JAN. 19- DAY SIX- MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
I awoke feeling terrible; the cold no longer merely mild. Though my head was strangely not congested; I still felt logy, drippy, and had a slight cough. I hate being one of those vilely infected playgoers who inflict themselves on the rest of the audience with their hacking, hawking, snuffling, and wheezing.
So I shot to Boots on the Strand to get some ever-trusty Lemsip, a hot elixir that works wonders on allaying cold symptoms, and to see if I could acquire some medicine that would halt this thing dead in its tracks. Chemists here have potions and pills that you can get right over the counter sans prescription that work wonders. I’ve no idea why such easily-obtainable miracle drugs are not similarly available in the States. Or, perhaps, I do…can we all say greed and obscene profit?
I purchased the recommended capsules, then strolled into the Aldwych to pick up our tickets at the Novello for tonight’s MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. My heart twinged as I passed the building where, until two years ago, stood the Theatre Museum… which, despite a vociferous effort by a dedicated group of theatre folk, could not be saved. Its treasured artifacts went back to the Vickie and Al from whence they came and promptly into storage, save for occasional displays in that venerable institution. Damned shame. This was one place I visited on each trip. Always wonderful displays and bits of history that I did not know…often showing archival footage of great plays and performances. The last time, they had a wonderful exhibit from the late fifties “angry young man period” of British Theatre and a terrific display of the Redgrave dynasty.
I passed the now-empty edifice enroute to Covent Garden, as it was Antique Day at the market…though nothing remotely interested me. I’m not one for silver, glassware, or jewelry. So I beat a path home, popped my pills, and slept most of the afternoon.
Despite our over-familiarity with MIDSUMMER, we had opted for this RSC production because of their usual high standards and some gorgeous photos of it on the internet. I’m glad we did. The production was beautiful and funny and not the usual tedium I find it. Stunning sets, costumes, and effects, and some clever actor-activated puppetry multiplied the host of faeries in this production. The lovers, usually the dreariest part of the play, were the best I’ve ever seen…lively and engaging.
Edward Bennett, who made a stir stepping into the role of HAMLET as David (Dr. Who) Tennant’s understudy when that actor was sidelined with back problems for most of the sold-out London run, was great as Demetrius and one sees why he won acclaim for his Hamlet. He seems a young actor with a bright future.
The faeries were imaginatively delineated characters, as they playfully tormented lovers and clowns alike. I also enjoyed Riann Steele, as a haughty and recalcitrant Hippolyta, who seemed neither particularly pleased with the prospect of her impending nuptials nor her intended imposing “woman as chattel” decrees that thwarted young love.
The medicine kept my coughing and snuffling to a discreet minimum, but I was glad to finally get home for a pasta dinner, some more Dave TV, and bed.
JAN 20- DAY SEVEN – AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
The malady lingers on, but the Boots remedies keep the cold at bay and me functioning, if not exactly tap-dancing through the day. It helps that I slept well, not so Julieanne. So while she had a lie-in, I trundled over the bridge and down the South Bank to pick up our tickets for Friday at the Old Vic. There’s been rumbling in the papers the last few days about the play, COMPLICIT. Kevin Spacey has pushed back the official opening night and the rumour is that Richard Dreyfuss is having his as-yet-unlearned lines fed to him through an ear-piece he’s apparently sporting.
Since the opening has been pushed back, I’m now essentially paying full price for a preview. I don’t care. Spacey occasionally takes a lot of flak…much of it unfair… from the Brit papers, but I’ve enjoyed the shows I’ve seen there under his tenure (Jacobi in THE TEMPEST…not the best Tempest, but the best Prospero I ever saw; Spacey, Eve Best, and Colm Meaney in a fabulous MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN). I also admire Spacey for his dedication to theatre when he could be making a mint in movies and to this theatre, in particular. I think he’s been very invigorating for it. And he’s been a great champion of and spokesman for British theatre and theatre, in general.
On the way back, I stopped at the National bookshop and bought copies of the plays we’ll be seeing. The bookshop could make a fortune if they’d sell all-region DVDs. I also did a whirl-by of the South Bank Book Market Stalls as I headed home and then ran into Deanna heading for her matinee, so I walked her back. I had seen photos of her, so there was no surprise in seeing her after thirty-odd years. But even if I hadn’t seen her until that moment, I’d have recognized her instantly. She has not changed all that much.
