We welcome Lyn Dawes to the BARS blog, and thank her for this engaging review of the new play by Nicholas Pierpan (Wolfson College, Oxford), entitled ‘William Wordsworth‘, and performed at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. The play was directed by Michael Oakley.
Review: William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, Cumbria 31 March – 22 April 2017
Parents will recognise the futility of attempting to write with children around. Little Tom Wordsworth pesters his father, hooting like an owl and dancing about; meanwhile Dorothy and Sara Hutchinson tackle the endless housework, while Mary has not emerged from her bedroom with the new baby. Eventually William gives in, not to reprimand his little boy, but to play with him – an unusual thing for a father, perhaps. But he is not writing poetry. William is writing letters in an attempt to restore his friendship with Coleridge, fractured when Coleridge left Grasmere for London and arrived to find that Wordsworth had warned their mutual friends of his expensive habits, his erratic behaviour, and the general mayhem generated around a garrulous, gregarious visitor with an addiction to taking opiates and brandy for his chronic digestive problems. This rift caused irretrievable hurt, with Coleridge recording that it had ‘spread a wide gloom over the world around me’.
This English Touring Theatre production depicts the poverty and confusion of the Wordsworth household in 1812. William provided for his sister Dorothy, wife Mary and her sister Sara and his five children, but his finances remained blighted by Lord Lonsdale’s swindling. And the seminal Lyrical Ballads published fourteen years earlier could not provide an adequate income. William was convinced – partly by Coleridge’s generous and constant support – that his poetry was to resound through future years, but felt that the world was not yet prepared for his work. His reluctance to publish had brought the family to a crisis which was dreadfully compounded by the death of Catherine Wordsworth aged three.
The production gives credit to the tireless work of women in a patriarchal society, with Dorothy and Sara supporting Mary and enabling William’s thinking, and Sara providing Coleridge with loving warmth and care. The production also presents working people with respect, showing them to be in tune with the world. In contrast the London lords and ladies value style over substance and are wholly occupied by the process of idolising the young Lord Byron. Wordsworth’s patron George Beaumont, played by Joseph Mydell, is serious minded and principled in a reassuring way. The somewhat shadowy Mrs Coleridge (Rosalind Steele) here holds her own as remarkably cheerful and outgoing.
Dorothy (Emma Pallant) is wonderfully frantic about her brother’s home comforts, getting totally caught up in the washing and childminding, but startlingly paused by the reminder that Coleridge considered her a genius. Daniel Abelson is completely persuasive as the impossible but magnetic Coleridge. He conveys the charisma, the verbal fireworks, the baffling mix of huge intellectual power and needy loner in a world lacking in understanding. The complex relationship between Coleridge and Sara is skimmed over, for all its fascination. It is a play about Wordsworth after all. Wordsworth is commandingly brought to life by John Sackville who conveys the impression of a man both articulate and strong minded, capable of holding his own with the glitterati, playing with his child, and listening to a wandering Leech Gatherer (a redundant profession thankfully) with equal attention and imagination.
So when young Tom died of measles, we were shocked and dismayed. The impact of poverty and the smoky, unfavourable house in Grasmere had taken their awful toll. The quality of the play portrays the quality of the people and we really do mind what is happening to them. Wordsworth, despite Coleridge’s eloquent attempts to dissuade him, takes a paying job with the unpleasant Lord Lonsdale; this was his way of sorting out his living conditions and enabling his family not merely to stay together but actually to survive. And his writing continues…. his poem for Tom ‘There Was A Boy’ was movingly included in the play:
There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander! many a time,
At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone,
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering lake;
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.
Wordsworth at first sent the poem to Coleridge, who wrote back ‘[The lines] I should have recognised any where; and had I met these lines running wild in the deserts of Arabia, I should have instantly screamed out “Wordsworth!”‘
This poem and his evocation of his Cockermouth birthplace, both to be found in the Prelude, helped us as an audience to remember why we were there – this play is not a Downton Abbey story, but an explanation and celebration of the quality of Wordsworth’s writing and his resounding impact on the way ideas are conveyed in poetry. Here he is living as in impoverished circumstances but his mind is not on the staple diet of oatmeal but instead always absorbed by observing, reflecting and writing using plain language about the natural world and our relation to it. The Prelude as a description and analysis of his own life is surprisingly generalisable, and the everyday people he encountered are accorded respect and a presence in his poetry.
For this, didst thou,
O Derwent! winding among grassy holms
Where I was looking on, a babe in arms,
Make ceaseless music that composed my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me
Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.
To meet these people and hear the poetry, with its conversational tone and integral links to the natural world, having just walked alongside Derwent Water on an evening when the lake and fells were still, was a spirit-lifting reminder of the power of words. The play stresses the importance of language in conveying ideas between people and between generations. The Lakeland town of Keswick was often the setting for Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collaborative thinking. Coleridge lived at Greta Hall in Keswick and would set off down to Grasmere overnight – sometimes arriving as Dorothy tells us, by walking over Grizedale (which is enormous) with a large stick in his hand, ending this epic by being pursued by a cow. Dorothy and William would walk with him on the first stage of his return journey north up the slope of Dunmail Raise or ‘up the Rays’ as Dorothy says. These are the places that influence Wordsworth’s thinking, and the play depicts these settings, the work of writing, and the human lives involved, with great skill and sensitivity.
The Theatre By the Lake offers the play an ideal venue. Derwent Water remains essentially unchanged, the transient landing stages, visitors and homes having no impact on its power to impress. The stage set mutated between rooms and scenes as the cast quietly moved shutters, carried things, and managed whole furniture removals in harmony. Nicholas Pierpan is to be commended for providing the thread of this episode of Wordsworth’s story plaited with themes of the better aspects of human dignity, loyalty and integrity, in an unsentimental yet truly moving play. I hopefully await any sequel – perhaps a parallel play about Coleridge – as a way of understanding our own lives and times through witnessing these life experiences and the words we are left with. A bit like the surrounding fells, these are remote and admirable yet strangely accessible people.
The header is taken from the English Touring Theatre webpage, where there are more images of the cast here. The Theatre by the Lake photograph is from Google, and the other photographs are the author’s own, all taken in the North Lakes near Keswick.
Lyn Dawes is a consultant in Education, specialising in Primary Science and Spoken Language. She is author of a range of books for teachers and school students, most recently Talking Points (Routledge, 2012) Talking Points for Shakespeare Plays (Routledge, 2013) and Talk Box (Routledge 2107). Lyn provides interactive workshops for teachers and education managers wishing to promote engagement and achievement through the teaching of oracy in primary classrooms. Lyn lives in Cockermouth, Cumbria.