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the joy of theatre

I am deeply, deeply in love with this city, London. Feeling about as lucky as it gets today, even though it’s still bitterly cold and grey – but not, I repeat not, at the moment, raining. I have seen three marvellous plays since we last talked, and in a few hours I’ll be seeing another. Overwhelming.

I’ll start with the one I just saw, and that experience. It’s Easter, which means, I now know, that London, which is normally incredibly crowded, is even more so – British children are on holiday and so are families from everywhere in the world. One of the things this means, I now know, beyond not being able to move in the streets, is that theatres are sold out. I was expecting to swan in and get half-price tickets at the last minute, as I did last time, and instead I found myself this morning rushing about, trying to get in somewhere.
Luckily Penny had ordered tickets months ago for last night and the night before, but now I’d picked out several shows, to no avail. I went to the Box Office of “Matilda,” a smash hit based on a Roald Dahl book, but there’s nothing till next week, and a line already for returns. Across the street at the Donmar Warehouse, they said “Sold out,” and then good luck – I was thrilled to get one last return ticket for “The Recruiting Officer” for tonight – I want especially to see this because it was the final production at LAMDA, my theatre school, in 1972, and I had the female lead. I was terrible. That’s my memory. But how exciting, to see the play again.
I’d read about a brilliant production of “The Master and Margarita” by Theatre de la Complicite and their director Simon McBurney, who are so good, I’d see just about anything they do. Again, saw on-line that it was sold out. There was a matinee at 2 and I just decided to go try. It’s at the Barbican, and after getting lost several times, I found the route – miles away, managed to grab a bus partway and finally get near. But it’s very confusing, a huge conglomerate of apartments and other buildings, and I couldn’t find the theatre. It was 1.45. Beside me I saw a frantic young man. “Are you looking for the theatre?” I said, and he was, so we stumbled about together till we found it. I explained that I was hoping for a return ticket. And then he turned to me. “My girlfriend and I just had a huge fight the minute before I saw you, and she’s walked off. You can probably have hers.”
I couldn’t believe it. While he called her, I went to the return tickets line, which was about 40 people long. When I got back, he said she was still mad and the ticket was mine; I paid him for it and we went in. Unbelievable. Not only did I see this incredible production, but I sat in great seats next to a very interesting young man, an art student who knows a lot about Russia. We became friends and exchanged names at the end.
It’s hard to describe this show, so powerful, breathtakingly theatrical and rich. I have had the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov on my pile for a year and still haven’t read it, I’m ashamed to say – but I will now. A company of 16 people, playing multiple roles and with a simple set consisting mostly of chairs and various moveable props with projections in the background, brought it to life. From an on-line review:
The parallels between Pilate’s Jerusalem and Stalin’s Moscow feel razor sharp. The cast are uniformly excellent.And though the play is full of tricks, the audience is always shown the working. McBurney’s whirlwind direction brilliantly captures the fragile, other reality that fiction creates, a solace Bulgakov held onto when Stalin had banned all his works.
This play lingers about you for a long while afterwards, like a dream you feel richer for having had. Perhaps, for the likes of Bulgakov and McBurney, that’s the highest compliment anyone can give.
My companion, who knew the novel well, loved it. And it is indeed haunting, like a dream.
It ended at 5.20, my new friend Joe and I said our goodbyes – “See you later,” he said – and now I had to find my way back to my pied a terre near Carnaby Street. I despaired – the Barbican is in the middle of nowhere. Someone directed me to the tube, I figured out a route, and I swear, in half an hour, after one tube change, I was home. The transit in this city is a miracle. I am now eating microwaved Chinese stir fry and drinking the delicious Spanish red I bought at Marks and Spenser this morning. I’ve checked my email, put my feet up, and will now prepare for the next sortie into this banquet of a city.
Earlier, I’d decided to go to Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I’ve tried to get to before – and was thwarted again; there was a 3/4 hr. queue. The British do love a good queue. One look, and I walked away to find something else to do.
How did I get here? Let’s back up a bit. As you may have gathered, Penny was kind enough to take me into London via Mill Hill, where my family lived in 1957, an important year in my mythology. I knew the address – Burton House, Burtonhole Lane – and was sure it’d all be gone. We passed the British Institute for Medical Research, where my dad worked that year, found the street, a rural street with farmhouses – in my day, there was a pig farm down the street – and drove down, I peering behind the fences, to try to find a house I left when I was seven. “Turn around, Penny, I saw something,” I said; I’d caught a glimpse of a big red brick house, and something in my gut said that was it. As we got there, a car pulled out of the long driveway; I stopped them, two young men, to say, “I think I used to live here.”
“We have 15 minutes to get to the bank!” he said. “Nice to meet you!” and sped off. I looked and was sure it was the place, and as I turned away, I saw the nearly-hidden sign: “Burton House.”
And then we found the wonderful school I went to in 1957, Frith Manor. The year before, my mother had left my father for his best friend. My parents reunited on Burtonhole Lane.
Onward, into London, where we went to Penny’s nephew Edward and his partner Shelley, who is almost as pregnant as my daughter. They live in Hackney, which is the Brooklyn of London, I gather – where the artists live. Theirs is a tiny apartment, but they made room for us. Ed is an artist and designer with his own very small firm that manufactures a few quirky, lovely things out of wood, including a hanging unit designed like moose antlers that I immediately wanted. We talked about cutlery, and he showed us the beauty of various British designs; I will never look at knives and forks the same way again.
And then Penny and I made our way to the theatre, to see “One Man, Two Masters,” a comedy so successful in the West End that it is now getting ready to open on Broadway with the original cast. We were seeing the next cast and I had some trepidation, but it was hilarious, a wonderful romp – real commedia dell arte, farce, absurd things happening, including innocents from the audience dragged onstage. But skilful and musical and very well done. A treat. And then Penny and I made our way to my friends Christopher and Cristina, who have a doll’s house apartment just off of Carnaby Street, and who were kind enough to decide to go away this Easter. We had a visit, and they gave me the key to their flat, and then we made our way back to Hackney, where our beds had been made up and were waiting for us.
