Saturday, August 30, 2008

London Life Part IV: National Theatre, National Church

Four more days to go. Friday, I decided not to see any shows as we were moving from the manor in Chiswick to a more modest but still lovely abode in Shepherd's Bush. Dave and Michelle were readying to leave early Saturday morning for camp and I would be heading to my hotel. So the day was filled with shopping and packing, with a little time to have lunch with more of Michelle's endless list of friends.

Saturday, I had planned 'A Day At The National'. The National Theatre complex has three spaces and at least five shows running all the time. I was to see a matinee of Never So Good, a new Howard Brenton play about British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan with Jeremy Irons in the central role, in the true proscenium space, the Lyttleton. Then in the evening, I was booked for another new play called ...some trace of her, a multi-media adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. That show was in the black boxish space, The Cottlesloe. But first, I went for a backstage tour.

It's always risky to go on a backstage tour of a really impressive theatre space because one can easily contract a crippling case of theatre envy. The National is designed to cause an epidemic of this syndrome as it is a complex that seems to provide for absolutely everything. Because most shows run in rep, there must be sufficient room in the spaces adjacent to the theatres to store entire sets (which, of course, must be built in a way that allows easy movement and reassembly). But when you live and breathe theatre, being behind the scenes in such a space is ultimately invigorating and I was grateful for the opportunity.

Never So Good was a marvelous production. Jeremy Irons was fantastic and all the other performances were flawless. (I was beginning to think there's something in that English theatre training.) While I would have benefitted from a greater understanding of the politics of the time, the story was fascinating and the production superb. In addition to expert performances and solid writing, the show had the most impressive pyrotechnics I had ever experienced. During war scenes there were barrels of raging fire, along with smoke that could only be caused by bombs. And when MacMillan is involved in a plane crash, an enormous fireball rolls downstage with enough heat to warm me in the tenth row. I know it's just spectacle but when the show also has substance...

It's hard to describe ... some trace of her. The concept for the show was to use live video to tell the story. So for every dramatic moment there is a film-shot and soundscape, usually accompanied by narration intended to seem like movie voiceover. The soundscape is created as it would be in film or radio, with actors using random objects to create the illusion of a real sound. The most fascinating part of the show was watching the performers race from one set-up to the next, arranging props, focusing cameras, mic-ing sound effects. It was a challenge to watch the video (where the story unfolds) and the live actors (who were working so hard to create an illusion for the film) at the same time. I was reminded of Vancouver's Electric Company and Boca del Lupo, both of which used similar effects in shows I saw last year. In the end, the result was somewhat alienating as the tale is told with filmed images rather than live actors and we were very aware of the illusion used to created those images. In addition, the fragmented style made the story difficult to follow for anyone not already familiar with The Idiot.

Sunday, my theatre was the streets of London. I spent the day walking through parks and by monuments, snapping pictures and trying to suck up as much history as I could. I went to a morning service at Westminster Abbey and an evening service at St. Paul's Cathedral. Both were true soul food for this sometimes-Anglican and I was again aware of the power of transcendent surroundings to give me a sense of the prescence of God and to fortify my worship. At Westminster Abbey I sat in the quire next to the choir and the experience was overwhelming. Sitting under the dome at St. Paul's was also beautiful, though not as stirring, and for the first time in my life I had communion twice in one day. I walked around again afterwards and by dark, I had impressive-building-overload and was unable to be moved by more gothic or Victorian architecture.

Monday was gallery day; so many museums, so little time. I was thankful that I had come to London with a particular plan (see lots of theatre) as there is so much to see and do in London that it would be difficult to know where to begin. I went to the National Gallery in the morning and the Tate Modern in the afternoon. I figured that would give me almost as wide a range of experience as two galleries could offer. I was not disappointed.

For my final show I had considered going to the Old Vic to see Pygmalion. (Start at the Young Vic, end at the Old Vic... an English chestnut of a play, in the English chestnut of a theatre...the Old Vic is the original home of the National...) But at the National on Saturday I realized that another new show there was to be the first play by a living female playwright on the Olivier stage. Not only would this allow me to see shows in all three of the National's spaces but it was clearly a piece of history in the making. I bought tickets to that and also to a Pinter one-act called A Slight Ache that played in the late afternoon in the Lyttleton. (All I have to say about that show is that I might not be as much of a Pinter fan as I thought.)

The evening production was a Rebecca Lenkiewicz play called Her Naked Skin. As it was still in previews, the critics hadn't weighed in yet and so I didn't really know what I was in for. (...some trace of her was also in previews when I saw it). The story involves suffragists at the start of the 20th century whose struggle to gain the vote for women involved more violence and sacrifice than I had realized. Significant portions of the play took place in Holloway prison, recreated as a towering series of metal cages that would roll into place on the stage's enormous revolve to a soundscape of clanging doors. This contrasted sharply with the comfortable surroundings of the House of Commons where the men laughed about the antics of these silly women whose husbands ought to keep them home where they belong.

The riveting story was scored by a live string ensemble and anchored by more flawless performances. I'm still not certain whether I like the central character - Lady Celia Cain - nor am I sure we're supposed to. But the entire performance was one of the most absorbing I've ever experienced and it included the most harrowing scene I have ever witnessed. Women in the prisons would go on hunger strikes to advance their cause and rather than give in or risk their death, the authorities followed a plan of forcible feeding. In one scene, the young protagonist Eve is subjected to this dreadful indignity in which a rubber tube is inserted into the stomach through the nose. As I sat horrified and sobbing I was conscious that this was true to history, true to life, and in some sense truly happening. Despite the nausea such a spectacle induced, I was grateful for the power of theatre to communicate to the core of our beings in a way nothing else can.

(I should mention that not all theatre patrons agreed. The very English couple walking in front of me as we exited remarked: "I don't think that one scene was necessary. Rather nasty, wasn't it.")

As I walked back to my hotel after the show I felt sated. I had sampled a delicious buffet of theatre in London and tasted many varied and delightful treats. I had walked miles, made new friends, eaten great food, and visited places I'd heard about since childhood.

I trust it will not be a lifetime before I return.

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