Friday, 22 November 2019

‘The Song of Arms and a Man’ at Charterhouse

by Sheila Conway

When one of our members suggested to the committee that we find a local venue to host The Latin Qvarter’s production, ‘The Song of Arms and a Man’, we didn’t know what we were undertaking. As we understood it, we were being asked to find a venue and book hotel accommodation for the performers, then advertise the event locally and to Guildford Classical Association (GCA) members. This was what generally happened when we arranged for speakers to come and talk to our local audiences.

We contacted local schools who often host our events for us. As expected, since the performance was scheduled for a Saturday evening, day schools were unable to help. However, Charterhouse very kindly offered to host the event in their beautiful Great Hall. Their Head of Classics, Jonathan Nelmes, was enthusiastic and planned to organise a whole ‘Virgil week’ at school prior to the performance, which was to be the culminating event.

We booked accommodation nearby for the performers and thought our part in the organisation of the event was largely over, bar a bit of advertising. How wrong we were! Our real work was only just beginning. It was at this point that it dawned on us that we were responsible for pricing and selling tickets as well as all the publicity, and, most scarily, responsible for footing the bill if the event made a loss! 

As we began to comprehend just what we had undertaken, we had serious misgivings. After all, a performance of the Aeneid, much of it in Latin, has very niche appeal. How many people these days still study Latin, or feel up to a whole evening of it? Many of those for whom Latin was a fundamental part of their education are now so elderly that they think twice about going off to a performance at night, particularly at a distant venue in the countryside. On the plus side, Virgil’s Aeneid is a central part of the syllabus at GCSE, A Level and university, for both Latin and Class Civ students. And how better to get an understanding of the whole story than by watching a live performance, hearing the beautiful sonority of the Latin and experiencing at first hand the depths of emotion in this very human story? We couldn’t deny this opportunity to our local students, teachers and classics enthusiasts.

Having decided to go ahead with the venture, our next job was pricing the tickets and working out what concessions we could offer. This was much harder than it sounds. We had good estimates of costs from The Latin Qvarter and Charterhouse, but how many of our members would come? And how many local schools would arrange to bring groups of students? Would university students travel all the way from London, Reading and Southampton? In short, would we have an audience of two hundred, or only forty?

It is at this point that we were helped enormously by the Classical Association and the Roman Society, who both gave us generous grants towards the costs of the performance, and by the businessman, Richard Balfour, who very kindly agreed to underwrite the event. We are extremely grateful to all three, without whose generosity we would probably not have dared to go ahead.

It was hard work finding and approaching contacts at different universities and local organisations who might be willing to help publicise the event, as well as distributing posters and leaflets and informing our own members and local schools. George Sharpley at The Latin Qvarter was very helpful, providing an eye-catching leaflet and making sure we didn’t miss a trick on the advertising.

The performance was due to take place at Charterhouse on Saturday, 5th October. As the day approached, we were increasingly worried. Several schools which had originally wanted to bring large numbers of students were, for various reasons, unable to come. A fortnight before the performance we had still only sold about seventy tickets; we were on course to make a loss of over £2,000. Then ticket sales started to improve, and finally some schools confirmed bookings. On the night, we had an audience approaching a hundred and seventy – a record for this event. Our finances were safe, but we sold right out of programmes and had to disappoint some. 

At last the players: George Sharpley (narrator), Emma Kirkby, Victoria Punch (standing in at short notice for the indisposed Elizabeth Donnelly), Matthew Hargreaves, Llewellyn Morgan and Eileen Zoratti, assembled and the performance began. The audience was hushed and expectant as the piper, Callum Armstrong, got everyone’s attention. How exciting to hear a real aulos player! The English narrative beautifully echoed the original Latin and set the scene for the Latin extracts. It was entrancing seeing such well-known passages brought to life - acted out and performed in impressively fluent and expressive spoken Latin. 

There was a real buzz during the interval while everyone enjoyed welcome refreshments before settling down to the emotional finale of the tale. All too quickly, the performance was over, bows and curtain calls were taken, and the audience departed. As they left, we heard a huge number of compliments about the production. The audience were obviously thrilled by the performance and very glad that they had come. In that moment we knew we had been right to keep our nerve, and all the work beforehand seemed worthwhile.

Sheila Conway is the Hon. Secretary of the Guildford branch of the Classical Association.  See here for further details of  the branch.

See here for further information about The Latin Qvarter and 'The Song of Arms and a Man'. 

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