All Places that the Eye of Heaven Visits
(The Globe at Westminster Abbey, 22 April 2017)
Waiting outside Westminster Abbey with mounting excitement, my mum said that she really didn’t mind what this evening involved as long as she got to see Mark Rylance. We were about to experience his brainchild: an extraordinary promenade performance which brought a company of Globe actors over the river for a magical evening among the pillars and monuments of this splendid church. For two nights only, you could wander in the Abbey and be surprised at every turn by an actor ready to share a soliloquy in front of a tomb, or to stare into your eyes and declaim a sonnet. It’s entirely thanks to my parents’ efficiency that we’d been able to get tickets and so I was keen that Mum should have her moment. And she did, though not as any of us had expected.
We three were among the first in, when the doors opened to a trumpet fanfare. Awed by the architecture, we made our way cautiously towards the crossing, not yet sure where to start. At the entrance to the ambulatory, we spotted a small man in a brown suit with a trilby on his knees, sitting on a tomb beneath a monument. He glanced up, smiled sadly and beckoned us over, inviting us to sit down beside him. Then, in a soft, gentle voice, gazing at each of us in turn, he recited Sonnet 64 (‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced The rich proud cost of outworn buried age‘). It was, of course, Mark Rylance. We’d made sure that Mum sat right next to him and she was completely overwhelmed: for those precious few seconds, we had him entirely to ourselves. It was one of the most incredible theatrical experiences of my life and that was only the first five minutes!
After that, we drifted onward. The glory of the evening was that, at least initially, all the actors were wearing normal clothes so it was often impossible to pick them out until they started speaking. For example, we followed a caretaker into the Lady Chapel, where a young priest in a black cassock (Stevie Basaula) stood by the urn containing the bones of Edward V and Richard of York. He gave Tyrrel’s report of the death of the Princes from Richard III, which seemed twice as terrible when standing in front of their tomb. And then the caretaker (Colin Hurley) began dusting the railings of Elizabeth I’s monument, recounting Cranmer’s lines from the end of Henry VIII, which prophesy the blessedness of her reign. Out again we wandered and, following the ambulatory, came to the steps up into Henry VII’s chapel. There, behind Henry V’s chantry chapel, a small crowd had gathered around a man. I was delighted to recognise him as James Garnon, one of my perennial Globe favourites, and was even more delighted when he launched into the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V.
Onward again. As we came out of a side chapel, we were suddenly ambushed by two girls who beckoned us to one side, as if seeking arbiters in their discussion. ‘Dost thou in conscience think,’ one said, hesitantly, ‘that there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind?‘ And so we found ourselves huddled with Othello’s Desdemona and Emilia (Hoda Bentaher and Jessica Baglow), while they debated how far women should be faithful to their husbands. Mum and I laughed at Emilia’s robust assertions and Dad good-naturedly accepted the criticism of men. Near the back of the Abbey, we found a young man standing behind the railings in the chapel that houses Edward I’s magnificent oak Coronation Chair (where the Stone of Scone was kept until its repatriation to Edinburgh in 1996). Wild-eyed and bitter, this was Macbeth (Tré Medley), simmering with fury at the prophecy that Banquo’s sons would succeed him on the throne.
Soon afterwards, while we paid our respects at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, a young man in a loose shirt (William Sebag Montefiore) came up beside me. For a few moments he stood, like the rest of us, with head bowed before the stone, and then he began, quietly, to recite Sonnet 30 (‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past‘). It was an immensely appropriate sonnet for the circumstances (it speaks of ‘precious friends hid in death’s dateless night‘) and, as with the soliloquies earlier, the setting made its impact all the more powerful.
But now, halfway through the evening, something shifted. History began to infiltrate the present: our interlocutors were no longer modern men and women speaking of the past, but historical characters speaking directly to us out of their time. By that, I mean that the costume began to change. As I’ve said, everyone was initially wearing normal clothes, but as we moved away from the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, a door opened and a woman in magnificent Tudor dress glided across the nave. We, like many others, fell mutely into step behind her as she swept onward, and it was only when she reached the choir that she stopped and looked round at the little court she’d gathered to herself.
This, it turned out, was Katharine of Aragon (Madeleine Hyland), dressed as if she’d just stepped out of a Holbein painting. Lighting on one man in the crowd, she directed herself to him as if he were the king and, in a Spanish accent, began pleading for him to recognise her as his true wife, in a speech from Act II, Scene 4 of Henry VIII. It was hard to be unmoved at such close quarters. Afterwards, as we wandered back towards the ambulatory, we found that Mark Rylance had found a precarious perch between a pillar base and the bronze tomb of Richard II: here, dressed in a yellow doublet, he spoke in the deposed king’s own self-deprecating words.
As we hesitated in the nave, wondering where to go next, a drumbeat suddenly broke the silence and a young drummer (Anne-Marie Piazza) cleared a path through the crowd, followed by James Garnon at his most imposing, in doublet and breastplate. Obviously I couldn’t resist following and, urging on my parents, scampered after him up the steps to Henry VII’s Chapel (along with a large crowd of similarly fascinated people). Again the setting proved significant: Garnon was embodying the victorious Richmond from the final scene of Richard III, in which he promises to ‘unite the white rose and the red‘. Under the soaring vault, in the chapel consecrated to the memory of the same Richmond, it was skin-pricklingly good. That was really the main charge of the evening: to hear the words of these figures spoken in the very place where they’re buried, or somewhere that has at least a connection with them. As time goes on, you’re drawn deeper and deeper into the magic, until the boundary between the past and present begins to fade away.
Everyone’s experience of this event will have been different. Depending on which way you went and where you entered the Abbey, you’ll have encountered different actors and different speeches or sonnets. But the performance’s conclusion will have been the same for everyone: drawn back to the crossing by the sound of haunting singing. There, you found the actors slowly congregating, coming from north, south, east and west to form a circle (mixed in among visitors), taking up the strain of something that was half-psalm, half-lament. When they finally left, it was in the form of a procession that disappeared down the steps behind a door, into a crypt, I presume (“Back into their own time,” my parents said, carried away by the occasion). And then it was out into the cloisters to enjoy the last of the westering sun with a glass of prosecco and savour what we’d seen. And what a night it had been! A fantastic, truly up-close-and-personal experience of Shakespeare. I’ve never experienced anything else quite like it.