He plucks his moment,
youth and beauty held in trust.
At ease in his skin.
Two minds with one thought
alight in each others eyes.
There is no one else.
The city unfolds
its gift of transient life.
He drinks in the day.
In this moment
my eyes are the only ones to see
the sun lighting up the back of a Kittiwake
as it floats on the air below me,
the fizzing flight of a Burnet moth
as it spins out a path between the flowers,
and a dandelion clock trembling with fear
as it clings onto its seeds,
unwilling to die.
In this moment
my ears are the only ones to hear
the song of the Wood Warbler-
a spinning coin on a marble table-
as it shouts its existence,
the soft rustle of long summer grass
parted by a searching dog,
and the galloping joy of a stream
as it hurries to join the sea.
In this moment
my body is the only one to feel
the wandering touch of restless, salt sea air,
the swirl of the incoming tide
as it searches my boots,
and turn towards the sun
as it burns through the mist
bringing the tentative warmth
of a new day.
I stood and watched this man for a while on Scarborough’s main street and he stayed quite still, exactly as you see him on the photograph, for the whole time. It was a strange sight- like something beamed down from the past. He was not trying to attract attention, just standing silent and expressionless holding his leaflet out. He had made himself into a living sculpture, an embodiment of his beliefs and fears. All around him the “blind sheeples” who he was trying to warn were hurrying past, avoiding his eye. He and his message were an encumbrance, an embarrassment, something that they would rather not think about. Wasn’t it strange people like him who boarded aeroplanes with bombs in the heel of their shoes? He does have a beard after all…….. Was he dangerous, a bit weird or just confused? Perhaps he needed help- don’t get involved, move on past. Nobody took the risk of engaging with him or, perish the thought, challenging him- you never knew what that might lead to. Anyway, whatever you thought of what he was doing it still wasn’t pleasant to be told that you were going to die- and maybe quite soon- while you were out there having a look round the shops for the afternoon. That wasn’t what you wanted to hear before you went into Poundland for your bar of chocolate. He was left to stand in the busy high street without any evidence to show him that what he was doing was in any way having the effect that he wanted. Yet still he waited. He waited just for one person to take that leaflet from his hand as they walked by. Just one.
I didn’t challenge him either, which is a shame because there were things that I really would have liked to ask him. What was it that made him trundle out his mobile sermon and take up his stand on the street week after week? Was he just representing himself or a religion of some kind? Did he have people at home who loved him? Was he happy? Most of all, how on Earth did he come up with the fact slung around his neck. Did he make it up? “Most people will die 1335 days before the end of the world.” It is astonishingly specific, but unless you actually know when the end of the world will be it will never be wrong. He can safely wear it around his neck for years.
It is easy to mock, or feel pity, but standing there alone in the face of a rush of indifference and incomprehension he is taking a considerable personal risk. There is a kind of bravery in what he is doing. Bravery which may lead to all kind of potential trouble, the kind of bravery which can sever families and wreck societies. Perhaps it is just as well that nobody takes that leaflet from his hand. You never know where it will lead.
“Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”
When you walk into the space it takes only a few seconds to register that the Crucible’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is going to be something very special. In the centre of the darkened space is a slowly revolving shed, perfectly detailed inside and out and cleverly designed so that we can see everything that we need to within its chaotic, cramped interior from all angles as it turns. It is surrounded by low audience benches and a ring of small round speakers suspended at knee height. Those of us at the front are within a few feet of the action. Krapp is already inside sitting in front of a battered reel to reel tape recorder- of course he is as he spends hours in there, alone with his thoughts. It is an astonishing setting for the play, created by Alex Lowde, I doubt that you will ever see a better one, so much detail and thought has gone into getting it exactly right. It almost feels as though you have already seen the drama in full as you peer in at Krapp through the windows. Becket conceived his plays as a whole theatrical package of light, sound, setting and text and that is exactly what you get from this wonderful production. Richard Wilson, who plays Krapp, must have been thrilled when he first saw it. If it wasn’t so very unfair to a fine performance I would say that half his job was already done when he sat down inside it. It is also quite beautifully and subtly lit by Hansjorg Schmidt and that really matters for this play.
Krapp has been putting his thoughts down on tape for a very long time and he has been left with a record of his younger self. This is what he has been steeling himself to explore on this, his 69th birthday. During the course of the play he listens to the tape that he made when he was 39. As we watch a bitter, disappointed man whose life has been unfulfilled listen to his younger, still hopeful self, we hear one of his opportunities for happiness being missed. It is a sombre business. Beckett is a bold, uncompromising writer who leaves us no room for consolation. We all share Krapp’s predicament as the spool of our life slowly runs out and those of us who are old enough can feel the pang of our own hurts and missed opportunities as we watch him struggle with his past. In an age where many lives are being recorded on social media in ever more detail, every meal photographed, every hope set down, every slight revenged, Beckett’s play, written over fifty years ago, has great resonance. In the future many people will be able to look back at their young selves in what may well be horrifying detail. You can’t rewrite your past to suit your own ideas of what you would have liked it to be when the truth is staring you in the face. In allowing himself to face his younger self Krapp performs an act of great bravery and self examination.
