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June 3, 2011 10:03 pm

All the world’s a stage ...

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Simon Marsden, head of production at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Simon Marsden, head of production at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Simon Marsden is in some senses an expat both in Canada and in Britain, while in other senses he is an expat in neither. He was born in Hanover, Germany, to British parents (though his mother was born in Calcutta); his father was in the army. Marsden grew up in England until the age of seven, when the family moved to Canada. This is where he has spent most of his life, most recently in a town called Stratford, Ontario.

Then came an unexpected job opportunity. Now, at the age of 40, he finds himself – with his Canadian wife Jennifer and their five-year-old daughter Taite – living in Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK.

Being British was part of Marsden’s upbringing because he used to visit his grandparents in the UK, but he speaks with a Canadian accent and thinks of himself as Canadian. The more he talks on the subject, the more confused he feels. He has been a Canadian citizen since he was 18 and remains a resident for tax purposes but also has British residency.

In April last year, he landed his dream job as head of production at the Royal Shakespeare Company. As a senior member of a 250-strong production team, he oversees the budgets, schedules and creation – scenery, lighting, sound, costumes and props – of all RSC productions, of which there are about 12 a year. A recent problem that faced his department was how to realise a director’s vision of flying children in such a way as “to make it look magical but also to satisfy health and safety [rules]”.

When Marsden moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, the job also became his hobby, community and social life. It permeates every aspect of his life and he loves it. On the one hand, he feels like he has come home. On the other, he is missing extended family and friends in Canada. He is “oddly irritated” that whenever he opens his mouth here, he is asked where he is from, and feels “that people are clocking all the time that you are from far away”.

As a child he moved every couple of years or so from town to town. He lived in Dryden, Winnipeg, and Mississauga near Toronto, among others. From 1995 to 2009 he settled in Stratford in Canada where he met Jennifer and worked as technical director at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – which resembles the RSC but has no connection to it.

“When I was small,” Marsden says, “home was always about the people around me, not the towns I was in. I became very good at first impressions and getting to know people. In terms of forming relationships, I never really did that until stopping in Stratford [Canada] in my twenties.”

In 2008 a job came up in Macao, China, soon after Taite was born. For Marsden it was “a breeze” to move to the other side of the world. For his wife, who had mainly known being in one place, it was more a question of seizing the moment.

But soon after they arrived in Macao they realised that neither of them liked it. He was working in “a Cirque du Soleil-type show”, which was much larger and more commercial than the classical theatre he was used to. They were living in high-density housing with a luxurious pool, surrounded by people from all over the world. It was the highest standard of living Marsden had ever experienced but he found himself unable to strike a good work-life balance and felt like a fish out of water both at home and work. Taite, however, had a wonderful time at the international school.

Marsden says it had “fab facilities funded by the casinos all around”. He appreciated the Portuguese architecture but was less enamoured of the commercial, seedy side of life in the town. He began trawling websites for jobs and couldn’t believe it when, in November 2009, he happened upon the RSC job that was tailor-made for him.

He applied instantly. The process was long. They left China and went back to Canada. He had hopes but no firm offer, so it was a nerve-wracking eight weeks during which the couple asked themselves if they wanted to travel from (Canadian) Stratford again. But then the call came, “the opportunity of a lifetime” and there was no hesitation. He is now “living that life”. It was also an opportunity to put down roots for the first time. Marsden’s attitude towards moving has shifted since having a child himself.

 
Stratford, Ontario

Stratford, Ontario

“To me this is a permanent move,” he says. “Let’s stop this madness – China was a hiccup – and stay put. But I am still achieving that goal: an international move. Oh, there it is! I just said it: I do consider living here as living away from home. I am trying to reconcile this in my head. Where is home and what does that mean? Perhaps it doesn’t matter which Stratford. Perhaps it’s still where extended family and dear friends are, and Jen’s mum who’s in her eighties. That is hard – a parent getting older. On the other hand, the day Jennifer got a job at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, our roots extended another foot. That was important.”

As was Taite settling into a new school – she had already been to several – and the friendliness of the local publican, and the butcher with his white moustache. Marsden also loves the similarities with his old life in the other Stratford. He now lives in Old Town, which is a seven-minute walk to the RSC’s new theatre. Just as he used to in Canada, he walks along the river to work, looking at swans. The family’s rented terraced house is smaller and there is no grass, but Marsden is getting accustomed to living “in a compact way”. A bigger house would have been 10 miles out of town and required a car. He is hoping to buy somewhere soon and is meanwhile rapidly making neighbourhood friends.

“I’ve always been an expat, always felt I was from ‘away’,” he says. “In Canada it was another town. Here, it’s Canada. But it’s kind of nice. It gives you confidence about travel, new opportunities and ideas. I’ve definitely benefited from that, though I don’t really have any close friends anywhere. In England, men getting on so well in the pub is foreign to me. They have a history. I’ve always been on the go, so I’ve missed forming those relationships, that being normal. Getting to the next stage of friendship is difficult, it takes time, but it may start now.”

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Buying guide

Pros

Living in a small community near Birmingham and within reach of London

The windows in Holy Trinity Church are so old that Shakespeare could have looked through them

Homely, with a feel of easy living

Good restaurants: The Rooftop at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, The West End, Lambs, The Dirty Duck

Pashley bicycles are made here – they’re heavy but reliable and comfortable

Cons

Not cosmopolitan

Taxi drivers are not very politically correct

Trains to London are not frequent enough

Housing costs

Five-bed house with indoor pool – £925,000

Three-bed terraced house in Old Town – £290,000-£320,000

Two-bed flat to rent – £650 per month

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