Theatre Mirror Reviews - "London Sojourn"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Paul Barstow

"London sojourn "

A Letter from Paul Barstow

Date: Tue, 10 Sep 2002 21:37:41 EDT
Subject: London sojourn

On Sunday, September 8, I returned from a twelve-day Elderhostel program in London. This was called "Inside the Monarchy: Royal Lives and Homes," and it seemed very appropriate for Her Majesty's Golden Jubilee year, everywhere featured and festuned. I found this adventure splendid, stimulating and satisfying. It was also kind of a review program for me, since I had previously visited almost all of the sites but, in some cases, years ago. I could drop my sophistication and be a tourist again -- correction, "traveler." We had an excellent Group Leader, an enthusiastic Course Director, and a fine lecturer. Everything ran with confident assurance -- meals, busses, entrance times, etc. Our hotel in South Kensington was very comfortable and near enough to tube and bus stops to make trips to the West End fast and easy. Our group of twenty-eight proved very agreeable and all were prompt, good -humored and inv! olved.

On the first day walk-about I discovered a wonderful photographic exhibition outside the Natural History Museum: EARTH FROM ABOVE. These stunning pictures were focused on perils to the environment. I also popped into the dear old Victoria and Albert Museum (decorative arts), the Brompton Oratory (famous baroque Catholic house of worship, and the parish church of St. Augustine of Canterbury designed by Butterfield, the architect of my Oxford college, Keble.

Day two began with a trip to Swedenburg Hall for the first lecture by Richard Tames, on "Sacred Kingship." This was incisive, informative, etc. but, like the subsequent lectures, essentially narrative and annecdotal rather than analytical. He avoided mistique and ideology and passed over decisive changes in the nature of the institution [e.g. Richard II / Henry IV; Charles I / Charles II; James II / William and Mary, etc.] But there are few of us left to whom these issues seem important. Twice, after these lectures, I had lunch in the Great Court of the British Museum, an awesome space. I spent the afternoon obtaining tickets and making a profitable stop at the Tourist Information Center in Lower Regent Street to pick up swarms of booklets and brochures which I hope will make things vivid and interesting for my nursing home Arm-Chair Travel clubs. After dinner we had a nice bus trip around the city and to t! he Angel pub in Docklands, near Tower Bridge.

Next morning we had a fine tour of the Houses of Parliament. Their design is really very practical, and the premises are a regular riot of heraldry, royal portraits and historical paintings. Then I was off to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the reconstruction near the original site. It is an astonishing re-creation and a superb performing venue -- vast platform stage, pit, and three galleries.

TWELFTH NIGHT was performed in the style and with the costumes of about 1600, with an all male cast. I like this approach, but it was less successful than I had expected because they chose to "camp" up and mock the male performances of the female roles. The play's lyricism was almost totally lost. Mark Rylance [the Theatre's director], as Olivia, moved about on roller-blades under a very long skirt and was a mannered eccentric. I have never liked his choices as actor or director. This production was somehow coarse and vulgar. Orsino had a very strong Scots accent -- nothing to do with character but all to do with actor. Why an alian Scot in Illyria? Feste and Fabian were fine, Maria good (though, again, campy); Sir Andrew was okay but got little support from a poor Sir Toby. Malvolio was slimey effeminate -- not an appropriate choice in my view. Viola and Sebastian and Antonio were fair to! middling. The giant stage was well used, with spare furniture and props. There was nice music. The lovely play about love never happened, For those who saw it, let me assure you that John Barrett's production of TWELFTH NIGHT at the Vokes Theatre this July was (in my always humble opinion) a far better realization of the play. {I had both lunch and dinner at the fine Globe cafe.}

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Globe was de-constructed. The apparent setting at the opening was a communal bed-room -- all blankets, pillows and pajamas, with the sleepers set in motion by an alarm-clock ring. The faries had sort of jump-suits with flashing trace-lights. The other costumes were non-descript concessions to day-clothing conventions. The production adopted the Theseus/Oberon, Hyppolita/Titania, Philostrate/Puck double-casting which has become commonplace and works very well. For some reason both Theseus and Oberon were Irish immigrants to "Athens," which had no "place" but the open stage. The actors spoke very clearly and well -- pretty slowly. Accoustics and projection were both good. No emphasis was given to verse, though it could occasionally be detected. The gracious finale of the blessing of the house and the lovers was completely lost.