Beckett is a very precise, economical writer who has provided every detail needed, but he also makes great demands on his actor. The clues are all there in the text and the stage directions, but it is up to the actor to bring them to the surface and show the thought processes of the man. Richard Wilson does this impeccably. You can see the thoughts chasing across his face and this makes every moment quite mesmerising to watch. I don’t think that there was a single moment where I didn’t feel that I knew what was going on inside his head.
Polly Findlay, Alex Lowde and above all Richard Wilson as Krapp have joined forces to give us, quite simply, as good an account of Samuel Beckett’s great writing as you are ever likely to see. A young man who left the theatre alongside me was saying to his friends, “That was quite remarkable” and that is exactly the right word. This is a piece of true theatre that leaves you a different person after seeing it, a short, intense time spent in another place. You had to be there…….. and I will never forget that I was.
In Henry IV part one we have seen the excitement and tension of a rush towards civil war, in which a feckless prince faces up to his duty and proves himself to be a hero. It has a strong, single narrative drive and it races along, laced with a good deal of humour, towards a thrilling single combat between two bitter rivals, Hal and Hotspur. Henry IV part two is a much darker, more sombre play in which we see the consequences of that war, broken families, heartbreak, disillusionment and a country in crisis. There is humour still, but it is melancholy and wistful. It contains some of the best scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote and sets the political against the nakedly personal in a way that allows them to shed light on each other. Ideally the two should be seen together and usually they are.
After enjoying his performance in part one I was looking forward to seeing Jasper Britton play one of my favourite scenes in all Shakespeare, Henry IV’s blistering attack on Hal, and he didn’t let me down. It was a heartfelt, visceral performance. I just wish that he had been given a Hal with a bit more fire to play against. It is both a key moment for the nation and a portrait of every father and son who were ever disappointed in each other and it takes two.
Antony Sher and Paola Dionisotti make the most of their opportunities to develop their characters in part two. Sher is a fine Falstaff who plays the cynicism of the character particularly well. Paola Dionisotti is a great Mistress Quickly, funny and poignant, and she makes the most of the greater opportunities for the character that she is given later in the plays.
Antony Byrne put in the necessary barnstorming comic performance as Pistol but I wasn’t convinced that he was also dangerous and I think that you need to be.
In the Gloucestershire scenes Shakespeare is on home ground, writing about a setting that he knows well. There is a lot of pathos and some broad comedy for the actors to relish and they are beautifully done in this production. Oliver Ford-Davies is both funny and touching as Justice Shallow, bringing all his experience to bear, and together with Jim Hooper’s marvellous Justice Silence, he provides an object lesson in perfect theatrical timing and truthfulness. Just the kind of acting I relish.
A lovely production with a lot to enjoy. There were a few weaknesses too, for me, but the strengths more than made up for them and I am left looking forward to the next time.
You will find the Letter to an Unknown Soldier website here. For a limited time you can write a letter to be added to the collection. It can be of any kind that you like. Here is mine.
I am writing a letter to an unknown soldier for a website. You’d have shaken your head at that and wondered what was going on- you who couldn’t even follow the television easily any more when it was no longer all live and they started editing and jump cutting too much. You were not unknown to me as a person, of course, just as a soldier. I am left trying to imagine what you went through, having failed to ask you while I had the chance. You were a lifelong horseman who must have gone through hell trying to protect the horses you cared for in your battalion from their worst nightmare, a precious voice from the past who I should have listened to more while I had the chance. A piece of living history pottering around in the garden growing your fruit and veg and dead heading your roses. I am proud to have known you and been brought up by you- something else that I should have said. I was your shadow in the garden, your mate, your only grandchild- the “only one I’ve got”. You were my strong safe haven in a confusing world. Someone who was always on my side.
Looking back I am left with only clues, a word or an object to tell me what I should have asked. A large framed photograph where you sit proudly with your comrades in full uniform. A polished jug made from a shell case with a field gun engraved on it. You told me that you had stolen it from a German officer and that it was the first shell fired on your part of the front. Nobody ever came into the front room for the first time without being shown it and told the story. A postcard with a row of kisses for baby Edie, “just to let you know that I am still alive.” A tale of some loud-mouthed new recruits who were being marched to the front, shouting about how they were going to bash Jerry, blown up by a shell before they ever got to the front line. I can still remember how you shook your head. “They never even saw a Jerry.” A flashbulb memory from hell. The final photograph by the front door, before you left for the front, your face wary and shadowed with anxious pride and the stuffed stoat rearing up from a patch of dried grass which you caught on your last rabbiting expedition before being sent out to France. You only left Yorkshire three times in your life and one of those times was to fight in the war to end all wars. It was the defining experience of your life yet you rarely spoke of it. Only the way that you shone your boots on Remembrance day and the way that those comrades were still in pride of place fifty years after they first stared out from the wall tells me that nothing else ever meant quite as much.
I am proud of your strength and your dignity. I am proud that you could see so much suffering and destruction and stay intact. I owe my existence to that strength. East Yorkshire farming folk didn’t talk about loving each other, but you showed it in everything that you did for me and without your care and forethought, honed in the most terrible of circumstances, my life would have been immeasurably poorer.
Thank you granddad. I love you. x