Illuminating the Bard – sonnets for a 450th birthday

Sonnet Lumiere – light on Shakespeare, man of mystery

Jane Oakshott and Richard Rastall
of Trio Literati

Soprano Pepe Becker
Lutenist Don King

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Lady Chapel

Sunday 12th October 2014

This performance was a celebration of Shakespeare’s sonnets on the 450th anniversary of his birth. By happy chance the two actors were in New Zealand during the 50th anniversary celebrations of Wellington’s Cathedral of St. Paul, and as part of those, they had devised a programme to “perform from Shakespeare’s sonnets and other works with sidelights on his mysterious life, some original pronunciation and a few surprises”. There were 16 sonnets in all, grouped according to The Arts, The Seasons of Life and Love, Beauty, and Love.

These brackets were punctuated with extracts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, and Hamlet and interspersed with some favourite songs and lute music that lent a most appropriate Elizabethan flavour to the hour. The choice of venue was just perfect for this scale of performance, with the exquisite Gothic timber structure of  diocesan architect Frederick de Jersey Clere (1856-1952) providing a most sympathetic ambience. Coupled with Ray Henwood’s quite wonderful one-man Shakespeare programme in the Lady Chapel in August, Wellington has been extraordinarily fortunate in recent offerings from the Bard.

The sonnets and extracts from Shakespeare’s plays were given a most dramatic and engaging delivery, using just a few key props to enhance them. These two experienced actors had judged the scale and acoustics of the chapel with consummate skill, drawing the audience into an intimate yet vivid experience of each piece. Likewise the lute projected warmly and clearly into the space, with a clean crisp delivery underpinned by a truly sympathetic musicianship.

Pepe Becker’s stylistic idioms were entirely appropriate, and her love of this Elizabethan music very apparent,  but her voice could be almost too penetrating at times. No doubt most listeners would have been familiar with the words of the well known songs selected, but the diction was sometimes a struggle to discern. That said, the duo with Don King proved a most rewarding contribution to the programme.

The first musical item was a lute setting of the anonymous air Greensleeves, which was gently and beautifully played by Don King, and served to establish the whole performance very firmly in its time. The next was a duo setting by Robert Johnson (c1583-1633) of Ariel’s song Full Fathom Five from The Tempest. The duo drew us deftly into the world of a composer and lutenist  of the late Tudor and early Jacobean eras, who worked with Shakespeare and provided music for some of his later plays.

There followed an anonymous setting of the Willow Song that set the scene for the gravediggers’ discussion about “Is she to be buried in Christian burial?” from Hamlet. The actors’ humble rustic accents sat wonderfully with their undisguised distaste for the  ecclesiastical privileges enjoyed by the nobility.

Three sonnets on Beauty followed, then one of the “surprises” billed in the programme. It was Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, in sonnet form, about something that has long puzzled many people – Shakespeare’s bequest of his second best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway. It is such a gem, that I must include it here in full:

Anne Hathaway

by Carol Ann Duffy from The World’s Wife (1999)

‘Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed …’
(from Shakespeare’s will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

The next songs were Where the bee sucks, again set by Robert Johnson, and Thomas Morley’s O mistress mine, both bracketed with six sonnets on Love. Again the lute and voice gave a faithful delivery of these lovely numbers to round off the duo contribution.

Don King’s final item was a lute setting of Will Kemp’s Jig in which he very aptly set the scene for the Envoi “If we shadows have offended” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These rounded out a quite delightful hour of wit, sorrow, song, verse and prose, put together in a most rewarding marriage of music and drama. The Lady Chapel was virtually full, and I’d wager that all headed home with that indefinable glow that is the gift of true artistry.