(Larry Drake, Me, Deanna Dunaga, Don Wyse in THE RAINMAKER)
Julieanne was out by the time I returned with papers and my lunch from one of the plethora of sandwich shops on Villiers. The cold was taking its toll, so I took another dose of medicine and crashed, getting up later to watch Obama’s inaugural on the telly until time for the theatre.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY was in the Lyttelton…the National’s proscenium stage ...and was brilliant! Deanna definitely deserved the Tony, as well as all the other honours and awards she’s received. How great to see her onstage again…and in the role of a lifetime. The rest of the cast was uniformly excellent. Here’s a production on the English stage (after a Broadway run) that came out of the American regional theatre (Steppenwolf in Chicago) with a regional cast. It shows what American Theatre can do with enough support, resources, and when not pandering to lowest common denominator tourists tastes. There are echoes of O’Neill and other greats; but it’s uniquely its own creature and wildly funny as well as powerful and moving. American theatre at its best!
After the show, we met Deanna at the Long Bar in the foyer along with a couple of her other friends, one an old beau from Texas, now a world renowned photographer. She said Emma Thompson had been at the matinee…just one of many notables who’ve seen the show. But apparently they don’t come backstage after…not tradition with them.
Deanna looks forward to the show closing, with the usual mixed emotions one always has about a successful run. She’s already turned down an offer to return to the Broadway production (Estelle Parsons is currently doing her role) and also turned down a gig at the Goodman. She’s understandably worn out and looking for a good rest. At the door of our hotel, we said goodnight to Deanna’s other friends who were off to Chinatown for a meal and we three toddled off to our respective rooms for the night.
JAN 21 – DAY EIGHT – WAR HORSE & MRS. AFFLECK
I awoke to the sun shining and an exquisitely beautiful day in which we would not be able to indulge. Today was a double-header: a matinee of WAR HORSE and an evening performance of MRS. AFFLECK, both at the National.
(The National at Night)
THE WAR HORSE is an amazing technical affair of dazzling theatrics…something only the National can do (or can afford to do) and probably only do in the OLIVIER – large cast, fantastic effects, glorious puppetry and stagecraft. How this thing will transfer to a West End stage, as it plans, I’ve no idea. Deanna got us excellent house seats.
This was a revival of the National’s popular family holiday show, which seems to be a tradition. It’s usually an adaptation of a children’s book. I remember a glorious production of WIND IN THE WILLOWS and the past two spectacles have been based on the HIS DARK MATERIALS series by Philip Pullman and THE CORAM BOY, based on a novel by Jamila Gavin. Both of these were terrific. As is THE WAR HORSE. It is based on Michael Murporgo’s novel, adapted by Nicholas Stafford, about a young farm boy who follows his beloved horse into WWI. Against the tale of the boy searching for his horse, the horrors of the war and how it affects both men and horses unfolds.
The life-size puppets of mountable horses (usually moved by three puppeteers) are amazing as are the tanks, birds, and other puppet pieces that come into play. The puppeteer/actors, clad in black, are all plainly visible in the piece (as were the puppeteer/actors who operated the daemons in his DARK MATERIALS), but so brilliantly mesh with the production, their presence becomes part of the theatrical landscape and never an isolating intrusion. You do not see three people operating a horse puppet. You see a horse that becomes a character that you care and feel for. It’s all very moving, sentimental, and touching. Julieanne started weeping before the play started, just reading the programme. She’s already talking about enduring the early morning box office line to score another ticket to the sold-out show to see it again.
Sadly, our evening was not as enriching as our afternoon. MRS. AFFLECK is an updated adaptation of Ibsen’s LITTLE EYOLF. The author, Samuel Adamson, has set it in post-war 50’s Britain. We were seeing a preview; but I don’t think that had anything to do with what I found to be a misconceived effort.
I am a big Ibsen fan. It seems to me that he was toiling away in the fresh, fertile fields of psychology as a writer the same way that Freud and Jung were as psychiatrists at roughly the same time. The psychology and behaviour of his characters just always seems right on the money. I am also a big fan of LITTLE EYOLF, owning a DVD of a television version with Anthony Hopkins, Diana Rigg, and Peggy Ashcroft.
I felt the re-imagining and setting neither elucidated Ibsen’s original nor brought anything new to it. Nor did it shed any particular illumination on 50’s Britain that had any resonance for the audience. If anything, I felt it obscured the original play.
