Reaching the heights


It’s an interesting thing to be part of an audience. In some ways it seems passive and solitary: you sit in your own seat and watch, forming your own views of what you see. But it can be the most gloriously active and communal experience: where you feel and share surging emotions and understanding and make wordless connections with performers and with each other.

Over recent weeks we’ve seen some remarkable audience experiences. Students have heard Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Professor Russell Foster, Clare Balding CBE and Sir John Madejski. We’ve seen the RAF Squadronnaires, Upper II’s Peter Pan, Upper VI’s drama showcase, the music scholars’ evening recital, Lower I and Upper I’s Wind in the Willows, the Poetry Cafe, the Senior School’s We Will Rock You. The Junior School choir are off on tour at time of writing.

All these talks and performances have offered that opportunity for the audience to connect: to think together and to feel together. They have offered the chance to hear from remarkable individuals and to witness extraordinary levels of student passion and commitment.

Today, at the end of term, I wanted to look back at two separate audience experiences that epitomise something of The Abbey experience. On 7 March I was a spectator at the U18 netball team’s winning semi-final that took them to the national play-offs in Loughborough. The team were magnificent and we led through every quarter – and then in the final quarter, our opponents fought back. The pressure was inexorable: the lead narrowed and narrowed until scores were level with only a minute or so to play. The tension was frankly horrible: it was almost impossible to watch. I was due at a vital meeting, but there was no way I could leave.

Netball, a little like cricket, does pressure like few other sports because of those moments of stillness amid action. The moment you receive a pass and must hold position and have only three seconds to find your next team-mate. The moment as you stand and prepare to shoot. The opportunities to test and lose your nerve are so stark. 

And then, in the final seconds, twice, we saw the extraordinary calm and strength and vision of the team as the pass was made, the shot lined up, the shot sunk. It was the defiance, the sense of personal and shared assurance, the refusal to admit defeat, the sheer burst of gladness and celebration as the team fought through – it was inspiring and uplifting.

From the sublime to… staff karaoke. This is a Senior School tradition, organised by the Upper V. For a week the Lecture Theatre becomes a lunchtime bearpit as staff fight through knock-out rounds for the chance to appear in Friday’s grand finale, raising money for charity as they go.

This is karaoke as you have seldom experienced it. There are backing dancers, wigs, outfits galore. The finale featured one member of staff who got through (I think) four costume changes in the course of a single song. A new colleague entered thinking it would be a simple matter of belting out a tune but by the end of the week was fully transformed into Elsa for a barnstorming Let It Go, featuring a live paper snow storm.

I don’t think there are words to do justice to the atmosphere in that Lecture Theatre. There are certainly no words to describe the quality of sound produced by the audience. It was exuberant, absurd, chaotic, delightful. It spoke of mutual trust and respect and affection. It was utterly silly and wholly magnificent.

It is not easy to say in a few words why The Abbey is such a wonderful place: but putting those two experiences side-by-side gets close to it. On the one hand, a determination, a commitment to excellence, a remarkable and mutually supportive level of achievement. On the other, a readiness to laugh, to embrace the experience, to let it go, to have sheer uncomplicated, untrammelled fun. On both hands, camaraderie and fellowship and joie de vivre. It really is very special.

Wishing you all a wonderful Easter break: wishing luck to our exam cohorts with focused revision alongside balance and time to re-charge; wishing freedom of spirit to all. We’ll see you next term.

Will le Fleming, Head

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