Last year I discovered Manga Shakespeare and bought a couple for the kids as a little experiment. They absolutely loved them, and we’ve since bought more. I figured it a good way for them to grasp the core Shakespearean plots, and then be able to recognise these where they appear elsewhere in art, other literature, films etc. Plus it seemed a gentle introduction into Shakespearean language prior to secondary school study.
Apparently, when these books first came out in 2007 purists were horrified. The Manga versions do use Shakespeare’s text but are abridged – the purists thought this Wrong and that in taking out chunks of text the plays were reduced to mere plots and this, too, was Wrong. Feedback from the Royal Shakespeare Company and schools has been much more positive.
Yesterday we took the kids to the theatre to see Romeo & Juliet – an adult production, not something re-jigged for youngsters – and they were enthralled for two and a half hours… I don’t think Sam leaned back in her seat once – she was on the edge, silent, not taking her eyes off the stage. They absolutely loved it, understood perfectly what was happening and, where the language did fox them, still didn’t feel lost because they knew the story already (though brilliant acting throughout from the Pilot Theatre group clarified even the more obscure segments of Shakespeare’s banter).
At the interval I asked Jess, who re-read the Manga version for about the tenth time last week, what was going to happen in the second half. And she told me, naming characters and their roles in the mess which follows soppy Romeo’s banishment. I could have forgotten I was talking to an eight year old, in fact, had she not added at the end but I don’t think the actress will really kill herself, she’ll just pretend.
I would not have sat through two and a half hours of Shakespeare at eight or eleven years old. I would have hated it, even though I did love the theatre… but not to listen to that sort of hard-to-grasp dialogue. The reason my kids loved it (and now want to go and see Hamlet this summer too!) is purely because they’ve read, and enjoyed, those Manga versions that so horrified the purists.
So, Purists, thy heads are as full of quarells as an egg is full of meat…
(oh, and the Pilot Theatre group is taking Romeo & Juliet to London at the beginning of February – well worth checking out if that’s your neighbourhood)
So much fluffy, pink, flowery stuff around today.
I Do Not Love You (Pablo Neruda)
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
I was married to a man who was often away, and when home was rarely present. If we were ships passing it was on separate seas, in different time-zones, each oblivious for the most part to the other’s existence. He did not have to be elsewhere. He chose it. Things perceived caused an anger that became destructive – he had a need to apportion blame – and I’d grown not only used to my own company but happier with it.
On the occasions he and John met over the summer, he would hover at close distance as John worked hard on some manual task – fixing a fence, digging out rhododendron roots, hauling stones for a rockery I’d thought might be nice near my study window – and he would use his business suit as both excuse and weapon. He made jokes about unpaid labour, about those who command and those who serve. Inappropriate jokes, meanly delivered, which he’d then soften with the promise of a pint later at the pub.
“You make an unlikely couple,” John said to me once. I asked him, unnecessarily, to elaborate. But he merely shrugged, shook his head and didn’t mention it again.
It was a time of great unhappiness. Dark clouds occupied more of the sky’s expanse than could be dismissed as a passing mood. The sun seldom broke through long enough to be trusted and the wind’s relentless effort failed to blow away the gloom. I took comfort in long beach walks, the company of angry waves suiting my disposition far more than that of any human.
I lived in the grounds of a castle. In the exit lodge to be precise. A small Victorian addition, its humbleness moderately deflected by the turreted entrance and high-windowed façade. Bats rightly inhabited the turret, their young emerging and learning to fly in summer’s dusk, several falling foul of dark windows as they returned, aiming for the eaves but failing in their novice attempts. Inside was cramped: three original rooms with no corridor, and an ugly rectangle tagged on sometime in the sixties to house a kitchen and bathroom. I worked from a small study which doubled as a guest room, though there were rarely guests. It overlooked the rear where pheasants came to hide from the shoot, to breed in the tangle of unkempt rhododendron bushes. The garden was wild. I liked it that way.
