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Silver Lining

Firing the Canon

Silver Lining

Sarah was working in the costume department of a small theatre. Its output was fairly eclectic: 1930s social comedies, bitter Oscar Wilde plays, revamped musicals. A lot of the  modern clothes had been found in charity shops or on EBay, and the stock wardrobe had quite a few useful items. They would not stand too much close scrutiny, but they would do: bias-cut tea-dresses with tiny rips under the arms, moth-eaten bustles, padded waistcoats for the embonpoint of dashing heroes. The real problem was the shortage of Elizabethan dress. Like many other small repertories, the staple fare of this one was Shakespeare (they did at least one of his plays per season), and the costumes were in a sorry state. Ripped doublets, woebegone codpieces, cloaks that had seen much better days. Sarah had a fallow period between productions, and she decided to spend her time revamping the Shakespearean clothes. It ought to be easy.

Except that it wasn’t. She had plenty of fabrics, but they were the wrong sort: dull, and without sway or sheen. Then, when she was rummaging under the stage, she found a chest. She needed a crowbar to open it, and the lid flew open with groan. An incredible perfume rose up and drifted round her head: sandelwood, saffron, samphire. Inside the chest were silks, satins, velvet. Sarah plunged her hand in, and it felt warm. she lifted the cloths out, shook them, and laid them on the trestle table. Yes. 

Usually, she had to design the costumes in her head before she started to cut and sew,  or at the very least, she had to use a paper pattern. But not this time. When she smoothed out the black velvet for Hamlet, the scissors seemed to know where to cut, and the cloth parted of its own volition. It was a doublet, with slashed sleeves: and when she came to sew it up, the seams snapped together like velcro. Astonished, Sarah saw a piece of bright fabric slide across the table and inside the sleeves, making an irridescent silver  lining all on its own. Sarah siezed upon a purple hank of cloth for Prospero’s cloak, and it seemed to develop astonishing volume and motion. And when she selected some  gauzy material for Titania’s wings, it trembled and flexed itself and seemed strong enough to fly to the moon.

So far so good. Sarah stitched and ironed for days, and the costumes hung rustling on their rails. She called the actors out for fittings and a little dress-rehearsal, and asked the director and a few critics to attend, just for fun. But when the actors put the clothes on, something extraordinary happened. Hamlet began a major speech, struggled, cleared his throat, and began to articulate something quite unexpected: 

“To be or not to be: that is not the question.

The question is, whether to love or not,

And whom? The fragrant mother draped round the throne

Or the cold maiden floating downstream?

Silk inside velvet, mother, come

And rule me, and the whole dry world”.

When the Prospero cloak was fitted on the next actor, it seemed as though he grew taller and broader. He could fly: and as he swirled over the auditorium, he spoke about the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces, and how they were really just a precursor to a heavenly city where pleasure ruled forever. And Titania’s wings fluttered and dried as she seemed to emerge from her chrysalis. She would never go back to Oberon, that was certain. Bottom the ass would be more fun, and would make her laugh more thoroughly.

The little audience was stunned. Here was the refashioning of the canon in front of their very eyes.  It was an  iconoclasm. Shakespeare would never be the same again for them. The director and the producer returned to the written plays, ripping whole sections out and scribbling new ones. And as for Sarah, she turned back to the chest to see what other things could be found: what laces and buttons, what warp and weft. There was a humming sound. She had to listen to it.

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