On 11th August 1916, the YMCA Shakespeare Hut opened its doors to New Zealand servicemen in London on leave from the fighting front. One hundred years to the day, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine hosted a Centenary Day with The Mustard Club to stage a re-enactment of the opening ceremony with a dramatic piece written from materials held in the YMCA, National Theatre and Ellen Terry archives to compliment the installation created by Digital Drama, as part of our “Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut” Heritage Lottery Funded project.
Central to the Shakespeare Hut’s manifesto was to entertain the troops and a stream of actresses performed both Shakespeare scenes and hits from the wartime West End. The second half of our Centenary day commemorations comprised Miss Gertrude Elliott’s Shakespeare Salon – a celebration of women playing Shakespeare and a nod to the Actress’s Franchise League who staged shows there throughout the lifetime of the Hut. When Katie Turner stepped onto our makeshift stage as Henry V, she evoked the spirit and memory of the young Fabia Drake rallying the young men in the audience to re-imagine themselves as the audience of the Elizabethan playhouse and Henry’s soldiers at Agincourt. A tingle went up my spine at Katie’s heartfelt rendition called to mind the ‘few, we happy few’ who came together a year and a half ago to start to put together our proposal to approach the HLF. A fortuitous meeting with Kate and Alison of Digital Drama lead to a joint application for what has been a hugely rewarding and well-conceived heritage project where both the School and the local community have come together to explore and experience this little known story of Bloomsbury in the Great War.
I am grateful to our funders, to our collaborators, our staff, students and local volunteers who gave their time and commitment throwing themselves into recreating the world of the Shakespeare Hut as the guests were treated to a sumptuous High Tea and an address from Sir Lockwood Smith. The High Commissioner of New Zealand was visibly moved as he discarded his scripted notes to speak in praise of his countrymen who stayed at the Hut and the men and women who tended to and entertained them.
To paraphrase Neil MacGregor in ‘Shakespeare’s Restless World’, the playwright gives us ‘the news as reported by a poet’ and Katie’s St Crispin’s Day performance drove home to me his power to speak to us of the eternal human condition, across the centuries and forever our contemporary. I feel honoured to have played my part in bringing the Shakespeare Hut back into the local collective memory – a great way to round off my current incarnation here at the School where I first encountered Binkie and started to bring the archive alive. So now, if all the world’s a stage….it’s on to the next act!
The photograph was taken by the School’s photographer Anne Koerber as part of her exploration of the world of the Shakespeare Hut: it shows the cast of both School staff and students and professional actors who created characters inspired by archive materials through a series of workshops, rehearsals and visits to the Cadbury Archives, University of Birmingham, The National Theatre Archives and through the generosity of spirit of Dr Alisa Grant Ferguson and Prof Gordon McMullan who by giving access to their original research, enabled us to create this piece and be part of the Shakespeare400 cultural movement.