Monday, August 25, 2008

London Life Part III: Three Shows in Two Days

After all the waiting in line I did on Monday and Tuesday, I was determined that Wednesday would involve no queues at all. Michelle and I set off for the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, the place you go to get day-of half-price tickets. (A tip to those planning a theatre trip to London. There are innumerable "Half-price Ticket Booths" in central London but TKTS is the only one with all available shows. The others generally have musicals only.) I had checked the day before and was quite sure a couple shows I wanted to see would be available.

With a short wait in a short line that I'm not counting, we got tickets to the matinee of a new play called The Female of the Species by Australian Joanna Murray-Smith, and tickets to the evening performance of a new play called Under the Blue Sky by David Eldridge. Then we had the rest of the day to play. (A note about the definition of "new". As is often the case in New York, plays don't really count until they arrive in the West End. Although both of these shows were billed as new, the first had played in Australia and the second was a transfer of sorts from the Royal Court. But some changes were made and they had not been published before now.)

My days in the beautiful house in Chiswick were numbered, something I knew before I arrived, as Dave and Michelle were going camping. (I can't let that comment go by without a wee explanation. When I say 'camping', what I mean is that they and their girls would be meeting up with others from their church at something called New Wine. An annual event run by the Church of England, New Wine involves tenting in a field in the English countryside with 20,000 other Anglicans, cooking for themselves in groups, and getting together for worship and singing and so forth. I told Michelle that the only way I could understand this idea was to imagine the event being much like the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter. I trust her tent was also magically accommodating.)

So on Saturday, they would head to the country and I would move to a hotel I had booked online months before. Michelle and I thought it would be wise to check out the hotel before I moved in to ensure it was suitable and once we had show tickets in hand, we set off on foot to find the Warwick.

One of the reasons I found the old part of central London so disorienting is that it didn't change. I walked from Covent Garden to Leicester Square to Charing Cross to Trafalgar Square - all places I'd heard of since my childhood - and it felt the same. There was no sense of moving from one part of town to another. (Probably because I hadn't.)

Wednesday's walk was different, taking us through many neighbourhoods and along avenues and through parks. It took most of my visit to get used to how close things are. London is definitely a city seen best by walking and the walk to the hotel was delightful. My directional instincts were intact and we walked easily, consulting the map from time to time only to confirm that we were in the right place.

The hotel was just as it looked on the website, including the squeaky-clean closet-sized rooms and personable staff. Having lived in luxury for much of the trip, I was determined to have a more typical London experience. Michelle said the room was normal-sized for London and the bathroom larger than the one in their first flat. In combination with the excellent location, I determined it would be the perfect headquarters for the solo part of my stay.

For lunch, Michelle and I stopped by a market to buy the fixings for a picnic and settled onto the grass in Russell Square. We remarked to ourselves that we were having a lovely day.

That feeling didn't change at the first show, a raucous comedy that managed to make us both laugh and cry. The central character is a famous feminist author who is confronted in her home by a former student threatening to kill her for ruining her life. Trust me, it's funnier than that might sound. The acting wasn't flawless but it was very, very good and Dame Eileen Atkins was spot-on as the writer Margot Mason.

The only negative element in the day was that I got blisters from all the walking with sweaty feet. (I confess I had not anticipated that London would be so hot. Most of the time I was there it was hot, sunny and humid. When added to the famous London grime, I greeted the end of each day sticky and grey. But who's complaining?)

After exploring and shopping a bit (flip-flops for my injured feet, for one), we grabbed a coffee in a wonderfully air-conditioned Starbucks before the evening performance.

As the lights went down, we were surrounded by the sound of a magnificent explosion. Michelle grabbed my hand and we caught our breath. This was going to be a wild ride!

It wasn't. The play is composed of three, two-person scenes, each involving some sort of male-female love relationship, and all characters are disillusioned teachers at the same school. The first scene had such painful acting that I was conscious of reading the lines on the page. This was further complicated by a set design that was hostile to movement, forcing the actors to sit in awkward places and converse from difficult angles. The second scene had similar set problems. It was quite sexual in content and I felt like a trapped voyeur, witnessing someone's adolescent humiliation. It was unpleasant and uncomfortable, though the acting was much better. The third scene saved the night. The set finally worked, the acting was lovely, and the writing provided some sense of redemption. When this couple decides to risk loving each other the relief in the audience was palpable. The most interesting part of the show was the need of the audience for something to work out well. It was instructive of the power of theatre and the nature of humankind. Satisfying, really.

After the show, Michelle and I grabbed a late dinner and headed back to Chiswick. A nearly perfect day.

The next day I hung around Chiswick with the fambly and then headed to Shakespeare's Globe by myself to see King Lear. For those who don't know, the idea behind the Globe is to recreate the theatre of Shakespeare's time. All tickets are reasonably priced and it's positively cheap to stand in the pit as a groundling, although the ushers do not allow you to sit down, even against the walls, and you will get wet if it rains. Again, I had bought the last ticket available so I was sitting in the north tower, right round by the stage, two balconies up on the stage left side. It was the ideal spot because it allowed me to see the entire space and suck up the pleasure of being there.

Michelle had told me that she loves walking in old London on the brick streets because it is so easy to imagine others on those streets hundreds of years before. The Globe is like that. I was transported by watching the people and imagining the past. Although Michelle has never been to the Globe without being rained on, the sky was a beautiful clear blue that gradually darkened to provide fitting ambience for the production.

I stayed in my seat for the first half (more like the first two-thirds at almost two hours!) and went down to the pit after the interval to experience life as a commoner and to be closer to the stage. That is a plan I'd recommend for the full Globe experience.

The acting was superb once more and David Calder was a marvelous Lear. It is hard for me to know whether my response to the show was the result of the excellent production or the whole experience. Whatever the reason, I was enthralled, delighted, and moved.

As I walked across the Thames from the Southbank, watching the lights glittering on the water, listening to the animated voices of those around me, and reliving the nuances of my evening, I was again grateful for this opportunity.

And I still had four more days!

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