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Running Round Stratford

"I don't know which is worse, doing this or watching Macbeth," said one of the runners in yesterday's half-marathon race in Stratford-upon-Avon. We were just easing into the long slow climb on Welford Hill, half way through, and the rain was beginning to fall.

Then, miraculously, the rain stopped beginning to fall, and we accelerated down the hill in pleasant sunshine, turning through Long Marston and Milcote Crossing and then the long, flat trudge along the Greenway, past the race course and Holy Trinity church and up to the finishing line on the meadow opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

This was my fifth, and fastest, race in the past eight years, and I managed a good nine minute mile for most of it, knocking at least two minutes off my best time (my time of two hours, three minutes and 25 seconds will be confirmed, or adjusted, once the ankle chips have been checked) and I was no way too knackered to jog back to the hotel for a hot bath and thence to the sun-drenched patio of the Dirty Duck.  

I've never felt the need to go the extra thirteen miles to the full marathon, but I can half imagine the utter Zen tranquillity of doing so, especially on this delightful route through fields and villages, lined with encouraging locals and friendly volunteeers handing out beakers of water, wet sponges and even chewy fruit sweets.  

"Is this a dagger I see before me?" No, it's the inviting sign, flapping in the breeze, of the Bell Inn at Welford-on-Avon, or the gabled rooftops of Luddington Farm, or the beautiful fields stretching away from Long Marston way out to Stafford Chambers.

We had started, about three thousand of us, in the town centre, making a circuitous tour of the High Street and Rother Street market before turning through Old Town and over the Sanctus Bridge onto the Evesham Road and heading deep into Shakespeare Country.

I do regard the event as a sort of keep-fit pilgrimage, and I'm only surprised that hardly anyone from the Royal Shakespeare Company seemed to be involved; not even a friendly wave this year from executive director Vicki Heywood in her spick and span town centre cottage. 

Still, it was a perfect Sunday, some of the town's holiday mood held over from the Royal Wedding and the Shakespeare Birthday celebrations on the previous weekend. My friend and neighbour Neil Cameron, a television producer, returned the great time of one hour, 37 minutes, not even his personal best.

And as we supped our second pint of Abbot's ale on the patio, we could see the first of the full marathon runners steaming home in just about three hours. The Dirty Duck manager Sam Jackson turned up, beaming: he had run the half in two hours, eight minutes, a full twelve minutes faster than his first effort two years ago as part of a recovery programme after serious illness.

It all made for a blessed relief from the tortured frenzy of Terry Gilliam's revival of The Damnation of Faust for the ENO at the Colisum on Friday night. Faust becomes a time traveller through German Romanticism to the terrors of Kristallnacht and Auschwitz.

It must have cost a fortune, and Hildegard Bechtler's sets are a brilliant riot of stunningly executed images lifted from Caspar David Friedrich, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Olympic Games.

The trouble is that, unlike a serious opera producer such as Jonathan Miller, Gilliam has no governing sense of taste or intelligent quotation in his stage metaphors and political and cultural allegories. There is absolutely no justification, for instance, for Marguerite singing her great aria of seduction and betrayal in a truck to the death camps. She is not abandoned because she's Jewish, or even persecuted.

Berlioz's music is as stunning and amazing as ever, and the singing of Peter Hoare as Faust and Christine Rice, especially, as Marguerite, is electrifying.

But the overall effect is, well, a bit stupid, with the worst ever start to an opera I can remember, Christopher Purves' Mephistopheles talking to the audience as though there were idiots, perish the thought.

Or perhaps he simply felt he should take a leaf out of his near namesake Peter Purves' book when he was presenting Blue Peter on children's television.

I couldn't corroborate this impression with any colleagues as the usual Press bar had been given over to yet another private function. I know sponsors are important, but it's deeply depressing to wander downstairs at the Coliseum and see what was once a perfectly buzzing and public bar area given over entirely to table-fuls of grim-faced money men and their partners treating the opera as a necessary shared extra on an otherwise completely private night out.


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