Richard Hoyes likes a bit of winter with his sunshine

14th July 2000 at 01:00
Simon is learning his lines. He's in The Winter's Tale, the play that centres on a paradox - "thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born" and has the tragi-comic stage direction, "exit pursued by a bear".

I watch him invigilate the maths exam (things are dying there all right), mouthing the words silently as he paces between the rows, "and therefore like a cipher, yet standing in rich place, I multiply with one we thank you the many thousands moe that go before it", unmistakably the rich tortuous poetry of a late Shakespearean play.

Simon, our head of drama, is putting his teaching into practice: he is preparing to be King Polixenes, the father who snoops on his son Prince Florizel then whips off his fake beard at the moment the lad proposes to a shepherd girl, and when the prince says "Mark our contract", the king says "Mark your divorce".

Mention theatre in Farnham and you're into politics. Three years ago the theatre went dark, an exit pursued by a bear called money. A borough councillor called its programme "arty farty". The theatre closed after a final performance of a brilliant new musical about the Bront s, a disaster for everyone concerned, particularly its author whose first musical it was and whose nationwide tour then collapsed as the liquidators seized the theatre's assets, including his scenery and props. But nothing stops enthusiasts. They may plan to turn the theatre into retail outlets, but the likes of Simon carry on in the library gardens and call themselves the Farnham Shakespeare Company.

"Psst! Why choose The Winter's Tale, Simon?" I whisper as we hand out the question papers. "It's summer. Shouldn't it be A Midsummer Night's Dream?" It's a joke, but he takes it seriously. "Winter becomes summer," he whispers back. Unnecessarily, as it happens. I know The Winter's Tale. I directed a school production once. "King Polixenes discovers that the shepherd girl is really a princess in disguise. And people who were thought to be dead turn out to be alive. It's about rebirth..."

Shsh! the exam has started. Rebirth. They tried to kill off theatre in Farnham but they couldn't. Meanwhile in Romford, Essex, a skating rink is under theat. I've read about it in the Romford Recorder. Last Christmas, Cinderella danced on the glittering ice. Local schools were glad to release children in the daytime for rehearsals because they saw taking part in the annual spectacular as something educational. The plan is to turn the rink into a heliport. H will mark the spot where Cinderella's silver skate reverted to an old torn shoe. H for help, big enough to spot from the sky.

In the Seventies, a Southwark councillor once declared that Shakespeare was "a load of tosh". If people had listened, what would have happened to the Globe, or the UnderGlobe, an inspirational exhibition under Shakespeare's reconstructed theatre? "Tosh." "Arty farty." Who are these people?

I watch Simon mouthing his lines and remember Geoff Whiting. I taught Geoff years ago, and he was the young shepherd in my production, the one who sees a gentleman pursued by a bear. He was so funny with a kind of lugubrious merriment that was just right for the part. He relished his lines "how the poor gentleman roared and the bear mocked him" and then his father, the Old Shepherd, showed him an abandoned baby (really a princess, of course) and declared the immortal "thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born", that best bit in all Shakespeare where the tragedy turns round via tragi-comedy into comedy, or rather something beyond comedy: Shakespeare's late comedy, laughter with magic on its breath. We need your magic, Geoff, in Farnham, in Romford. They could have done with you in Southwark.

I read Geoff the other week in Time Out reviewing stand-up comedians. He is a stand-up himself. I like to think we discovered his comic genius in a school production. Shakespeare, stand-up comedy, the theatre, the UnderGlobe, the ice rink. They're all important. They're educational, they lead somewhere. I've seen Geoff in action in a local wine bar and get the feeling that, if only he were a councillor in Farnham or Romford or anywhere that has precious educational resources under threat, instead of things dying there'd be a lot more things new-born.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college, Surrey. E-mail:

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