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Posts Tagged ‘watermen’

alison balsomThe Globe Theatre, Sam Wanamaker‘s magnificent replica Elizabethan theatre on Bankside. I last attended a production here in 2005. The reason I remember this is because – just as now – the Ashes were on and I recall during the interval having to catch up on the score from Old Trafford.

Yesterday evening we were transported not backwards in time from Shakespeare’s London, but forward to the London of the 1690s, during the reign of William and Mary: Wren’s London, a London fizzing with  religious tension, the Catholic James II only recently having been shown the exit. The streets, houses, palaces and the Thames, of course, are the scenes for a brand new production by Samuel Adamson: Gabriel.

Gabriel is a large ensemble musical play. It is a play rather than a musical, really, because although there are songs, they are relatively few. It is, nonetheless, a play about music: Purcell’s music; baroque music; specifically music for trumpet. Along with the violin players, cellists, woodwind tooters and kettle drummer, the cast includes at least four trumpets, led by virtuosa Alison Balsom.

Early on, two of the comic characters – a fictitious, sickly Royal prince and an alcoholic trumpeter – assert that the trumpet can only be used for rousing, martial-like music. From here the production comprises a series of scenes and stories which serve to disprove this clearly simple-headed thesis, through the music of Purcell. These pieces are in turn rousing, sad, funny, tragic, bawdy. All are wonderfully done. The writing, acting, music and performing are all rock-solid and delivered with great confidence and panache, a wonderful achievement for the opening weekend. A special mention must be made for the costumes and, in particular, wigs. Fantastically over the top, yet realistic for the time. The leading ladies’ frocks are particularly stunning.

There is good swearing, boasting, joshing and violence from our friends, the Watermen who live up to their historic stereotype. There is some near total nudity (socks), unfortunately only male. A trumpet comes in handy in these circumstances. Another scene features a wonderfully written and delivered diatribe against lovers of the English Opera amid much farting (delivered, of course, via trumpet special FX) and giggling.

Just wonderful. Congratulations to all concerned.

More about the play, including interviews etc, and booking, here.

Gabriel runs until 18 August.
Until the 20 July, London Historians members can book tickets for just £10, saving up to £29, an astounding discount. If you’re a Member reading this, email admin@londonhistorians.org for the promotion code. And if you’re not? Go anyway, or join us in the tent.

globe theatre

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Today I spent a pleasant hour or so loafing by the Thames with a pair of fine gentlemen, Mr Woolf and Mr Shepherd.

We were there to witness the start of this year’s Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race at London Bridge, the oldest continuous sporting event in the world. Five recently-qualified young watermen (there can be up to six) row as fast as they can to Chelsea. The winner is awarded a fine scarlet coat and a silver badge. The race dates from 1715 and originally celebrated the accession the Hanoverian dynasty. It was sponsored by the Irish theatre impressario Thomas Doggett, an ardent Whig. Doggett was keen on watermen, for they who would frequently carry him from central London to his home in Chelsea, what became almost the exact route of the race. Or vice-versa, of course.

Update 15/7/2014: Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race now has its own website.

dogett's coat and badge

In those days there was no way of traversing the river upstream of London Bridge until you reached Kingston Bridge, except by boat. London Bridge itself was a difficult enough crossing anyway, clogged up as it was by houses and shops. So watermen provided a vital service to Londoners – they were the black cab equivalent of their day, as garrulous and opinionated as today’s cabbies apparently are. There were around 2,500 of them in the early 18th Century.

While wandering the dusty far corridors of the web, I found a rather nice piece of verse celebrating the Thames. It’s by the 17 century waterman John Taylor, who called himself the Water Poet. It’s an extract from an enormous piece called In Praise of Hemp-Seed , published in 1630, but probably penned a little earlier. Taylor first compares the river favourably with any in the world, he then describes the bounty it bestows and finally laments how we neglectful Londoners pay it back with shit and ordure. One can only wonder what our 17C environmentalist would have made of it two hundred years later. Anyway, it goes like this.

The names of the most famous riuers in the world.

Maze, Rubicon, Elue, Volga, Ems, Scamander,
Loyre, Moldoue, Tyber, Albia, Seyne, Meander,
Hidaspes, Indus, Inachus, Tanaies,
(Our Thames true praise is farre beyond their praise)
Great Euphrates, Iordane, Nilus, Ganges, Poe,
Tagus and Tygris, Thames doth farre out-goe.
Danubia, Ister, Xanthus, Lisus, Rhrine,
Wey, Seuerne, Auon, Medway, Isis, Tine,
Dee, Ouze, Trent, Humber, Eske, Tweed, Annan, Tay,
Firth (that braue Demy-ocean) Clide, Dun, Spay,
All these are great in fames, and great in names,

But great’st in goodnesse is the riuer Thames,
From whose Diurnall and Nocturnall flood
Millions of soules haue fewell cloathes and food ;
Which from twelue houres to twelue doth still succeed,
Hundreds, & thousands both to cloath & feed,
Of watermen, their seruants, children, wiues,
It doth maintaine neere twenty thousand liues.
I can as quickly number all the starres,
As reckon all things in particulars :

Which by the bounty of th’All-giuing giuer
Proceeds from this most matchlesse, famous Riuer.
And therefore ’tis great pitty, shelfe or sand
From the forgetfull and ingratefull land,
Should it’s cleare chrystall entrailes vilefy,
Or soyle such purenesse with impurity.
What doth it doe, but serues our full contents,
Brings food, and for it takes our excrements,
Yeelds vs all plenty, worthy of regard
And dirt and mucke we giue it for reward ?

You can sift through the whole hemp-seed poem  here.

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