Shakespeare clown dances to his own tune at Bury Festival
- Credit: Patrick Baldwin
Dancing his way into Bury St Edmunds 414 years after he last performed in the town will be Shakespeare’s leading clown Will Kemp – or at least his modern counterpart Steven Player.
Steven will be seeking to recreate Kemp’s amazing jig from London to Norwich, his Nine Daies Wonder, which he performed in the spring of 1600 and was described as a mixture of “indecorous humour, refined music and extrovert dancing”.
His journey took him through Bury St Edmunds, as will the recreation, and will form part of this year’s Bury Festival.
Steven will be accompanied by project creator Clare Salaman who will be bringing along The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments to provide some authentic musical atmosphere for the occasion.
Not only will the music be drawn from the right time but the pieces will be played on some very strange looking Elizabethan instruments which have been lovingly recreated from plans and drawings by modern craftspeople and instrument-makers.
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Talking to Clare, it is clear she is a real enthusiast and delights in the opportunity not only to recreate Kemp’s glorious piece of self-publicity but also to introduce audiences to a fascinating array of odd-looking instruments and sounds which have now faded from the musical world.
She said that it will be clear that many instruments have evolved to become familiar modern-day instruments like violins, cellos and acoustic guitars while others have sadly faded out of existence taking their distinctive sounds with them.
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She said that although the instruments are necessarily modern re-creations a lot of research has gone into their construction to make the resulting sounds as close to the originals as it is possible to get.
“Although there is some guess- work and educated speculation we have got a lot of written information, drawings and sheet music from which to work.”
This latest version of Kemp’s Nine Daies Wonder is a collaboration between Clare and comedy writer and actor Simon Paisley Day who has come up with a short play to frame and support the music and the dancing and to explain to audiences just who Will Kemp was and why he set off on this epic dance.
“I’ve been fascinated by Will Kemp for a while now. He’s a curious character. He was a huge star of his day and a shameless self-publicist.
“I was arranging a tune called Kemp’s Jig for another event I was doing and was intrigued by him and so I started doing some research into his life. And the more I read, the more fascinated I became – particularly when I discovered that he undertook this amazing journey in very mysterious circumstances.
“Then it struck me that it had some very modern resonances with the celebrity publicity stunt – this desperate need to keep themselves in the public eye.”
She said that, as with many modern publicity stunts, there was also controversy surrounding Kemp’s spectacular jig through East Anglia. There were some contemporary commentators who claimed in pamphlets and news-sheets that Kemp had cheated and had hitched rides on passing wagons – something that Kemp vigorously denied.
Equally fascinating, to Clare, are the circumstances that prompted the dance marathon in the first place.
“No-one really knows what prompted the jig – which gives us a bit of licence in the storytelling – but what we do know was that Will Kemp left Shakespeare’s band of players The Chamberlain’s Men very suddenly in early 1600.
“He was one of Shakespeare’s favourite players and a favourite of the crowds. He was an Elizabethan star and was known across the country in an age before mass communication which is quite a feat.
“We know that Shakespeare wrote specifically for him, created roles for him and he was such a valued member of the company that he was only one of five actor-shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men alongside Shakespeare and founder Richard Burbage.
“Although he was clearly still with the company when plans were set in motion to build the new Globe theatre on the Southbank there had been a dramatic rift by the time it opened and he never played there.”
She added that there are indications that the parting was in some way acrimonious because Shakespeare directs some possible barbed comments in Kemp’s direction in some of his first plays staged at The Globe.
In Hamlet, the Danish prince makes a disparaging remark about “improvisational clowning” and in Henry V, an off-stage death makes it clear there is no longer any room for Kemp’s Falstaff at Hal’s court.
Clare again sees links between Kemp’s situation and modern showbusiness. “In many ways it’s a bit like a member of a famous boy band leaving to start a solo career. They have got to carve out a name for themselves and keep themselves in the public eye.
“It’s a bit like Robbie Williams leaving Take That. Having been part of an ensemble, suddenly you have got to stand on your own two feet. You have got to say. ‘I’m still the lovable entertainer you know but now I am performing as myself’.
“This was very much the situation that Will Kemp was in and the Nine Daies Wonder was his attempt to go out and remind his public of what he could do. He was a shameless self-publicist, so would have loved every minute of the adoration he received.”
There are tales of crowds lining the route as he made his way out of London and jigged his way across Essex, into the market towns of Suffolk and up into the wilds of Norfolk.
His celebrity was such that he was able to seek a bed for the night from local landowners and there are reports that he was wined and dined by the local aristocracy looking to bask in some of his reflected glory.
Clare said the show has been developed during a residency at Aldeburgh Music where they experimented with the format of the show and rehearsed the music in the Benjamin Britten studio.
She said they used some of Kemp’s own humorous account of the jig to shape the show. “It was clear that he was hugely egotistical and was outraged that he had been accused of cheating, so that gave us a character and the nine days was a wonderful structure. I then set about finding some music that would echo the events that unfold on his nine-day journey.
“Because the jig involved him meeting people from right across Elizabethan society, in a wide range of settings, it gave me the opportunity to draw on a wide range of music.
“Usually if you attend an early music concert, then the evening concentrates on a limited repertoire which reflects the work of a particular composer or illustrates a theme. This gives me a wonderful opportunity to paint a bigger picture and try to capture the full scope of Elizabethan England in all its diversity.”
She said that modern music and theatre is starting to shake-off its Victorian strait-jacket and is looking to include different art forms as part of the evening’s entertainment.
“I think that both classical concerts and traditional theatre have been very much shaped by the Victorians. You sit and a piece is performed for you. If it’s a play then actors recite lines on stage and if it’s a concert then works are performed by an orchestra.
“But I think that we are slowly moving back to an Elizabethan or at least pre-Victorian era where you had a band of players and theatre, music and dance were all part and parcel of the evening’s entertainment – that all these art forms combined to tell the story.
“I very much think it was the Victorians that introduced this strict segregation between serious art and popular entertainment whereas before it was all part and parcel of the same experience.”
She said that it was a thrill to re-imagine Kemp’s journey up to Norwich, working with dancer Steven Player and Simon Paisley Day allowed music, drama and dance to combine and produce an integrated evening’s entertainment – where all three elements worked together to produce the finished piece.
“Not only do we have Steven and Simon providing the dance and drama, the music provided by The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments is played by some of the finest multi-instrumentalists around and we expect the result to be a real one off.
“What we said a lot when we were developing the show at Snape was that we wanted to capture the spirit of Kemp’s journey and embrace the rowdiness of Elizabethan society when it came to these things. It’s about having a good time. It was as if the country’s court jester had come to town and everyone had a day’s holiday.”
The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments was founded by Clare Salaman in 2010 to explore a diverse musical repertoire that ranges from folk songs and earthy dances to high art music which was created at any time between the 13th-18th Centuries. She also produces newly-composed pieces which reflect earlier styles.
The society takes its inspiration from a group of musicians called La Société des Instruments Anciens who gave a series of performances of “easy listening” baroque music in Paris in the early 1900s.
At the time, their instruments – hurdy gurdy, viola d’amore, viola da gamba and harpsichord – were considered wildly exotic, and audiences were enthralled by the group’s innovative presentation.
The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments’ repertoire extends beyond that of the Société to include Medieval, Renaissance and new music, but the aim is still to enchant listeners with the unexpected sounds and sights of their instruments which rejoice in such weird and wonderful names as the nyckelharpa, Hardanger fiddle, lyra d’amore, curtals, dulcian along with rackets, pipes and a battery of percussion.
The end of Kemp’s story is also a mystery. After the publication of his story of the Nine Daies Wonder, he disappears. There are tales that he repeated and expanded his epic dancing journey by dancing his away across Europe to Rome but there is no confirmation that this was achieved.
He reportedly died in Southwark in 1603. His last sad appearance occurs in late 1602 when theatre owner Philip Henslowe mentions in his diary that he had loaned Kemp some money. Hopefully the joyful Will Kemp will be resurrected for the Bury Festival.
Nine Daies Wonder will be performed at the Athenaeum, Bury St Edmunds, on May 21 at 7.30pm.