William Wordsworth, Theatre by the Lake

It’s the impasse for every struggling artist in a garret: how to achieve the freedom to create, while avoiding the debilitating effects of poverty and starvation.

And so it was for the poet who was to become a national treasure, William Wordsworth, not quite starving yet, and if not in a garret, then living in a dark and gloomy Grasmere rectory alongside the graves of two of his children.

Should this be ripe territory for poetic inspiration or not? This is ground explored by writer Nicholas Pierpan in William Wordsworth which is premiering at Keswick’s stunning Theatre by the Lake, not a dozen miles from the scene of the emotional trauma.

The poet sold his soul for a handful of silver (well, £400 a year salary), moved to a light and airy house with carpets and chimneys that kept out the wind,  and was there moved to create some of the world’s most exquisite verse.

Wordsworth as played here by John Sackville is both arrogant and insecure,  trusting in posterity to look upon him kindly, and insisting on poetry as a labour of privacy, when his sister Dorothy (Emma Pallant) wanted to make fish pie and keep the surviving children protected.

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John Sackville as Wordsworth

Dorothy, as many critics have argued, is here the dominant woman in William’s life; wife Mary makes no appearance at all, being usually bedridden with grief or childbearing. But also centre stage is Sarah Hutchinson (Amiera Darwish), sister-in-law of Wordsworth and object of the idealised passion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Friend, sometimes muse, Coleridge, played here with gusto by Daniel Abelson, often steals the scenes and to him belong all the great theatrical monologues. This was an outstanding  performance, but lest such great men be carried away by their own vanity, here speaks the long-suffering Mrs Coleridge (Rosalind Steele): “There are two things our beloved Lake poets know nothing about. One is poetry. The other is everything else.”

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Daniel Abelson as Coleridge

Director Michael Oakley takes us deftly through the quest for artistic truth versus the need to “become a cheap Tory hireling”. The poet becomes a civil servant (distributor of stamps, legal documents), moves to the spacious, comfortable (and carpeted) Rydal Mount, and rediscovers his craft, poignantly through recollections of his young son’s short life and death.

It would be too simplistic to say that the rest is history. At Rydal Mount Wordsworth’s output was both prodigious and incomparable, but his life, his lives, both inner and outer, remained complex and often tortured, most notably with the death of another child, his beloved Dora (whose daffodils were adorning the field below Rydal Mount as we drove home after the show).

 

William Wordsworth can be seen at the Theatre by the Lake until April 22. Ticket details: 01768774411/www.theatrebythelake.com

William Wordsworth’s home at Rydal Mount, near Ambleside, a dozen miles from the theatre, can be visited daily from 9.30 till 5. http://www.rydalmount.co.uk/

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