I’ve been putting together a programme called ‘At the Mermaid Tavern’ to be performed this coming Sunday, 1 August, as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, which is directed by Paul Edmondson for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. This is the festival’s 57th year, and I came to Stratford in 1958, so I must have been in almost at the start. Over the years I’ve attended innumerable readings with great actors such as Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Diana Rigg, Paul Hardwick, Tony Church, Richard Pasco, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Judi Dench, Jane Lapotaire and many others, along with poets such as Henry Reed, Harold Pinter, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, and Seamus Heaney reading their own work. But although I’ve compiled programmes before, this is the first time I’ve put one together for the Stratford festival. I’m on its Advisory Board, and in the last few years we’ve been making an effort, in keeping with the Trust’s overall aims, to increase the Shakespearian content and relevance.
My theme was suggested by the Festival Director, who had in mind that I’ve written a book, Shakespeare & Co., which considers Shakespeare in relation to many of his contemporaries. Two fine actors, Rory Kinnear and Kelly Hunter, have agreed to take part, and I’ve borne them in mind as I’ve chosen passages for them to read. For example, Rory, who is currently rehearsing Hamlet for the National Theatre, recently took the lead there in Middleton’s play The Revenger’s Tragedy, so I’m giving him an extract from it – the opening speech, in fact, in which the revenger addresses his late mistress’s skull. Echoes of Hamlet. And Kelly along with Rory will read scenes from Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well.
To compile a programme that attempts to be reasonably coherent yet varied, entertaining and well-balanced is not an easy task – it took me several days of full-time work. Predictably, given the title, I open with Keats’s ‘Lines on the Mermaid Tavern’ – ‘Souls of poets dead and gone’ – but otherwise all the items come from Shakespeare’s time. I’ve tried not just to include pieces that are worth hearing in their own right but also to make links, showing for example that there are at least strong resemblances between passages from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare ‘s Titus Andronicus, and – a little more surprisingly – Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I include some of my personal favourites, such as the song ‘In time of plague’ from Thomas Nashe’s play Summer’s Last Will and Testament. Nashe is a wonderful, versatile and underrated writer. One of my earliest books was an edition of some of his works, long out of print. I sometimes think I’d like to prepare a revised edition. And this time I should be able to include the pornographic but entertaining poem ‘A Choice of Valentines’, which I pusillanimously omitted in 1964. There are some street ballads, too, including one on the burning of the Globe. And I end with a hint of propaganda on behalf of Shakespeare’s authorship of his works. Down with Anonymous!
By Stanley Wells