This being said, the production was glorious and hysterically funny. Each single characterization was so apt as to be definitive. Almost every moment was fully realized. Bottom was a super-nova star -- past perfection in every line, move and gesture. Puck had a dancer/acrobat's grace and lots of "spontaneous" interaction with segments of the audience, precisely focused. Rulers, lovers, mechanicals and faries were all superb ensemble performers. Their PYRAMUS AND THISBE was the best I have seen in sixty years of DREAMs. This was great theatre.

With TWELFTH NIGHT I liked the concept but not the execution. With MND I did not like the concept but loved the execution. What a pill I am, never satisfied!

Of the exhibition, examination and evaluation of love, which the two texts so eloquently speak about, there was precious little in either production. C'est la vie!

The next day brought a fine, leisurely tour of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace. [Her Majesty was up at Balmoral, away from the crowds.] I was amazed here, as elsewhere on this tour, by the warmth, friendliness and courtesy of attending staff, guides, etc. I think a turn-around is in progress. I spent the evening reading the texts of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, preparing for the morrow.

From 11:00 am to 10:30 pm I was at the Royal National Theatre for the Tom Stoppard trilogy THE COAST OF UTOPIA. My esteemed colleague and beloved friend Ken Happe (recently retired from the classics faculty of the College of the Holy Cross) was there, and we had lunch and dinner together. [Several couples, either in adjacent seats or at the restaurants were very pleasant.]

In THE COAST OF UTOPIA a large number of reformist intellectuals, mostly in exile, fail in a variety of endeavors to create or stimulate reform in the repressive Tsarist state of mid-nineteenth century Russia, ruled by Nicholas I. To me the most memorable of these figures were: Alexander Herzen (cynical but both passionate and compassionate as an engine of intellectual energy with something moderate and practial to teach us); Michael Bakunin (has in each episode at last just discovered the truth and the right path of action); Ivan Turgenev (the astute observer of his class and country); and Vissaarion Belinsky (lost in the fervent maze of his own musings). These figures have families, friends, associates, etc. The women presented seem to exist for the main purpose of postulating celibacy for political advocates [i.e. they make domesticity messy.]. The three linked but seperate texts (VOYAGE, SHIPWRECK and SALVAG! E) provide occasions for stunning theatrical experiences. The designs and the staging are stupendous, while individual performances and the ensemble are both splendid. The production is continuously interesting, sometimes involving, and often stimulating, but the inclusion of a large number of quite indistinguishable, inconsequential and radically unmemorable personae (sisters, parents, wives, freinds, partisans, etc.) clutter the moral, intellectual and narrative landscapes, while the visual spectacles and the aural patterns remain precise and potent.

This is a major event in the careers of playwright, director Trevor Nunn, the designers, the uniformly excellent cast and for the richly blessed audience.

On Sunday we had a full day trip into Kent for charming Rochester, on the Medway River (castle, cathedral, museum and town) and to the royal naval museum at the Chatham dockyard. We drove past the Greenwich Naval College, the Queen's House, etc.

On Monday we had another lecture and a fine visit to Westminster Abbey. Then I went to see THE CONSTANT WIFE. Maugham's play, engagingly stylized for its 20's period, was a well-performed delight and a reminder of an era in West End theatre. I had no idea Maugham was such an unstrident feminist. All the roles were polished save for the gormless mistress, too vulgar to be believable in this elegant ensemble. Ken Happe was again on hand for convivial comment.

Next we had a good trip to Runnymede and Windsor. The castle is always fascinating, and the restoration of St. George's Hall [after the terrible fire of 1992] is magnificant, with an heraldic shield for each of some 900 Kinghts of the Garter from the fourteenth century to now on the walls and ceiling. The restored hammer-beam ceiling represents a revival of crafts long lost and is an improvement on the former hall, destroyed by fire.

