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.

The London Theatre Season

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.

Tim & Jan at St. Katherine's Docks

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…