Shockheaded, Stratford, Nottingham, A Poem

We walked into a large, red, dark and fairly antique theatre on Wednesday of last week not knowing exactly what to expect from a show called “Shockheaded Peter”. The play is based on a very old (written in the late 1800s), very twisted children’s book written by a German by the name of Heinrich Hoffmann and originally titled “Struwwelpeter.” Our professor had been reading us the stories (all written in rhyming couplets, translated to English of course) to us during class time to give us an idea of the oddity (and delight) that was to be “Shockheaded Peter.” The stories, to a great degree, are about young children who do things wrong (even after being told not to) and then die, in some horrible way or another, because of that mistake. It sounds pathologically psychotic, but you really must read it to appreciate it.

My seat was about 10 degrees beyond perpendicular and forced me to sit forward in a rather uncomfortable manner, bending my back a way it oughtn’t be bended; but I was ready, or so I thought, for what was about to assail me.

The guide, as I can only call him that, was dressed in an extravagantly over extravagant tuxedo with short trousers, a top-hat, and flaming bow-tie with his face painted white with black accentuations around his eyes, eyebrows, and lips. He had an air of melodrama that was both frightening and exceedingly funny all at the same time. When he first came on stage to introduce us to the collection of stories that were to be presented, he stood still and silent for about two minutes, glaring at the audience and whipping his head around to stare at whomsoever had the gall to laugh at him. He was aware of us…, which made it eerily interactive and real.

The rest of the play was a mixed bunch of hilarious melodrama, puppetry, singing, and acting and a sense of the surreal, scary, and twisted underpinnings of the stories it presented: A little boy whose mother warns him not to suck his thumbs because if he does, the Scissor Man will come and cut off his thumbs, which he does; a little girl who plays with matches and then is burned to a pile of smoking ashes; little bully boys who get their heads cut off by a man who warns them not to be bullies anymore; etc., etc.

Strange, funny, interesting, and disturbing – all at the same time. “Dark Comedy” I believe it’s called. Intriguing stuff. Rendered in a way that was really quite enjoyable.

If any of you have the opportunity to read the original (available in print from any online retailer) or take a look at the production’s website, appropriately enough, located at – I highly recommend it.

On to Stratford-upon-Avon. We went as a class to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the town, Anne Hathaway’s cottage (Shakespeare’s wife), and Shakespeare’s birthplace. There was a sort of anti-climactic feeling associated with walking through Shakespeare’s birthplace; it was just an old house. For some reason I suppose I thought that it might be inspiring in some way, to be so close to what was once (and remains to be) one of the single most literarily influential people in the Western World. But to be honest, it wasn’t inspiring in the least. I felt entirely removed and disassociated with the whole place. I couldn’t make the historical connection and realize that this was where he had been born and raised, educated, and alive. Not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I felt strangely let down; they had plastic candles, plastic bread, plastic fireplaces, plastic fruit, plastic meat, plastic (but made to look old) plates and pitchers and tableware. It was a rather carefully calibrated, obviously apparent ‘fake’ residence, and I couldn’t shake the feeling: William wasn’t here anymore, in any shape or form. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town after the designated tourist stops, shops, and props.

That evening we were scheduled to see Shakespeare’s historical play “King John” in Stratford at the Black Swan Theatre by the Royal Shakespearean Company. One word: exceptional. For something that I was quite convinced would put me to sleep (Shakespeare’s histories are notoriously devoid of comic relief and fairly dry in contrast to his comedies and tragedies, not to mention the fact that this was one of his earlier plays), it kept me not only awake, but riveted by the sheer brilliance of acting and mastery of the Shakespearean tongue. King John also had a captivating, slightly Scottish (with a twinge of Sean Connery style pronunciations), and a raspy voice (which I think was quite real, he tried clearing his through several times throughout the play at strategic, non-descript intervals), which gave his character a very real, very intriguing quality.

The next day Christy Ferlatte, Tina Faris, Emma Jessee, and I boarded the train to Nottingham to spend a few days in Robin Hood country. We arrived at the train station in Nottingham a little before noon and immediately set out to check into the Gresham Hotel. The rooms were small, and the walls paper thin, but it was also cheap and clean, and that’s all we really cared about.

After checking in, we wandered around town (a common strategy among our travels, I am beginning to realize) to see what we could see of the local claims to fame. We went to Nottingham Castle (or, rather, where it used to be, before the Parliamentarians tore it down after the English Civil war in the 1500s) and took a tour of the underground caves below the foundation of the old castle. The castle was built on an old sandstone hill, which made it exceedingly easy to carve up (hence all of the tunnels and caves).

That night we booked a table at the “Evil Sheriff of Nottingham’s” to take part in a medieval feast. We all rented costumes (I was a monk) and had a great time. The meal consisted of 5 courses: the first ‘remove’ as they called it, was a hearty vegetable soup and bread, served in earthenware bowls without spoons (guess how you had to eat it?); the second ‘remove’ was meatballs (large and quite delicious); the third ‘remove’ was celery, tomatoes, lettuce, and such; the fourth ‘remove’ was a whole chicken per person (a bit small as chickens go, more like a big pigeon, but quite good indeed); and the fifth ‘remove’ was crackers and cheese. Served within, without, and throughout the meal was all you could drink lager, beer, cider, and lemonade.

Throughout the meal we were entertained by the Evil Sheriff, Robin Hood, and Sir Guy of Gisborne who ate and breathed fire, performed magic tricks, comedy, music, glass walking, and other various acts that were really quite enjoyable. At our table was Nottingham’s local UPS department enjoying a night out on the town. They were an enjoyable bunch of people – Paul Sumner (a.k.a. “Elvis”) sat next to me and we sang songs when we shouldn’t have and banged our earthenware mugs on the table from time to time, emphasizing an irrelevant point or two; perhaps three or four.

The next day we walked around Nottingham some more, taking in what sights and Robin Hood attractions we could before returning on the afternoon train to London.

I’ll leave you all with the completed version of the poem I was telling you about in the last e-mail. Enjoy.

*On the Northern Shore of Windermere*
Look soft into the sun-stained wake of dawn
And see that silence hold, and break, and die –
Now breathe and hold that breath until it’s gone
And let the moment grow to occupy
One measure more; the dying note allows
The wind to wake and stir the sleeping sky
And move in time the boldly drowsing boughs
That fall between the clouds, the trees, and I.
The leaves like life and light bend and decay –
The view beyond between them dances through,
I cannot leave just yet, but cannot stay,
(With living landscapes sharp in morning dew).
The world within these sights and sounds of dawn
Exists inside a moment, and is gone.

Completed 27 March 2001 by Tyler Smith