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."

"Is it for 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 check off this marathon.

And as venues goes, this one is bloody impressive. 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 only 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 for them. 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. Which in this case, is left.

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.

But I don't get lost. 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 it until you are there, standing on the same flagstones that people literally almost a thousand years ago also shuffled their way across.

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.

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.

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 til 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.

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 bursting 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 is else. 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.

They 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 peer into the shrine to Edward the Confessor (very tricky, the barriers are super tall, I had 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 award 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. Its the same ER I see on post boxes every day. But these are older. Much older. The OG ER. Elizabeth the fricking First.

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. "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 Ib spot two of them 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 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 Capulet's come storming in, followed by the rest of the audience.

Plimpton guides us into a circle. "Can you see," she asks someone, before channelling a space 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 in the ground. No one dares question her. They ease themselves down onto the cold flagstones.

The Montagues and Capulet's are batteling 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.

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Swoon-worthy theatre

This is not the blog post that I had intended to write.

I had other ideas entirely.

I was going to the next stop on my marathon with a friend. One who is a regular theatre-goer. We had dinner, over at Porky’s, quite possibly the least vegetarian place in existence, and even better, within full-bellied staggering distance of the Globe complex where we would be spending the remainder of the evening.

And while I was busy dribbling mayo and crumbs down the front of my favourite dress, Helen was busy dropping interesting thoughts about the art-form we both love so much. She's very clever, you see.

As an example, when mentioning the gender-swapped Dr Faustus currently playing at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, my reaction on hearing about the girl-kissing was to share how much hotter I found that than hetero-normative theatrical love scenes. Her's was to muse on how they made one look again at a well-trodden tale.

"Ah, yes. That too," I said, nodding along.

See? She’s very clever. An intellectual even.

So, I was sure that she would have lots of interesting things to say that I could... borrow... for my blog post.

That was the plan at least. 

Events, however, rather got in the way.

After finishing up our meal (and me having a quick brush down of my dress - everything sticks to velvet), we headed across the road to the theatre. We were watching the Dark Night of the Soul, a collection of new plays written in response to the same Dr Faustus that had provoked my previous, embarrassing, admission.

"Free programme," offered an usher, holding up a couple of said free programmes to show us.

Absolutely, yes please.

I can never resist a free programme. I might have even said that: “I can never resist a free programme.”

Especially not one as nice as this. No A4 freesheets run off on the photocopier here. There are pages and pages, with proper artwork and beautiful typesetting and… oh, I’m quite overcome just flicking through it again as I write this.

Such rapture extended all the way up the stairs and into the theatre itself.

I’ve written before about the cognitive dissonance of stepping out of 2019 and into a space transported over from a previous age. And the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is no less startling even if you expect it.

The white hallway and the bright electric lights are left behind you as you are enveloped by shadows and candlelight.

We took our spaces. Right at the top, balancing on the narrowest of platforms, high above the pit. Spots chosen in a concession to my floundering bank balance. Once bags and coats had been dealt with, there wasn’t much room for feet to be placed.

“It’s a beautiful space, but the sightlines are terrible,” Helen had commented before we went in.

She wasn’t wrong.

It is a beautiful space.

And the sightlines are terrible.

Tucked up against the wall you don’t get much of a view of the stage. But there are compensations.

The ceiling, painted with the images of the skies that they hid, were mere inches above our heads, allowing close inspection of the golden constellations scattered across the angel-strewn heavens.

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The curtains leading out into the modern world were drawn shut, and we were left alone in the candlelight, cut off from the outside world.

As the first play started, our row settled into a common stance - arms resting on the bar before us, bums braced against the wall behind, feet positioned wherever our belongings allowed.

The warmth of the candles wafted up, brushing our cheeks.

I leant back, enjoying the feel of the cool walls through the back of my dress.

But the lure of the play was too much and I was soon back on the bar, leaning forward to catch what glimpses of the actors were available.

The air grew hotter.

I ran my finger inside the neck of my high neck of my dress. The satin-frilled collar didn’t allow much in the way of air to get through.

I settled on unbuttoning the cuffs of my sleeves and rolling them as far back as they would go.

That helped.

For a minute or so.

Could I unzip my dress? No one was behind me. I contemplated the acrobatics needed to reach my zip in such a confined space. Impossible... And let's be real here... super weird.