In summer, coachloads of tourists would queue at closing time outside the lodge, waiting to exit the gates onto a perilous bend of the coastal road. They would peer in through the windows as though my home was part of the attraction, as if to get their money’s worth. An American couple on foot once stuck their heads into the open sash and proclaimed the living room cute. The castle was a part-time whore by modern necessity; open for public tours, available to hire for weddings and conferences, its laundry and stables converted into shop and café, grounds used for fêtes, markets and sporting events, its remaining forests harvested and prepared for sale in the on-site sawmill. The family lived in two or three private rooms with a scattering of inherited treasures and the stories of 800 years.
I did some freelance work for the Estate Manager – a bad-tempered man who wore tweed as an imperative and whose manner, as is perhaps often the case, far outstretched that of his employer in its pomposity. The Earl himself was charming, fascinating and never happier than when wandering his estate, mingling with staff and tenants. He saw us as family. We used first names. Once the gates closed in the evening, the castle and grounds were quiet, they were ours. There was a necessary camaraderie. It’s not easy watching strangers nose through your life.
His children were away at school much of the time. His wife was rarely there, a brief flash of silver Mercedes bumping too fast up the drive once or twice a month. She never stayed. Rumour said she’d run off with a female lover and spent most of her time in the city. In a small community this was entertainment. The Earl not only had to contend with a crumbling home invaded by ignorant cultural list-tickers, but also an unwanted public sympathy and mocking whispers behind his back. The dignity of generations and strain of preserving for the future drove and sustained him, I think. He was busy. He was cheerful.
John arrived on the estate the second spring I was there. He was hired as falconer, to perform for the public during open season and undertake labouring jobs in the winter months. He moved, with his unfeasibly large family, into the woodman’s cottage, tucked privately away in the forest out of sight of the visiting public. But though others envied him the location, with five stepchildren of varying ages and one young son there was little room within its walls to move, breathe or be heard and he spent most of his time outside tending to the birds or walking his dog.
We met – fortuitously at first, later by design – on the track up through the forest early evening, or along the pebbled beach in the morning, our dogs becoming friends and forcing a conversation which grew in breadth and depth until we followed suit.
Theoretically I did not live alone either. Yet as we moved beyond those early reluctant conversations – the dog talk, the weather, the tides – came a sense of needing to harness urgency, to temper all that clearly could be said, to adopt a false pace. We were equally starved and this unacknowledged truth enveloped every word.
“I come down here sometimes at night,” he said, kicking pebbles with a dusty working boot as we walked along the beach. “Sit in the dark over there on the wall, listen to the waves. Try to guess where the waterline is, whether it’s coming or going. You can tell, it sounds different. Retreating tides are best.”
He was strong and adaptable. He fixed things, made things, his hands scarred by capability. He worked hard in all weathers, whistling unrecognisable tunes and never once did I hear him complain about cold, wet or heat. I liked arriving unseen when he was busy with the birds, or erecting yet another section of aviary, or digging up belligerent weeds to create a patch of ground for low perches. I’d watch until he sensed I was there, or his wife came out of the house with a cup of tea and called a cheery greeting, breaking the silent contemplation.
She became less enamoured of my visits over time. Stopped sitting outside with us on summer evenings, drinking wine or beer, smoking and talking. She found the conversation too speculative, thought we talked too much, that any talking was too much. She went inside to watch television with the kids and eventually I stopped calling round. Eventually I moved away.
I’m forever drawn to the poets. Those who present a front of strength but who harbour inside a melancholy will; a wistful philosophy; an ability to dream. These moments are the paths seen but not taken. They are the unexplored chances, the ‘what-ifs’ upon which our present is judged, our future formed. These moments become the basis of most regret.
My kids’ school currently has an initiative running to encourage children to arrive on time.
This involves a giant chicken parading the playground and shaking the hand of the early-bird kids.
Quite why children should be motivated by the chance of being accosted by an unconvincing oversized Sunday lunch is beyond me.
And it’s beyond my kids too.
In fact, it falls into some mysterious spot between ludicrous and sinister to see a grown man, shivering in a chicken costume as he struts around a primary school playground, shaking hand/wing and posing for photoshoots.
And it’s had the reverse effect for us. We live directly across the road from the school and so my girls have the advantage of being able to look out of the window, wait until the chicken is otherwise occupied, and then quickly – just before school bell – rush over and slip in the school gates without it seeing them.
“I think it’s only going to be here another couple of weeks,” Jess said this morning. “Thank goodness…”