John Clare – Reflections from the Madhouse. Off the Page at the Etcetera

By Carmel Shortall

The stage at the Etcetera is set with just a table and chair. Ben Bazell as John Clare walks in clutching a plant.

“They say I’m in a state of lunacy from years of prosing,” he tells us. Although others say it is from consorting with ladies of the night.

The story of John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet (1793 – 1864) is told in his own words, gleaned from his journal and punctuated with his songs and poems as he sits in the madhouse where he spent more than 23 years of his life.

His love for Mary Joyce is illustrated with a ballad; time spent living with the gypsies and collecting folk tunes, with a ‘scrape’ on the fiddle. Things take a bawdy turn with a song extolling the delights of a woman’s “cuckoo’s nest” – never heard it called that before! 

We learn of his excitement at becoming famous and meeting his literary heroes, and his despair when the public lose interest. There is anger at the ‘enlosures’ of public land and most of all there is his love of nature as evidenced in his poetry.

There has been a renewal of interest in John Clare since the late 20th century and this is a timely celebration of the poet and his work by Patti Holloway and Ben Bazell. The latter’s portrayal of Clare does not ignore the more difficult aspects of his character but places them in context and invests him with dignity despite his human frailties.

“Fame blazed upon me like a comet’s glare
Fame waned and left me like a fallen star”

Showing at the Etcetera for one more performance, you can catch John Clare – Reflections from the Madhouse on the 9th August at 9.00pm. Tickets are £7.50.

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