If I could just make it to the end of the play, I could try and grab one of the empty seats, I told myself. It wouldn’t be nearly so bad if I was able to sit down.

I was sweating. Heat rushed up and down my body. My head swam.

I was going to faint. Or throw up.

I didn’t know which was worse.

It couldn’t be long now. These plays were short, weren’t they?

The air grew thick, condensing over the flames below until it was impossible to breath.

I had to get out of there.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman next to me.

With a whispered warning about the positioning of her bag, she slipped out of the row and let me past.

“I’m going to faint,” I announced to the usher. I really was.

She swept back the curtain and escorted me outside.

The cool air of the corridor flooded into my lungs.

I breathed it in greedily.

“This way,” she said, leading me back into the modern world. “This lady was feeling faint,” she explained to the ushers waiting out in the upper gallery foyer.

They lept up, sitting me down in a chair and fetching me a glass of water as I fanned myself with my hand.

“Sip that slowly,” said one, wearing a top that indicated she was a first aider.

I did my best, but the urge to tip it all back in one was almost overwhelming.

As the internal combustion engine in my chest gradually lost steam, I began to gather my thoughts.

The first of which, I am ashamed to admit, was: wow, this is quality blog content going on right now. My second, no less cerebral, was: I wonder if I'll make it into the show reports. I've always wanted to be in a show report.

They are such good fun to read.

It would be the audience member equivalent of having a character in a play based on you (quality call back to one of the night’s plays - Katie Hims’ Three Minutes After Midnight, right there).

Do we all know what show reports are? I feel if you are reading this blog you probably do. But just in case, they are basically a debrief on everything that happened that evening. Props that failed. Lines fluffed. Entrances missed. Jokes that didn’t land. Audience members who fainted. You get the idea.

“Here,” said the first aider, grabbing one of the free programmes and fanning me with it until I was back in the real world and not thinking about show reports. We laughed. “How are you feeling now?”

“Warm,” I said. But not likely to faint. Or throw up. Which was a relief. “I think I chose the wrong outfit for this theatre,” I said, smoothing down my velvet dress.

“Yes, I always stick to t-shirts when I’m working in there.”

“Yeah, this was a mistake… I’ve even got heattech under here.”

“Oh dear!” she exclaimed, clearly horrified. “You can take it off. There are loos just through there, if you like.”

That sounded like a good idea.

I headed where she pointed, got lost, but then managed to find the loos anyway.

They were gloriously cool. And empty.

I managed to wrestle my zip down, remove the blasted heattech, and then put myself back together again.

I left my cuffs unbuttoned though, and repaired to the sink where I ran cold water over my wrists.

I felt so much better.

That was, until I spotted my reflection. 

Good lord, I was a sweaty mess.  

I'd left my bag in the theatre. I had no way if repairing it. 

Oh well. 

As I was leaving, I saw my first aider chatting to the duty manager, asking about getting the heat down in the theatre.

I slinked away, ashamed at the chaos I was causing. 

“You can sit down over here and watch,” said the usher who was still posted upstairs. She waved me into a seat and indicated the screen showing the live feed of what was going on inside the theatre. “I’m afraid the volume can’t go any higher,” she added as an apology for the poor sound quality.

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“Do you have a programme?” she asked.

“I do.”

“You can have another if you like. Follow what’s going on.”

For the first time in my life, I turned down the offer of a programme. Just like when you’re car-sick, I believe it’s better not to read when you’re feeling queasy. All that looking down and focusing. Not good.

We sat together and watched.

A few minutes later the first aider returned, and they switched places.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, full of concern.

“Much better.”

“Fancy heading back in?”

I absolutely did. Mama didn’t raise no quitters.

“The play's almost over. When the angel comes out, I’ll take you back in.”

We waited, watching the screens. Eventually a winged figure emerged from the doors behind the stage. An angel.

She led me back in, handing me over to the usher on the door.

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“You can sit over there,” she said, pointing to a vacant spot on the end of a bench.

The view from there was marvellous. The mirror-like stage glowed under the light of the candles.

I looked back at Helen, who was still stoically standing in her five-pound spot. 

I probably should have sprung for a better ticket. 

Almost fainting is certainly one way to get a free upgrade, but perhaps not a route I would recommend following.