I can see him now, though it was nearly half a century ago. The Reverend Kenneth Saxon Wilkinson Walker, Headmaster of Calday Grange Grammar School, leaning back in his chair, fingers steepled in front of his mild, patient face. I had been summoned into the presence to explain why it was that I had done little or no work when I was supposed to be preparing for my A levels.
-Oh, but I have been working, Sir. Very hard indeed. On my music.
-That’s not what Mr Brown says. The work he set has not been done. You are seriously behind in English, German, and Religious Studies as well…
-I’ve been working on something else, actually, Sir. I’m writing an opera.
-Yes, Sir. The Tempest. So I’m sort of doing English as well as music.
-Yes, Sir, Shakespeare, you know.
-Yes, Timms, I do know. And are you perhaps setting it in German, while praying that, with God’s help, all your A level subjects will be covered at once?
I do him an injustice. He was never sarcastic or unkind. I’ve forgotten exactly what words he used, more in sorrow than in anger, to persuade me to co-operate with my teachers: doubtless it was the same sort of thing I’ve said myself since then to many, many reluctant examination candidates during my own teaching career. But I do remember with absolute clarity how he ended the interview. Perhaps I actually had my hand on the doorknob when I heard him saying quietly:
-The Tempest. The Tempest is a wonderful play…
Those words have stayed with me down the years. Some teachers would have savaged me, their patience worn out by my teenaged arrogance. But Saxon Walker gave me a zen-like lesson I’ve never forgotten, by simply pointing out the truly wonderful, and leaving me to measure myself against it.
There was nothing wonderful about my opera, of course- unless it was the breathtaking innocence which led me to believe that my efforts had any musical value. My father always stuck up for me, bless him. He worked in the finance office at Liverpool University and wangled me an interview with Basil Smallman, then the Professor of Music. The massive manuscript was produced, and pondered upon- briefly. Father wanted to know what he thought of it. Oh, the innocence of us all in those days! “Well,” said Basil, “he’s no Mozart…” Ouch.
Last night I went to see The Tempest at the Playhouse in Oxford. (Northern Stage and Improbable Production, directed by Phelim McDermott.) I’d seen it there before, in about 1975, when my future wife and I sat one on either side of a reluctant undergraduate student of Old English who’d never seen Shakespeare- nasty modern stuff!- and was liable to make a break for the exit at any moment. We were justified- Caliban’s big speech came up in his history of English language paper, though he apparently didn’t recognise it. In 1983, as a very new teacher at Gosford Hill School, I found myself acting the part of Prospero in a student production. The late, great Drama teacher Ted Shears (who had himself played Caliban, covered in green paint, at the Oxford Playhouse some years before) decided that the way to teach me to teach Drama was to throw me in at the deep end. Let us now praise not very famous men- Ted was a phenomenal teacher, as any old pupils of his reading this will acknowledge. I’d never thought of myself as an actor- third standard bearer in Murder in the Cathedral was as far as I’d got at school, and that with little enthusiasm- but Ted brought something out in me, and I’ve been living off it ever since. My ability to teach Drama was one of the aces I was able to play in getting my last job at Beachborough Preparatory School, where I started what I hope has become the tradition of putting on an annual Shakespeare play. I did The Tempest twice- once quite early on, about 2005, I think, and once last year, making it my last production before retirement.
Of course, in these productions the text was edited down to bring it within the range of 13-year old pupils. I didn’t tamper with Shakespeare’s language- I hate the Shakes4kidz mentality, which seems to me to miss the whole point- but I did top and tail some speeches and sometimes shared out longer parts. “In this last Tempest” I had three Ariels, who were very fine singers, and so were able to perform some wonderful music. The Johnson may actually have been used in Shakespeare’s own production, it seems:
Full fathom five …………… Robert Johnson (1583 -1634)
Come unto these yellow sands…. ……..John Bannister (ca. 1675)
While you here do snoring lie………….. Thomas Linley (1756- 1778)
Where the bee sucks………………………..Thomas Arne (1710 – 1778)
I also had a lot of fun making the set…
Beachborough is lucky enough to have back projection facilities and so we had a suitably stormy sea as a backdrop to the opening scene on the ship, and island or sea-shore scenes throughout. The revolve, pictured above, had a flat space at the back where, as it turned, Ferdinand and Miranda were revealed playing their game of chess. I made the ship’s wheel and the sea chest years ago for my “Some Treasure Island” play- never throw anything away, drama teachers!
All of which brings me by a roundabout route to last night’s performance:
Phelim McDermott’s production is visually notable for its “washing” metaphor- the characters are washed up in every sense, and the use of washing lines full of shirts to suggest rigging and the heaps of laundry which the actors climb over and tunnel into drives this home. (I won’t mention the horrible washing powder pun at the beginning- work it out for yourself!) Shakespeare often uses clothing to indicate states of mind- Macbeth’s garments “hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe/ upon a dwarfish thief.” In this production, where characters eventually find them themselves “when no man was his own”, no one seems comfortably dressed, and this works. The nobles are in whiter than white suits like fencers’ protective gear: is it the white of purity, or of a whited sepulchre? So: there was much to admire in the design. Having had to learn Prospero myself, I was also impressed by the line learning. With only nine in the cast there was much doubling up- and some very fast costume changes. I see from the programme note that the cast used the Whelan tape technique (where the cast listens to a recording of the lines as they rehearse their movement) and remember experimenting with this back in the day. Interesting to see the same problems perhaps emerging- were some slightly distorted lines caused by errors in the original recording? Maybe- I’m not complaining, though- as McDermott points out, there is no definitive way to play the scenes, and all in all it was a great evening’s theatre. Go and see it if you can get a ticket- it’s on till Saturday!
“The Tempest is a wonderful play.” How grateful I am to Saxon Walker for those few words. And in conclusion I’d like to point something out to any new or nearly-new teachers reading this: you must be very careful what you say to your pupils. To you, a comment may be just a throw-away remark: to them, it may turn out to be a life-changer.