2016 marked the twentieth anniversary of one of the longest-running love affairs of my life: that with Mister William Shakespeare. So when we realized that we had time to squeeze in a visit to his birthplace of Stratford-Upon-Avon after the film festival in Bath and even got the chance to work together with Shakespeare’s England, I jumped at the chance: what better way to celebrate than visiting the Bard’s hometown!
We’d been to Stratford-Upon-Avon briefly before to see David Tennant do a magnificent job in the lead as Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Company but had not had time to properly explore all the town and its surroundings have to offer. I’ll be the first to admit that just driving into town the first time made me tear up a bit, so you can only imagine how much I was prepared for waterworks on a full overnight visit that would include seeing the actual house Shakespeare was born on in, a behind the scenes tour at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC for short) and even tickets to see a play. Needless to say I packed tissues.
As we arrived, our first order of business was to check in to the Falcon Hotel, located very conveniently just a block from the RSC. Don’t let the old-timey exterior of this place fool you. Cleverly hidden behind the crooked walls of the front building is a perfectly modern and lovely hotel with super comfortable rooms, not to mention a great breakfast to get you started in the morning. The older facade houses a traditional pub with fireplaces and comfy nooks to relax in after a day on the town or an evening in the playhouse.
After a bit of refreshing in the room we ventured out on the town. The main building of The Royal Shakespeare Company is very conveniently located just a block away from the hotel and its annex The Other Place is not much further. This place has an interesting history with both the RSC and the community of the town. What began as a tin shed used for rehearsals and some more adventurous, experimental theatrical pieces in the 1970’s was rebuild in the 90’s and now houses the rehearsal facilities for all the RSC’s productions, a costume storage with over 30 000 individual pieces and even a 200-seat studio theater that can be hired by local communities such as orchestra performances and school productions.
It was at The Other Place that we were treated to the fascinating From Page to Stage tour, giving us some interesting behind the scenes info of everything that goes into putting on a full production. The actual rehearsal space is usually occupied by actors getting ready for the next production but as The Tempest had just premiered and rehearsals for the next production hadn’t yet begun, we were really lucky in that we got to see that space as well. The walls were adorned with concept sketches for The Tempest and hearing our brilliant guide tell us about the revolutionary technique in use for the play, we had the sudden urge to see more than just one play on our visit…
Later that evening we headed to the main building of the RSC and the smaller of its two stages, the Swan Theatre. The tragicomedy The Two Noble Kinsmen is rarely performed, so we were happy for the chance to see it live. Cleverly staged and brilliantly acted, we thoroughly enjoyed the show, especially the comedy parts. We’d also like to send a special shout-out to the guy in the pink tutu, whose antics on stage quickly made him our favorite.
Even after seeing one great play we just couldn’t shake the desire to see The Tempest, so the next morning we headed to the RSC to see if we could get lucky. The play was sold out for days to come, but there are usually a couple of standing tickets released on the day of the show, so if you’re looking to see a fully-booked play in Stratford-Upon-Avon, just get in line a little earlier than the box office opens. We were there about thirty minutes before and were second in line, so you by no means have to camp out for the night to snag some last minute tickets. The doors opened at 10 am and just a few minutes later we were the happy owners of the last two standing tickets for the night’s show!
With our lucky tickets tucked safely away, we headed to our first attraction of the day: the birthplace of William Shakespeare. I’d dreamed of seeing this place for years and the experience did not disappoint. The visit starts at the Shakespeare Centre which houses an impressive array of artifacts from Shakespeare’s time, including one of the three First Folios owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The First Folio was the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s work published in 1623 and without it, we would have lost more than half of all his plays, a truly terrifying thought. Only around 230 First Folios have survived to this day and they are among the most valuable books in the world.
