Student News

Notes from Abroad: Oxford #8: All the World’s a Stage

March 22, 2014

 Nate Lane ’14 reflects on how the group’s study of literature enriched their experiences at Stratford-upon-Avon:

Shakespeare's grave (Photo Credit: A. Mezzofanti)

Shakespeare’s grave (Photo Credit: A. Mezzofanti)

Today the Deerfield Oxonians travelled scenic country roads to the village of Stratford-upon-Avon. Famous as the birthplace of William Shakespeare, Stratford is the home of the Swan Theatre, where we saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. Even for those not familiar with the 2012 novel from which the play was adapted, or its precursor, Wolf Hall, it was an excellent performance. The black-box theatre is utilitarian, but the detailed period costumes and prodigious talent of the actors convincingly transformed it into the Tudor court—even from our less-than-ideal vantage point two stories above the barren concrete stage. The political instability of 16th century England was captured well, with scenes of revelry and raunchy banter often immediately followed by brutal interrogations and sinister back-room dealings. The dialogue and body language of the actors; the subtle lighting; the real flames licking or the snow falling occasionally in the background; the synth and snare drum signaling moments of tension or transition; each came together to make the production seem effortlessly smooth, even—dare I say—cinematic.

Our appreciation of the play was elevated by preparation beforehand. With prequel Wolf Hall fresh on our (well, at least some of our) minds, actor Ben Miles’s accuracy to Mantel’s depiction of protagonist Thomas Cromwell made his performance all the more enjoyable. Knowing Cromwell’s origins also made each alliance and betrayal more resonant: watching his internal conflict between revenge, justice, and survival was perhaps the most gripping experience I have ever had in theatre. Oxford professor Sally Bayley gave further background about the characters and poetry of the Tudor court in a morning lecture, using images from Britain’s national portrait gallery, actual correspondences between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, passages from Wolf Hall, and works by court poet Thomas Wyatt to introduce the characters of the play. As the lights dimmed and the actors first filed onstage, I smiled as they began to recite Wyatt’s poem “Whoso List to Hunt;” thanks to Dr. Bayley, I understood the reference.

I recommend Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies even in their printed forms. (If from what I have mentioned here the subject still seems dry, I will try a shorter pitch: Real-life Game of Thrones.) There have been many incredible incidents during our time here in England, but watching the Royal Shakespeare Company perform was definitely one of the highest points.

(Thanks to Mr. Nilsson for the photo of the River Avon and to Acadia Mezzofanti ’14 for the photo of Shakesepare’s grave.)