Wednesday, August 08, 2007

upstart crow

Sunday night I had pretty much had it with London. I was stuck downtown, for one reason or another, at Piccadilly and Leicester as midnight hit and the tubes shut down. Not a problem, really, because I can take the night buses home or, failing that, I can walk. What was a problem was the grime. The filth. Everything felt coated in sticky toffee and cigarette ash. Women dressed like tarts and men shouting in foreign languages and all the color of the neon lights and I think: is this what it’s come to?

So yesterday was a perfect day to head to Stratford.

I idealize Stratford just like everybody else does, but at least I admit it. There is an undeniable charm to the English countryside and the bizarre realization that yes, it really does look like the pictures!

We went first to Oxford, where Liz took us on a wonderful walk-through of both the university and the town. We saw some interesting things. At Christ Church College I learned what a stile was, and, to their baffled amusement, I jumped in some Asian ladies’ pictures. At the Sheldonian we climbed to the cupola and saw a city of spires. I also saw some mermaids coming out of the wall. At the corner of St. Giles street we saw a lady talking to a homeless man, and then calling her son to say “Oy, David. I’ve just found me fatha!” On the Magdalen Bridge we saw a man wearing a green mesh skirt, and some boatmen prepping for a day of punting. In the park we laid on our backs and saw cloud formations. At the Eagle and Child pub we ate Bangers and Mash and saw the Rabbit Room, where Tolkien and Lewis used to have philosophical debates over a pint. I liked Oxford.

But there is nothing likeStratford. We stopped first at Mary Arden’s house which I always think is fantastic and a little creepy. It’s creepy only because the staff there dress up like Elizabethans and they talk in character. Like, “Oh, I’m just sprinklin ’ a little salt ‘ere on the wooden trenchers to keep ‘em fresh, luv!” But what I do like is the falconry exhibit. There’s no faking that, and the falconer let me lay on my tummy while a giant owl flew right at my head, swooping only above me at the last minute.

And we went to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, where the garden was surreal as usual. I bought some starter seeds to take home with me, only realizing later that this may be slightly illegal at customs. If we get foot and mouth in Utah next summer it’s totally my fault. I love the cottage, and I like how the tour guides always lay the Elizabethan euphemisms on thick so we know that wedidn’t make them up. Sleep tight, it’s raining cats and dogs, “upper crust,” et al.

Tonight we saw Henry IV, part 1. Could that play have a more boring title? Sad but true, or true but sad, because it’s a fantastic play. I think if people knew how great it was it would be done all the time. But it’s a history play, and it has a super boring name, and nobody bothers. But it’s really funny, and beautifully written, and it’s exciting and quick paced, and it’s all about fathers and sons and reformers and reprobates, and there’s a Welshman named Owen and an anti-hero named Hotspur. This production swung from ropes and had some of the most innovating staging I’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare play. David Warner, an RSC icon, played Falstaff. We saw it in the brand new Courtyard Theatre, which is a thrust stage. I understood every word they said. Beautiful play.

More excitement? We saw James Franco at the intermission. Of course everyone needed to comment on how greasy, short, and skinny he looked. Don’t we say that about every celebrity when we see them live? James sat at the table next to ours at the Dirty Duck Pub after the show. He left with the actor who played Hotspur. I’ve leave the rest to you.

More excitement? We walked up to the Holy Trinity churchyard to take pictures of ghosts. We never got any, so we faked a few. I also told an Elizabethan ghost story.

The most excitement? I called Lisa at midnight to find out the sex of our baby. As long as I live I will never forget walking down the Stratford -Upon-Avon High Street, completely deserted at midnight, and hearing about my fifth child. Someday I will take my daughter down that very street, point to the spot just in front of the Shakespeare library, and say “here’s where I found out about you.”