My next show was SLEUTH, an effective and polished production of this 30 year-old mystery. The set was modern - elegant. I found that Peter Bowles spoke too rapidly for comprehension, and his skillful performance seemed by now routine. Gray O'Brien was very charismatic -- alive moment by moment. This was a tired trifle but still enjoyable.

En route I had the traumatic experience of being offered a seat on the tube by a young man. I had hoped I didn't look that old and feeble. At the next stop I offered my seat to a lady who refused it. Before she got off she thanked me again for my offer. Civility may be coming back into fashion.

Wednesday was devoted to the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery and a final lecture on the "Media Monarchy." After dinner we took the ferris-wheel ride on British Airways London Eye for spectacular views of the city.

Thursday brought our tour of the Tower Of London, always a fascinating place. Then I went on to Somerset House for the Gilbert Collection of gold, silver, jewels, micromosaics, etc. It is stupendous.

Next was THE MIKADO (Gilbert and Sullivan) at thge Savoy Theatre on the Strand.

Musically, this production by the D'Oyly Carte Company was rewarding -- lush orchestrations and fine voices. The settings and staging were okay. But the "concept" did not work. The "Gentlemen of Japan" were in Edwardian coats and ties, with big mustaches and bowler hats over their third-rate "samurai" wigs. Their over-garments were"Japanese." Their faces were whitened to "masks" and these whitened faces were, of course, very uneven. Nanki-Poo had a sharp, clear front-face; his love had only a pale smear. The girls had Victorian undergarments with obis -- it was all messy and unattractive. The "everybody" minister was excellent, as was the Mikado, with an ermine-lined coronation robe, a tiny jeweled crown (cf. Queen Victoria's late headgear) and a cluster of Union Jacks (a la Bejing opera generals) at his back. The concept and execution were messy. One was left with the charm and wit of dialogue, lyrics and m! usic.

Friday brought a splendid trip to charming Richmond and from there a river cruise to Hampton Court. I made a thorough tour of the palace and grounds. Glorious!

That evening I saw Martin Mcdonagh's THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE at the Garrick. This seemed a cross between Brendan Behan and Grand Guignol, and the blood-drenched farce was annoyingly incomprehensible because of rapid-fire Irish dialect accompanying rapid-fire, as a group of terrorists are devastated and deranged by the demise of feline pets Wildly splattered blood and sawed-up body parts induce laughter as a defense against nausea. "Mad Padriac" (Peter McDonald) was both brutal and winsome as the champion among these mental-defective killers. I'm gald I saw it but I can't say I liked it.

Our final day began with a very interesting trip to Kensington Palace. There were special exhibits of the Queen's dresses, Diana's dresses and Royal wedding gowns.There were excellent audio-guides to the displays and the rooms.

Finally, to the Theatre Royal Haymarket for the Royal Shakespeare Company production of ANTONY AND CLEOPATERA, with Sinead Cusack and Stuart Wilson-- neither adequate to the great roles. They were full of pique and petulance but void of power and passion. Both voices are nasal and thin; both bodies and movement/gesture lacked grandeur or charisma. Each of them fully personified the scathing descriptions of ther foes but had none of their self-described greatness.Enobarbus and Octavius were both excellent, sonorous and stable -- all that the principals lacked, The Moorish archway-framed neutral setting worked admirably. The battle clashes were rock-concert flashes of light and sound. There was an eccentric anthology of costumes, neither Egyptian nor Roman. Both death throes were squalid non-tableaux.

No verse was spoken, and each of the principals had real struggles with language, showing emotion by stutters and mumble. The Royal Shakespeare Company should do better than this.

Our final dinner was rather melancholy. For this group to be separating was poignant. We had enjoyed each other, our leaders, and the whole enterprise.

Thanks for your patience. In October I'll be off for a cruise from Amsterdam to Basel.

Faithful best wishes, Paul Barstow

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