And I thought it rather badly staged, which was surprising…given that the director was Marianne Elliott, who was co-director of the WAR HORSE and had directed a production of THERESE RAQUIN I quite liked. The Cottesloe Theatre, the National’s black box, was configured in a long rectangle. Not a problem on the face of it, except that much of the stage went unused in the first act and most of the action took place in a kitchen set at the far end. We, on our side of the dress circle, were forced to constantly crane our necks to the left and often peek either over or under the balcony rails or a door-frame that cut the set right in half. An entire section of the kitchen, given the rectangular nature of the seating, was cut off from our view. Don’t directors pop around the audience during rehearsal to check sight lines?
The programme stated there would be a fifteen minute intermission. Upon our arrival, signs in the lobby stated that the intermission would be twenty-five minutes. The reason for this was a lumbering set change between acts. I stayed in the theatre and watched it. It was more like a strike than a set change, during which the entire kitchen/house set had to be dismantled and the area changed to a pier café (which at last, at least, utilized the entire stage). I can’t believe that they will get the change down from twenty-five minutes (and it was more like thirty) to fifteen during the next few days before opening.
The second act, even though we could see better, was not much improvement on the first… though the actors, always good, tried valiantly. Even when I’ve not particularly liked a play at the National (and those occasions have been rare), I’ve always enjoyed the production, production values, and felt it worth the price of the ticket. This one comes closest to not even fulfilling those criteria.
JANUARY 22- DAY NINE – BE NEAR ME
My cold was much better and I immediately tempted the fates by plunging into the morning drizzle to pick up our tickets for today’s play at the Donmar Warehouse in Seven Dials. And, since headed in that direction, I proceeded into Bloomsbury and the bookshops around the British Museum and Russell Hotel. My plans were thwarted as the drizzle became more belligerent, but not before discovering that another of my bookstores, ULYSSES, had bit the dust (or moved somewhere I know not).
I headed home, not wishing to exacerbate any residue of my cold and because, for the second time on this trip, I had caught my new silk Christmas scarf in my jacket zipper. Once home, after a tremendous struggle which raised and popped a massive blister on my finger, I managed to untangle scarf from zipper – but not without producing a tear in the silk. Foolish me. I should have kept the scarf as a dress scarf to be used with buttoned trench-coats and overcoats, not zippered jackets.
After a let-up in the rain, I ventured out again…this time down Piccadilly to Waterstone’s and then Hatchard’s. I picked up a boxed, signed, limited edition of THE REAVERS, which the author, George MacDonald Fraser, had signed before he died last year.
Hatchard’s, a lovely elegant bookshop, still has a most impressive history section. There were many books on many topics that I coveted and, in more extravagant days, would have bought, but I sense something of my acquisitiveness has fled. Part of it is simply that I just don’t have the bloody room anymore. But it’s more than that; I find myself passing shops that before I would have scoured, looking for something to buy. Must be age; never thought I’d reach a point where I’d say: “I’ve got too much shit.” The rain once again sent me home, but…in truth…I was pretty much done for the day.
Julieanne and I felt pangs of nostalgia walking passed our old flat in Upper St. Martin’s and other haunts enroute to the theatre tonight. I like the intimacy of the Donmar; but for tonight’s preview of BE NEAR ME, I could not get seats together. So Julieanne sat in the front row on the stage far left side; I two rows behind her. Not the most ideal seats; but intimate nonetheless. Ian McDiarmid, the play’s star, also adapted the material from a novel. Having not read the novel, I cannot tell how well he succeeded.
Julieanne and I conferred at intermission on our impressions…which were identical. First, the play seemed to meander leisurely to its first act focus. Probably necessarily, but it took awhile to figure out “just what is this play about?”
Secondly, two actors, playing two teenage school kids, had the most impenetrable Scottish accents…and Scottish slang accents (The play is a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland)…that we were only able to understand about every third line. We weren’t the only ones. Even the English audience was having difficulty deciphering it at times.
We also noticed some of those thrust-staging bugaboos that have been re-impressed upon us in recent years, working at Actors Guild. Too often, the actors faced one another so close together that we poor suckers on the sides were stuck looking at the back of somebody’s head. Give some ground and stagger those stances, folks. Other times, the actors were too far downstage, playing to the front, and once again, losing the sides.
Despite all that, we were enjoying the play and McDiarmid’s genial performance. The second act came on strong and interesting; broadening in scope, not really going where I thought it was headed, which was a nice surprise. It became more about just a priest getting amorous with a schoolboy. It was essentially about a man, not particularly devoted to the church nor its obligations, using it as a safe haven and escape from life in general. There is some exposition given to an old lost lover who never appears and apparently impacted this man’s character and choices; but it is given such a nodding glance, it makes no real impression (perhaps more of it is made in the book) which seems a flaw of the play. Use it or lose it. Still we both ultimately liked the play.
