Michael Burton is blogging about his travels in preparation for the 2017 INTERNATIONAL LEMNISCATE ARTS FESTIVAL TOUR

Friday 3rd June. Qantas Flight 74, somewhere above the Pacific Ocean!

In the period when I last wrote I’ve been present at this festival in London, followed by more one-man performances in various places – Emerson College, Bristol, Gloucester, Stroud and Stourbridge, followed by three weeks of “readers’ theatre” with the new mystery drama in Copake (New York), Chicago and Rudolf Steiner College (Sacramento). So there is a great deal to write about! But first, the Shakespeare Festival!

The Shakespeare Festival took place at Rudolf Steiner House, London, between Thursday 21st April and Sunday 24th April 2016.  There was a great mix of lectures, workshops, discussions and live performance on offer and a quality came through the conference that I have never really felt in such a form before. It’s difficult to define what this is, but I would say that those who were there were able to experience a kind of Anthroposophy that is unique to the English-speaking world.  Shakespeare leads naturally to mysteries of language and mysteries of the working into the earth of the spirit; those who followed the very different events taking place were able to get a glimmering into the future of the English language.

Each morning began with artistic presentations leading to a main lecture. The conference was not heady but these three lectures did cast an important mood for the day. The audience grappled with the themes of the talks, together with a panel (different on each day) and this engaged us until lunch. In the afternoon there was a rich outpouring of performances and workshops with more performances in the evenings. I cannot possibly do justice to everything, but I’ll attempt to give something of an overview, beginning with the three lectures.

The three lectures were as follows:

First full day: Professor Andrew Wellburn: Shakespeare and the making of Us

Second day: Andrew Wolpert: Who is Prospero when Shakespeare’s revels are ended and the charm dissolves?

Third day: Coralee Frederickson: The Plea of Beauty against the rage of Time.

Over the whole conference one leading thought ran like a thread – the theme of immortal beauty and how it is in conflict with the decay of everything that is subject to the laws of physical reality. Eternal beauty is a key to everything in Shakespeare; it was first evoked by Josie Alwyn, who gave the first of a number of renditions of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,

But sad mortality o’ersways their power,

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out

Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,

When rocks impregnable are not so stout,

Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays?

O fearful meditation! Where, alack,

Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?

Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?

Or who his spoil or beauty can forbid?

  O none, unless this miracle have might,

  That in black ink my love may still shine bright

Andrew Wellburn traced hermetic themes in Shakespeare and showed how his sequence of plays is an extraordinary journey into selfhood with the full human being revealed in the various characters. The true Self holds opposite qualities together and Shakespeare’s search for his own transcendent selfhood culminates in the character of Prospero. When Shakespeare writes The Tempest, it is as if his work is done for he has arrived at the concept of himself.

Andrew Wolpert looked at the theme of “unaccommodated man” – the naked human being that Lear sees in the character of Edgar when, acting the part of Mad Tom, Edgar rushes out of the hovel and into Lear’s violent experiences in the raging storm. Lear reflects our own journey of life after death, through karma loca and into the spiritual spheres. Death is a stripping away, and his meeting with Edgar is the focal point of this journey. Edgar is Lear’s godson and the journey is completed in the character of Prospero.

Coralee Fredrickson, a eurythmist, dealt more than the other two speakers with the language of Shakespeare and what Shakespeare achieved through his activity in forging language. She quoted Blake: “The fool sees not the same tree as the wise man.” Shakespeare has such an effect upon us because he leads us beyond the false picture of our separateness from the creative processes of the world. His metaphors lead us on a journey to learn to see true; we are transformed by his plays and it is as if we enter a new world. It is the same world but we see it in a new way. Just as Wordsworth showed human beings how to look at the Lake District, Shakespeare shows us how to encounter the terrain of our own soul.

There were so many workshops that it was painful to have to choose. I went to one given by Andrew Wolpert and to some practical drama by Sarah Kane. As well as my own one-man Shakespeare there was a one-woman story-telling performance by Annette Armstrong on Cymbeline, skillfully articulating the great themes of this work and a one-man show by Patrick Dixon entitled The power of love and the love of power. (To my mind Patrick gave more of himself when he did his remarkable comic Shakespeare as a late-night miscellaneous piece of theatre). There was a wonderful pot pourri evening from the Hood Players in South Devon – you could feel the bard smiling that night, the night (if you believe that Shakespeare was the man of Stratford) of his 400th birthday, and the main artistic event was The Tempest, directed by Geoff Norris.

Norris’ Tempest was a production that had had major problems (it would be any actor’s worst nightmare to lose your Prospero three weeks before opening night) but which had managed to come through. All that we had heard about Prospero in the two opening talks we could see in this production. His first action – drawing a circle in the sand with his staff and then striking onto the rock to release the three Ariel spirits that brought the ship onto the rocks of the magical island – defined the magical world in which all characters are aspects of himself. Mention should be made of the group dynamics between Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo (Caliban especially gave some great physical acting) and the interesting (and partially successful) division of Ariel into three separate aspects. The actors were a group who have gathered around Geoff Norris and Sarah Kane for this production and one other. They brought a new liveliness and sense of purpose to Steiner House and it is to be hoped that their activities will continue there. With a warning that it was a bit like taking a cake out of the oven before it was cooked, Sarah Kane, who directs Romeo and Juliet, also gave us a taste of her production. The speech needed some work but there was a lot of potential.  

A final bonus after the official close of the conference were students from Ruskin Mill doing scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These students were fairly near the beginning of their journey with the Bard but their enthusiasm and courage shone through all they did and it was wonderful to see Shakespeare incarnating in such a very different setting.