The exhibition is followed by the main event: seeing and touring the house in which Shakespeare was born. While the house isn’t huge, there are several interesting displays to look at and guides in most of the rooms, who are happy to tell you more about both the house and life during Shakespeare’s time. At the end of the tour there was also an actor who offered to perform for us a bit from our favorite play. As we were going to see The Tempest that night we asked for something to get us in the mood and he performed a monologue from the play marvelously! After the house there is the dreaded gift and book shop, dreaded because we usually end up spending more than planned.
After lunch we made our way to the nearest stop of the Hop on – Hop off bus. While Stratford-Upon-Avon isn’t a big town and the sights downtown are within easy walking distance of each other, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm (Shakespeare’s wife’s and mother’s homes respectively) are a little bit outside the town and the bus gets you there handily. As a bonus, on the way you can listen to the narrative on the bus with your own headphones and learn more about the places you visit, as well as interesting (and sometimes disgusting) tidbits about life in the 16th century. For example, did you know that back then most people bathed only once a year? Or that the saying “sleep tight” is thought to have its origin in the times when mattresses were often suspended on ropes tied to the bedframe and had to be tightened regularly to ensure a comfortable sleep? There’s actually reason to believe that the latter might be more myth than truth, but it’s a fun story nevertheless.
The bus also takes you back to town, to the Stratford-Upon-Avon visitor centre and our last stop, Shakespeare’s grave in the Holy Trinity Church. To our dismay, the church was closed due to the heating not working! We would’ve been happy to visit the grave even in the cold but I guess it wouldn’t be fair to have the employees sitting in a freezing church all day. We tried to alleviate our disappointment by snapping some beautiful photos of the church and the surrounding cemetery and then taking a leisurely stroll down the river Avon, feeding swans on the way.
If you’re going to the Royal Shakespeare Company to see a play, make sure you leave some time to see the costumes on display on different floors as well as some fun, interactive installations The Tempest production has brought with it. There are recreations of what Prospero’s and Miranda’s rooms might look like on the island, rife with nice little details. Our favorite however was “Conduct the Storm”, an interactive display where the storm that kicks off the events of The Tempest is put literally in your hands. Using special gloves and the movements of your hands you can whip up waves, raise a storm wind and bring down thunder and lightning. We may not have looked too smart doing it but we sure had fun!
When the doors of the theater finally opened we headed to our “seats” and were pleasantly surprised by the wide space for each standee and a perch in front of us to lean on. There was also some room behind us to move around a little to stretch your legs even during the play. While standing for the entire duration of a play can seem daunting, it’s more comfortable than you’d think and even us oldies with our knee and back problems managed quite okay. Plus, if you sneak out as soon as intermission starts, you can get a quick rest on one of the benches or armchairs in the lobby.
The play itself was truly amazing. We’ve seen The Tempest before at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, and while it’s hard to beat the intense experience of standing in the front row, hanging onto the stage with the actors practically rolling over you, the RSC production was easily the most visual we’ve ever seen. The staging alone was impressive, a massive hull of sunken ship taking up the entire stage and rising all the way to the rafters. Simon Russell Beale is always brilliant and his Prospero is no exception.
The new technology we’d heard about during our tour of The Other Place turned out to be quite mesmerizing. One of the main characters in The Tempest is the spirit Ariel, who can not only fly but transform into different elements like water and fire and grow in size. To bring this to life on stage, the actor who plays Ariel (the lovely Mark Quartley) wears a motion capture suit and the computerized images of his different forms are projected onto screens on and behind the stage. While it didn’t work perfectly at all times, most of these moments made for a truly magical theater experience and I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of this technology in the future. If you want to learn more about how Ariel was brought to life, check out the RSC’s video about creating The Tempest:
Even though we were there only a little over 24 hours, we managed to fit a lot of fun stuff in our visit to Shakespeare’s hometown. There’s still definitely some exploring left to do and we hope to go back, but if you get the chance for even short visit, we warmly recommend Stratford-Upon-Avon, especially for any Shakesy fans. As for the happy tears I was prepared for? I’m glad to say I managed to pretty much rein in the waterworks. For the most part.