DANCING UP A STORM ON THE OLD NORWICH ROAD
In a brief opening, Shakespeare quarrels with his favourite clown Will Kemp: creator of Faltaff, Feste and the rest. He resents the ad-libbing. “Let those that play clowns speak no more than is set down for them!”. Will walks out (which possibly explains why Falstaff doesn’t turn up again in Henry V, and is reported as dying demented, babbling of green fields.)
The real Will, as a publicity stunt, announces that he will dance from London to Norwich. So he did, in 1600, and wrote an account of his encounters with assorted wenches, landlords, cutpurses and competitive marathon-dancers, all of whom he naturally out-jigged.
This riotous, tuneful little show celebrates that journey in counterpoint to the more solemn quatercentenary celebrations. The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, directed by Clare Salaman, has put together a vaudeville narrative of jokes, dances and music – much of it from a contemporary Virginal Book – with songs both bawdy and melancholy.
One minute Kemp is having a furious dance-off with a local, clapping on an donkey’s head or doing one of those virtuoso clomping-clogging-leaping solo jigs which turn the dancer into a percussion instrument. The next there might be a heartbreakingly solemn rendering of “The silver swan” or a love-duet. There are bawdy songs and sweet ones, crude jokes and subtle. And all the while Salaman and her ensemble are insouciantly picking up or changing instruments: a pear-shaped banjo thing, a skinny violin with a keyboard stuck on (the HardangerFiddle, I think), a hurdy-gurdy with its friendly wind-up buzzing busyness, tabor, drum, fife, dulcian, nyckelharpa, violone, cornett…
Kemp is Steven Player, a remarkable dancer but also an actor blessed with a proper comic’s features: wry but benign, heavy-browed, with a quick impatient self-mocking cleverness. He puts on a stunning show from start to finish, a marathon of virtuoso hoofing. Jeremy Avis sings the solos with a light happy versatile tenor but is – like several other musicians – startlingly willing to join dances, or indeed fights, when required. It roars along: I saw it in Snape, where it was born in the Britten studio under the wing of Aldeburgh Music, and the audience appreciated the familiar place-names as Kemp danced through Ingatestone, Braintree, Sudbury, Bury St Edmunds. On this occasion Simon Paisley Day joined in with extra jokes and moments and a curious modern rhyming coda. But even without him (he’s still in Urinetown!) it makes a fascinating show. And reminds us how much of our comic taste, and how many dance types from tap to street, are echoes of past centuries.
The Strange and Ancient ones head off now for one-night gigs till November, and it’s worth trying to catch them. You won’t find anything else quite like it. And at Snape they gave cheap tickets to anyone turning up in a Morris-dancing outfit. Might not happen everywhere – but you never know..
http://www.strangeandancientinstruments.com performances to 7 Nov
Next up, Nottingham Lakeside Arts Centre on 24th!
(FOR MR PLAYER)