The weather was very blustery on Tuesday when Maddy suggested a picnic lunch. But we are hearty Canadians, and we gamely headed out to Victoria Park, near Chisenhale Dance Studios, where Maddy was working for the day.
Maddy has one of those great picnic backpacks with a full set of glasses, plates, cutlery, napkins, picnic blanket – it is one of those things that makes you wish you went on more picnics. For our lunch she made a wonderful Thai Noodle Salad, and we brought a mixture of olives and marinated vegetables. With a flourish, she pulled a bottle of chilled Cave (sparkling wine) out from the thermal section of the backpack. This is a girl who knows how to picnic!
Given the weather, it was not surprising that the park was practically deserted. Aside from a rather nosey squirrel and a Magpie (neither of whom liked olive pits, which is all we were sharing), we had the place to ourselves. It was a wonderful lunch, topped off with delicious coffee from a silver thermos. The weather may not have been inspiring, but the mood was perfect.
Maddy needed to work for the afternoon, but she directed us to Camden Town in search of a backpack for Tim. Built around canal trade 200 years ago, Camden Town today is a warren of shops – eccentric, extreme and surprising.
Part of the area is built on an old stable, used for housing the horses that pulled the barges. Hence the wonderful large bronze sculptures of horses everywhere as a nod to the history of the area.
Tourist shops are mixed in with craft stores, “head” shops, vintage and designer clothes. Camden Town is famous for its clothing and accessories and is known for alternative fashion: Burlesque, Goth, Fetish, 50’s Rockability/Psycobilly, Punk, Cyber/Clubwear, Elegant Gothic Lolita (I am not making this up!), DYI/Cartoon, Hippy/Ethnic. It was hard to know where to start!
After much walking and exploring we found just the right kind of backpack for Tim. I may just have to go back for some of those fetish leggings…
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?!”).
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).
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.
Because of our idyll in France, I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the cultural scene in London, so when our friend Jan Irwin arrived I was relying on her to choose some events that we could do together. Jan has been a wonderful mentor to me, and to most of the theatre community in Ottawa. Having her here was a great excuse for seeing a lot of theatre and exploring new parts of London.
Jan and I arranged to meet at noon on Thursday, in Trafalgar Square. On Wednesday, I decided to pop into the National Gallery. Because the galleries are free, you can just go in and out whenever you want. It is incredibly liberating. I visited the van Goghs, some lovely Manets and Monets, and a wonderful show on Norwegian and Swiss painters of the 19th century called Rocks and Forests. Sort of an equivalent response to environment as the Group of Seven.
When I came out of the gallery, I sat for a moment in the sunshine on the steps of St. Martins in the Fields. Staring out into the mass of humanity coming out of Trafalgar Square who did I see but Jan, a day early. In a city of 8 million (with probably another million tourists on any given day), the chances of running into someone seems slight, but there she was, and there I was. We went down into the Crypt of St. Martin’s, where there is a very reasonably priced café. Calm amid the intensity of central London. A quick visit to catch up and solidify our plans for the next day.
When we met as scheduled on Thursday, Jan was fighting a cold, so we decided to go to an Andalusian restaurant for lunch, where an inexpensive set 3-course lunch included a yummy garlic soup, guaranteed to fight germs. Our first show of the day was at just around the corner at The Theatre Royal Haymarket.
The Hay Market Theatre was originally built in 1720 and a theatre of many firsts – the first acting school (1741); first productions of Sheridan, Fielding, Oscar Wilde, Ibsen; and it’s a theatre that has been played in by every great English actor. Gielgud actually lived there, in the dressing room, for weeks on end during the blitz.
We’ve come to see the great Ralph Fiennes as Prospero in the Tempest. And he was brilliant. You feel that he was born speaking Shakespeare. Every word made sense and was entirely natural. He was not trying to “do” anything. The closing monologue was one of the most honest moments I have witnessed on stage.
Would that I could say the same for the rest of the production. There were a dozen different fairies/spirits that were heavy and earth bound, amateurish in their dances and awkward in their flying gear. Sent off by Prospero to “Go make thyself like a nymph o’ the sea”, Ariel returns, split into 3 different, chunky nymphs all dressed in diaphanous gowns that made them look more like heavy opera singers than nymphs. That they sang like castrati verified the image. Caliban was quite wonderful – a tortured slave, who has not yet learned civility but who, through the grace of being pardoned at the end, has come a longer road than anyone else in the journey.
