Sunday, October 26, 2008

London notes

Four days in London wasn't nearly enough, but it was all that could be spared at this time of the always busy school year. I didn't have time to download my photos from the trip until yesterday, and no time at all for blogging.

I saw three shows in London: John Webster's The White Devil (a Jacobean revenge play chock full of back-stabbing, poison and other forms of bloodletting); Chekhov's first play, Ivanov (Kenneth Branagh in the title role with an ensemble of perfectly etched rural Russian characters of various social and economic standings); and of course Ray Davies' new musical Come Dancing (the central reason for my trip to the UK).

You can read reviews of Ivanov here and here. It's definitely a five star production. I arrived at the theatre not having read a single word about it. I admit that Chekhov is not one of my main theatrical interests. I was never forced to read Ivanov (The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Three Sisters were all required reading at one point or another) so all I really knew about this play was that the script was newly adapted by Tom Stoppard and I'd get a chance to see Branagh live on stage before my very eyes! Both reviewers commented on the most amazing physical response ever give on stage to a wad of money:

The great moment in Branagh's performance comes when Kevin R McNally's kindly Lebedev, dominated by his penny-pinching wife, covertly offers to lend Ivanov the money he owes them. McNally puts the eleven hundred roubles on the table with a nervous gesture. In one of the longest theatrical silences I've ever encountered, Branagh simply stares at the money before sliding to the floor in a wrecked, dishevelled heap. Branagh here touches the soul in a way I've not seen him do before; and what he shows is how his friend's pity is Ivanov's final undoing. [UK Guardian
And this insightful line from the Independent:
Branagh reacts to the wad of notes on the table with the stillness of infinite, clear-eyed sorrow, as though it were the accusing embodiment of his rock-bottom shame and then collapses in a stricken, silently sobbing foetal heap.
I had to see The White Devil because the opportunity for seeing it in the US has eluded me for my entire adult theatre-going life. The only other Webster play I have seen is The Duchess of Malfi, and that was also on a trip to the UK. Most notable aspect of this production was the space (an old chocolate factory turned into restaurant, art galleries and a black box theatre) and staging choices made by the director.

The stage was a long narrow raised strip stretched horizontally between two audience areas, so we were facing another audience on the far side of the action. Blood red curtains closed on both sides of the raised platform stage at the interval. Costuming was modern Godfather-style infused with overtones of Jacobean styling. The Independent loved it. The Guardian not so much.

As for Come Dancing, well that deserves a whole other post. I hope to get to it later today.

Other London notes: Where's the recycling? I didn't see any recycling bins put out for the causal consumer of plastic or glass bottles. I did see one small bin of separated paper put out for the trash. If any Londoners are reading, would appreciate your comments on recyling efforts in your town.

I also found the London air to be full of grime. Blow your nose, and you'll find a decided dark grey coloring. It also gets all over your face, whatever it is. Is there a lot of coal burning in London? Or is it from industrial smoke stacks?

On the positive side, I saw not one bit of vinyl siding in my UK travels. Stone, brick, flint, wood, and steel are the most prevalent building materials. For me, England remains a visual delight. The charm, the care and maintenance of centuries old structures -- all make for views that are much more than pleasant. Coming back to my home town, I am struck how tawdry the views are. From cheap and oh so convenient vinyl siding to haphazard residential and shopping sprawls littering the landscapes -- there's far more ugly around here than charming, that's for sure.

Another joy of British life is the availability of public transportation. British rail is a joy to use as are the undergrounds and buses. Out in the country, watching my aunt negotiate roads and bridges so narrow that drivers must take turns passing in opposite directions, I was struck how the very set up of Great Britain makes good manners essential in order to live peaceably. Everything is smaller, and so one's path through life must necessarily accommodate all the physical restrictions of living on an island.

A prime example let me contrast my hotel room in a three star hotel near Paddington with the hotels I've been staying at lately in Cincinnati and Chicago for various professional weekends. I could have fit my London room inside the bathrooms of the major US hotel chains. In Cincinnati, my hotel bed was larger than the entire room of my London hotel. My London bed was narrow, hard and right next to wall heater that had no apparent temperature controls. I could go on and on, but the main theme is one of US luxury and comfort versus London's almost Dickensian utilitarian offerings. No doubt, I could have found something luxurious somewhere in London, but the price would have been far beyond my means.

I soon got over my initial shock at how small my room was and how hard the bed, because I wasn't really planning on spending much time there other than to crash and store the numerous books I found myself purchasing along the way. I did find the National Theatre's book shop with a huge section just on educational theatre. And then there were the outdoor book stalls under Waterloo bridge.

No comments: