Weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon

Remember my goal of seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays performed before I turn 40? Well, notwithstanding what happened last Sunday, it’s STILL ON. We’re just going to have to add “-something” to the end of it.

Which means that when the RSC does a new production of King John, one girds one’s loins and boards the nearest train to Stratford . . . which at the moment is more “under” than “upon” Avon. The cheeky swans seemed to think the swell was all for them to get closer to the hands that feed them without having to set foot on ground.

There’s not much to do in Stratford besides the plays, and King John didn’t start until 7:30pm, so I popped in to the matinee of the rather unimaginatively named A Museum in Baghdad.

Seems it’s a newish play that focuses, well, on a museum in Baghdad. The museum becomes the frame and backdrop for an ambitious exploration of themes about power, national identity, colonialism, gender dynamics, cultural institutions and their relation to “the people”. Not all those themes were satisfyingly developed, but the play was worth the trip for introducing me to the fascinating Gertrude Bell. I don’t remember hearing about her before, but she was at Oxford with T.E. Lawrence (of “of Arabia” fame) was basically — remarkably — an adventurer, explorer, and along with Lawrence one of the significant power brokers in Mid-East diplomacy during the years following collapse of the Ottoman Empire. According to the play (and Wikipedia) she not only founded the museum but also Iraq itself as the modern state that exists today.

After a brief interlude, during which I saw more of the flooding . . .

All of that in the distance is supposed to be a grassy park.

. . . then took a nap, called Justin, and ate some pasta, I went back to the theatre for the tale of good old King John.

Which one was John? Some of you will remember him from history as the king who essentially lost all of the Plantagenet possessions in France, subjected the English throne to the Pope in a way it had never been before, and signed the Magna Carta. The rest of us will know him as the snake villain in Disney’s animated Robin Hood.

The play is obscure and rarely performed, so I went in with low expectations. But what a fantastic production! It was funny and clever and felt enormously relevant in 21st Century Britain on the brink of Brexit. I loved the casting. Women were played the roles of both King John and Pandolf the papal legate, though none of the text was changed. Putting a woman in the legate’s role was particularly interesting in that it played on the image of the church as the caring mother who has no military power but who still wields enormous political power by manipulating the men and their swords.

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