Stratford – The Guild Chapel

We went back into Stratford on a sunny Wednesday. the offspring wanted to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, but we’d been before and as entry is quite expensive me and J decided to give it a miss and have a wander round the small town.

After visiting Waterstones (and ending up buying a couple of books – more to add tot he pile 😂), walking a little further down the street we spotted this chapel and a notice enticed us to have a look inside.

It’s the the chapel built for the Guild of the Holy Cross, a medieval religious organisation created in 1269 which existed until it was abolished in 1547. The Guild membership consisted of gentry, wealthy merchants and tradesmen from Stratford – it probably acted like a sort of Freemasons where the members looked after each other while carrying out some charity work as a public relations exercise. According to Wikipedia

The guild reached the peak of its influence in the late 15th century, when it had become the town’s semi-official governing body, and probably included all of the more important townsmen.

The picture at the top of this post shows their Guildhall and the adjacent alms houses. The chapel was built at the end of the Guildhall – you can see the tower in the photo.

The Medieval Guild Chapel is a Grade 1 listed building and the Historic England listing tells us that the chancel was built in the 13th Century, with some alterations done around1450. The nave and tower were added in around 1490 and comprehensively restored in1804. Further restoration and refurbishment in the 1950s.

During the 19th Century Medieval wall-paintings were rediscovered which had been covered over by limewash during the Reformation.

In Medieval times most churches would have had paintings on the walls to educate and, literally, put the fear of God into the congregation. Even those who were able to read would be unlikely to be able to read the words of the scriptures themselves because until the Reformation the Bible was only available in Latin. The clergy and the Feudal Ruling Class didn’t want the Lower Orders to get any ideas about equality from reading the New Testament!

Following the Reformation, when English translations of the bible became available, the paintings, images, statues and the like were banned by a Royal Injunction by Elizabeth I 1559 which required the “removal of all signs of superstition and idolatry from places of worship”. So the paintings were covered over with limewash (Shakespeare’s dad was allegedly involved in this), which actually served to protect the them – although some have been lost, including some scenes from the Legend of the True Cross when the Chapel was re-modelled in the 19th Century.

Today, however, some of the paintings have been uncovered and can be viewed by visitors to the chapel. A team of historical archaeologists and digital heritage specialists from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, have carried out a major study of the paintings and created a digital model.

The large mural painted above the chancel arch (probably at the beginning of the 16th Century) represents the Day of Judgement, otherwise known as the Doom,

This is what the York team think it would have looked like. (The large cross and silhouettes of two figures – one on either side – were not actually part oft eh painting. there was originally a physical cross and two statues there which were painted around. Now they’re gone they’ve left behind their “shadows”

Another large painting on lower west wall – the Allegory of Death is the best-preserved of the Chapel’s wall paintings.

The York team’s reconstruction can be seen here.

Not all of the paintings are on display. Most have been re-painted with limewash to preserve them, but there are a few which visitors can peek at!

There’s a couple of good websites about the chapel and the paintings here and here plus a website about the York University project.

After looking round the chapel we made our way to the river for a stroll before joining the offspring for a drink in the Garrick, the oldest pub (reputably!) in Stratford –  in a timber framed building dating back to the 1400’s.

After that we walked towards the river, crossed the bridge then walked along the other side

before crossing back over on the chain ferry.

We then made our way back to the RSC. Popping inside we asked how much it cost to go up the tower. It was free! (with the option of making a donation – which we did).

The tower was added during the renovation and remodelling between 2007 and 2010

and after taking the lift to the top we had some good views over the theatre, the town and the nearby countryside.

Wife and daugher took the lift back down an then went shopping. Son and I descended by the steps (more fun!) and sheltered in the shade while we waited for them. It was then back to the car for the short journey to our accommodation.