All in all, some great acting, some inconsistent directorial decisions (how is it that Sebastian and Trinculo don’t hear the music that accompanies their song, but suddenly hear the music of the island, the music that accompanies the spirits songs?), some great lighting effects (terrific projections) and a lot to talk about over dinner.
Our evening show took us into a whole new area of London, down on the Thames past Tower Bridge to the quiet oasis of St. Katherine’s Docks.
These docks have been in use since 1125 AD. Bombed during the war, too small to now be a commercial port, St. Katherine’s Docks are now filled with luxurious yachts moored beside the walkways. The previous day, I had found a fabulous little Italian restaurant right on the water, so Jan and I arranged to meet Tim there for dinner before the show. We had one of those fast marvelous Italian dinners (with the most exquisite bread with olives in it) overlooking the locks and the Thames beyond.
Two Towers. Ten Years. Twenty plays. For Headlong Theatre’s “Legacy”, director Robert Goold commissioned a group of writers to write short plays in response to the legacy of 9/11. There has been a lot of discussion here about the artistic responses to 9/11, and as such, a lot of controversy. Some people argue that fictional or artistic responses somehow lesson the importance of the tragedy. Some argue that not enough time has passed for artistic response. Some argue that Americans own the story and that Goold is an outsider.
The show is in a former trading hall in an office building called Commodity Quay. We were led from the street through a metal detector and series of uniformed security personnel before we arrived at “Windows on the World” – an amazing re-creation of the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Centre north tower. From the menus on the tables to the view of Manhattan beyond, we were immersed in this iconic moment in time.
The plays were fused together seamlessly. They took place around us, beside us, in front of us as we sat nursing drinks in the restaurant. The actors performed in a glassed corridor above us, sat at tables, stood on tables, and moved among us. Transcripts from official speeches were interwoven with fictionalized plays – an imagined annual meeting of widows, movement pieces of flight attendants and firemen, a poor Arab shopkeeper who is suddenly the victim of hate crimes. Powerful, iconic images. Looking up. Running. Dust everywhere. Lives forever changed. The location was part of the story, and we were a part of the discussion.
9/11 will always be the subject of many viewpoints and no answers. I found “Legacy” respectful and honest and a very good way to focus on the people and on the city of New York, devoid of ideologies.
It was a great day of theatre, and wonderful moment to be in London. Tim & Jan & I enjoyed being with each other so much, we decided to spend the next night seeing a play together. Whatever we could get tickets to. Which, in this city of theatre, proved harder than expected…
On Thursday, we went to watch a Tempered Body Dance Theatre rehearsal. The company was rehearsing in a studio at the Chisenhale Dance Space, in East London, where our daughter Maddy is artist in residence. As we approached the converted warehouse we heard two people standing out on the third floor fire escape, rehearsing a Shakespearean scene. Clearly we were in the right part of town.
Tempered Body Dance Theatre is getting ready for their most ambitious show yet. “Body of Work” is a full-length piece that explores our complex relationship to our bodies, “the global epidemic of body unease”. On the day that we arrive, Maddy is putting the finishing touches onto one of the last sections of the piece. She explains that it is a technical, not a creative rehearsal. Which is why it is alright for us to watch.
There are 5 dancers in the piece, all of very different body types and energies. They are working through a complex part that involves a fluctuation between syncopated rhythms and tight unison precision. I love watching a dancer’s concentration. They use a shorthand of sounds to describe movements. A dancer listens and watches the choreographer’s direction and puts it into their body as they hear/see the movement. Weight shifts, muscle movements and small breath changes reflect their inner kinetic world, as they process the information.
Dancers are always working. Like an actor in a corner going over lines, they are always marking through passages to get the piece into their body memory. When they take a coffee break, they keep stretching and stay focused.
I find myself wishing that I could bring acting students into this room. It is all about the work. The concentration is thick. The honesty unhindered.
There was a marvelous moment after they had been working on a number of small bits. Maddy said she wanted to try the whole section, and did everyone remember it? There was a deep, concentrated silence for almost a full 2 minutes. Each dancer went through the passage in place, small gestures, spine lifts and falls, no one saying a word and then they all simultaneously looked up and were ready to go. They danced the section full out, to music. The emotions opened. We cried.
After the rehearsal, and a good post mortem over coffee, we head out for curry in Brick Lane. A lovely late afternoon meal, we stuffed ourselves with flavours and smells and watched the Brick Lane world go by. Dance is art, food is art.
