A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the winter of 1972 I was a spotty, clumsy, bespectacled and thoroughly ungracious 15 year old. The establishment tasked with trying to cram a rudimentary education into my recalcitrant brain was The Convent of Our Lady of Providence at Alton in Hampshire. As part of their on-going campaign to introduce us to ‘culture’, we were occasionally dragged off to various theatrical productions and concerts by Sister Therese-Marie and made to sit quietly in darkened auditoria, presumably in the vain hope that something would sink in.
How we reacted to the news that we were being treated to a performance of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Castle Theatre in Farnham I don’t remember, but as it meant an afternoon out of school I imagine that – like all schoolkids – we considered it the least worst option.
The Castle was a tiny theatre in a converted 16th century barn off Castle Street in Farnham. So tiny was it, indeed, that the stage was actually bigger than the 180-seater auditorium, which must occasionally have made life interesting, if not positively perilous, for the actors. The lighting was a motley collection of spotlights, some of which I could almost swear were old car headlights, attached to a beam which was slung across the auditorium, just above the audiences’ collective head.
I recall that I was sitting right at the back in a less than comfortable alcove seat with a bird’s eye view of the stage and – as it turned out – in the exact spot where the actors, when delivering a speech to the middle distance, fixed their gaze.
In the winter of 1972, the miners were on strike and Britain was suffering under a regime of rolling power cuts – which meant that for stretches of 6 to 9 hours whole communities lost their electricity. The schedule of cuts was published in the local papers, so those affected had a chance to prepare/emigrate/stay in bed. The Castle Theatre thus knew that it was due to lose its power somewhere towards the end of the Third Act.
Right on cue, the lights went out: and that’s when the magic began.
Somewhere in the distance, a generator kicked in and the Heath Robinson lighting rig flickered into subdued life. The courtroom scene was played out in the half-light, with both William Whymper’s Antonio and Ian Mullins’ Shylock directing their big speeches straight at me, almost pinning me in my dark little alcove. I remember them both as being superb, the latter in one of the trickiest roles in the whole canon, but unfortunately I have almost no memory of anyone else in the production (sorry!) except Lorenzo and Jessica, who delivered the lyrical ‘In such a night’ scene at the beginning of Act 5 with an intensity I’ve never forgotten.
Was I simply seduced by the whole “the show must go on” thing or is it that when Shakespeare’s plays are stripped down to their basics – when the scenery and the costumes are no more than shadows and you are forced to concentrate on his words – the unalloyed genius of the man shines through? I don’t know. All I can say is that my love affair with Shakespeare started on that day and, although it has waxed and waned over the years, it continues undiminished nearly 40 years later.
In the intervening time I have seen (and suffered through) countless versions of Shakespeare on the stage, both amateur and professional, but none has ever come close to rivaling – in my memory at least – that extraordinary production of the winter of ’72. The Castle Theatre is, alas, long gone; but I remember it with fondness and gratitude as the place where something magical once happened, and I carry its legacy with me to this day.
I think Sister Therese-Marie would probably be pleased …
(The top illustration is Charles Buchel’s 1917 portrait of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Shylock, from Wikimedia Commons. I believe the photograph of the Castle Theatre was scanned from an old theatre programme and could be © Alan Chudley. If it is, I hope he doesn’t object to me using it because it appears to be the only extant photograph of the theatre.)