Exeunt, In Pursuit of Rylance

"Is this for Shakespeare in the Abbey?" someone asks, indicating the queue.

The person positioned at the end of it, a woman wearing a red tabard that makes her look like she's a hospital cleaner who just popped outside for a cheeky cigarette but actually is one of the Shakespeare's Globe crew, nods. "This is for Shakespeare, yes."

"Can I pick up my tickets?"

Tabard-lady's brow creases. "That," she says, with a dramatic pause. "I can't tell you."

The question asker joins the queue anyway. I do too.

"I'm just making sure that people know what they're waiting for so they don't think they're getting into the abbey," continues to Tabard-lady.

I very much hope we are, in fact, getting into the abbey. That's why I'm here. Shakespeare in the Abbey. I'm rather banking on the title being an indication of what I'm getting. Because if not, I won't have a venue to tick off this marathon.

And as venues goes, this one is a bloody impressive tick. The pavements are blocked solid all the way around as tourists try to capture the perfect selfie with the rising towers of Westminster Abbey in the background.

Usually, in order to get those images of a venue's exterior that go up on my Official Theatre List after I've visited them, I'll cross a road so I can fit the entire building within the frame. But there was no chance of that here. I'd have had to catch the ferry to France to get any hope of fitting all of that Gothic goodness in one picture.

I did my best. And I certainly captured a certain something. The essence of the abbey. With a hint of the moody sky above and the swam of tiny little people below.

The queue shifts forward, taking me through a pair of doors so massive a double-decker bus wouldn't even need to fold in its side mirrors to get through.

There's someone on the other side with one of those plastic boxes that are made to keep recipe cards in, but literally no one keeps recipe cards in. The type of person who actually writes recipe cards is the type of person who will also decoupage their own damn box to store their cards in. So, instead these boxes are used by theatres to sort the night's tickets ready for pick up.

I give my name, and get my ticket, and a nice recipe for choux buns.

I keep on going. Through the shadowy gate-way and out into the brightness of a large courtyard.

There's another tabard-wearer stationed out here, pointing people in the right direction and handing out free programmes.

I'm already feeling lost.

Westminster Abbey, which looked like such an imposing monolith from the outside, now appears to be a jumble of buildings nestled together for warmth when seen from the back. Like turning over a beautiful piece of embroidery and seeing all the messy stitch-work.

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There are tabard-wearers at every corner. And then, at the metal gate that will whisk us inside, a very fancy security guard. He has a gold badge on his hat. It matches nicely with the gilding on the gate.

I don't know whether you've ever been before, but Westminster Abbey is fucking old. Like seriously. I mean, I knew it was old. Intellectually. But I don't think you really understand how fucking ancient it fucking is until you are there, standing on the same flagstones that people literally almost a thousand years ago also shuffled their way across.

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Frickin kings have walked over these stones. And not just any kings. All the damn kings. And the queens. Especially the queens, I imagine. Stilettos can pox-mark a wooden floor within seconds. Just think want they can do with centuries of heel action.

There are grave stones set into the floor that have been walked over so much that their lettering has been smudged into oblivion.

The corridor starts to fill with Shakespeare-seekers, adding to the smudging of the stones beneath our feet.

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Especially my feet. I'm not feeling particular light on them today. Top tip from an experienced theatregoer: if you are planning on attending a promenade performance in the evening, don't order a Chinese takeaway for lunch. And definitely don't consume six slices of sesame prawn toast on top of the curry you were convinced was a good idea when your coworker told you she had a free delivery voucher on Uber Eats.

Oh man. That sesame prawn toast is weighing heavy on me.

I really want to sit down, but I'm pretty sure that if I allow myself to do that I might as well snuggle up with one of the skeletons under the stones as I won't be getting up again any time soon.

I start reading the programme in an attempt to distract myself.

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There's a welcome note from Mark Rylance. "You are about to meet many much-loved characters from Shakespeare," it reads. Blah blah blah. Whatever Mark. I skip down a few paragraphs. "As if by chance, you will find actors sometimes even when you aren't looking for them." Blimey. Am I finding the actors? Or are they finding me? Is that a threat, Mark Rylance?

