A few years ago (although not as many as all that!) The Stratford Poetry Festival staged poetry readings by the best actors in the land, for a succession of Sunday evenings, running from July to Setember with associated activities here and there in the town.
They were wonderful days. I remember Edward Fox reading the whole of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” on a rose-filled summer evening at The Shakespeare Institute, where another festival visitor was Laurie Lee.
Edith Evans came and filled us with amazement, Harold Pinter read with a slightly truculent edge, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Richard Pasco (surely two of the most beautiful voices in the kingdom) returned on many occasions, along with Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, Judy Dench and Jeffery Dench, David Suchet and many more. Tickets were scarce and the venues were always crammed.
Nowadays there is a parsimonious feel to the festival, although there is a hungry market out there for the grander sort of evening.
To quote Milton: “...the sheep look up and are not fed...”
In a word, since Dr. Roger Pringle’s retirement as Festival director, the great days, you might say, are over or at least in decline.
This year’s programme includes more folksy delights, such as “Poetry Antipasti” – an opportunity to read your own or favourite poems at Cafe Pasta” in Sheep Street. In my experience it’s the kind of thing that is a hit or miss affair. Although in all fairness, there is likely to be a certain richness when Jane Lapotaire and Jack Mapanje read Poetry For Amnesty on July 29.
The audience for Roger Pringle’s delightful “Play Up! And Play the Game!” was much smaller than evenings in the past, but appreciation was high and the selection of poets set just the right tone for Olympics year.
The readers were Desmond Barrit and Clive Francis and really one could not have wished for better interpreters of poets as various as John Betjeman, Isaac Walton, Philip Larkin and many more.
I think many people will carry a memory away with them of Clive Francis’s wonderful interpretation of Ted Hughes’ “The Stag” with its tragic overtones, and Desmond Barrit, a Welshman, took the house into indulgent laughter with “The Pwll Massacre” which he was able to pronounce. with succulent relish.
Nothing here was over-familiar, but much was up-lifting and some pieces were occasionally intriguing, especially Sheenagh Pugh’s amusing concept which concerned the young Mozart busily punctuating a fine game of billiards (while scribbling musical masterpieces) with noisy bouts of flatulence.