Aubrey's tale of dalliance and deceit

Brief Lives: the writings of John Aubrey by Roy Dotrice at the Colchester Mercury until February 16.This will come as a shock to anybody who still thinks sex started in the Sixties because according to Aubrey practically everybody was at it like billy-oh in the 17th century.

David Henshall

Brief Lives: the writings of John Aubrey by Roy Dotrice at the Colchester Mercury until February 16.

This will come as a shock to anybody who still thinks sex started in the Sixties because according to Aubrey practically everybody was at it like billy-oh in the 17th century. This show has become Roy Dotrice's piece de resistance.

It brought him international fame and awards 40 years ago and now, with a new lease of life and more or less unaltered, he is seeking a new audience for it. However you look at it, this is something of a virtuoso performance because Dotrice is 84, on stage the whole time - including a quiet snooze throughout the interval - and delivers his stuff with delicious word-perfect sly humour.


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Adapted and directed by Patrick Garland from Aubrey's Miscellanies published in 1695, this is no ordinary solo play with one man, a comfy chair and a couple of props. Dotrice takes us right into the antiquarian writer's rather grubby, untidy London room with its draped four-poster bed, solid old chairs, a library of books and tables cluttered with the essentials of the old man's life.

There's an open fire from which he lights his candles and on which he boils his milk. There's stick he uses to beat on the wall when the baby next door starts to cry and there's a plate of fish so high that even the cat won't eat it. There is also a po under the bed and in keeping with the style of the stories he is telling, he uses it and throws the contents out of the window into the street. However, he does take the trouble to check there is nobody underneath!

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Aubrey dabbles in maths, astronomy and natural history but gossip is his big passion. 'I'm setting down the naked truth,' he tells us. 'Right down to the pudendum.' And he regales us with very amusing title-tattle about one person after another, some famous, many we have never heard of but that doesn't matter - it's how he tells 'em that counts.

Sir Walter Raleigh (pronounced Rawley) impregnated one of the ladies of the court up against a tree and when finally executed - though not for that - as the man who introduced the weed to this country he asked to have a pipe of tobacco to steady his nerves before the axe fell.

We hear his ideas on education including the thought that boys should be taught to swim and to wash occasionally and we get some bloodthirsty yarns of how medicine was applied in those days. One chap was cured by being thrown into the Thames.

And the Civil War ended all the good stories about fairies and ghosts, he tells us. 'Nothing disperses fairies and ghosts like gunpowder.' The lovely tall tales come trotting out with hardly a break in an evening of unusual, highly recommended fun.

David Henshall

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