Sunday 25 March 2012

She Stoops to Conquer at The National Theatre

Hayward Gallery from The National Theatre terrace
 She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is one of those plays I always thought I had seen but actually never had, not unless I saw it as a school production way back when. Written and set in the eighteenth century, it is currently showing at London's National Theatre. It is the best play I have seen so far this season. Oliver Goldsmith is an inspiring writer for any aspiring writer. His secret is apparent in an essay on National Prejudices where he once wrote the following:

As I am one of that sauntering tribe of mortals who spend the greater part of their time in taverns, coffee houses, and other places of public resort, I have thereby an opportunity of observing an infinite variety of characters, which to a person of a contemplative turn, is a much higher entertainment than a view of all the curiosities of art or nature...

 Most authors, poets and playwrights would agree that skilled observation is an essential tool for writers. Goldsmith believed that real comedy was an art form that would make people laugh. During the eighteenth century there was a fashion for sentimental comedy which did not interest Goldsmith. For example, many theatre goers regarded puns as low humour and snobs considered the comic dialogue in Goldsmith's plays gross. None the less, at the time, She Stoops to Conquer was, to Goldsmith's great relief, well received. This may have been thanks to support from his friends Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was a  play that succeeded in making people laugh. 

The set for She Stoops to Conquer
There is much more to the National Theatre than 'the play'. Our recent visit to the National began with a delicious lunch in the Mezzanine restaurant which is just a convenient step or two away from the three perfoming spaces at the National. We regularly visit the RSC at Stratford where, although the restaurant occupies a delightful space at the top of the new RSC building with enchanting views over the river, the menu and cooking simply do not compare with that at the Mezzanine. The Mezzanine overlooks the River Thames and the best tables are, without doubt, by the window with an opportunity to watch the constant traffic on the river and the continual passeggiata along the embankment. 

My starter, Beet Salad with Candied Pecans

Smoked Salmon, pickled Cucumber and Beetroot Granita
Herb Crusted Pollock with petit pois

Plaice Goujons, Chips and chunky Tartar Sauce
An added attraction of eating in the Mezzanine is that one can eat dessert during the play's interval, a pleasant experience especially when accompanied by an appropriate tipple.

Sticky Toffee Black Forest Gateau!

Hmm I wonder what this was... whatever, it was delish
Lunch over and on to the play- I have never laughed as much at an eighteenth century play as I did at She Stoops to Conquer. Sarah Moyle was brilliant as Mrs Hardcastle.
 Her occasional ad libs surprised others in the cast who rose to them. As in One Man, Two Guvnors, the actors created deliberate interaction with their audience. This further enhances the comedy because they develop a sense of audience complicity in the developing storyline. There is not a weak performance in She Stoops to Conquer. At the end the audience stood and applauded.

It is possible to spend a whole day at The National if, in addition to having a delicious lunch and catching a show, you take a backstage tour which only costs a few pounds.

The Tour assembles by the Box Office
 On the tour you will see how the sets are built on huge dollies, platforms with wheels, that are trundled back and forth as the repertoire changes from day to day. The meticulousness of the organisation can be judged from small detail such as props laid out on tables, each labelled with actor and scene. Period authenticity is evident in the detail. Bottles of Guiness for Juno and the Paycock had corks rather than steel caps. You may not photograph the backstage sets because the copyright of the sets belongs not to The National Theatre but to the freelancers who execute the designs. On the tour you will see the prop store, costumes, armoury, carpentry shop and much more. It is a fascinating insight into what goes on behind the scenes. You can even make a close-up acquaintance with one of the war-horse puppets.

As the tour proceeds you will also see the dressing rooms and if you are lucky you might just bump into an actor in a backstage corridor or doing pre-show voice exercises on the dark Olivier stage. Our tour was conducted by a member of staff who was witty, entertaining and informative.

The empty Olivier

Exhibitions are constantly changing in the lobbies of the National Theatre. The current exhibitions are of London Print Makers and a collection of photographic portraits of actors present and past. Lunch-time musicans entertain in the ground floor lobby. The Bookshop has a comprehensive selection of books related to plays shown in the theatre over the years. There are often street entertainers and events with reference to theatre outside, spilling over onto the embankment, especially during the summer season.

So, you see, a visit to London's National Theatre can be a lot more than seeing a play. London's National Theatre is worth allowing time for, since it is not necessary to even go to see a play to have an enjoyable day out and a pleasant lunch or dinner.

The London Printmakers Exhibition in the Lobby


And finally a question. Have you seen something at The National Theatre that is memorable and that you would like to share?

Exterior at night

Saturday 17 March 2012

Early Medieval Crafts- crosses and ornamental work

An interesting late seventh century Anglo-Saxon burial was, only last week, unearthed in Trumpington, a village near Cambridge. This early Saxon burial was that of a noble young lady and it is unusual in that her funeral involved a bed burial. Not many bed burials have been found. Yes, she was laid out on a bed, probably her own. As centuries fled past, the wood rotted away leaving only the iron bed brackets. However, an exquisite pectoral gold cross was discovered in her grave and this beautiful object has survived. Its discovery has led me, yet again, to consider the beauty of Anglo-Saxon crafts.