JANUARY 23 – DAY TEN – COMPLICIT
Julieanne was off at an ungodly hour to queue at the National to try and get another ticket to WAR HORSE. I don’t quite fathom this. Though I’ve seen films over and over and on occasion re-visited the same production of a play, I can’t really see returning to see something I saw just days before. I don’t really think you can re-create an experience and I’d rather spend the money on something else. But she feels the play was so overwhelming that she couldn’t take it all in.
Feeling almost in the pink again, I took off for Gray’s Antique Market which houses a lovely book mall, Biblion, as well. Despite the fact, I re-checked my route on a map before I left, I once again…as I always seem to…got lost in a maze of streets between Regent Street and Hyde Park east and west and Oxford Street and Picadilly north and south. This, however, in no way bothered me, as I knew how to get unlost, loved the ramble, and the little discoveries made. I came across a house emblazoned with a blue historical medallion declaring it to be the residence of the last Victorian courtesan, one Catherine Walker. I wonder if there is a book one can buy detailing all these historically blue-medallioned designated landmarks around London? It would be rather interesting.
I finally found got my bearings and got to Gray’s. Lots of interesting tomes, but only one tempted me – a colonial edition of BEAU GESTE that I’d never seen. But as I already have close to twenty variant editions of the book, I really couldn’t justify spending 30pds for yet another copy.
Now that I had fixed Gray’s firmly in my mind (but I’ll probably forget the next time too), I returned via nearby Regent Street and stopped in at Hamley’s toy store. Always impressive. I spent some time perusing the hand-painted toy historical figures…knights, zulu warriors, roman legions, etc. I probably could have gleefully taken up this hobby at some point in my life. But I resisted even the urge to buy a couple of cheaper plastic Roman centurions to place on my bookshelves and, once more on the street, cut through Carnaby Street into Soho, making a stop at The Vintage Magazine and Poster Shop on Brewer Street. Once again, my acquisitive nature not what it once was, I went home empty-handed.
(the old library in Hollywood)
(a portion of the new library in Kentucky)
Despite my love for the Old Vic’s legacy, the house itself is one of those rectangular affairs and I’ve learned to purchase seats in the stalls rather than the dress circle which has sight line problems. However, for THE NORMAN CONQUESTS ,the house had been re-configured into a theatre-in-the-round, eliminating the usual distancing and sight line problems of the circle, so we were in our usual place, in the front of the circle.
I liked the arena configuration, but I wished I was seeing the recently-closed NORMAN CONQUESTS instead of COMPLICIT, about which the rumours still abound. I actually wished I was seeing The Bridge Project that Spacey is doing with Sam Mendes. A joint company of American and British actors (including Simon Russell Beale...one of the best actors working, for my money) doing in rep WINTER’S TALE & THE CHERRY ORCHARD (in a new Stoppard adaptation) but that will not be here till summer and, by then, the theatre will have returned to its normal proscenium.
Despite all the press, I was determined to give COMPLICIT the benefit of the doubt. I had enjoyed Spacey’s defenses of both the play and Dreyfuss in the press; and I like Dreyfuss and his two co-stars David Suchet and Elizabeth McGovern. I found the play to be solid. Dreyfuss, despite a visible ear-piece, gave a yeoman performance and got stronger as the night went on. If he was being fed lines still, his acting style covered it neatly.
McGovern was wasted in an underwritten and somewhat thankless role. She also looks too young to play Dreyfuss’s wife, who looks his sixty-odd years. Acting honours went to David Suchet, always wonderful every time we see him (AMADEUS; VIRGINIA WOOLF). I found Dreyfuss very moving in the climax of the play.
I enjoyed the play…perhaps more for its message than actual stagecraft. It’s very Greek in the way that much of the action and dramatic confrontation happens off-stage while we see only the preludes and aftermaths of those moments. But it indicts us with the question of what have we been doing the last eight years while Bush and his thugs trampled the constitution and winnowed away our civil rights. Where was our outrage? Why weren’t we storming the Palace Gates over such blatant injustice and tyranny? If we remain complacent, don’t we all become complicit? To quote Terry Pratchett's discworld novel THUD: “You can’t call yourselves the good guys when you do bad things.”
(So ends Part II. Final installment will appear shortly. Entertaining, Mr. Sloane and the Pitmen Painters still to come. We encounter fluffy bits, old reviews, and ICE! Stay tuned and drop us a comment or two.)