Theatre under the trains

I could easily become paralyzed by the weight of possibilities on any given day. And easily end up in the poor house by trying to see all of the shows I’d like to see.

Because I have time in London I want to get out and explore what is being done in the smaller venues. But when Tim & Jan & I decided on Thursday that we wanted to see something on Friday almost everything was sold out – which is incredibly encouraging and exciting. While the West End theatres are full of tourists, the smaller venues are filled with a lively theatre going public of Londoners. For as long as there has been a London, people have gone to theatre, and they always will.

After a fair amount of searching, we managed to get tickets to a play at the Southwark Theatre. We chose it partly because Jan wanted to visit nearby Southwark Cathedral, where Shakespeare’s brother is buried (“What? A brother? Who knew?!”).

Jan outside of Southwark Cathedral. It is very large!

The Cathedral is beside the train tracks at the London Bridge station. A sacred site since the 7th century, it is reputed to be where Shakespeare and Chaucer worshipped. In the 17th century, the Archbishop was asked to be on the committee that wrote the King James Bible. In those days the church ministered to the actors, foreign craftsmen, merchants, “ladies of the Bankside Brothels” and the disreputable sorts who lived on the south bank. So it is a church with a very diverse and impressive history.

Outside the cathedral we came upon a memorial for Mahomet Weyonomon, a Sachem (chief) of the Mohegan tribes of Connecticut. The Mohegan tribes had helped the settlers in their first winter in the New World and became allies of the English. In 1705, the Mohegans were deeded their land by an order in Parliament, but New World settlers took over the Mohegan land. Mahomet, an educated man who spoke and wrote several languages including English and Latin, sailed to London in 1735 to petition King George II to return the lands. While awaiting an audience with the King, he contracted smallpox and died.

Because foreigners could not be buried in the City, his body was carried across the river and he was buried near the present day Southwark Cathedral. The memorial in his honour was erected at the request of the Mohegan tribe in 2006, and was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II “symbolically granting Mahomet the audience he never received.”

A fascinating bit of history connecting the old world with the new world and with the even older world.

Mahomet’s memorial looks over the Borough Market beneath the railway viaducts, between the Thames and Borough High Street. We looked down from where we were standing and saw a great outdoor BBQ under the arches, where we could get heaping bowls of  paella (not as good as Tim’s but with enormous King Prawns).

BBQ under the viaducts of London Bridge

There are surprises around every corner. One minute you are reading a plaque about a first nations chieftain, the next you are eating paella. Walk a few blocks, and you are at the Southwark Playhouse. 

The Southwark consists of two small theatres, carved out of the space under the brick arches of the London Bridge train tracks. We entered through a narrow alleyway to find a cave-like theatre lobby, where an incredibly age-diverse range of people were getting drinks and lining up for the plays. Two plays were on: “Parade” (Jason Robert Brown’s musical) and “The Belle’s Stratagem”, a comedy of manners play by Hannah Cowley that first premiered in 1780. Apparently this is the first production since 1880, and it is fabulously fun. Not to be confused with George Farquhar’s “The Beaux’ Stratagem” (The Haymarket Theatre, 1707), “The Belle’s Stratagem” is a fantastic re-discovery.

With virtually no set other than some background curtains to decorate the vitally important entrance and exit doors, the 16 actors rely on wit and timing to charm us. Clothed in period costume, they occasionally burst out into Restoration style renditions of Spice Girls (“Tell me what you want, what you really, really want” scans perfectly if you pronounce every syllable.) The play is wildly funny and bawdy and works perfectly in this venue, where every London reference seems to touch the bricks walls and archways that form the backdrop to the action. It is one of the treats of being here that we can make discoveries like this.

After the show we bid a fond farewell to Jan, with hopes that she will join us again later in the year.

The next day I headed off to see another site-specific show, this time in the Old Vic Tunnels.  The tunnels have a theatre space under the brick archways of the train tracks under Waterloo station. The play that I have come to see is “Orpheus and Eurydice”, a production of the National Youth Theatre.

I am particularly interested in the work that the NYT is doing. Young people (approximately 18 – 21 years old) come from all over the country to audition to be cast in NYT productions. The show I am seeing is the result of students spending a summer in the National Youth Theatre Company. Written especially for the company, the students work with a professional director, composer, designers, choreographers etc.

This production of “Orpheus and Eurydice” is a modern opera re-telling the Greek myth. The dark tunnel setting perfectly creates the underworld where Eurydice struggles to hang onto life and to her belief that Orpheus will come to rescue her.

We entered the theatre space through misted tunnels, past gurneys with bodies hooked up to medical equipment. We negotiated scary looking guards – large men with tattoos, masks and clubs – and walked over a “river” under the floor boards. The world was dark and dank. Watching Orpheus and Eurydice facing various demons, memories and challenges and it became clear that the starting point for this modern version is an organ transplant that is going very wrong.

This was bold and gutsy piece, in a raw, dirty space. Hearing, and feeling, the trains rumbling above our heads added to the strength of the production. This is not clean and antiseptic theatre.

So in my first week of seeing plays in London I have gone from the lavish, historic theatricality of the Haymarket Theatre, to the graffiti encrusted walls of the Old Vic tunnels. I am definitely not in Kansas any more.

Author: Amanda West Lewis

AMANDA WEST LEWIS has built a life filled with words on the page and on the stage, combining careers as a writer, theatre director and calligrapher. Her new book, The Pact, (Red Deer Press) was released in the fall of 2016. It has been listed on the 2017 USBBY OUTSTANDING INTERNATIONAL BOOKS LIST; selected for the 2017 ILA YOUNG ADULTS’ READERS CHOICES LIST; Nominated for 2017 SNOW WILLOW AWARD; and listed in the CANADIAN CHILDREN’S BOOK CENTRE BEST BOOKS FOR KIDS & TEENS, Spring 2017. SEPTEMBER 17: A NOVEL was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downie IODE Award. Amanda has an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her theatre career, Amanda is the founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, where she teaches and directs children. She has developed specialized drama and literacy programs for youth at risk, and for children with autism spectrum disorder. She has a Certificate in Theatre for Young Audiences with Complex Difficulties from Rose Bruford College, England. In 2015, Amanda co-produced the hit play “Up to Low” is based on the book by Brian Doyle. As a professional calligrapher and book artist, Amanda is passionate about the history of writing and has taught calligraphy courses to students of all ages. She studied with Hermann Zapf, Mark Van Stone and Nancy Culmone among many others. Amanda lives with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones, in the woods in Eastern Ontario. They have three wonderful grown children. Find out more on her website at http://www.amandawestlewis.com/

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