One of my favourite guides is Visitor’s London, written by Harold F. Hutchinson for London Transport in the 1950s and reprinted many times. My edition is from 1968. The line illustrations include this one of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill by Gareth Adamson. Hutchinson’s practical prose is elegant enough to be enjoyable for its own sake and although the guide is old, it’s still useful because it covers all of London’s important attractions. When it was written, this little Gothic confection wasn’t open to the public “but permission to see this architectural enterprise is always given to the serious student.” It’s still owned by St Mary’s University (once a Catholic teacher training college) but it was refurbished in 2015 following a very long period of neglect remarkable for such a historically important building. Although not a serious student, I visited the other day.
Its odd arrangement of rooms, many of them impossibly small, is explained by the fact that Walpole intended Strawberry Hill as a place to display the collection to which he devoted his life and which was broken up in 1842. The trustees are attempting to trace and reassemble it, and as he recorded his possessions at length the contents of Strawberry Hill are known and there’s a well-illustrated publication by Silvia Davoli, Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill.
I don’t usually write about theatre arts, but the realisation of Ballet Royal de la Nuit by Sebastian Daucé and Ensemble Correspondences at Théâtre de Caen (2017) which I’ve just seen is so original and spine-tingling that I thought I might say something about it.
The Ballet Royal de la Nuit was a vast theatrical event mounted in 1653 at the Louvre for the young Louis XIV and his court under the direction of his first minister Mazarin. It was performed throughout the night and lasted about twelve hours. It was intended not just as an entertainment but as a demonstration of the king’s power and of French cultural superiority, and although it was ostensibly for the royal court was performed before the ambassadors of every European kingdom. France had come though the convulsions of the Fronde, Mazarin had returned from the exile to which the Fronde had condemned him and Louis demonstrated his elevation by dancing the part of the Sun, who rose in splendour at the climax of the performance. The memorable presentation of The Sun King was was spoken of throughout Europe for the rest of the century.
In this ballet de la cour song, dance, music, costume and theatrical performance are deliciously combined in a total work of art. (Romantics might need to be reminded that Wagner didn’t include dance in his cut-down version of the Gesamtkunstwerk.) It was performed only once. Despite its fame and splendour, the record of it is fragmentary. There are pictures of the costumes but there isn’t even a complete record of the music, let alone choreography. Sebastian Daucé and his colleagues spent three years reconstructing it.
And so the Ensemble Correspondences performance has had to be conjectural, and it is not possible to see the Ballet Royal as it was once performed and performed once only. But what has been achieved is breathtaking and succeeds in conveying the spirit of Baroque in a 21st-century interpretation that is beautiful, inventive and bizarre. Song dance and circus are combined to make a thing of the present as much a record of the past (period instruments, of course). There are three CDs and a DVD.