This morning I staggered up the lane in my droopy track suit trousers and ludicrous (high risiblity?) yellow day-glow jacket towards Lyonshall. It was pleasantly warm and sunny, but crisp enough for a jog past swathes of jack-by-the hedge, campion, bluebells and cuckoo-flowers – and blow me – a cuckoo called in gentle, encouraging mockery. Bliss. And it triggered some lovely memories.
I’d almost forgotten that Ben Kingsley and Frances de la Tour played Helena and Demetrius in the Aldwych run of Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1971 but certainly not that Sarah Kestelman played Titania because I was sitting on the end of the second or third row of the stalls – and when the cast came leaping down into the auditorium at the end of the show, she kissed me like a long lost friend. I was already weeping with happiness.
Yesterday’s mesmerizing edition of The Reunion on Radio 4 brought together those four remarkable people along with Barry Stanton who, as Snug the Joiner had got into the team-spirit of the production and insisted on making his own prop, a wooden lion’s head, in a joinerly style, along the lines of a chest of drawers.
The two greatest theatrical experiences of my life were being part of this and of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia – and I associate both with our daughter Lucy. She was a few weeks’ old – so it must have been in November or early December 1971 that we nearly missed the Dream. She was crying so heartbreakingly as Ann and I tried to galvanise ourselves for a rendezvous with Doug and Patsie Flett who were driving us from Harrow on the Hill to the West End in their new car ( we didn’t own one) that by 6.45 we had weakened to the point of abandoning the idea of an outing. At the crucial moment, enter Sarita Crook, our dauntless landlady (we were renting the butler’s annexe of her house). She grabbed Lucy, reminding us that she had, in spite of her genteel upbringing in Poona, plenty of experience of mollifying distressed babies and shooed us into the car.
Even in those days, three quarters of an hour to drive to the Aldwych, park and take our seats was pushing it. We arrived, pale, grim, silent, with a minute to spare. That is to say that, having dropped off the ladies outside the theatre, Doug drove off with me to look for a parking space and when we arrived (panting) in the foyer at 7.38, maroon rope barriers had been drawn across the entrances. Miraculously, the curtain hadn’t gone up, as we could see on a tv monitor – but – we were not to know it – in order to inject the burst of energy that Brooks demanded, the entire cast was poised to gallop through the auditorium and leap on to the stage with a roar and a burst of song. A uniformed attendant raised a staying hand and informed us that nobody would now be allowed to enter until the end of Act I. “Bugger this!” cried Douglas (he had spent formative years in Australia). I agreed and we hurdled the barrier and made our own entrance. We had suffered too much to be thwarted at this point. We piled into our seats hotly pursued down the aisles by a galloping mob of nobs, fairies and hard-handed mechanicals. Fantastic!
And that was just the beginning of the most breathtakingly inventive, hair-raisingly exciting, touching and hilarious, tricksy and athletic, thought-provoking, life-affirming ensemble stage-pieces I ever experienced. No eye has ever heard, no ear has ever seen, no hand has tasted, or tongue felt, or heart described what that Dream was like.
My hair was similarly up and down like the quills upon your fretful porpentine in May 1994 while Ann and I sat watching our Lucy playing Thomasina in Trevor Nunn’s production at The Haymarket. Stoppard has never written anything better – and I can’t think of a more moving role for a young actress, apart from Juliet, which – I still can hardly believe this – she actually got to play at the Theatre Royal Stratford. One glowed with pride, my dear.
But back to Arcadia. Imagine: a sensitive, slightly deranged prodigy, Thomasina weeps real tears for the destruction of the library at Alexandria; she spends a good many of her waking hours working out iterated algorithms in her head, and falls madly in love with a handsome, thoroughly decent young toff. What a role! What more could proud parents wish for their daughter? In the brilliant final scene, her 18th ghost whirls round with her lover in a dance with the 20th century inheritors of the English country house where the play is set. The music of time danced before our very eyes.
These things are part of us – not just precious memories, but as Peter Brook put it yesterday, part of our DNA, our heart, our soul.
I’ve just found a snippet of a review. Lucy Whybrow’s charming prodigy, as ingenuously radiant over her discovery of kissing as of fractal geometry (as she is over falling in love), cries, ‘We must hurry if we’re going to dance’. Good advice, that.