One of the purposes of this trip is to allow ourselves to be surprised. While we were at Chisenhale, we found a flyer for “The Proms”. “The Proms” is the World’s largest classical music festival, with 74 nights of performances in Royal Albert Hall, as well as performances in the parks, events, lectures and activities. Tim looked at that evening’s schedule. Prom 72 was an evening of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Ravel. Favourite pieces, played by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit. We called for tickets and got 2 that were just turned in. It was a sold-out evening.
Royal Albert Hall is huge and gorgeous. And filled with thousands of people. I felt overwhelmed by the fact that all of these people were here to see the symphony not because it was good for them, but because they love it. And they come night after night. This is a crowd of young and old, wealthy bankers and poor students. Aside from the thousands in the stalls and boxes, there are hundreds of people who pay the low rate of £5 for standing room. However, I am grateful for the great seats we have, as I am sure I wouldn’t see a thing in that press of people in front of the stage. And seeing is as important as hearing. The fabulous horn section, the 6 percussionists! But the violin soloist for the Tchaikovsky was the star of the night.
Janine Jansen is a gorgeous, tall woman who plays with a fire that focused the hearts of the thousands in Royal Albert Hall that night. Never in my life have I enjoyed orchestral music this much. The piece was originally deemed unplayable. Written by Tchaikovsky for his male lover at a time when this was definitely not acceptable, the concerto is filled with a mixture of pain, desire and joy. Janine Jansen seemed possessed by the spirit of Tchaikovsky and channeled passion through her body and into the violin. She and the music were physically one and the same. It was miraculous.
The British Library is a beautiful modern building, an oasis in the city. The minute I turned the corner into the courtyard, the decibel level dropped. I went immediately into the Sir John Ritblat Gallery to look at the permanent collection. It has been a while since I have had time to gaze lovingly at manuscripts. Another lifetime ago. I stared at pen strokes, brush strokes and tiny lines of decorations, and noticed that my hand was tracing the lines in the air. Books of Hours, with their gorgeous illuminations and flat quadrata feet. They mesmerize me, because they require so much pen manipulation. The Codex Sinaiticus, with its exquisitie and pure of Greek letters, written in the 4th century. Lettering that reflects purity of thought.
I came around a corner and was suddenly face to face with The Lindesfarne Gospels, one of the most important manuscripts ever created and one that I spent a great deal of time studying in my former life. It was like coming across an old friend in London.
I spent a good long time visiting. We had a lot of catching up to do.
After a reflective and solitary cup of tea, I went perusing. There were a couple of fabulous special exhibits. One was the Library’s holdings of manuscripts by the writer and artist, Mervyn Peake. Anyone who has read the Gormanghast Trilogy knows that it is filled with elaborate, eccentric characters. It is Gothic and weird and wonderful. Peake was a visual artist as well as a writer, and his manuscripts are filled with sketches of characters and settings for the books.
Peake served in the Second World War. He was one of the first to go into the liberated concentration camp at Belsen, and he was tremendously affected by the experience. He wrote a poem called, “That Last Weak Cough”, and later, when the poem was published with his illustrations, he wrote about the importance of art to humanity.
“… (art) matters fundamentally … if man matters, then the highest flights of his mind and imagination matter. His wonder, his vitality matters. It gives the lie to the nihilists who cry “Woe” in the streets. For art is the voice of man, naked, militant and unashamed.” Mervyn Peake 1949
It never ceases to amaze me that if I open myself to ideas and experiences I find something that speaks to the questions I am asking. The combination of the Peake exhibit and the Manuscripts helped to remind me that every age, every generation, has a voice. Just because I am not “current” doesn’t mean I don’t have a perspective that is meaningful.
And then Peake spoke to me about nonsense:
“Nonsense can be gentle or riotous. It can clank like stones in the empty buckets of fatuity. It can take you by the hand and lead you nowhere. It’s magic – for to explain it, were that possible, would be to kill it. It swims, plunges, cavorts, and rises in its own element. It’s a favourable fowl. For non – sense is not the opposite of good sense. That would be “Bad Sense”. It’s something quite apart – and isn’t the opposite of anything. It’s far more rare.” Mervyn Peake.
So this is my watchword for the next little while, as I negotiate London. To plunge and cavort with a bit of nonsense, remembering that nonsense isn’t just silliness. It can be just as poignant and nostalgic and emotional as any meaningful artistic response.