Friday, October 13, 2006

The Mop and Much Ado About Nothing

Yesterday morning, Clara drove down to Stratford-on-Avon to queue for last-minute tickets for the final matinee performance of Much Ado About Nothing at the RSC's Swan Theatre. Meanwhile, Stratford was preparing for its annual "mop fair," which has been held in Stratford's town centre since time immemorial. Carnival rides and booths were set up all along Bridge Street and Sheep Street, and a pig was being roasted near the canal. The term "mop fair" is first attested in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1677, at which point the practice was already ancient. The mop fair, or "statute fair," was originally a jobs fair held at a market town, to which unemployed servants would come seeking work, usually carrying some emblem of their desired employment: a rake or a shovel or a mop, for example. Those who were were successful in finding employment were given a retainer, a sum of money which they usually spent at the fair. The fair was traditionally held on October 12, at the end of the harvest, when seasonal workers would be looking for new employment.

In chapter VI of Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy describes Gabriel Oak's search for employment as a sheep tender at the annual statute fair in Casterbridge. Here's how he sets the scene:

At one end of the street stood from two to three hundred blithe and hearty labourers waiting upon Chance— all men of the stamp to whom labour suggests nothing worse than a wrestle with gravitation, and pleasure nothing better than a renunciation of the same among these, carters and waggoners were distinguished by having a piece of whip-cord twisted round their hats; thatchers wore a fragment of woven straw; shepherds held their sheep-crooks in their hands; and thus the situation required was known to the hirers at a glance.

Today, the annual mop is a fun fair rather than a jobs fair, an opportunity to gorge oneself on fish and chips and then get sick on the whirligig.

At the Swan Theatre, Much Ado About Nothing was completely enthralling. It was set in the sultry, carnivalesque atmosphere of pre-Castro Cuba. Beatrice (Tasmin Greig) and Benedick (Joseph Millson) were sensational. In the first half, I was rocked with laughter, and in the second half I was nearly moved to tears when Hero was falsely accused—even though I knew a happy ending was around the corner. Perched up in the second gallery, I was literally on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was a thoroughly satisfying afternoon at the theater.

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