The Shakespeare celebrations
She loved Shakespeare, especially an open air performance, so it was a great treat to be invited along to see Loves Labours Lost in the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey that fine summer evening. Her friend Babs gave her a lift. It was quite a few miles drive but she so rarely got out into the countryside these days that the journey was a pleasure on its own.
The grand house had been built on the site of an Augustinian Priory, she seemed to recall. Apart from the vaulted cellarium below the terrace and a jumble of ruined masonry on the lawn, all trace of its monastic origins had now vanished, though you might well have guessed them from the magnificent setting. They certainly knew a good spot when they found one, those early Christians, she mused, looking across the velvet lawns which swept down beneath the wide branches of the ancient oaks to the shady shallows of the Avon.
She marvelled that this oasis of quiet beauty should have survived the march of progress. She knew of course that there was a village beyond the trees, a major road across the fields, and even lime works on the other side of the river, but to all intents and purposes they had stepped back into another age.
The play was being performed on the lawn in front of the house. She was glad to see from the tiers of seats set up on scaffolding that it was the oldest wing of the house, Elizabethan she thought, that was to be the backdrop tonight. It was here that the present day owners actually lived. The rest of the mansion had been opened up by the National trust to ‘half-crown’ visitors on afternoon coach tours. Well, fifty-pencers, to be precise.
It was a perfect setting for Shakespeare. Tall French windows on the first floor opened onto a balcony which swept down and round into a double staircase of noble proportions. Great purple heads of clematis draped in profusion from the stone balustrade, and below this a riot of roses masked the broken stumps of the original abbey.
A piano was wheeled out from the house and the orchestra set itself up around it. A roll of the drums and they were off to the Kingdom of Navarre.
It was a university production. You usually get a few surprises from their Drama Department, and this was no exception. It was a period piece, the period in question being the 1920s. The young men were quite dashing in their white flannels, striped blazers and jaunty straw boaters. And the girls looked so pretty in the low-waisted dresses of the day, with long strings of beads and those dear little cloche hats, which reminded her rather painfully of her own youth.
They had made the most of the out-door setting by introducing some interesting vehicular props to the play. Armado, for instance, spent most of his time circling the arena on a full-sized tricycle, And the Princess and her attendants descended on the scene from a genuine Parisian bus which seemed to have been intercepted for the occasion en route for the Place de la Concorde. The approach of the comic trio could be heard from afar as they careered across the lawns on an ancient motor bike complete with wicker side-car.
It certainly was an original production.
The only flies in the ointment, so to speak, were the midges. As the light began to fade they became devilishly persistent. But after the interval (during which she treated them both to the most delicious strawberry ices which they ate under a great chestnut tree beside the river), the problems eased off a little as the insects danced to their deaths around the Chinese lanterns hanging from the balustrading and the fierce floodlights playing on the house.
Now she noticed the child, a girl of six or seven years old, sitting at an open window of the floor above the balcony, her elbows resting on the sill, her chin cupped in her hands, peeping down in wonder at the scene below. A rag doll sat on the sill beside her propped up against the window frame. From time to time the child picked the doll up and held its face close to her own so that they could enjoy the drama together.
The woman found herself watching the child intensely, and once or twice when the child slipped out of sight, maybe to report on the progress of the play to an older sister too sophisticated to hang out of the window herself, she realised she was waiting anxiously for her to re-appear.
It was getting chilly now. The Princess and her ladies must be cold in their flimsy summer costumes. She shivered and looked up to see if the child had anything round her shoulders. Another figure was at the window now, the heavy figure of a man. He was bending over the little girl perhaps to tell her to put a dressing gown on, or was he sending her off to bed ? It was rather late for such a young child to be sitting up.
But NO ! He wasn’t talking to her, he was shaking her angrily and violently , and then ~ MY GOD ! ~ the small limp body was falling, falling, falling . . .
The woman’s screams of horror cut across the comic scene between Pompey and Alexander the Great.
She must have fainted clean away as she slid off the back row of the stand onto the wet grass. It was only a six foot drop, to be sure but she had somehow managed to knock herself out on the scaffolding as he fell. They carried her into the great house and someone fetched brandy.
When she opened her eyes she found they had put her up in the room the child had been watching from. The rag doll was still on the ledge by the open window. A little shakily she got off the bed to go across and crouch down, her e;bows on the window sill, her chin in her hands.
The lights and the music and the gaily coloured scene entranced her She picked Jemima up to watch with her. “Mama, “ she called, “Mama, do come and watch the play.”
But it wasn’t Mama who came, and wasn’t Nanny either.
“Mama !” she screamed in terror now. “MAMA !”
But nobody could have heard. He gripped her by the shoulders and shook her violently, then snarling like her father’s hounds at a kill, he pushed her from the window.
The last thing she heard as she plummeted down between Alexander the Great and Pompey was the scream of a woman on the back row of the stand.
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[My own small contribution to the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare 's death.]