A director we met on our London Arts Discovery tour labeled our group “cultural activists.” Sounds a little too “art lovers at the parapets” for my liking, but what are you going to do? Theater directors are, by definition, “theatrical.” That’s their style – flamboyantly flattering. Which is appropriate when the guy has been paid to meet with us, and, meeting at “tea”, we were supplying him with free scones.
Okay, back to the theater…
One Man, Two Guvnors (based on The Servant of Two Masters, by Goldoni)
An extremely broad farce, which, as a comedy genre, is not my favorite. The barely decipherable working class accents and the cascade of specifically English references defeat my ability to understand what’s funny. And yet, the show’s cleverly-conceived conceptualization, its breakneck pace and the sublime quality of a number of the performances, highlighted by substantial chunks of improvisation hilariously executed by the lead actor, overpower my resistance, and I surrender to its silliness, both verbal and physical.
Example: Stanley Stubbers, laying low at a pub called “The Cricketers Arms” is currently in conversation with Francis, a dim bulb Stanley has recently taken on as his servant.
STANLEY: (READING FROM A “LETTER OF AUTHORIZATION”) To whom it may concern, the bearer is an authorized agent of Stanley Stubbers.
FRANCIS: Who’s Stanley Stubbers?
FRANCIS: Who’s Stanley Stubbers?
STANLEY: (Whisper) Me. But don’t call me Stanley Stubbers. I’m going to have to make up a new name for the pub.
FRANCIS: What’s wrong with ‘The Cricketers Arms?’
(NOTE TO COMEDY WRITERS: The joke’s set-up line -“I’m going to have to make up a new name for the pub” – could not have been better. It makes logical sense on its own. And it’s exquisitely structured to be misunderstood if the listener, like, in this case, Francis, is an idiot.)
Juno and the Paycock (an Irish classic by Sean O’Casey)
‘Tis a gud t’ing we rad de play ahedo toim, or we wuddn’ ‘ave onderstuhd a ward dey war sayin’.
The final play included on the tour was
Despite a toweringly memorable lead performance a a veritable Niagara of cascading language, I found Jerusalem less deep and resonating than the playwright might have preferred.
Our weeklong program ended with an English National Ballet performance called Strictly Gershwin. Okay, this is me, and it’s just what it is. I have no point of access into presentations, as skillful as they may be, where nobody talks. They’re dancing, it’s nice, the music is wonderful. And I’m sitting there thinking, “Why aren’t they saying anything?”
Reflecting my wavering interest, I spent the entire intermission, scribbling notes for an impassioned disquisition on the subject of why the cucumber sandwich should not be considered a sandwich.
(When the tour ended, we saw one other play, Three Days In May, set in 1940, depicting Churchill’s efforts to rally his cabinet to fight Hitler, rather than suing for peace. This is a monumental turning point. Unfortunately, the actors were not up to the history.)
To complete my survey of the tour’s itinerary, let me briefly mention two art exhibits, one a little less briefly than the other:
At the Tate Modern Gallery, I spent over an hour listening to an accompanying audiotape, as I wandered from room to room, intensely examining five decades of paintings in this extremely impressive exhibit. However, when I checked out the post cards featuring reproductions of many of Richter’s most famous works in the Gift Shop, I was perplexed to discover that I did not recognize any of them.
Okay, six out of twenty-four. Does that make me sound any better?
(Notice posted by the elevator (lift) at the Tate Modern: “Celebrate your ability to use the stairs, and please give priority to those who need to use the lift.”)
Now, here’s the real treat. For me.
We were bused to a nearby town, now more of a London suburb, called Dulwich (pronounced Dul’ich), where we attended an exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. And who was the currently featured artist?
Who’s Tom Thomson, you ask? What are you, not Canadian? Tom Thomson is one of Canada’s most famous landscape artists, who specialized in evocative outdoor paintings of places where I personally went on canoe trips!
Aside from his internationally appreciated renderings of the Canadian wilderness – we were told that people were flocking to this exhibit – Thomson’s story comes with a mystery – his still unexplained death while on a painting excursion in Algonquin Park. When I was a kid, I did not realize Thomson’s body had been recovered; I thought he was still missing. So when I paddled over Canoe Lake – the last place Thomson was seen – I would peer into the crystal-clear water, trying to spot a body below the surface holding a paintbrush.
After seeing the Thomson exhibit, we were escorted to an arranged lunch at a nearby Dulwich restaurant, where the scheduled main courses were a choice between crab and venison. That was a tough one – a non-kosher scaly thing. Or Bambi. I ate Bambi.
Prompting my hyper-confused stomach to exclaim:
“Who’s up there!”