Being from London, (where the temperature varies but a very few miserable degrees in late January) I am unable to help myself referring avidly and endlessly to the weather conditions in this mighty country, the latest excitement being the warm balmy air that greeted us in Houston. More British murmurs of delighted approval and a joyous scrunching up of gloves and kicking off of snow boots at the airport. Wow – at 73 degrees it’s HOT! An extremely respectable height-of-summer’s day for us – Roll on Texas.
And our second insight into a stretch of American countryside along the journey to College Station. Our first was the drive from South Bend to Chicago’s airport, but there was thick fog, though I spotted a deer in a field as the snow cover subsided. We’re still very excited when we catch sight of an old wooden house and porch. We have no such thing in England where it’s mostly bricks and being still relatively new to the US these houses strike us with the utmost charm whenever we spy them through the great strips of malls and billboards.
Texas on a sunny day, the rolling stretches of grassland were a revelation. I think I’d anticipated oil fields back to back.
It has taken us a little time to surrender our natural British bent to walk down the street by way of exploring a place. Our eyes comb the freeways for what we call ‘pavements’ but you call sidewalks. There just ain’t none, this neck of the woods and we’re beginning to appreciate that what you do is you get in your large car and you float along the straight roads and float off them again when you reach your particular destination. What you cannot do is stop and ‘nip’ out to investigate on a whim.
We’ve hit the classrooms. The students are all very friendly and willing and some very capable indeed. A young lad called Caesar comes immediately to mind. A Science student, he shyly took the floor as Polonius to interrogate Ophelia and turns out, unassuming and polite though he was, he simply couldn’t hide the fact that he had the voice of a Roman emperor, resounded like a great bell, really terrific.
We’ve served up a few sessions on ‘ To Be Or Not to Be’, exploring the rhythm of the verse and pushing through the whole of the speech – hopefully – giving the students some kind of insight into the twists and turns of Hamlet’s thought processes. Get up on your feet and change direction at each new thought – the mind has mountains! A big challenge was what on earth to do with 135 students all stuck on chairs behind rows of desks in a large lecture hall. Mercifully, the hall had two levels and we were able to convince ourselves – loosely and via an urgent plea to 135 imaginations – that this could constitute the battlements of Elsinore’s precipitous castle. We had one brave volunteer, right up the back at the top, cry out the first line of the play, ” Who’s there?” and, some way off and below, a brave colleague cry back, ” Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself!”. Throw in a stormy soundscape created by several creaking desks, hums, hollers, bird screeches and whatnot and we had the makings of a far grander production than our own 5-man version!
A class tomorrow with some students who’ve studied the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia’s ‘romantic’ death. I shall certainly mention that the poor model who sat for the most famous of all by Millais perished in real life from so many hours in a cold bath. The image of the girl floating rather beautifully downstream with her fingers clutching soaked flowers has its one and entire Hamlet reference in Gertrude’s speech, “There is a willow grows aslant a brook”. Only 17 and a half lines of verse have given way to a cult of romantic images. Did Gertrude paint a beautiful lie? Surely if she’d really caught Ophelia at it and seen the branch crack she’d have waded in pronto to give the poor girl a hand?
We made the welcome discovery of downtown Bryan today. A delicious lunch, too and an hour’s interlude in which we forgot about Hamlet and came across the heart of the old town with its very pretty high street lined with old buildings including the Carnegie Library, red brick and white pillars and another red-brick, gracious warehouse building labelled ‘Corn Exchange’. Lunch was homemade and inside the old market hall; we even heard the melancholy moan of a train passing through as it would have done when this place was simply a pit stop between Houston and Dallas.
We open tomorrow. Lord knows what Texas’s A&M students will make of Hamlet. It’s been a long journey to our first audience and probably for many of them an extremely unlikely way of spending a Friday evening. We shall all have to be set our chins to the wind and hope for the best! – Shuna Snow
Editor: Tickets for this week’s performances at Texas A & M may be purchased here.