I must have walked, cycled and driven past Westminster Abbey a thousand times since I last went into it. Living in London you can quickly harden to the huge amount of history here. I’ll sit, fart and eat my sandwich on a bit of wall that was built by the Romans. I’ll check I’m not late from a clock made in 1465. Having recently been in a place where they say “1830” like we say “600ad” my history head is calibrated a bit better than it was before I left. Tonight I had the opportunity to go into the Abbey and SEE it.
It was the open dress rehearsal of the inventively titled “Shakespeare within the Abbey.” They’ll be doing it for the punters tomorrow and the next day. It’s a site-specific piece in Westminster Abbey. Often I find with site specific work that the performers haven’t managed to unravel themselves from their material, so you see a lot of people needing to be loved. This was not the case tonight. It felt incredibly intimate, honest, human and respectful.
We all spent a couple of hours walking around in the Abbey. Actors would come up to individuals and small groups without that “actor’s energy” and share beautiful moments with us. At no time did I feel put upon or shouted at. I never ran out of fresh things to engage with. I ran into a friend. “Hey Colin – you working or watching tonight?” “I’m working, mate. I’m bloody knackered, here come and have a look at this.” Next thing, he’s telling me the bit about Elizabeth I from Henry VIII right by Elizabeth’s tomb. I met Henry V by his tomb too, and she told a small group of us how we would be remembered this St Crispin’s Day. And Richard II was clearly baffled to find his own tomb, and told us how he is studying to compare this kingdom that he lives in to the world. That one drew a crowd as it was Rylance. He’s always been an actor’s actor. It’s funny to think people know who he is. For years people would say “who?” but now he’s been on the tellybox.
Outside of the Shakespeare, one of my old teachers collared me. “Al, come and see this. It’s my grandmother.” She takes me through a barrier and points to Sybil Thorndike, one of the old dames of theatre. I had no idea she was my old teacher’s granny. As I express that to her I notice I’m standing on Noel Coward.
Then coming back out, i find Anne-May, my Dutch Puck. She’s dancing at the central point of the inner cross. I go to take a photo for this, but the volunteer stops me before I’ve even started. This is the best one I get. He was already on me. Not sure why no photos, but I’ll grudgingly respect it and post this blurry mess anyway.
Anne-May has drawn a crowd with her dancing and finds her way into a sonnet. Then my friend Scott clumps over with a broken leg from skiing, and points out the beautiful ceilings with his crutch before dismissing them as a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. He’s lost his mirth, it seems. The whole abbey was populated with characters, moments and scenes. It felt very full and the atmosphere was delightful. At the end the whole company came together singing, and processed out together.
Having many friends there lent even more joy to what was already a uniquely gentle and moving evening in one of our country’s most striking spiritual hubs. I needed something restorative after having another go at tackling the many bags of my mother’s old clothes that I haven’t quite been able to tackle for years. It’s evenings like this that help me feel justified for chasing this dragon. There’s no guarantee of money or consistency in the path I’m staggering down. But the fellowship! It’s consistently wonderful. So many big hearts who just want to try and make ephemeral beauty. I don’t think many people could have had a better, happier, more delightful evening in London, free or not.