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Michael Coveney: Stratford celebrates midsummer in church, online and in poetry

By • London

There's a midsummer madness in the air in Stratford-upon-Avon, with the weather remaining hot and humid rather than sunny and summery and three big events to celebrate today's summer solstice, the longest day in the year.

Last night, the Friends of Shakespeare's Church, Holy Trinity, held a tenth anniversary dinner in the church itself. Tonight, the RSC launches a one-off digital theatre project in which A Midsummer Night's Dream will be performed "in real time" and online over the weekend, in collaboration with Google and directed by Gregory Doran (read WhatsOnStage's hilarious interview with Puck here). And next weekend, Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust launches Stratford's 60th poetry festival.

The dinner marked ten years in which over £1m has been raised to repair the church and spire, the clerestory windows and the very roof in the chancel under which Shakespeare is buried, as well as the stained glass windows and two beautiful side chapels.

The diners sat at round tables in the nave and included the former chairman Sir Brian Follett, the distinguished scientist and governor of the RSC, and his successor Professor Ronnie Mulryne, the Shakespearean and Thomas Middleton expert. Neither of these men has a sentimental attachment to Shakespeare but a clear and committed view of his value in our society and the significance of his church.

The same is true of the academics, townsfolk and churchgoers who tucked into salmon and Warwickshire lamb cassoulet before being addressed by one of their own, the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel of St Paul's Cathedral, London, who attended King Edward VI School in the town and is a lifelong participant in amateur theatre. His mother came along, too.

Hampel is Precentor at St Paul's, taking responsibility for the music and the liturgy, and he gave some vivid and fascinating insights into the recent great occasions of the Queen's jubilee service and the memorial service for Margaret Thatcher. His stories were practically related to the everyday life of the church, and the church throughout the nation, so that what happens in St Paul's is inextricably linked to what happens in churches everywhere, including Holy Trinity.

I was raised a Catholic and educated by Jesuits (not necessarily the same thing) and I think I'm probably now an agnostic if I stop to think about it, but I found this statement of an idea of common worship in a wider community of churches very moving.

Ninety-five per cent of the congregation at St Paul's throughout the year are visitors, and they have a staff of just 150 (plus 200 volunteers), whereas Canterbury Cathedral, for instance, has a staff of 350. It costs £8m a year to run the place and they raise £6m of that by charging entrance fees. With no other funding from crown, church or state, they are therefore in permanent economic crisis.

But Hampel's major concern seems to be related to this year's Christmas carol services, which are always over-subscribed; the plan is to install giant screens in the precinct outside so that the crowds all the way down to Ludgate Circus can join in.

There's a similar impulse behind the online digital Dream starting tonight, which comes with background interviews, live links and audience participation on Sunday afternoon in the Dell, a charming coppice near Holy Trinity on the banks of the Avon.

The RSC cast includes Joe Dixon as Bottom, Alex Gilbreath as Titania, Lucy Briggs-Owen as Helena, Mark Hadfield as Puck and Peter de Jersey as Oberon, all top players. The question, as always with live transmissions, is: how do you transform an essentially personal and spiritual experience in a theatre into something wider and more readily available without losing the inherent value of communion?

It's exactly the same question, really, as posed by Canon Hampel in his eagerness to reach out beyond St Paul's. The actors will be in the Ashcroft Room in the theatre, and you will be online anywhere in the world, the same world that Puck said he could put a girdle around in 40 minutes... he's got that down now to about two seconds, if you follow the whole thing at dream40.org via the RSC website.

Also, on Monday, you can find a complete online audio recording of A Midsummer Night's Dream which will be annotated with the content and side-stories commissioned from artists and audiences over this weekend and posted on Google+... truly, Horatio, there are more things now in heaven and earth, and online, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Meanwhile, back in Stratford itself, Paul Edmundson and his colleagues at the Birthday Trust are finalising plans for this year's poetry festival, to be opened on 30 June by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy (who is writing a Queen Lear for the RSC) at the Shakespeare Centre on Henley Street.

It's a fantastic programme, running in the town right through to 4 August, when Vanessa Redgrave and Simon Russell Beale will lead the grand finale in a selection of readings compiled by Roger Pringle, who ran the festival for 35 years.

My other particular choices would be Paul Jesson and David Bradley performing a journey in verse from dawn to dusk on 7 July; Harriet Walter leading a "poetry of place" recital devised by the fine Shakespearean scholar Barbara Everett on 14 July; and Samuel West re-working songs by Auden and Benjamin Britten (in the latter's centenary year) with a jazz band on 21 July. Let's hope some of all that is soon available as a download...

Tags: RSCSimon Russell BealeSamuel WestMidsummer Night's DreamingStratford-upon-AvonWilliam ShakespeareVanessa Redgrave


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