Thursday, 14 April 2016

From the Curtain Theatre to Llanwrst Catherine Johnson

Detail from the Wynn Family Memorial in St Gwrst Church dated 1559
I am in North Wales. While not quite the town of my fathers and mothers, this town is the one where my Mum went to school. And because it was a long time ago before school buses, she boarded during the week (even though it was a state school). And before she learned to speak English had learnt, aged eleven, how to smoke cigarettes. Still, there was a war on.

Ok, Ok, I'm backing away from family history and back into the Shakespearean track. Although I have enjoyed the plays, Macbeth, The Tempest and Dream being my favourites, I cannot admit to a deep love from birth.  He is a faultless, wonderful writer, and the plays, when done well, are peerless.

And Shakespeare was big in my old stomping ground in Hackney. Which was after all the home of the Curtain Theatre, as recreated in this charming children's opera by Jonathan Dove.
Sorry I lied about family history, here is my son Adam (left) and classmate Jimmy as Tudor actors celebrating the story of the old theatre..
So Wales. Surely I'll be talking about Shakespeare's use of Welsh in Henry IV (or is it V). Arguing whether he was slagging us off as fickle (despite his Welsh grandmother Alice Griffin). But no. Back to Llanwrst. You say it Llan roost in English but that didn't stop an ITV news item having it described as Llanworst earlier this year. It's a small ex market town in a strongly Welsh speaking area just east of Snowdonia. It's tucked so deep into the valley it seems to be always in the shade.

Of course Welshness was big in the Tudor court and the language was not unknown in London. Many of the important influential families around in Shakespeare's time were Welsh. John Salusbury (son of two powerful Welsh Families and related to those Wynns by marriage) is a dedicatee in one of Shakespeare's books of verse.

In Shakespeare's writing there is definitely a sense of a wider world beyond Tudor England. There's the Mediterranean and (if I remember rightly) North Africa as well as Middle and Western Europe.
We can so often forget that there were massive trading links between London and Antwerp and Holland, as well as Constantinople, the Levant and China. And at the same time Spaniards were cutting a swathe through South America looking for gold and English migrants were sailing west to set up new Jerusalems in America.

All those merchants travelling for months and years all across the globe. Sometimes I think we forget how much travel went on between cities and cultures and people.

In fact, after  rift and war with Spain, trade with the Ottoman Empire boomed and London was awash with Turkey carpets and textiles, Moors and merchants from Africa and the Middle East. There were so many that Elizabeth the First said famously that there were 'Too many blacks in London'. Truly nothing changes. How do the Brexiters or anyone else for that matter think they can hold back a tide of people that began at least two thousand years ago with the Romans? Or as comedian Stewart Lee reminds us, those pesky Beaker people coming here with their pesky beakers another few thousand or more years earlier.

But back to Llanwrst.  The 'big family' of the town were the Wynns, they lived in 12th century Gwydyr Castle which is still there on the far side of the river Conwy from the town. I think I've written about their private chapel with the heavenly painted roof earlier, this time I am in the town church. It's dedicated to an obscure Welsh Saint called Grwst, an ascetic who lived in a cell here close to the river apparently.

The Wynns rode high with the ascension of Henry Tudor. They had this massive alabaster memorial made in 1559, to celebrate Meredudd ap Ifan, the first of the Wynns to settle in Llanwrst, also to Sir John Wynn and his wife Sidney. It was carved and painted in London.
The Wynne Memorial
It is so totally un Welsh and un chapel. Incredibly high church and blingy - even after five hundred the colours are a little garish for modern tastes. I cannot imagine the impact of this thing all those years ago in this grey rainy little town.

They might not have had theatre but this must have been the closest thing imaginable.


My last book, The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo is on the shortlist for the YA prize.


Sue Bursztynski said...

It was Henry IV part I that had the Welsh in it, Lady Mortimer. Actually, I vaguely recall the stage directions just say, "The lady speaks in Welsh". So maybe one of the actors in Shakespeare's company spoke it. ;-) The Welsh did nicely under Henry VII; I think a whole lot if Welsh came to London to work as civil servants of one kind or another, including the Seisylls(Cecil).

Catherine Johnson said...

Thanks for the correction Sue, yes in the production I saw last year RSC and still forgot the right number, they had her singing and speaking Welsh

Lydia Syson said...

Oh yes! I remember that... love all the different kinds of connections you make here. And look forward one day to seeking out that un-chapelly church.