"They will be speaking Shakespeare with you in a random, intimate, and improvised manner. In return, you don't have to do anything other than listen, respond if you wish, and move where your heart takes you."

Respond how I wish?

I don't know, man. I'm not big on improvised responses. I think I'll be skipping that one. As for moving where my heart takes me, Mark Rylance - you think my stomach is an idiot? Wait till you meet my heart.

Oh well. There's no backing out now. It's not like I haven't prostrated myself at the altar of immersive Shakespeare before. Might as well do it in an abbey. 

My stomach gurgles. 

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Eventually, the doors open, and we slowly begin to filter in. At first I can't work out what the hold up is. I thought this lot would be busting to get their Shakespeare on. But as it's my turn to walk up the stone steps and pass through the ancient wooden door, I finally understand. It's hard to move with your neck craned up as far as it will go, gazing at all the wonders of that spectacular vaulted ceiling, hundreds of feet above you. And then, just as the crick is about to become permanent, my eyes lower, following the lines of the fluted stone, down the walls, past the windows, circling around all the impossibly delicate looking twiddly carvings and then finally back to earth, and those uneven flagstones.

I keep my eyes on the flagstones. I can handle the flagstones. Focusing on them feels right. They're about level with us mortals. I feel comfortable with the flagstones. I understand the flagstones. Worn by the years and carrying the load of too many people.

I wonder how Mark Rylance would feel about me standing here, communing with the flagstones. Somehow, I don't think this is what he meant by "move where your heart takes you." For a start, I'm not moving.

Everyone else is. Now that the initial shock of this grand old building has worn off, people are scattering in every direction, in search of Shakespeare.

I turn left. Attracted by the pretty blue colour of the backing behind the rows of seats in what is, according to the programme, called the Quire.

I pass under a golden arch and then the abbey opens out before me into an impossible high and improbably wide space.

Scientist's Corner is on the right, and there's a small group over there inspecting all the carved memorials on the walls. But there's an even bigger group up ahead. A huge circle gathered around two actors. A man and a woman. I get closer, drawn by their voices.

"If I profane with my unworthiest hand," says Romeo. "This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this. My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."

He kisses her.

Goodness. Is that allowed? In a church?

A little girl dressed head to foot in pink covers her eyes and presses her face into her mother's leg.

Her mother laughs and strokes the girl's hair.

Romeo and Juliet go through the rest of the scene. The girl slaps her hands over her scandalised eyes as lovers kiss again.

"You kiss by the book," says Juliet, before rushing out of the circle and off towards the Quire. A grinning Romeo follows close behind.

Just as the circle begins to disband, another pair emerge, as if from the crowd.

I don't recognise this scene. I can't tell what's going on. I decide to follow Mark Rylance's advice and move on.

There's a smaller gathering further back. Only ten or so people have made it all the way down here. There's one actor, dressed as an RAF officer and speaking so quietly he's almost drowned out by the pair near Scientists' Corner.

He's holding a toy plane.

He looks up and I see his face.

It's only Mark bloody Rylance.

He's doing Richard III. I've seen him do Richard III. But not like this. Not so softly. So gently. So damn close.

He walks towards us, reaches out, and strokes a woman's cheek.

She looks like she's about to faint. Or possibly implode.

Before she manages either, he moves away, walking around a grave. I look down. It's the unknown soldier, surrounded by a garland of paper poppies.

Rylance knees down next to it, flying his toy plan over the inscription.

He pauses. Silence.

And then he walks away.

I decide it's time for me to move on as well.

I've seen something in the programme maps and I want to check it out.

Back through the Quire, across the Lantern, through the North Transept, pausing for a moment to rub my belly and peer into the shrine to Edward the Confessor (very tricky, the barriers are super tall, I had to risk vomiting in order to stand on my tippy-toes to catch a glimpse), up a short flight of stone steps, and then through a small and utterly unremarkable looking door. So unremarkable, I thought I might have taken a wrong turn, and was heading into some side office, or possibly an ancient cleaning cupboard. But no, the awkward stone corridor ends and I emerge into a palace of white marble. Every inch of the walls is carved into thousands of fluted channels and intricate flowers. And in the centre, a massive black tomb, surrounded by black railings, decorated with gold roses and initials.

