I’ve been on a world tour where I met a camel call Will (OK he wasn’t actually called Will but it suited him and I couldn’t pronounce his real name) and battled a whole fleet of dragons. Mostly metaphorical, but still dragons. And my real friend and colleague Will Shakespeare traveled all the way with me, and made many new friends in the process.
It all started with a Long-Expected Journey
Like Bilbo Baggins, I was plucked from my comfortable domestic routine and flung willy-nilly into An Adventure. I flew off to Abu Dhabi, Thailand and Java to teach Shakespeare classes to pupils and teachers in the international schools. Literally uncharted territory for me, in more than one way. The places I’m going might as well have had ‘Here Be Dragons’ written on them for all I know about them. And I’m going alone, with only Will for moral support. And yes, I was very afraid of the uncharted territories. Unlike Will, who’s at home wherever he finds himself, as the consummate student of human nature that he is. It was up to him to hold my hand in my brave new worlds. Actually, ‘new’, yes; ‘brave’ was yet to be seen.
Stage 1: Abu Dhabi (Here Be Cats And Camels)
Abu Dhabi was fog bound when we arrived, so we circled long enough to see the sun rise above the fog blanket. Very stunning, but I hate circling! Stepping out of the airport, I could hardly see past the first palm tree in any direction and the air smelt of the sea, which puzzled me. I’d only got about two hours nap on the flight, and dozed off in the car into the city. Not at my sharpest.
I was hosted by a lovely family living in the Baynunah Tower by the beach, with expansive views over the Gulf and the city. Sparking water, sweeping great boulevards, soaring buildings shooting up in all directions, domes and minarets against the sky… Plus they have an adorable fluffy Persian cat. Will and I are doing well so far. I paddled in the Gulf, collected shells in the sand, and met a camel, so definitely a win. And everyone was so nice! For a cynical, suspicious Londoner that was quite the culture. If you leave a car with engine running to go into a shop, nobody steals it! And there are cats everywhere, mostly living wild but all fed by locals. I have to love a country like this!
I taught in three schools in Abu Dhabi, being driven around the city in enormous cars, meeting a succession of terrific kids and staff on some gleaming campuses. Abu Dhabi is an exploding city of towering buildings and wide roads, with more development shooting up all around in every direction. And everything is huge. Not as huge as in Dubai, so I’m told, but big enough for me. Everything is new and purpose built. One school is building a huge full scale theatre on site. A real theatre! I feel, despite crippling jet lag, that I hit a good stride with the classes there. All feedback has been enthusiastic and positive, with much talk of ‘next year’ and ‘this has been very useful’ from the teachers. Which is very nice. Nice feedback from the kids too. Lots of enthusiasm, several ‘you’ve inspired us’, a little ‘how did you become an actor’, two who want to be writers, and one who wanted to know what getting a tattoo was like (in cropped linen trousers and sandals, the hummingbird on my ankle shows).
So after Round One of the Great Adventure, I had a lovely bit of time off on my final day, sleeping till 9 (school starts very early in Abu Dhabi, I was getting up at 5am, which does nothing for the jet lag, although being up early enough to see the full moon high over the dark ocean takes some beating). I took a walk to a local mall-cum-souk and had an ice cream on the beachfront. One of the greatest joys of this part of the trip was my host family, who were so open-hearted, supportive and welcoming to a lonely traveler. Every day I could cross the wide boulevard, pass the roaring fountains, and walk on the sand to watch the sunset over the Gulf…Thailand, had a big act to follow!
Stage 2, Thailand (Here Be No Elephants)
Stage two did not get off to a great start. After a very uncomfortable flight from Abu Dhabi, with a thick, cold, grey mist hanging over everything when I arrived (am I attracting fog on this trip?), and playing hide and seek with Geoff Cresswell, the genius behind this trip, at the airport (he was at domestic arrivals, I came in to international). And no sleep. Again. But I was excited at flying over India, even in the dark.
The countryside campus at Prem International a school was a haven. Quiet. Deep shade from wonderful trees. Air like cold water. Birdsong like a symphony all around, 3D sound. Velvet sunsets. And a chorus of crickets and frogs at night to delight the soul.
I got to spend my day off with two of the teachers coming for the weekend’s training, Steph and Amy from Kuala Lumpur. We visited a temple (not the main one, our driver took us to another one, but we didn’t know and really didn’t care because it was beautiful), got a real Thai massage, and wandered around, finally finding a lovely market beside another gorgeous temple. That’s pretty much all I saw of Thailand beyond the campus, but it was a very pleasant glimpse, with a touch of some very hot midday sun, and tuk-tuks everywhere. But no elephants, sadly.
The weekend’s teaching went well too, which was a relief. I was suddenly terrified of teaching teachers, wondering what I could possibly offer them, but strong, positive responses were received, which was terrific. There were eleven teachers from various schools in Thailand, Malaysia and even one from Cambodia, all flying in to work with me (…!) so no pressure. Day one was mostly working through my ‘basics’ handout, with background on Will’s life and times, and the playhouses of the times, with application to each teacher’s speech of choice (with everyone wanting to work on different plays, that was the only practical choice). Of course, with people who already knew quite a bit about the language, history etc, it was more joining the dots and filling in gaps, and referring everything to practical performance context than conveying much in the way of new info. But everyone had a good time, even getting into the swing of the sounding out exercise, which requires movement and expression, not just understanding.
