Re-imagining Cardenio

Horsemanship in Cardenio 1

March 8, 2011
Alex Hassell tries on a plumed helmet from the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment's dress store

Alex Hassell tries on a plumed helmet from the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment's dress store

A visit to the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment this morning. While Mike Ashcroft, our choreographer, drills the rest of the company in a bit of movement work, and Paul Englishby teaches the motet* which opens the play, I take Olly Rix and Alex Hassell (playing Cardenio and Fernando, respectively) to the Hyde Park Barracks. Much is made in Cardenio of the eponymous hero's horsemanship. It is for his skill with horses apparently that Cardenio has been called to court to assist the Duke's son Fernando.

Neither Olly nor Alex have had much experience of horses, and we want to explore ways of expressing on stage the close familiarity of working with horses that both men are assumed to possess. How better than to talk to the elite horsemen of the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals?

We are met at the barracks' Ceremonial Gate by our host for the morning, Captain Lukas. He has just come from inspecting the guard who are about to set out for Horse Guards Parade. Ahead of us is a group of young girls from a local pony club. We stand on the veranda and watch while the soldiers line up their splendid black mounts. They look immaculate in their plumed helmets and shiny cuirasses. These are the men who in a few weeks time will undertake all the ceremonial duties required at the Royal Wedding, a far cry from their last posting: on the front line in Afghanistan.

We ask if each man has his breast plate specially fitted, and are greeted with polite laughter. The uniforms look spectacular, but can be incredibly uncomfortable. Apparently there is a saying in the barracks: 'If it hurts, it fits!' I must remember to tell that to our armourer in Stratford, Julian Gilbert, who takes great care to ensure that every piece of armour he makes fits precisely.

We meet up with one of the mounted soldiers in Captain Lukas's troop. His boots have the gleam of patent leather, and we are surprised to learn that in fact they take up to sixty hours of work, plenty of beeswax, polish and elbow grease to make them sparkle like that. I suddenly feel very scruffy indeed.

Our tour includes a visit to the forge, where one trooper, a Geordie lad with the word 'Danger' tattooed on his arm, is shoeing a grey stallion. The ease with which he leans in to the horse and lifts its hoof is remarkable. An acrid stench, like burnt hair, fills the place. On the wall, there is a chart of all the horses in the barracks. There are over 140 animals here. Like car registration numbers, the horses are named with an initial letter according to the year. This year it's K. So there are young horses called Krypton and Kalashnikov. Olly notices one of the oldest: Yorick!

In the stable block, another soldier is grooming Spartacus, one of the heavy horses which carry the great silver kettle drums on parade. Again his ease with the horse, and the gentle manner in which the two work together is impressive. But horses, Captain Lukas tells us, can be very sensitive to anyone around them who is anxious, and can pick up fear, or indecisiveness in their rider. At that moment as if to prove his point, Cedric is led past us. Cedric is renowned in the barracks for his temperament. He has bucked many a nervous new recruit off his back.

In the full dress store we see some of the extraordinary and highly valuable uniforms the regiment possesses. Here are dress coats, and drum banners laden with heavy gold thread and I learn a great new word: 'shabraque' (it's a saddle cloth). Alex tries on one of the regimental plumed helmets adorned with gilded oak and bay leaves (pictured). The red plume on one of the helmets of the Blues and Royals is made of yak hair. The ivory plumes of the Life Guards used to be made of horse hair, but now (rather disappointingly), are made of nylon.

As Corporal Beaumont shows off some choice pieces, I spot a dangerous-looking weapon, a sort of large steel axe on a wooden shaft with a sharp spike on the butt end. It's a poleaxe. They were at one time used for chopping off your horse's hoof if it fell in battle, we are told, to prove it has been killed rather than stolen. So is this what Hamlet's father used in 'an angry parle' when he smote the ice with his poleaxe?

In the saddler's workshop, Corporal Worsley gives us a run down on the kit. The room hums with the tangy smell of the leather. There is an impressive range of snaffles and bits, of military whips and crops, of reins, stirrups, and swan neck spurs; all of which gives us a sense of just how much clobber is involved in working with horses. Jenny, our Deputy Stage Manager, who has come along on the trip, is making a lot of mental notes.

As we come to the end of our visit, it is difficult to know precisely how we will use any of the information we have learned. It is likely that some little moment will have its effect; some sense memory of the symbiosis these soldiers evolve with the horses they work with may inform an element of Olly and Alex's performances, and give a deeper understanding of Cardenio's horsemanship.

* A vocal composition, normally sung in a Catholic church

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet

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