Mark Rylance and Shakespeare’s Globe brought a company of 23 actors to Westminster Abbey for a unique event to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. They created a beautiful and unexpected world where you could meet the war-weary soldier or the hapless lover, behold a great Monarch or bide awhile with a lone and prayerful soul as you explore the famous Abbey. This is a collection of fleeting and intimate encounters with Shakespeare’s drama, poetry and song beneath the soaring ribs of London’s tremendous Westminster Abbey. And it’s sold out, so you need to book for next year.
As you wander the Abbey you can be accosted by a player or two, some like students with backpacks emerging from the the strolling crowd, others in full Shakespearean dress, others just idling in jeans and sweatshirt by the tomb of this or that monarch. Each deliver a passage from a play or sonnet – some well known, others less so (to me at least). You can’t see everything and don’t worry about what you miss. What you do see will be worth it.
Having been last year we knew what to expect. It is tempting to follow the crowd but we knew that you soon split naturally into smaller groups so we immediately left the madding crowd for one of the aisles of side chapels. And almost immediately fell in with Mark Rylance himself, one of our finest current actors whether in a Shakespearean or contemporary setting. Rylance clearly enjoys bringing Shakespeare closer to the people and he is as content performing to the two of us (and a few others who had followed our lead) as to 2,000 on a wider stage. He did some more theatrical speeches elsewhere in the evening but for us – Sonnet 81:
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
In his battered suit with a raincoat over his arm, he was a man of the people as he wandered the Abbey.
And at the end as we all reassembled close to the tomb of the unknown soldier, summoned by mournful Elizabethan horns, Rylance mingled with the crowd, greeting old friends and acknowledging the good wishes from others. The Abbey columns were illuminated with gentle coloured lights. And then the whole of the players joined the audience and then made their way to the centre, voices raised in a soaring spring-themed song.
Only an hour and a quarter, but so much packed in to a truly wonderful experience. Watch out for tickets next year – but not until we’ve got ours.