A horse……

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

We’d booked tickets for the matinee performance of Richard III at the RSC in Strtatford on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday weekend. We set off mid morning for the short drive into the town so that we could spend a few hours having a mooch around. Stratford is only a small, albeit pleasant, town  but it’s very pleasant on the waterfront of the Avon, near the RSC theatre building. There was a craft market taking place so we spent some time browsing

before buying ourselves some drinks and a bite to eat. It was a hot, sunny day and it was peasant sitting close to the water.

Afterwards we made our way over to the theatre, where the crowd was beginning to assemble

Built in 1932 the theatre was designed by the then 29-year-old Elisabeth Whitworth Scott, it was the first public building to be designed by a female architect.  There was a major renovation of the theatre at the beginning of the 21st Century. While the facade was retained the inside was gutted and completely rebuilt and there were additions, including the viewing tower and new roof top restaurant. This was the third time I’d seen a production in the theatre (I’ve also seen a performance in the Swan Theatre which is part of the complex). The first visit was with J way before we had children and well before the remodelling, to see a production of Julius Caeser. The auditorium was rather old style with a proscenium arch with seating in three tiers – a traditional stalls, circle and balcony arrangement. Not being so well off at the time we were in the cheap seats up on the upper level in “the Gods” with the stage some way off. During the renovation the facade with it’s Art Deco touches was retained, but the inside was completely gutted and remodelled. It now has a “thrust” stage with seats around on 3 sides and the audience much closer to the stage than previously. The other two productions we’ve seen have been in the the remodelled theatre which re-opened in November 2010. (correction – since writing this I realised that the second visit was when my daughter was 15 or 16 – we went to see MacBeth her GCSE play – so that would have been before the remodelling)

Shakespeare made Richard III to be an outright villain – no doubt to curry favour with the Tudor monarch Elizabeth, who’s grandfather, Henry VII, had defeated Richard at Bosworth to claim the crown. There’s been a reappraisal by some historians following the discovery of his body underneath a carpark in Leicester in September 2012. Being a loyal Lancastrian, I’m having none of that! I’m saying that with tongue in cheek, of course. The truth is the “nobility”, who were all related, were all a bunch of ruthless mafia-like gangsters squabbling for power and inflicting damage on the majority of the population. Nothing changes

So, what of the production? The casting was “colour blind” which may upset some people. But a play isn’t a documentary and the colour of an actor’s skin is irrelevant for this play – we can ignore it and concentrate on their acting.

What we can’t ignore is the disability of Richard III. He is known to have suffered from scoliosis or curvature of the spine (confirmed by the discovery of his skeleton) and Shakespeare portrays him as a hunchback, using this as a metaphor for a twisted personality. In the production we saw he was played by Arthur Hughes, a disabled actor who has a rare condition known as radial dysplasia which means he has a deformed arm. In an interview in the Guardian he tells us

“With me, when I walk out on stage, it’s completely apparent that I have a disability. I can’t hide that. There’s a truth to it immediately, before I’ve even opened my mouth.”

“It’s not to say [able bodied] people can never play these parts. But I think it’s time that we had that lived experience shown properly.”

Guardian
Source: RSC website

He was very good – a strong performance, really hamming it up and portraying Richard as a pantomime villain.

I also particularly liked Kirsty Bushell as Queen Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV, who is the main female character in the play, Minnie Gale as the vengeful and mad Queen Margaret (wife of the deposed Henry VI) and and Micah Balfour as Lord Hastings – a duplicitous character who supports Richard in his rise to power and then is turned upon and murdered.

Source: RSC website

The victor of Bosworth, Henry Tudor who became Henry VII, comes across as a saintly character. He wasn’t really – in real life he was probably just as ruthless as his predecessor.