That night we all went on a dinner boat cruise, with the most enormous spread of Thai food to choose from. That was a nice evening, but the aftermath was not so much fun, with several of the group, including me, throwing up in the night. As I see it, it’s a traditional part of the Thailand experience, and although it wasn’t fun it could have been a lot worse.
Day two was, as a result, a little subdued, but the work continued apace, with everyone committing to working on a scene, applying their new text knowledge to their scripts and finding a way to play the scene together using their discoveries. We closed the weekend with some rounding up and consolidating exercises, everyone coming up with ways to use the work in class and sharing those ideas. There is a huge and constantly-revolving community of international school teachers, it seems. They go round from school to school, country to country, frequently coming across friends, or friends of friends, as they go, but more often than not feeling quite isolated in their work. One object of the weekend was to bring some of them together to share an experience as well as ideas, so that they can all stay connected and build links between their schools. Which I think we managed well, and which is great. And they all enjoyed the Shakespeare, and found the approach very refreshing, which is the major point for me.
So then I was off to Stage 3 of the great Adventure, flying all day in company with Andrea, Jennifer and Jackalynn from the school in Surabaya where I spent the next week. We had one minor misadventure at Chiang Mia airport. As a kind of final farewell salute from Thailand, we were sitting in a coffee shop before getting on the plane, when suddenly we were surrounded by a growing puddle of stinking water flowing out of a very innocent cupboard. Bags and shoes were rescued, wiped down and sprayed with some kind of cleanser, but we felt disinclined to linger there after that. Ah well, a mini adventure to add a little spice.
Stage 3: Java (Here Be Butterflies, Frogs, Mosquitoes and Land Crabs, But Still No Dragons)
Surabaya is a city without sidewalks or public transport. You need a driver to go just about anywhere. Even walking the few paces up the road from my hotel to the school was a tricky adventure. I was loaned a driver for my first day off, who took me all around town, most of which is either in the process of being built or falling down. The traffic is incredible. Quite good-natured, but very intense. There are traffic lanes, but nobody much pays attention to them. And everywhere are motorbikes, and bicycles, carrying everything and everyone. Also, at just about all junctions and parking areas are self-appointed traffic marshals; local people sensibly creating jobs for themselves and filling urgent needs in their own city.
And it’s hot and steamy. January is their rainy season, so grey skies and rain predominated (just like home), but it’s HOT. Thick and steamy heat, like a sauna, all the time. So, you sit in an air-conditioned car, then step out into rainy heat and your glasses steam up. Very inelegant.
The time in school was excellent. For the first time on the trip I was truly an Artist in Residence, working in one school for three days straight, delivering a rapid rally of Intro to Will classes to almost all the school. I even had the youngest kids being Calibans and dancing around to ‘the isle is full of noises’. And again, great responses. I had the most pleasant, perceptive and intelligent conversation of the whole trip with one lad who apparently never speaks up in class. And I learned from the pupils about their perspectives on life and literature. Great chunks of knowledge that I normally take for granted just aren’t relevant to those outside the UK. So, I had to fill in more about life and times of Tudor England for them, and picked up new cultural references from them, reaching into Korean culture as well as American, Arab and Javanese.
I hope and trust my mission to lay groundwork has been successful. With almost all classes I taught on the trip, all I could do was trowel out some essential fundamentals on meter and phrasing to make all their future work easier to do, with a few lessons extending into handling sounds and images. I gave one of the teachers a crash course in cue script work, and we may Skype further on this. She wants to try out performing a scene, with the aim of using the work with her advanced students. Who am I to discourage that…?
Epilogue: Actually, There Were Dragons
Dragons appeared at the temple in Chang Mai, and dancing in the Super Mall in Surabaya on my last day, in preparation for Chinese New Year. Also one camel and clouds of swallows in Abu Dhabi, countless birds, frogs, cockerels and crickets in Thailand, with land crabs, mosquitoes and geckos in Surabaya. Thunderstorms raged from the skies, dropping mightily rolling thunder balls (or so it sounded at times) in Java, as well as glorious sunsets and moon-sets over the Gulf, and brief velvety sunsets in Thailand. Cool, liquid air under the trees in Thailand; air so full of a symphony of birdsong it was truly inspiring. Hot, steamy, breathless air in Surabaya, where grey skies bring long hot days and nights and you go outside to warm up from the air-con. Flowers everywhere, filling warm air and cool breezes alike. A lot of cats, but very few dogs. Temples galore. Tuktuks and rickshaws, and the impossibility of calling a taxi in Abu Dhabi if you have a non-residents phone. Wearing an borrowed abaya in the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, a palace of white marble set with inlaid flowers. Head scarves and long sleeves everywhere, if in doubt, even in school (hence no tan). New friends from new places; real friends, people I hope and expect to meet again in some country or another. And a whole new world for Will to grow in. And I did it alone, facing my personal dragon, and never missed a single flight.
Mission accomplished. Journey ended. Until the next one.