Sunday, April 09, 2017

A special trip to Stratford-upon-Avon

We were last in Stratford three years ago, when we took an autumn trip down into Bancroft Basin for a few days, and it was where we spent several delightful hours yesterday. It was lovely, as usual, and extremely busy, with tourists by the drove, huge crowds gathered in the park next to the river, and the river busy with rowing-boats and motor-boats trying to avoid hitting each other.

But that was the afternoon.

We spent the morning at nearby Charlecote Park, a National Trust property we hadn't been to for ten years or so. The weather was perfect for a wander around the park, and the stately Elizabethan House was a must-see, too.

But, lovely as it was, this wasn't our main reason for being in Stratford.

A year ago, The Company of Players was born from the vision and effort of our youngest daughter Jess, a group of ten of the UK's best rising folk music stars. They spent a week together writing songs to commemorate the life and works of William Shakespeare, who had died 400 years before. In the same month this year, they are doing a short UK tour, promoting their newly-recorded debut album, and the tour started last night in the Royal Shakespeare Company studio theatre, "The Other Place". It was only their fifth public appearance together, and I don't think they'd had more than five rehearsals before then. But they were brilliant, and wowed the audience for almost two hours.

(all photos by Keith Bache)

Videos can be seen on YouTube, courtesy of John Bailey

Please forgive the self-indulgence of my inclusion here of a professional review of the performance, which appeared on "What's On Midlands" today.
"Assembled during last year's Shakespeare 400 celebrations, folk supergroup Company of Players is the brainchild of Said The Maiden's Jess Distill. Inspired by themed collaborations between established artists such as The Full English, The Elizabethan Sessions and Songs for the Voiceless, Distill perceived an opportunity for younger performers to raise their profile through a similar project, and set about gathering some of the best emerging musicians on the UK folk scene to create a series of songs inspired by Shakespeare. A year later, the new ten-piece band is embarking on its first tour, beginning, aptly enough, at The RSC's The Other Place. 
For such a fresh-faced bunch, there's an impressive array of talent on display here, and an interesting diversity of styles. The results of the group's week-long retreat in Belper vary from straight-up settings of Shakespeare songs and sonnets to brand new works exploring themes and stories from the plays.
Introducing influences from her native Russia, Daria Kulesh opens the set with a dramatic piece drawing on Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. Looking every inch the part in her heavy make-up and full-length black dress, Kulesh sings of witchcraft and unspeakable crimes against an eerie, unsettling instrumental backdrop.
The tone shifts suddenly with the first of three songs from Kim Lowings. Taking The Tempest as its starting point, “Gather Round” is a catchy, light-hearted song, picking up on the topsy-turvy, socially subversive elements of the play, with its magical beings, displaced dukes and servants who would be king.
Further contributions from Lowings follow in this bright, melodic vein, with deceptively simple, memorable tunes that demonstrate a knack for composition. Her second song is “Philomel” – not, as the name might suggest, anything to do with Titus Andronicus or the grisly Classical myth the play alludes to – but instead a version of Titania's lullaby in A Midsummer Night's Dream, its title referencing an alternative name for a nightingale. Accordingly, this is a sweet, gentle, tripping melody, performed by Lowings on keyboard and vocals with fiddle accompaniment from Hannah Elizabeth. The song ends in a lively fairy tune, led by Jess Distill on tin whistle.
A late addition to the set list is a setting of the beautiful Sonnet XV, again performed on keyboard, this time supported by the three members of Said The Maiden – Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkinton – on flute, fiddle and clarinet.
In addition to her songwriting skill, Lowings boasts a mature and resonant voice that belies her hears, and is a delight to listen to in Sam Kelly's song, “Jessica's Sonnet”. Confessing his lack of Shakespeare knowledge, Kelly explains that his contribution comes via his flatmate's mum, who has written a poem from the perspective of Shylock's daughter on the night she runs away and “risks it all for love” in The Merchant of Venice. Lowings delivers the lyrics with feeling and clarity, with delicate guitar accompaniment from Kelly and Chris Cleverley.
One of the group's most accomplished musicians, Birmingham-based Cleverley's intricate guitar work is a highlight of the set in both of his songs, which use Shakespearean scenes as a springboard for exploring contemporary concerns. Tying in with his latest solo album's theme of health, his first, “But Thinking Makes It So”, looks at depression and mental illness through the lens of Hamlet's famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. His second, “Fortune Forbid”, is a fantastically dramatic, brooding musing on gender and sexuality through the eyes of Twelfth Night's unhappy Viola/Cesario. Complex guitar arrangements give way to unaccompanied vocal harmonies, lingering hauntingly at the end of the song.
In “You Must Now Be Strangers”, Kelly Oliver also connects Shakespeare's writing to a topical issue of today, using lines from the collaboratively written Thomas More to reflect on the ongoing refugee crisis. Extensively revised by several writers and perhaps never performed until the 20th century, this lesser known play has recently regained attention online through a reading by Ian McKellen of its most powerful speech, apparently contributed by Shakespeare, discussing the misery of enforced exile. Simple but surprisingly effective, this melancholy, heartstring-tugging song is performed as a guitar duet by Oliver and Sam Kelly. Though he might not be the biggest Shakespeare fan, Kelly seems the most at ease on stage, with a natural presence and a clear, controlled singing voice. He's also responsible for mixing and mastering the group's forthcoming album.
Kathy Pilkinton's “Black Spirits” returns to the story of Macbeth, drawing on her choral singing roots. Casting the Said The Maiden trio as the three witches, the song sets the play's opening scene in atmospheric and slightly medieval-sounding a cappella harmonies. As the pace picks up for the “Hubble Bubble” section, Daria Kulesh introduces galloping percussion on the boran, and Sam Kelly joins the singing, his lower register offsetting the other voices.
Kim Lowings isn't the only member of the group to use A Midsummer Night's Dream for inspiration. Rather than focusing on a particular scene, Minnie Birch instead selects lines from throughout the play, reassembling them in an expression of the messiness of romance – the course of true love never did run smooth. This inventive, cut-and-paste lyrical style gets an upbeat tune with distinctive, breathy vocals from Birch and pretty clarinet accompaniment from Pilkinton. For someone like Birch, unaccustomed to sharing songs with other musicians and working collaboratively in this way, “Up and Down” is a solid first attempt.
Both the first and second halves of the show go out on a high. The pre-interval closure is Distill's own “Method in the Madness”, drawing on the old Icelandic saga story of Amlóði, a key source for Shakespeare's Hamlet which sees the hero survive after outsmarting all his enemies. What began in her head as a dark and brooding number was quickly transformed into a raucous hoedown through the collaborative process, with a little help from Kim Lowings. The finished song is an energetic knees-up complete with lightning-fast lyrics, a sharp sense of humour and banjo, harmonica and even spoons from Cleverley, Oliver and Pilkinton respectively.
The big finale is Hannah Elizabeth's seasonally appropriate new setting of “It Was A Lover And His Lass”, featured in As You Like It and described scathingly by Touchstone in the play as “very untunable”. Fortunately, this take is nothing of the sort, but a merry, frolicking spring song featuring uplifting harmonies and instrumentation from Lowings, Pilkinton and Distill on dulcimer, mandolin and flute.
A well deserved encore leads to a boisterous rendition of that famous interspecies retelling of Romeo and Juliet “Froggie Went A Courting”, led by Chris Cleverley. A great end to an entertaining evening."

(Review by Heather Kincaid in "Midlands What's On")

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