William Shakespeare came to Drew Model School, an alternative elementary school in Arlington, last Friday. The 418-year-old bard, portrayed by Ian Suddares of the British American Repertory Company, told the kids he didn't believe he was there--"The last thing I knew, I was sleeping in my own bed. I believe I am still there, dreaming about all this."
The shortest actor, playwright and poet, wearing a felt doublet and britches, a velvet cloak, smiling eyes and an artifically balding head, answered about a zillion questions from the curious youngsters. Except one.
"How come you shave your head?" a child yells out.
"Pardon me? I don't understand the question," stalls Shakespeare. "Are there any more questions?"
Well, yes, there are quite a few, chiefly concerning the unpleasant description he gave them of schooling in his day. "What did they beat you with?" they want to know. "When did they beat you?" "What if you played hooky?"
"Let's see--hooky," Shakespeare translates. "That means not going to school, right?" The actor has been told always to stay in character, a pose which calls for much translation. "Well," he says with a certain gleam, "you would be beaten."
The bard, in town for the opening of the Folger exhibit at the Kennedy Center came to Drew through arrangement with one of the parents--Natalie Ganly, an editor for Design Magazine who has written about Shakespeare's first American tour. At the school, he started with a short presentation to the assembled children, including a fast run of Romeo and Juliet. "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" says the falsetto voice beneath the velvet hood. Great titters.
Explaining the play's ball with its sumptuous feast, the playwright told the children that "In my day, all we had to drink was beer and ale. We didn't have any of your Coca-Cola, is that what you call it?--or tea, or coffee, and if you drank the water, you would get sick. So everyone drank beer and ale, when they woke up, for lunch, for dinner. So you see, most people in my day were drunk all the time. That's why we all sang so often, and were always drawing swords on each other."
After another bout of questions, the bard retired briefly from the fray of children to a cup of coffee and a cigarette, ignoring signals from his agent, Sondra Ross of Artists-in-Residency Fun, Inc., an Ohio firm to stay in character. New to the reperatory company, the actor says he got the part after someone there had seen him "doing a one-man show at Windsor Castle last summer on life in the 16th century."
Suddares spent five weeks doing "reading research" looking into Elizabethean politics, everyday life, that sort of thing," and then studied under Anthony Matthewson, a London actor accomplished in the art of one-man shows, for three weeks.
Together, they created his accent--"mostly Back Country, an old accent from around Straford-on-Avon, which has remained unchanged for a very long time, blended in with a little Worcestershire sauce." The result is a sort of subdued cockney that stays with him, even between sips of coffee.
"Do you talk like this for real?" asked a small boy in a back row. "Do you talk like that for real?" Shakespeare retorts.
"Yes, but can you talk different--can you do other, umm, voices?" a girl prods.
"To a certain extent," concedes the bard. "After all, I am an actor."
The actor was let off by Drew's principal Ray O'Neal, to visit the school's three combination classes and Montessori group. There, he passed around his lute (Suddares is an accomplished player--a major factor in his being hired, they say.) His rapier (a thin sword) and his dagger (a kind of junior rapier)--the last two objects of considerable interest.
In between all this touching came a number of pointed questions. "Why do you wear such funny clothes?" a girl wants to know. "Did they take baths in your day?" asks a boy. Not often, it turns out--they considered frequent bathing bad for one's health.
"So how many baths did you take?" comes the question. And a smiling and remarkably fresh-smelling Shakespeare replies, "Three or four times a year."