The next morning, Penny and I took my suitcase to Carnaby Street to the now empty flat, and then set off. She has a membership to the Tate, so after a walk along the South Bank in the sunshine – yes, sunshine – we went first to the Tate Modern, one of my favourite galleries, so wide open, packed, unpretentious, raw – where her card got us free into all the special exhibitions, including the Damien Hirst which had just opened. He’s a superstar of British art, but very controversial, and I understand why; a bloody sheep’s head enclosed with a bunch of flies, a lot of coloured spots, rooms of medicine cabinets, a giant filthy ashtray, a lot of beautifully arranged dead butterflies – his famous shark in formaldehyde, and a cow cut in two … I kept thinking, “This man is thinking to himself, ‘I can’t believe they pay me for this.'”
My artist friend Joe at the theatre this afternoon told me that Hirst used to be a used car salesman. “He’s a hustler, that’s all,” he said. And I agree.
There’s more to tell you, but I have to get ready to get to the Donmar which is in Covent Garden and impossible to find.
More anon.
Okay, it’s nearly 11 p.m., the carousing below on Carnaby Street is deafening, and I’ve had another great evening. Nearly didn’t make it to the theatre – had plotted the route carefully on the map, but as usual, London’s tiny zigzag streets set me off course. Arrived just before the curtain and enjoyed myself thoroughly – even bought the program, in which I found out that the play is based on the exploits of one John Churchill, whom I’d learned all about as the first proprietor of Blenheim Palace (see Wednesday). The play even mentioned the Battle of Blenheim, after which Churchill was granted the property. So as I watched, I had a new sense of how they lived in the early 1700’s. The play was very funny and beautifully produced and acted, as usual in London. After this visit, I can tell you – young British actors now are expected not only to be brilliant actors but also to sing and play a musical instrument. This is the second play in which I’ve seen them required to do so.
Could barely remember myself in the part of Sylvia, who dresses as a man to test her soldier lover. I could remember others in our cast, though. I think not remembering, in this case, is a good idea.
Back to the Tate – sorry, this is a marathon. After seeing Damien Hirst and a fine Italian artist, we had a treat – Penny bought us tickets for the ten minute boat ride along and across the Thames to the Tate Britain. So we sailed over the water, to arrive at this next palace of art. I saw the “Picasso in Britain” exhibit – again, as my young friend Joe said today, when you see Picasso’s work, it’s clear he can do everything beautifully, he can draw and do portraits and realistic scenes if he wants, he just doesn’t want to. Unlike some modern artists, who do what they do because they can’t do anything else. I did think about how shocking Picasso must have been in his time, and wonder if we’d look back on Hirst’s rotting sheep’s head as the vanguard of his time, and decided – No. But I may be wrong.
We had a drink in the Member’s Lounge and walked all along the river to Waterloo Bridge, where we met Edward and Shelley, to take them to dinner and the theatre, as thanks for their hospitality. Ed had picked Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, famous for its game, where we ate a hearty British meal, meat and veg, in a marvellous room jammed with memorabilia and stag’s heads. (Hirst would have liked it.) And then we went to see “The Pitmen Painters,” which Penny had recommended.
Rapture. One of the best ever. I know I say that all the time, but this was – a fabulous play, wonderfully done. It’s based on the true story of a group of northern British miners in the 20’s who wanted to learn about the world, hired an art teacher to teach them about art, and ended up as painters themselves. It’s about what art is, who it belongs to, how we see it, what it means; it’s about courage and honesty and truth. At intermission, a very savvy program salesman told me that the cast had switched for this night, that the lead role was normally played by the man playing someone else. And the second act was a bit raw in places; I tried to imagine the powerful actor in the smaller role as the lead, and knew it would have been a very different experience. At the end, after I’d said goodbye to my companions, who were going back to Hackney, I set off for my place and ran into that very actor, marching along looking angry, with his girlfriend. I tapped him on the shoulder and thanked him for a fantastic evening, and we talked. He told me he usually plays the lead and that the show hadn’t gone well. I assured him that we’d all enjoyed it a lot. Actors – they think everyone sees all the mistakes, when audiences so often don’t.
But I resolved to try to see the play again, with him as the lead. I liked it that much.
Exhausted from walking, typing, and so much stimulation. And also, just a bit, the noise, and the crowds, and the cold.

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2 Responses to “the joy of theatre”

  1. theresa says:

    I saw The Pitmen Painters a month ago — a wonderful play, a wonderful production. And yes, theatre in London is often — usually — such a fine experience. We saw Master Class in February, with Tyne Daly, and it was note-perfect. Such a pleasure — and then to wind back afterwards, in our case to Bloomsbury, talking about the plays, stopping for a glass of wine. I hope you get to the John Soanes Museum. It's one of my favourite places in London — quirky and inspiring. And now a new favourite, in Bloomsbuy: The Foundling Museum…
    I love your posts!

  2. beth says:

    Theresa, as we've discovered through our on-line conversations, we have so much in common. I hope we meet one day!
    I won't see John Soanes this time – it's closed now till Tuesday. Something to look forward to, and next time, I'll get there as it opens. Will now look up the Foundling Museum.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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This blog evolves. It once was about travels. Now it’s a reason to be at the keyboard that I value.

Theresa Kishkan
Theresa Kishkan is a writer living on the Sechelt Peninsula on the west coast of Canada.

I walk on. With my feet, and in my mind as well.

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Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you’re going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause.

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