The gold cross found in the grave of the young Anglo-Saxon woman
gold and garnet pectoral cross from the bed burial unearthed March 2012 (photo, Cambridge University)

Making clay moulds

Brooches and crosses were generally crafted using a mould. First a pattern was made in the form of the casting needed. The pattern was then dusted with soot or stone dust to stop the clay adhering when the pattern was pressed into a pad of soft clay. The back of the object was moulded first so as to avoid damage to the casting during later work. The clay could not overlap the edges of the pattern as the pattern needed to be removed from the mould. The mould dried and hardened and was dusted again before a second pad of clay was modelled against the first. This second pad formed the impression for the face of the object, for instance a cross or a brooch.  As the clay began to harden yet again the two halves of the mould were separated and the pattern removed. Metal was carefully poured into the mould. The two halves of the mould were then placed together and fully dried ready for baking and use. Wax was another method used for moulds and was an easier material to work with. However, to a degree, if this process was used at the period of the bed burial, it is mostly a lost process because the use of wax results in the destruction of both the mould and pattern. We know that this wax process was favoured for bell casting.

Soldering the Objects

Gold objects were usually fabricated. Component parts of objects were soldered together. Soldering lamps have been found during excavations at Coppergate in York. They are thought to have contained beef fat and a wick; air was blown through a mouth-pipe onto a flame. This gave intense directed heat that was used in soldering precious and non-ferrous alloys.

Inlay and Decoration

One of the chief glories of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship was garnet inlay. Intricate and interlocking red stones were animated by the corrugated gold foil that lay between them. The Anglo-Saxons were also skilled at working wire and making glass, also used for decoration. Garnets were popular stones in Anglo-Saxon jewellery work as they were found in rocks and alluvial deposits throughout Europe. It is thought that Anglo-Saxon garnets travelled from as far away as Sri-Lanka and certainly from Bohemia.  In cloisonne work, the garnets were formed into thin plates which were then cut into geometric shapes and placed in cells often forming lattice-like designs. Gold cloisonne cells were soldered to a base-plate and to each other. That was only one of the techniques early medievals used. There were others such as setting gold into garnet.

I am always amazed by the delicacy and intricate craftsmanship of Anglo-Saxon metal work, the brooches, the decoration on swords and helmets and the sometimes flashy but generally gorgeous jewellery worn by men and women of rank. It is an aspect of late Anglo-Saxon life that I have incorporated into my writing of fiction set in the eleventh century and one which I have spent many hours pondering in the British Museum where there is a collection of exquisite early medieval objects extremely well displayed. When I visit the museum I feel closer to their world.

And, of course, we must not forget the Sutton Hoo Helmet. If men were buried with ships, helmets and swords during the long ago years of the seventh century, were, indeed, noble women occasionally buried with their beds as well as those lovely precious objects that reflected their earthly lives?
Have you ever found an object from the past? I would love to know.

Further Reading

The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England edited by Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg
Anglo-Saxon Crafts by Kevin Leahy

Sunday 4 March 2012

Charms and Anglo-Saxon Medicine

When I came to research Early English medicine for The Handfasted Wife I found that there was no shortage of medical texts in the corpus of Anglo-Saxon writing. There are four books on healing in Old English and these are influenced by Classical learning on the topic. What I consider very interesting are 'middle practices'. This is the accommodation of Christianity to popular needs, the integration of native ideas with classical Christian concepts. It represents a Germanic-Christian world-view often referred to as Augustine.  Early medieval thinkers made little attempt to separate natural from supernatural.Nature was a revelation from God. All phenomena, all of nature, natural healing and miracles were understood as part of God's created natural order.

The Church consideration by the mid-eleventh century was that Magic was illusionary, a deception of the Devil to trap souls, and it is this that brings the Church into conflict with practitioners of folk remedies who  used religious chants whilst healing. Their charms lay in between magic and miracles. Yet, the Anglo-Saxon belief system asserted that God is the true leech or doctor, the one who controls sickness and health, and to achieve well being one must appeal to God. Below an illustration from Beowulf where the Devil, ever present, is waiting to catch man.

The monster in Beowulf as representative of the mouth of hell

All things were interconnected in the Anglo-Saxon world view. Charms were thus a logical part of the system of medicine. The idea of women as healers arises out of the problematic evidence of the condemnation of women's magic or witchcraft. It is likely that in the literate communities of early monasteries medicine was practised by men and women. There may have been a shift to the possession of healing power from lay wise women to clerical wise men. By the twelfth century there was a separation of spiritual and physical medicine. At the period of The Norman Conquest the practise of sympathetic magic and a lack of empirical observation may seem to us, at first glance, barbaric. Yet, the information in manuscript marginalia and in medical manuscripts themselves reveal a true grasp of herbs, anatomy, and a knowledge of medicine. The illustration below shows mugwort, a herb that became associated with witchcraft.

mugwort plant and it grows in hedgerows

         A Charm- Sing this prayer on the Black Ulcers nine times, first, the Pater Noster

Seek and you will find, I adjure you through the father and the son and the holy spirit. Do not grow any greater but dry up. Upon the asp and the basilisk you shall tread on the lion and the dragon.

               From The Trotula-  For the Pain of the Vagina after Birth

Take rue, mugwort and camphor, grind them well and, having prepared them with musk oil or penny royal oil and warmed them in a pot, wrap them in a cloth and insert as a suppository.

The Anglo-Saxon Herb Garden


Karen Louise Jolly-  Popular Religion in Late Anglo-Saxon England, Elf Charms in Context -University of North Carolina Press.

Steven Pollington-Leechcraft, Early English Charms, Plantlore and Heeling-Anglo-Saxon Books.

Bill Griffiths-Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic-Anglo-Saxon Books

Monica H. Green- The Trotula- An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine-University of Penn Press.