Shakespeare up close

One recent afternoon, I took the opportunity to visit the newly reconstructed Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as to watch a performance of King Lear. Since my last visit in the mid-1990s, the Cotswolds town where William Shakespeare was born and is buried has come more than ever to have the feel of a theme park, with local hotels and restaurants offering "Hamlet" brunches and "Cleopatra" lunch specials -- or so it can seem at times.

The new theatre complex has been built so as to attract even those who have no interest in seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, at work. There are new restaurants and riverside cafés, exhibition and gallery spaces and a 36-metre-high tower -- "That Tower", as some locals call it -- which allows for fine views over the surrounding countryside and delighted my young son. The red-brick and glass interiors are attractive, though some friends who live close to the town and know the theatre well are unhappy about the way the old and new structures have been remodelled to create a hybrid of architectural styles. I listened to their objections but could not agree.

The Elisabeth Scott-designed Royal Shakespeare Theatre was opened in 1932, replacing the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1879. To watch a play in that space was not unlike going to the cinema to watch a film: the audience was lined up in neat rows, impassively facing the action on the main stage. The reconstructed theatre isn't at all like that.

A thrust stage extends deep and directly into the audience. The intention, even in a theatre with more than 1,000 seats, is to create a sense of greater intimacy, of confrontation and interaction between the watched and the watchers.

I had an excellent seat in the stalls and relished the experience of closely observing the strain and concentration on the faces of the players. Lear is such a visceral play, and this latest production was thick with blood and water and perspiration. I left the auditorium at the end of a long evening, exhausted yet thrilled by the spectacle and the grandeur of the setting.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times