Theatre Review: William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan

From L to R: John Sackville (William Wordsworth) & Tom Pye-Kendall (Thomas) in William Wordsworth. Photo by Keith Pattison.

By Ken Powell

I suppose, as an adopted son of the Lakes, that I should honour and maybe even adore William Wordsworth. Born in Cockermouth and loyal to the area for most of his life, his fame as both poet of the common people and for having radical political ideas are well-known. It should be easy to admire him; and yet I don’t. I’ve always found him a little pompous.

Which makes the world premiere of ‘William Wordsworth’ at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake (in partnership with the English Touring Theatre) all the more interesting to review. While it is not going to be of interest to all, for those who are it will certainly be worth the while seeing – I definitely enjoyed it. Are these two contradictory thoughts? Apparently not, even the director, Michael Oakley, admits that before tackling this play he thought Wordsworth led “a rather conventional and contented life” with “no worries or cares” and admits that he was wrong.

The play centres around 1812 when Wordsworth was failing financially as a poet and risking his family going into deprivation. On the one hand, he is portrayed somewhat like a spoilt boy – convinced of his own greatness and arrogant in his certainty that somehow the women in his household will manage the house without money. On the other, tragedies force him to make difficult decisions which threaten to compromise his beliefs. We see an ordinary Cumbrian trying to make his way simply and honestly in his chosen profession and struggling with the harsh truths of life. Pierpan puts flesh onto the historical figure and makes his poetry more alive and real in doing so.

Daniel Abelson (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) in William Wordsworth. Photo by Keith Pattison.

While the play deals with serious and difficult political intrigues of the day it does so not without humour – particularly in the portrayal of Wordsworth’s friend, Coleridge. Daniel Abelson plays the role to perfection and was easily the most convincing and entertaining to watch on the stage despite a strong cast. If the production didn’t persuade me to return to my collection of Wordsworth’s poetry, it certainly did send me back to Coleridge’s (and now I really understand the story behind Kubla Khan).

The true heroes of this story however are the women. Interestingly, we never see Wordsworth’s wife but his sister, sister-in-law and Coleridge’s wife all feature strongly. It was fascinating to see a male playwright write with such pathos and understanding for the plight of these northern women who soldier on in almost impossible conditions and Pierpan does so with being condescending. While Wordsworth sobs and wrings his hands and Coleridge smacks his head in bewilderment, these women are the bricks and mortar which hold everything together.

From L to R: Amiera Darwish (Sara Hutchinson/Footman) & Emma Pallant (Dorothy Wordsworth/Lady Troughton) in William Wordsworth. Photo by Keith Pattison.

As a snapshot in the life of a great wordsmith there’s no beginning nor end to the play but more a fade in with a crisis and then fade out with a different crisis. The story of Wordsworth’s life led me to ponder the fine line of when an artist or writer has become to obsessed with the need for ‘reputation’ when that reputation, hard earned perhaps, doesn’t bring in an income and may be fleeting. On the other hand, is it right to cave in and turn your back on everything you believe in to earn a few pennies more? A tough call and one which surely resonates with Cumbrians in today’s ‘austerity measures’ world.

What makes the production beautiful is the scenery and scene changes. As is increasingly in vogue these days the actors make the changes themselves but here they veritably dance their way through the scenes. It’s remarkable to watch. For once it is not demeaning to say that the set and scene changes are one of the best things in a production. Somehow Michael Oakley and his team have manged to make the mundane into something magical.

So, have I changed my opinion of Wordsworth? Perhaps, a little. But more importantly, I have a much better understanding, and sympathy for, the people closest to him and the subjects of his poetry. That’s no bad thing. Whether you love or hate Wordsworth, this play makes him and his ‘lonely cloud’ world real, and starkly so. If you miss it, you’ll miss out.

‘William Wordsworth’ runs until 22 April. Book tickets online at www.theatrebythelake.com or call the box office on 017687 74411.