Friday 11 May 2012

Three Wiltshire churches

Flanked here by the pinnacled fantasia of St Mary the Virgin Steeple Ashton - a 'silvery battleship' as Betjeman described it - and the massy grandeur of the collegiate church at Edington on the edge of Salisbury plain is the spired bellcote of a small gem in an equally prosperous context, All Saints Great Chalfield. We started our Bank Holiday Sunday excursion there, skimming a lively plant fair our Lacock hosts were keen to catch and heading straight for the garden of the amiably proportioned manor at opening time. The church, which feels more like a cosy private chapel appended by Thomas Trop(e)nell to the late 15th century house - he added the bellcote to the 13th century building at the same time - is echoed by two topiaried pavilions or tree 'houses' of hollowed-out yews, part of Alfred Parsons' splendid garden design in 1910.

Tropnell further enhanced the little church with a family chapel, approached through an elegant screen with his coat of arms - gryphons, not cockatoos - in the centre.

Mutilated but still striking wall-paintings of the life of St Catherine within are surprisingly well complemented by Andrew Taylor's 1999 windows taking St Luke's Parable of the Sower as pretext for a detailed representation of British nature. I've chosen just a couple of details.

The good folk of Steeple Ashton lavished the profits of their cloth-weaving on what for me is one of the most magical flourishes of Perpendicular Gothic.

The steeple which gives the place its name was several times toppled in the 17th century and is no more, but the height of the tower which once supported it remains impressive. Beneath the pinnacles is a gallimaufry of gargoyles.

The porch gives promise of stonework within: its vaulting, which contains at its centre the Assumption of the Virgin,

continues in aisles and chapels, though the original intention to have stone vaults throughout apparently halted when it came to the nave. This roof of oak and plaster with pendants and bosses gives the well-lit interior further airy grace.

Fragments of medieval glass help to date the greater part of the church: the white rose and the sun-on-shield of Richard III mean the structure must have been completed before his death in 1485.

Just as Steeple Ashton is a great flowering of late medieval art, so the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Katherine and All Saints at Edington, just below the north slope of Salisbury Plain, ranks as a handsome specimen of the previous century's transition from Decorated to Perpendicular. Its richness is due to its foundation, between 1352 and 1361, by William of Edington, Bishop of Winchester, who set up the neighbouring priory for the Augustinian Order of Bonhommes. Among whose number this monk may or may not be counted (the inappropriate blue of his vestment is due to a later recolouring, though some of the original has survived).

Again, he may or may not be a Baynton, as suggested by the visual representation of a bay in a barrel (tun) of wine.

Even more splendid is the monument dedicated to Sir Edward Lewys by his wife Anne Beauchamp, who followed her husband to eternal rest in 1664. It quite seduced me away from the other glories of the 14th century chancel. The angel or putto poised with crown above the couple is of wood rather than marble, which accounts for his elegant suspension.

The children pray for their parents below

and are imitated - with a presumably unintended sense of humour - by the early 19th century monument to the Tayler family in the north aisle. These equally pious offspring are children no longer.

Very nearly contemporary with the Lewys monument are the plaster vaults of nave, transepts and tower.

And so, our church homages done, we journeyed south for a circular walk around woods and downs. In a couple of weeks the bluebells may be over

but the beeches will be in full leaf and parts of the woodland will be covered in the orchids of several species we found emerging on the slopes.

Friday 4 May 2012

Cymbeline of South Sudan

Of all the Globe to Globe ventures, the visit of the South Sudan Theatre Company seemed the most likely to be overwhelmed by its background story: theatre folk and poets coming together in a country less than a year old, still torn by strife when it should be building its new peace, to tackle an unfamiliar text. Not that Cymbeline is among the Bard’s most studied plays anywhere – I discovered a special fondness for it at university -  but the circumstances here seem especially fraught. For two decades no English books were permitted by the Sudanese government in the north, so having the text translated into Juba Arabic, a language subject to an oral rather than a written tradition and one formerly suppressed under British colonial rule, was a double victory. This excellent little film draws you in to the newly-formed company's preparations.

How was it, in practice? Very rough and ready: some tentative entrances, plenty of stand and deliver, actors talking over each other rather more often than was in the interests of lively drama. But there was no mistaking these Africans’ enthusiasm and instinct for storytelling, the way they slipped so easily between punctuating drumbeats into the Globe’s best house style of engaging the audience and resonantly addressing invisible gods (I hear the six Italians’ crazy version of Julius Caesar later on Wednesday needed miking: che disgrazia!) The tradition of strolling players was alive and well here; you could well imagine this team putting across the essence of the play vividly to assembled village people al fresco. We don’t find the raising of a sleeping maiden’s nightdress cause for a good laugh, but cultures can’t always be expected to agree.

How much does the story reflect South Sudan’s struggle for liberation, as has been claimed? Not a great deal: though peace and reconciliation must resonate in spite of very recent Sudanese evidence to the contrary, the conflict between Cymbeline of the woaded Britons and ancient Rome is, at least until the very late stages of the play, mere background for the wanderings and trials of the king’s daughter.

‘Heavenly Imogen’ I’ve always thought of as a kind of Alice cast adrift in a grotesque wonderland when separated from her beloved Posthumus. She fends off the advances of his scurvy friend Iachimo, who wrests love-tokens from her unknown by sneaking into her bedchamber concealed in a trunk (here he snakes out of a trap door). She wakes from the effects of a death-simulating potion alongside the headless body of her wicked stepmother’s silly son Cloten, killed by a young man under provocation who will turn out to be her brother, and takes the torso to be Posthumus. The lengthy reconciliation scene is full of what a friend of mine calls ‘I was that toothbrush’ moments.

All this was strongly evoked by the South Sudanese actors, with (I fancy) very few cuts and minimal help from the scene summaries in the LED paratitles. It was impossible not to warm to the indignation and passion of Margaret Kowarto’s Imogen (prone in the above photo) or the dignity of Francis Paulino Lugali’s Posthumus. But the festival’s ongoing problem, which can occasionally be a virtue, of not having the text translated back into the Shakespeare original to help the punters made me realize more than ever that the contrived situations of Cymbeline seem merely daft in themselves; it's the poetry they conjure up in the unlikeliest circumstances which gives them sense and wonder.

Here it’s not quite enough to claim that one vaguely feels the force of that poetry in another language without understanding it. The audiences for these shows are incredibly resilient and patient, but they have to be grateful for resourceful mime, jolly dances to clap along to and choice morsels dropped in (non-Shakespearean) English, in which the South Sudanese were as well versed as the Indian actors in the much slicker Twelfth Night. Which of course is far from the whole story, however well that story's told. Shakespeare the poet is largely absent unless you happen to speak the language; Shakespeare the dramatist usually emerges triumphant. Which is enough to keep me going, I hope, to more offerings in this extraordinary world festival.

Production images by Ellie Kurttz for Shakespeare's Globe