The Shakespeare Birthday Walk offers lovers of the bard a delightful stroll across a London populated by star crossed lovers, errant knaves and goodly priests. What makes the event so special is that you absolutely cannot predict with any degree of certainty what will happen next.
The walk is part of a two day event organised by the team at Shakespeare’s Globe to mark Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd of April. The birthday tours have been running for the last 25 years with the events getting more and more popular over the years.
My tour begins outside St Leonards, Shoreditch (the burial place of Shakespearian actor Richard Burbage, the first Hamlet) and finishes just in front of the Globe itself.
In between, our group (one man and nine women) encounter a series of 14 characters, each inspired by a particular work, who will take the opportunity to recite some of the Bard’s most famous words.
Half the fun is in spotting the rag tag assortment of characters before they make themselves known to us, tales of woe at the ready. It’s easier said than done however, given that all the characters are in modern dress.
Is it that woman leaning against the lamppost? Or perhaps the guy sitting on the bench in the churchyard? Its almost impossible to tell.
The walk begins in the vestry of St. Leonards, where actress Shobu Kapoor (Gita from EastEnders) hurls a different insult from Shakespeare at each of us. Given how much we have paid for the tour, it seems an interesting strategy by the Globe, however the barbs do give us an amusing insight into Shakespeare’s wit.
Once Kapoor is done insulting us, we are dispatched, after first being equipped with a rose and a map. I’m initially confused by the purpose of the rose, however I soon realise that it is to allow the actors to identify us.
Less than a minute into the tour, we run into a lady in distress in the Churchyard of St Leonards. Some of the group stop to talk with the woman, but I walk on, eager to continue the tour. It takes me a further 100 yards before I realise that I have just passed the first of the 14 characters. I turn on my heels and return to the main body of the group.
A young, sad eyed woman stands before us. “Is it right?” she is asking the group. “Is it fair?” I don’t answer because I have no idea what she is talking about.
She suddenly fixes her gaze on me. I begin to feel her steely eyes burn through me. “Am I wrong to protest? she asks me. “My uncle” she spits, as if the very term were now the most unpleasant medicine. “Married to my mother”.
I’ve begun to see where this is going. She looks at the group. “And my father, not yet two months in the ground”. The uncle is Claudius, the mother, Gertrude. No wonder this modern incarnation of Hamlet looks so sad. Some of the ladies in the group try to comfort her, but it is to no avail. Hamlet looks like she has all the woes of the world concentrated on her shoulders.
“Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt” she says finally, launching into the famous soliloquy from Hamlet. You can hear a pin drop. As soon as she is finished, she is gone.
There is a long moment of silence before anyone speaks. “Right, which way?” someone asks, and after a brief glance at our maps, we walk off hopefully in what we believe to be the direction of the river.
A short while later and we are on New Inn Broadway in Hackney. The road is the site of the legendary Shakespearian playhouse, The Theatre, where Romeo and Juliet was first performed.
We have just turned down the road leading to the theatre when we encounter a small group, standing on a corner. A young man approaches us. “What you lot up to?” he quizzes.
“We’re on a tour” says one of our Party excitedly, hardly breaking stride. “It’s a Shakespeare tour” adds another of the group, helpfully. I look the man up and down. “Are you one of the characters? I quiz.
“Me?! “ he exclaims, a little bemused by the question. He draws a long breath. “Nah” he smiles. “ok” I say.
A short pause follows before the man says something else. We don’t catch it because we are already moving off. I catch just one word. Capulet. I turn back towards him. “Sorry?”. He doesn’t look at me this time but instead addresses the group as a whole. “Seen any caplets on your travels” he says. Suddenly it dawns on us that he too is part of the production.
His focus is on a house across the street. He begs us for a coin and then turns and throws it at the building. After the second one, a fearful looking woman appears from a balcony on the top floor. I don’t catch exactly what she says but she wants him to go away, that much is clear. Just then, as he turns to go, a much younger woman appears at a first floor window. “but soft what light through yonder windows breaks” Romeo says finally, his face suddenly animated. We are watching the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and if that were not enough it is being performed yards away from one of the most legendary theatres in the history of the English stage, the long vanquished The Theatre.
As we leave the Theatre, things get even more complicated and exciting. At the steps of Exchange House Square we are party to what appears to be a gang battle but ends in the stabbing of Mercutio. As we arrive in Sun Street, several of the group are urged to get into a taxi by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We are then intercepted by a grief stricken Ophelia at Austin Friars Passage, and most amusingly of all, as we pass the Monument, we are accosted by a nameless character (Edward Peel) who informs us that he has lost his dog Scamp. We try not to laugh but he is obviously playing it for them but just as we smile, Peel launches into the sonnet When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes and his vignette makes sense.
The acting throughout is nuanced and believable with Shakespeare’s unrivalled language and poetry placed in an urban setting and context.
The whole thing is so fresh, so contemporary, so urgent and so maddeningly unpredictable that as long as the geographical walk obviously is, the whole thing still seems to go by in a blink of an eye. By the time I’m back home, I’m already googling to investigate next year’s event.