The set was simple – with a large reproduction of the London Cenotaph dominating the stage and with very few other props. Much of the atmosphere was created by the lighting with strong highlights and shadows

It’s a long play – 3 hrs 10 mins (including a 20 mins interval) – but the strong performances kept us glued to our seats. The longer first half showing Richard’s ruthless rise to power and the shorter second half portraying his downfall. The final battle scene was simply portrayed, using the ghosts of Richard’s victims, who had visited him before the battle (old Shakespeare loved his ghost scenes to haunt the villains before their downfall – he uses the same trick in MacBeth) to form the horse that Richard loses (“A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse”) and then to act as Henry’s steed as he vanquishes the doomed Richard.

“The Duchess of Malfi” at the Swan Theatre

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On the Monday evening during my stay in Stratford I managed to get tickets for the RSC’s production of The Duchess of Malfi in the Swan Theatre. There were no performances of the current show in the main theatre (Macbeth, with Christopher Ecclestone) that week but I  wasn’t disappointed as I had an enjoyable evening along with an Australian friend who was over for the conference.

The Swan is, like the Globe on the Southbank in London, a recreation of an Elizabethan / Jacobean theatre. In this case it’s u-shaped with a “thrust stage” surrounded on 3 sides, with stalls and two galleries.

The play was is a Jacobean tragedy by English dramatist John Webster and was written in in 1612/13. The blurb on the RSC’s website summed up the plot

A defiant woman is destroyed by her corrupt brothers in this violent revenge tragedy, full of dark humour.

The production had some modern twists –  modern dress, gymnastic dancing and some modern songs and started with the lead actress, Joan Iyiola, dragging a large animal carcass on to the stage. It stayed there, but it’s significance only became apparent in the second half.

Joan Iyiola was a powerful and very sexy duchess and I thought that Nicolas Tennant as the self serving Bosola was also very good.

After the interval, occupants of the front rows, where the seats are below stage level, were given blankets to cover their clothing and shoes. The reason became apparent early in the second half when the carcass was cut and began to leak blood – symbolising the brutality of the story where the Duchess’ brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal, have their sister murdered for marrying outside her class

By the end of the play the whole stage was covered with blood. And being a Jacobean tragedy all of the major actors lay dead on the floor, drenched with the red liquid.

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Stratford-upon-Avon. A walk along the river

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A couple of weeks ago I was in Stratford-upon-Avon for the annual conference of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS). The conference started on the Tuesday but as I was running a professional development course the day before, I’d travelled over on Sunday afternoon. Although it turned hot and sunny in the middle of the week, Sunday afternoon was rather grey and showery but it brightened up later in the day, so after my evening meal I decided to get out for a stroll. Stratford is only a small, albeit pleasant, town and the obvious place for a walk was along the River Avon.

I crossed the river over to the “left bank”

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and then passed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the opposite side of the river.  Built in 1932 it was designed by the then 29-year-old Elisabeth Whitworth Scott, it was the first
public building to be designed by a female architect.  There was a major renovation of the theatre at the beginning of the 21st Century. While the facade was retained the inside was gutted and completely rebuilt and there were additions, including the viewing tower and new roof top restaurant

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There were plenty of swans swimming on the river

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A little further downstream I passed the Holy Trinity church on the opposite bank.

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Further on there was a footbridge and I crossed over to the right bank, now following the river upstream.

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I passed the Holy Trinity Church, getting a closer view of the church where Shakespeare was baptised and buried.

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It won’t have looked like this when Shakespeare was around, mind. Although some older stonework was visible it has the look of a Victorian neo-Gothic building, due to its restoration in 1836-7 and 1839-41.  I only found out later that Shakespeare is buried here, so, sadly, although I walked through the graveyard I didn’t visit his grave.

Carrying on I walked through the RSC gardens where there was a pavilion which had images of actors from performances at the theatre.

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A little further along I reached the back of the RSC building, with a view of the Swan Theatre

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Walking along the river side to the front of  the building I could see the bridge I’d crossed at the start of my walk. The sun was starting to set and the light was fading, but it was a pleasant evening and I felt like walking further, so I turned around and re-traced my steps, circumnavigating the river in the opposite direction.

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