November 6, 2006, by Peter Kirwan
The Phoenix And The Turtle (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre and Holy Trinity Church
The holy grail of the Complete Works, and one that cost me a great deal of time and money in order to get a ticket for! But thoroughly worth it, despite me not knowing the poem at all.
The evening began in the Courtyard, with a talk from Michael Wood about the poem. Without going into lots of dull academic material, he explained how the poem was part of a collection of poems appended to a far longer work, and formed part of a sequence on the theme of the phoenix and the turtle-dove- the other poems being written by Marston, Jonson, Chapman and possibly even John Donne. The full collection hasn’t been published since the mid-nineteenth century, and tonight’s event was going to be the first time ever that the entire sequence had received a dramatic reading.
Michael’s talk gave an introduction to the context of the poem and a brief look at some of the many interpretations- the Catholic vs. Protestant imagery in the poem, the connection many people have made to Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship, the importance of the War Of The Theatres to the climate of the poem. Ultimately, though, he sees the poem as a beautiful and highly enigmatic work that no-one can truly explain, and one that can be enjoyed for the language alone.
A torchlit procession followed as we all trooped up to Holy Trinity Church and slid into the seats (trying to avoid being stuck behind pillars!). Three actors (the excellent Peter de Jersey is always a highlight, and Joanne Pearce and David Troughton were very good too) in period costume read the different sections, interspersed by music from an acapella choir singing two Motets and three musicians playing Consort music on viol and spinet. With the church lit by candlelight, the atmosphere was a formal and highly powerful one, with overtones of high church and paegantry.
The readings themselves were not overly dramatised, more consisting of the actors reading their sections. Character appeared though- de Jersey was dishevelled while Troughton was stiff and formal, and the latter addressed much of his final piece to de Jersey as he lounged against the side with a goblet of wine.
The music was the highlight of the evening for me, the period pieces giving the place a rich atmosphere, and the choir in particular making beautiful sounds. I have to admit, I’m not very good at listening to poems and following what’s happening, especially with a work as dense as this one, but simply to listen to the sound of the words with the music was reward enough for all the queuing of the day.
The less said about getting home the better- suffice to say that Stratford-upon-Avon is neither easy nor cheap to escape from at half past ten on a Sunday evening. Thoroughly worth it though- the audience were a small but receptive one, and the effort involved in getting the tickets really helped make us feel like we were privileged to have made it. A lovely evening.
And, on a random note- no modern edition of the whole collection of ‘The Phoenix and The Turtle’? Now THAT sounds like a PhD project if ever I heard one…..
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