24th Jul, 2023
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The story of a Shakespeare-loving, amateur theatre director had been bubbling around in my mind for some time. I was inspired to put pen to paper, however, by a visit to a props exhibition at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon.
At the time, I was doing some research for my PhD thesis, and was fascinated to read about a real skull that had been bequeathed to the RSC by concert pianist and composer Andre Tchaikowsky after his death in 1982, for use in performances of Hamlet. No actor or director felt comfortable working with a real skull in performance, however, though it was sometimes used in rehearsal. But in 2008, David Tennant held the skull during a run of performances in Stratford-on-Avon, and in the West End. When the skull's identity was revealed to the press, the information caused a considerable stir among audiences who flocked to see the play.
Tchaikowsky's life was eventful: born in 1935 to a Polish Jewish family, he lived with them in the Warsaw ghetto when war broke out, and then went into hiding with his grandmother until 1944, when they were taken to a transit camp. From there, they were released and he was able to take up his studies again, though his mother - who had taught him to play piano at four years old - had died in Treblinka. He went on to forge a successful career as a pianist and composer, his works including an opera based on Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Sadly he died at age 46, never having seen and heard it performed.
Tchaikowsky's story, given new life through Shakespeare's re-telling of Hamlet, set me thinking about the power of storytelling to regenerate. Old tales are taken up by new voices, and find fresh ways of communicating. This idea became a major theme in So Now Go Tell, where the heroine's story is reflected in strands of the Shakespeare play she is directing - and in the history of a sixteenth century actor-clown, who skull she discovers in the cellar of the old inn where she works.
You can read Jenny's first encounter with the skull, below. I hope you enjoy it!
'A bare bulb cast swathes of yellow light over a set of worn stone steps that wound into a vast underground room. A thin, rusted banister ran from top to bottom, and I grasped it for support as I peered down. I needed to, for spread out below was a feast of theatrical treasures.
"My God," I whispered. "Can I go down?"
George, the pub's old barman, gave a chuckle. "Be my guest."
And I felt my way down, step by step. It was like entering Aladdin's cave.
A battered copy of Henry V peeped from a crate. Boxes and chests spilled over with material of all colours. I fingered some mustard velvet poking out of what looked like a black metal World War One soldier's trunk. The material felt cold to the touch, but quite dry. Painted stage flats leaned against the walls, with pots of paint, brushes and rolls of lining paper heaped in front of them. On the far wall, an imposing bust of Julius Caesar lay on its side. But none of these sights prepared me for what I encountered at the bottom, where the steps curled round on themselves.
A tall, white roman pedestal stood alone in the yellow light, its base covered in cobwebs. And perched on top, a sallow, bony casing framed a pair of black hollows that stared into emptiness. The bone was pitted here and there with pin spots of black. Below a central triangle of darkness, a monstrous set of protruding teeth curved in a gruesome smile.
"That's a skull," I said, my voice like dry parchment. I glanced instinctively up at the cellar door.
"Oh, aye, that's our Henry," said George, calmly. "Well, it's either Henry or John; no-one quite knows which. He's been in this cellar for as long as anyone remembers. The story is, he grew up here - this place has a long history. He does have his own cardboard box somewhere, but he needs airing now and then." He passed a fatherly hand over the skull's pockmarked pate.
"Er, right," I said, taking a step backwards.
"Local legend has it he were once a clown, desperate to play in one of Shakespeare's tragedies, but it were a dream he never got to fulfil." George gave a soft laugh. "P'raps that's why he's still here. Waiting."
In the silence the cold closed around us. I began to wonder how long it would take me to get upstairs . . . '