosthetics and stick-on warts, beauty still hangs upon their cheeks.

“All hail you secret, black and midnight hags,” I venture, hoping I haven’t gone too far. “Where can I find the Dark Lady I dream of amongst this pleasing throng?”

“She is here, yet she is not,” says the first, in an unsteady voice that seems to belong to an able seaman one moment and a prima-ballerina the next.

“Double, double, toil and trouble, she’ll come and go like a bursting bubble,” warns the second, slightly more convinc-ingly.

“She’s over there talking to Bjorn Borg,” says the third. My gaze follows her crooked finger. And my heart stops

dead … Did I ever truly love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. I pick my tongue off the floor, and stride over as casually as I can given the tightening of my trousers.

“What took you so long?” she asks in a voice that’s soft, gentle, low, and could melt the stoniest of hearts. “I have plans for the night ahead.”

Her powder blue dress is a wanton explosion of silk and taffeta that tapers into an impossibly small waist. The décolletage reveals a perfect olive skin, and a barely contained cleavage ready to burst out like a pair of greyhounds in the slips. Oh that I might live one hour in that sweet bosom! I try desperately to look behind the white player’s mask she’s holding to her face, but she’s careful to keep up the façade. Her ample black ringlets provide further camouflage, but I convince myself that her lips are quite as plump and inviting as the painted counterfeits that gash her crude disguise.

* * *

How my raven-haired beauty persuaded me to don the blind-fold, I still don’t know. But that night, her beck might have commanded me from the bidding of the gods. Her tender hand pulses intoxicating electricity through my entire body as she gently leads me through the sultry streets of Stratford. Hours pass, or is it mere seconds? My sense of time has van-ished into thin air. We’re floating, weightless in our own private bubble, warm and wonderful, immune to the weary world outside.

I catch short snatches of conversation, the tinny reverb of distant laughter, hear the quiet lapping of the river, the sweet breeze dancing insistently with the leaves overhead. But these sounds are hollow distractions. My heart is tied to her rudder by the strings, carried on her mellifluous voice, at once coquettish and soothing, mysterious and like home.

We arrive at a doorway. Then breathlessly climb some steep stairs. There’s total silence, but somehow, it’s charged with a trembling anticipation. She sits me down on what I can feel is the edge of a downy-soft bed and removes my blindfold. Not that it makes any difference. The room is as black as pitch. Then she loosens my hired ruffle and tunic, and with the most eloquent of giggles, bids me hop in. My heart is pounding like McDuff knocking desperately at the castle gates, as I hear her gently pad across to the other side. Was that a whisper? I can’t be sure. What’s taking her so long?

As we finally lock into a fiery embrace, it strikes me that something’s amiss. Her hair smells quite different, like apples and cinnamon. And I surmise that her dress, though exqui-site, must have been particularly bulky – she’s quite a few pounds of flesh lighter, and her greyhounds fall well short of the proportions I’d envisaged. What’s more, the sweet noth-ings she whispers waft over in a shy, girlish voice, more of a trilling piccolo than the melodious flute I remember. But by now, my ardour is well stoked, so I decide not lose the name of action in the pale cast of thought. Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing. Or as the more contemporary slogan tells us, “just do it.”

* * *

Suddenly, the heavy velvet curtain pulls back, the sun-bright stage lights come up, and the packed Royal Shakespeare theatre audience bursts into rapturous applause. The guy who always whoops and whistles is there too, bringing his familiar descant to the throbbing hum of clapping hands.

I’m still cocooned in the night’s rapturous delirium, spaced out and propped up in the bed I’d been lured to earlier. Next to me lies a strange yet familiar figure. A pale, smiling, fragile-yet-beautiful blonde. Her discarded nurse’s uniform is a crumpled heap on the boards. We find ourselves in a theatre designer’s vision of an NHS hospital ward, surrounded by outsize medical paraphernalia, the over-grown, exaggerated children of an inspired props department.

Almost instinctively, as if I’ve been rehearsing it for the past 400 years, I know the next line.

“Pass the tissues, Desdemona.”

I smile ruefully and think of what might have been. But clearly, it wasn’t written in the script.

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