The first professionally performed play I attended was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park open air theatre. The year was 1970. We were taken on a school trip to a matinee. And it blew me away. Little did I know then that the glamorous couple playing Titania and Oberon were acting royalty: Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. I remember it was a hot summer’s day and that I loved it all: the tree-surrounded setting, cheeky Puck, the fairies’ floaty costumes (chiffon was big in the 70s), Bottom as a donkey, the language. We were studying the play in the first year of secondary school and had had to learn Oberon’s ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme grows…’ speech off by heart. It was so exciting to hear it recited in the mellifluous tones of a real actor.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in
Last Wednesday I saw another open air performance of the play, this time in Kew Gardens. ‘Dream’ as I believe it’s known in acting circles, has been performed in the Gardens most nights this August. The stage is erected in a clearing beyond the Waterlily House and a group of handsome trees form a dramatic backdrop to the action. The lighting crew do a fantastic job of illuminating this leafy scenery with stunning colours, emphasising the stature and structure of the trees themselves and evoking the magical atmosphere of the wood near Athens where most of the action takes place. The ‘Rude Mechanicals’ and the fairies sometimes approach the stage from behind the audience, bursting out from the shrubs at the rear of the ‘auditorium’. Over the course of the evening they must cover several miles. Puck is acrobatic and athletic and when he vows to put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes you almost believe he can. The five minute walk from Victoria Gate to the site of the play takes you past the Rose Garden, the pale blooms almost glowing in the dusk. Later the route was lit by strings of warm white lights on either side of the path. It was an enchanting setting for the play and brought back happy memories of my first encounter with Shakespeare and with open air theatre.
Meanwhile in another part of the wood, i.e. in my garden, I’ve been having something of a Shakespeare festival myself. Early in the summer I celebrated a successful year for Weeds Roots & Leaves by buying a large terracotta container from Whichford Pottery. This was triggered by needing something in which to plant the Rosa x odorata Bengal Crimson which I brought back from my first ever visit to Great Dixter at the end of May. The rim of this hand thrown and frost proof pot is etched with an extract from Juliet’s famous line in her speech to Romeo in the balcony scene:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet; (Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2)
Moulded in relief on the side of the pot is an elaborate illustration of a cluster of roses. When the pot arrived a couple of months ago I was pleasantly surprised to see that not a scrap of plastic had been used in packing it. The sturdy cardboard box was packed tightly with straw. But next time I splurge on a super pot from Whichford I’ve made a mental note to open it in the garden. I was vacuuming up traces of straw for several weeks after my eager unveiling of the new addition to the garden.
The Bengal Crimson rose, which was grown from a cutting of the large specimen in the Barn Garden at Dixter, bears deep red single flowers which seem to last barely a couple of days, before the petals fall. I hope there’ll be such a profusion of blooms in the years to come this ephemeral quality won’t be so evident. I’ve admired the rose since it was planted at the edge of the meadow bank opposite the American Border at Osterley. Looking at a few websites, I’m reassured to read that it is suitable for growing in a container.
Knowing the little rose would take a year or so to establish in the pot, I also planted the tiny maroon flowered African geranium (Pelargonium sidoides) and the deep red cultivar of Dianthus the seedlings of which I brought from Osterley before the first lockdown. You can see I have a deep red theme emerging with this choice of plants. I always perceive dark red petals as velvety and there’s a certain plushness too to the other red flowered plant in this arrangement, the graceful burgundy Cosmos which I grew from seed earlier this year. With its spikes of violet blue flowers, the annual Salvia farinacea Victoria, provides a contrast in both colour and form to the other plants in the pot.
Whichford Pottery is located, appropriately, in William Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire. Having read Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet earlier this year, and enjoyed its evocation of life in late C16 Stratford upon Avon, I can see a visit to both the pottery and Shakespeare’s birthplace would make a splendid day out. Indeed, now that theatres have reopened, perhaps I should make a weekend of it and take in a play!