Today…(Do you feel the excitement? We’re talking fake “now!”)
We check out of our apartment near St. Paul’s Cathedral. So long, “Tent City.” We’re moving to a hotel.
It was called London Arts Discovery. A week-long package – including hotel accommodations; that’s why we moved – whose itinerary listed seeing six plays and a dance performance, meeting a political pundit, a director, two actors, and a longtime theater critic, as well as visiting three different art exhibits. In six days. Normally, we wouldn’t do that much in…we never do that much.
Temperamentally, we are not in our bones “Tour People.” We relish our independence. There’s a “sheep” quality to tours, “herding” being a predominant element, the tour organizers cast as the wranglers, the tour participants, the cattle, or sheep, take your pick. We see ourselves as untamed horses. How would this work out?
Late afternoon, on the first day of the tour. We are in our room. Dr. M is on her cell phone to our kids in California. The opening tour “Briefing” is scheduled for 5:00 P.M., in a conference room in the hotel. It is now 5:02.
The room phone rings. It’s the tour organizer.
“Are you coming to the Briefing?”
“Is everyone there already?”
“Everyone except you.”
My first impression?
London Arts Discovery is a tough town.
In this case, however, that first impression could not have been more wrong. It was a glorious experience – masterfully organized, congenial company, an impressive itinerary including the most talked about productions of the current season, pamperingly reliable transportation, all ramrodded by two bright and knowledgeable tour conductors. The herding was subtle and at a minimum. Mostly, it was self-herding. We were never late again.
Did I love everything I saw – and I did attend every event, except for a “postmodernism” exhibit, which I ditched in favor of a jaunt down to the “Old Bailey.” (See yesterday.) I enjoyed pieces of everything. But mostly, I appreciated the opportunity to sample the best that London late 2011 – early 2012 had to offer.
I have neither the credentials, the insight nor the passion of a professional reviewer. The following are some top-of-my-head responses to the plays we attended:
Before the tour started, Dr. M and I got tickets to a show called Potted Panto. Potted Panto is a clever and energetic parody of the very popular genre of traditional Christmas productions for children (of all ages) called “pantomimes”, which themselves are parodies of classic fairly tales, thus making Potted Panto a parody of a parody.
Their winning performances placed the show’s two lead players - in my mind - in the top tier of children’s birthday party entertainers. However, Potted Panto’s nomination for the equivalent of a United States theater Tony Award suggests that I may possibly have missed something.
The tour itinerary kicked off with a revival production of the 1972 musical Pippin, a show we’ve never cared for, this time, re-configured, I thought rather imaginatively, as a hi-tech, video game.
Our critical reaction:
ME: It’s about as good as they can do this.
Dr. M: Yes. But it’s still this.
The next afternoon, it was Hamlet, starring Michael Sheen, (who played Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon.) Hamlet’s director, Ian Rickson, whom we met later in the week at tea – “Met him at tea, did you? How veddy British of you!” – explained that he was uninspired by the prospect of yet another traditional staging, so with the agreement of the star, he re-imagined Hamlet, setting the action of this production in a mental institution.
Longtime Guardian theater critic Michael Billington – whom we also met that week, though not “at tea” – confided that he saw this production as “extremely Hamlet-centric” (in this version, Hamlet also plays the ghost of his dead father as well as – Spoiler Alert! – Fortinbras) at the expense of a more rounded representation of the “non-Hamlet” characters.
Billington also observed that if this nuthouse version was your first encounter with Hamlet, you might leave with an impression of the play that is different from the impression Mr. Shakespeare originally intended. I agree with both of those points. Though “Full Disclosure” requires me to report that I was asleep during a substantial portion of the First Act.
(What if that happened to an actual critic? What would he write? “The First Act was barely memorable to this reporter.”)
Matilda, The Musical
Based on a popular (at least in England) Roald Dahl children’s book, Matilda, The Musical is wonderful. (Though I do not now nor did I, walking out of the theater, remember any of the songs.)
Why is it wonderful? Because it feels like kids. The production, performed primarily by children, albeit with Rockettes-level precision, is conceptually simple. No elaborate puppets, no “Look what we did here!” productions values. One song is designed around children playing on swings. The climactic moment gives us “Matilda” and her new step-Mom jubilantly performing joint cartwheels. And the “final bows” involved the entire cast, riding scooters.
(After watching this liberating paean to childhood independence, I went into the “Men’s Toilet”, where I witnessed a father warning his young son as he stepped into a stall, “Don’t lock the door, Nigel. Sometimes, you can’t get it open.”)
I think that’s enough to munch on for today. With your permission, I will continue my London Arts Discovery odyssey tomorrow.