Ipswich: Peasant poet John Clare comes to life at Sir John Mills Theatre

Richard Sandells comes face to face with John Clare

Richard Sandells comes face to face with John Clare - Credit: Archant

“I always swore I would never do a show about John Clare, if only because he was the one person everyone assumes a rural touring company’s going to do a play about at some point,” says Eastern Angles’ artistic director Ivan Cutting.

The Long Life And Great Good Fortune Of John Clare by Eastern Angles, starring Louise Mai Newberry,

The Long Life And Great Good Fortune Of John Clare by Eastern Angles, starring Louise Mai Newberry, Henry Devas and Richard Sandells. Picture: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

“One was always taken by these stories of how he was the example of the terrible nightmare of the enclosures, the poor downtrodden poet, this symbol of the poor countryman... it’s not that I didn’t agree with that, it was just there was no mileage. It’s a bit like we’ve never done a play about the witches because I think ‘well, The Crucible’s already been there and done that’.”

Tony Ramsay’s The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare, however, comes at his life from a completely different angle.

It tells the story of a modern day man who believes he is the peasant poet, born just outside Peterborough in 1793. The psychiatrist tries to fathom the reasons behind his delusion but her partner is fixated on his own version of the legend. In their search for the truth, the characters reveal some startling stories.

“He also thinks he’s Neil Diamond at times as well, because of the Diamond song I Am Who I Am and there’s a famous Clare poem called I Am. It’s that kind of confusion that operates in his brain and he has a past as well.

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“In trying to solve that past we’re also doubling the story of Clare himself. It’s a very poignant story and nothing like what I imagined a Clare play would be like.”

Tony had always wanted to do a play about the poet; passionate about the fact everyone says he was a poor, downtrodden so and so when he was actually well looked after and lived until he was 70.

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“Everybody says this was terrible, he was in an asylum but he had the time of his life. He could walk out any time, down to the porch of the big church in Northampton... he’d sit there, people would come up and he’d write poems for them. The other asylum he was in was very advanced, liberal, for its age,” says Ivan, who is directing.

“He had patrons who looked after him, was published... There’s also this notion because of the enclosures he was moved from his original cottage and was thrown by all this, quite alienated by this new landscape. Actually it was about 200 yards down the road.”

Called the new Keats, the new Burns, there was a lot of pressure on Clare to be what others wanted him to be. He didn’t always live up to that or even want to.

Remembered as a womaniser, walker, visionary, lunatic; Tony wanted to rescue Clare from his life story.

“There’s a bit of myth involved but he did have a troubled time, he was ill and certainly had his erratic moments,” says Ivan as we discuss the poet’s famous verbal assault of Shylock during a production of The Merchant of Venice.

“People talk about what a hard time he had, they don’t talk about him as a poet. What we wanted to get back to is the fact he was a wonderful poet.”

The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare is touring the region until May 18. It’s at Ipswich’s Sir John Mills Theatre to April 6.

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