A note from my diary, Sunday 25th November 2018:
Yesterday, my wife and I joined four dear old friends in a south London watering hole called The Bolingbroke. We had a marvellous evening together and the name of the venue served as a hook to memory from 1969.
Now, there's a little story to tell about Bolingbroke, i.e. a character in a Tudor drama in this case rather than a location. Many years ago in Ireland, I was studying Shakespeare's Richard II at school as it was on our nation’s educational curriculum. Not only did we read it, but we studied it, we discussed it and then, joy of joys, we came to act it out. Among the dramatis personae of this play where our class was assigned the different roles of King Richard himself, Duke of York, John of Gaunt etc., I was given the part of Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt.
Our wonderful English master, Michael G. himself an Englishman and a veteran of the theatre where he had acted in repertory touring around England and Ireland as a younger man in the 1930s and 40s, would give us expert guidance on how to perform the various roles and what sort of play Richard II was. Fortunately, as our very same Michael G. was also our history teacher, he was able to place Shakespeare's drama within an historical context. This made for an enriched experience of not just the play, Richard II itself and the era in which the drama was set but Michael G. also delved into the technicalities of drama and even the structural aspect of Shakespearean plays. We even explored the fundamental nuts and bolts of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing in the form of rhyming couplets and the ubiquitous iambic pentameter occasionally interspersed with a trochee of course (not forgetting their classical antecedents) and our teacher even devised activities for us boys based on this poetic tool by organising the class into groups so that we would talk to each other in modern speech based on the iambic pentameter construction William S. himself had employed. We even played a simple game of consigning some of the capitals of the world either to the iambus or trochee camp on the basis of the inflection used in the pronunciation of the word. So, Madrid or Berlin, for instance, would be the former (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) whereas Dublin, Paris or London would be the latter (stressed followed by an unstressed syllable).
It made the whole aspect of learning this stuff a complete and utter joy while also being very funny at times, so that I have such incredibly strong memories of these events of so long ago. I recall the intense excitement around this time as a young teenager when the whole shebang (iambus?) of the construct underpinning rhythm of speech used by Shakespeare and other playwrights ‘clicked’ one day and from then on there was no looking back. I found the role of Henry Bolingbroke so thrilling to act out and I remember researching about the actual historical character I was playing. Of course, in those days there was no internet so it meant a few extra-curricular forays on cold winter evenings where I had to hoof it down to our local public library which thankfully was well stocked with suitable volumes holding the kind of information I needed.
Our English teacher brought Shakespeare to life in such an imaginative and engaging way and as 14-year olds in class we revelled in the thrill of playing our respective roles in Richard II. For us boys back in Ireland in those days, it was exhilarating as we engaged with all the characters and the shenanigans of Richard II and his royal court. Michael G. did work us hard though. We initially read through Richard II and were also required to learn vast screeds of it off by heart, then we rehearsed it several times finally giving a performance of (most of) the play at the end of term.
It was around this time in the late 1960s, that the thought of acting and directing in the theatre entered into my consciousness as a possible future career and I remember the inner excitement that grew within as I learnt more about this fascinating universe. More later.
To add a frisson of delight to our connect with Richard II in our English lessons at this time, Michael G. invited a leading light from the drama society of Trinity College Dublin, Stephen R., to perform for us. Stephen was then an undergraduate who had already carved out a name for himself as an actor and director on the Irish stage while also building up a solid reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’ when a theatrical production was under consideration. You have to imagine the buzz in that Dublin classroom of 49 years ago when Michael G. and Stephen R. acted out some of the 'highlights' from the play. I recall vividly how energised I was by this drama being played out in front of us during our remarkable exposure to literary education don't forget on some long-past rainy Tuesday afternoon and you were (mentally) whisked back to the end of 14th century England. As far as I was concerned, I had become witness to King Richard II and the nefarious goings-on in his kingdom. It was captivating. It was such fun.
When Michael G. and this supremely-talented Trinity player had concluded their virtuoso performance the whole class erupted into thunderous and prolonged applause. Then, our English master suddenly turned to me and asked me to stand and recite the famous speech of John of Gaunt which marks the start of the action from Act 2, Scene 1 of the play. As I’m sure you will recall, in this heartfelt address, a mortally ill John of Gaunt gives Kind Richard II a very frank dressing down.
I was utterly thrown by this request for two reasons: firstly, the teacher had not given me any forewarning of this and, secondly, as I had committed to memory all my lines as Henry Bolingbroke as directed by my teacher, I reckoned that he must have momentarily forgotten the original part assigned to me. I do remember standing in that class barely able to utter the words of another character, albeit the important personage of John of Gaunt. Thankfully, Stephen came to my rescue and assisted me and, little by little, I was somehow buoyed up by the magic of the moment, fuelled with adrenalin and swept along by the metrical cadence of the words of Shakespeare, the lines seemed to work their way through me and I was able to deliver John of Gaunt's soliloquy:
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired,
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home, etc.
Somehow, I managed to finish the speech and was surprised to receive applause from my classmates, our charismatic theatrical visitor and our inspirational English teacher.
FYI, Stephen R. in later life went on to be the director of a well-known theatre in London and subsequently became a longstanding and successful head of a nationwide charity. Michael G. continued to inspire as our school's English and History master for many more years and he remains to this day a shining star in my firmament of learning. Subsequently, when Michael G.’s teaching career concluded, he had a long and happy retirement in Cornwall where I had the pleasure of spending some time with him in 1996 not long before he passed away later that same year. On that visit, I was particularly touched when he showed me that he had given pride of place to a family photo I had sent him some years before of my wife, two sons and myself. It was placed prominently on his mantelpiece.
So you see, when I come across the word Bolingbroke, I am reminded of that excitement of participating in a school play from nearly fifty years ago where, as a youngster, I got to play two parts, albeit briefly in a drama by William Shakespeare. Also, when reflecting on this episode of my life long past, I think I was most fortunate to have had such an excellent teacher during those formative years who encouraged a lifelong love of language, literature, reading, drama, history and learning.
P.S. Now that I come to think of it, the above speech of John of Gaunt could possibly serve as a swingeing metaphor for the whole ridiculosity of the entirotrocious Brexit debaclorumminimus but of course that is another kettle of physhch, as they say in Kinnegad.