I recognise the initials. It's the same ER I see on post boxes every day. But these are older. Much older. The OG ER. Elizabeth the fricking First.

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There's an actor in here too. She's dressed in khakis. I don't know what she's reciting. It's not terribly interesting. I wait for her to finish and go away, and then plunge forward to inspect the tomb.

There's a stone effigy laid out on the tomb. A white marble head, wearing a white marble ruff, resting on a white marble pillow. She's wearing a crown. It doesn't look very comfortable.

I look around. I'm alone now. "Ignore the haters," I whisper. "Donizetti was a moron."

That's a lie. I don't do that. But I think it. Very hard.

I check the programme. My next stop was on the other side of Lady Chapel.

I squeeze myself through the crowds.

I can't even get into this room.

I wait, as an endless procession of slow-moving people files out.

I must have just missed a performance.

Eventually, the clown-car joke comes to an end and I'm able to enter the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. Another marble effigy. Wearing another marble ruff. Resting on another marble pillow. The only difference between the two is the lack of a crown.

Even in death, they are the subject of comparison.

I look around for a sign as to why Mary Stuart is buried in London, but there's nothing.

That done, it was time for more Shakespeare. It didn't take me long to find it. In the next tomb is a young woman, dressed in a long blue gown. She's crying, gazing at a man with beseeching eyes. He looks really uncomfortable. His wife is finding it hilarious.

I see the same actor a few minutes later. She's not wearing the blue gown anymore. She's stripped down to a white shift. She's carrying what looks like a bunch of meadow grass and wandering around as if half in a dream. She stops a woman, and hands her a stem.

That must be Ophelia I think, hanging back to watch her with a professional interest.

She walks past me and catches my eye. She does not give me one of her meadow grasses.

I walk around again, catching sections of The Dream and Taming of the Shrew as I go. Young people wearing red or white roses circle the abbey, muttering about those blasted Montagues or Capulets as they go. Occasionally I see them sitting down with an audience member resting their feet on one of the chairs around the edges. Further in I spot two of the Capulets flirting with a woman via the medium of a sonnet - bouncing the rhyming couplets between the two of them as they take it in turns trying to win her hand and mock each other's attempts.

I'm retracing my steps back to the tombs. I fancy another look at Good Queen Bess. As I make my way, Martha Plimpton tries to rush past me with a basket, and asks me very sweetly to move aside. I stumble heavily out the way.

I circle back round to the Quire. There's a huge crowd. As I get closer I can see why. There's Mark Rylance. He's doing a scene with Martha Plimpton, and the basket.

It's Winter's Tale.

As they finish and hurry off and man sighs. "He's gone again," he says, before starting off after Rylance. He's not the only one. It looks like Rylance is now the head of a convoy of adoring fans.

I decide not to go off in pursuit.

But a minute later I'm bumping into them again. Rylance, Plimpton, and the basket, at the unknown soldier's grave.

A trumpet sounds in the distance.

"Something is happening," says Plimpton, looking at us all. "Come," she says urging us forward a few steps, before turning around to stop us.

The Montagues and Capulets come storming in, followed by the rest of the audience.

Plimpton guides us into a circle. "Can you see?" she asks someone, before parting the crowd with Moses-perfection and pushing them through to the front.

Rylance is doing the same.

He reaches deep into the crowd and pulls out an old lady. Her friend follows behind, taping her on the shoulder, her face scrunched up in glee. This is their moment. The rock star yanking them up on stage. The pair of them will be talking about that-time-Mark-Rylance-pulled-her-out-of-the-crowd for years to come.

Plimpton is now gesturing that the audience members in the front should sit on the ground. No one dares question her. They ease themselves down onto the cold flagstones.

The Montagues and Capulets are battling with words. Not Shakespeare's though. These are original words. They urge us all to shake hands and make friends. The actors walk around our circle, clasping the audience's hands as they do so, before leading a procession, out through the huge doors.

A song strikes up. And Pharrell Williams' Happy chases us out into the last of the day's sunshine.

I stumble off, groaning and think longingly about my pajamas.

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