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Our revels now are ended: thoughts on a summer's party

Our revels now are ended. The Bronygarth Summer Party is over for another year, the yurts back in the garage and the lawn at Brookside cleared. There are only 150 people in the whole village, yet almost thirty helped prepare for the party in one way or another. It’s the most important social gathering of the year and an affirmation of our sense of community. It’s also a chance to drink too much, talk nonsense and dance in strange ways. Some of us make fuller use of this opportunity than others.

There are many lines from The Tempest that might seem appropriate to the situation, not least Trinculo’s observation, ‘there’s but five upon this isle; we are three of them; if th’other two be brained like us, the state totters.’

Shakespeare’s drunkards are always great comic value and The Tempest contains some of his funniest comedy. It is arguably his most perfect play and certainly the last he wrote unassisted. It’s almost impossible not to see it as a valediction. When Prospero abjures his ‘rough magic’, breaks his staff and buries his book fathoms deep, most interpret this as Shakespeare’s renunciation of his art before retiring to Stratford.

It’s equally hard not to see Prospero’s speech after he’s interrupted the masque as expressing the dramatist’s sense of mortality, when ‘every third thought shall be my grave.’ It is imbued with a sense of life’s frailty and transience as well as its magic and beauty,

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Prospero’s words are all encompassing, from our ‘little’ lives to the ‘great globe itself’, his vision cosmic. For while the ‘cloud-capped towers’ and ‘gorgeous palaces’ were the product of his artifice, they equally stand for real buildings that will one day crumble and fall – in the same way that the ‘great globe’ is both his theatre, The Globe, and our planet, which will also pass away. All that is solid will one day cease to be, as unenduring as ‘this insubstantial pageant’.

I think of Prospero’s speech every time the yurts come down. It might seem quite a leap from Shakespeare’s meditation on art and life to the ending of a village summer get together, but every party is kind of performance. For one thing, people dress up. Not flamboyantly, in most cases, but with a modest effort. And there is a willing suspension of disbelief about what bankers, politicians and media tycoons are doing to the world. They are completely forgotten. Instead, food is shared, jokes told and beer and wine consumed while the band plays and children run in the garden or throw themselves about the bouncy castles.

The yurts themselves provide a theatrical space, reminiscent of a circus big top. They were made eight years ago as a community project with brightly coloured covers stitched by a local hot air balloon factory. They are not ‘cloud-capped’, ‘gorgeous’ or ‘solemn’ but they are beautiful spaces that provide dancehall, food-tent and chill-out room, all hung with lights and decorated with flowers.

The yurts are made from steam-bent ash. Circular in shape, the walls are formed by a trellis that supports roof ribs radiating from a central wheel. Evolved by Central Asian nomads, the components are light and compact for the substantial covered area they create. Wishing to thank the nomadic peoples that originated these elegant and economic structures, I invited the Mongolian ambassador to our inaugural party. To everyone’s astonishment, perhaps even his own, he accepted. He arrived in a long black Mercedes accompanied by two minders and seemed reluctant to leave several hours later. When finally he did, everyone at the party lined the drive and applauded as his car scrunched over the gravel and disappeared into the darkness.

That party was deemed to be the best ever, but as we always decide that the latest party is better than any previous, not surprising. This year we were joined by the Bishop of Tanzania, who was staying with friends nearby. He was gracious enough to say a prayer in Swahili and we presented him with £100 as a contribution to the school his church supports in Africa.

We also remembered John Bampfield, first Chairman of the Bronygarth Social Committee, who died last winter. John was formidable. A retired Major who had taught at Sandhurst, he was a member of the MCC and golf-playing Daily Telegraph reader. From the outside he might have seemed a cartoon reactionary, but he had huge personality, enormous energy, multiple enthusiasms and worked tirelessly for the community. He also faced infirmity in his last years with invariable stoicism and good humour.

With his wife, Sheila, it was John who bullied us into having our first ever summer party in 2000, to celebrate the millennium. Wishing to commemorate his incredible contribution to Bronygarth, it was decided to designate the beer yurt as ‘The Bampfield Arms’ so a sign was painted bearing his family coat of arms. This will henceforth stand between two barrels of beer at all our gatherings.

John was a great character. Use of the word suggests the extent to which we are all players. Shakespeare consistently relates our passage of life to parts played by an actor – from Jacque’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech to Macbeth’s ‘walking shadow’ that ‘struts and frets his hour upon the stage’ and Lear’s declamation that ‘When we are born, we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools.’

The tragedies necessarily portray life as bleak. Prospero’s vision is benign. ‘We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on’ while ‘our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.’

His words are gentle. Life is ‘little’ suggesting something harmless, almost child-like, while ‘rounded’ implies its ends are smooth and pleasingly shaped – and there is nothing here fearful in sleep (though his Jacobean audience might have been surprised by an absence of Christian afterlife).

The Tempest is ultimately a play about forgiveness and compassion. Despite his brother’s treachery and the drunken stupidity of Trinculo and Stephano, Prospero views humanity as ‘such stuff/As dreams are made on.’ The conjunction of ‘stuff’ and ‘dreams’ is typical of Shakespeare. The former connotes something nondescript, perhaps cheap, while the latter speaks of our capacity for poetry and magic; humans have a simultaneous capacity for ordinariness and transcendence.

Also typical of Shakespeare is the rich ambiguity of Prospero’s lines. It is not made clear whether dreams are the stuff of which we are made or whether the stuff that we are inspires dreams in others. We are both.

If it’s true that the partygoers were like actors, then it has to be admitted that we didn’t melt ‘into air, into thin air’. Instead, we drifted off by twos and threes. When I left with a couple of friends after midnight, the dance floor had been taken over by a group of teenagers, all male. They were mostly arms and legs fuelled by alcohol and testosterone, but keeping the party alive.

Lit from inside, the yurts glow like Chinese lanterns. Looking back, we could see figures flitting about the lawn, then after a bend in the road all was gone and we were walking down a hedged lane with a vast sky above, part clouded and dotted with stars.

The next afternoon we returned. Within two hours all the rubbish had been sorted into bins and bags and the yurts taken down. It’s not quite true that we left ‘not a rack behind’ as there was a battered wheelbarrow on the edge of the lawn filled with the squares of wood on which the drummer had set up his kit. Otherwise, things were concluded, our revels truly over.

Thanks to Jonathan Abbatt for photo

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