The good, the Bard and the ugly

Fewer press nights in Stratford? That'll do nicely, says our critic Rhoda Koenig
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The Royal Shakespeare Company has at times impressed me with its plays, it has entertained me, it has excited me, it has given me a good laugh and a good cry. But none of its work has created the violent joy, followed by incandescent happiness and a sense of deep, deep peace than the announcement that far fewer press nights will take place in Stratford.

There are other theatre towns even more unpleasant than Shakespeare's, in which British incompetence, vulgarity and complacency flourish like the green bay tree. There may well be another town whose councillors have sold the integrity of its main street for promotional purposes. (The road bordering the three theatres is lined with grubby white lampposts, each of a different design, and each bearing the shield of the company or country that paid for them; the Israeli one, particularly fetching, has a crossbar on which a large Bottom in donkey suit duets with Tevye the fiddler.) There may even be another town of like size ­ 23,000 ­ that supports three shops selling nothing but teddy bears. (Bought, of course, by some of the 3.8 million people who visit Stratford each year, three million of them British ­ I'm afraid we can't blame it on the Americans.)

But in no other town is the spirit of the world's greatest writer contrasted at every turn with evidence that its citizens either don't know his work or don't get it. Perhaps for that reason, Stratford-upon-Avon arouses a rare concurrence of opinion among reviewers. "Stratford," says a feminine critic (female), "is like a cheap lavender sachet: it looks olde-worlde, but it's filled with coloured dust and it's made in China." Stratford, said the bookish critic, brought to mind the James brothers. "William James said Stratford made him want to be a Baconian. And do you know the short story 'The Birthplace'? Henry James never names it, but it's clear he's referring to Stratford. The couple in charge of the great man's house suffer a kind of poisoning of the soul because the monument and the place are so phoney."

"I can't really give you my impressions of Stratford," said the nervous critic, "because I try to move in my own little ecosphere and not let anything in."

Not letting anything in is generally a good idea in Stratford, whose cuisine makes you distrust anything that cannot be ingested through a straw. The manners of the minions are on a par with what they serve. At one pre-theatre supper my companion, in the gentlest way possible, asked the waiter if our food would be coming soon, since the curtain was at 7pm (the usual time on press nights). It was certainly not at 7pm, the waiter insisted. It was never that early.

"But tonight..." my companion ventured, and got no further, for the waiter laid down the law. "I said it's not seven, and I ought to know, because I've been here for years, and I know all about the theatre and..." I had to get the manager to pull the spluttering waiter off the representative of The Times.

When the RSC has two consecutive press nights, one must seek not only food but shelter in Stratford. Institutional English hospitality can be found at "Stratford's finest heritage hotels", which, their magazine boasts, have "all the trappings of modern living [running water] with a timeless feel [Fifties drab]". One rejoices in "the legendary cedar tree" that "supposedly marks the very spot" of the premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream". Another "happily retains the wonderful trademark squeaky floors" ­ as the light-sleeping critic can testify. These features presumably blind one to the tariff and the breakfast of "fresh-squeezed" (some months ago) orange juice, rock-hard rolls and mandatory semi-skimmed milk.

There are, of course, many first nights at Stratford, much nightmarish wallpaper, and many cases of indigestion still to come. But I have discovered a refuge for the daylight hours. Behind one of the hotels is the Butterfly House. True to their locale, the butterflies are dingy and have seen better days. But in its sultry heat, palms and ferns, one might imagine oneself anywhere but in Stratford. "This is a great place," I said on my way out. "All you need is someone serving G&Ts."

"Hoo, hoo!'' replied the simple rustic at the till. "We couldn't have that. People'd be fallin' into t'pond!"

Nevertheless, I shall risk it. On our next visit, the nervous critic and I have plans.