I just got back from an all-too-short vacation to that land of wonder, London, and wanted to tell you all about it. I flew into Heathrow and took the coach right to Cambridge, where my cousin lives with her husband and their two kids. I had a lovely time with them - her husband, a Cambridge prof, took me punting, which I'd never done before, and it lived up to all of my Gaudy Night dreams. (Did you know punts had names? I sure didn't.)
I spent the weekend with them, listening to the kids' music practice, hanging out with my cousin, cooking a nice dinner with the help/hindrance of the kids, and relaxing. Then I took the coach back into London.
On Monday morning, I went around to all of the theaters to buy tickets for the week's shows. I had to sell my friend A's Wednesday-evening ticket to Richard III,
so my first call was at Trafalgar Studios, where I scored one of the last £15 seats for that evening. On Monday afternoon, I attended a concert at St. Martin in the Fields, featuring one of Bach's cello suites (which are, collectively, my favorite pieces of music). On Monday evening (Martin Freeman's birthday!), I got my first crack at his Richard III. (More on this, and all other shows, later.) Tuesday was a bit of a slow day – I went to the Imperial War Museum (here's where I confess that I timed my trip entirely based on the weather and the dates of Richard III and did not realize that I'd be in England during the centenary year of WWI) and looked at the very good Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War exhibition and went through the new First World War Galleries, as part of my quest to understand Jack Robinson of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries fame (SO delicious!). I gave myself an early night instead of queuing for tickets for some of the other shows I wanted to see, which turned out to be a good idea, as I had a lot going on the next day, including a trip to a particular Waterstones (it wasn't the right one, WOE), wandering around Covent Garden Market,
and taking a gander at the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery before my second Richard III performance. On Thursday, I hit the Camden Markets,
watched a matinee of Richard III from my front-row seat, and met the awesome Kate Lear for a quick bite before I went to see My Perfect Mind, playing just down the street from the ridiculously sold-out (people were queuing at 9 am for 7:30 shows) production of The Crucible with Richard Armitage. On Friday, after a few profitable hours at the V&A, I queued for the ticket lottery for the matinee of A Streetcar Named Desire and won (!),
so I saw that and then went back to St. Martin in the Fields for another concert, this time violin and oboe concertoes, again featuring my favorite composer, J. S. Bach. On Saturday, I did the Thomas Cromwell double-header, taking in a Wolf Hall matinee and a performance of Bring Up the Bodies in the evening – sneaking off to the National Portrait Gallery between shows to look at the new exhibition on the Tudors, which was very much not worth it, though I did get to look at the portrait of Richard III (my favorite English monarch since I read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time at the impressionable age of 13) again.
Sunday was another lazy day, which I got to spend in the company of the lovely Kate, who took me to a nice little Italian restaurant for lunch and then to Kew Gardens (where I've wanted to go since, again, reading Tey's Brat Farrar at 13) where we had a gorgeous, amble-y wander around the gardens, which were in surprising bloom.
We bought a beautiful assortment of food and had an indoor picnic in my B&B room, watching the first and third eps of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (to which I am trying to convert EVERYBODY – if you're reading this and have not yet watched it, DO SO). And then I had to leave London, and lo, there was a great sadness in my heart. But I've gone to London three times now in the past five years, and I think that's a nice schedule to maintain, so hopefully I'll be back by 2017.
Okay, on to the theater!
My Perfect Mind: A true story, in which actor Edward Petherbridge (I only knew him as Lord Peter in the Dorothy Sayers miniseries, but he's mostly known for his stage work) was rehearsing to play King Lear for the first time when he had a debilitating stroke. This show is about how King Lear was still in his mind, and how he experienced the world after his stroke. It sounds depressing, but it was poignant and hilarious by turns, because Petherbridge, who was fantastic himself, had a perfect foil in Paul Hunter, who has an ugly, cuddly face and amazing comic timing. 8.5/10
A Streetcar Named Desire: I’d seen a fantastic production of Streetcar here on Broadway not that long ago, and I've never been particularly fond of the play, but I was intrigued by the rave reviews Gillian Anderson was getting for her Blanche DuBois. Boy howdy, were they well-earned. She was phenomenal. I honestly don't know how she could do this show eight times a week, and that voice had to be wearing on her vocal cords to a painful degree. She was tender and flirtatious and weary and self-excoriating and cruel and shattered as the three and a half hours went on, and it only aided her portrayal that she, the actress, is so very petite and delicate, like a baby birch tree. I didn't think Ben Foster was at her level as Stanley, but that really just meant that it was her show, as it should be. Vanessa Kirby was great as Stella – clearly torn between her husband and her sister, patently finding his violence a turn-on – except that she kept losing track of her accent, so she switched between New Orleans and London several times within the same speech or conversation. The show was done in the round, with the set rotating almost continuously – the first time the set started moving, it was just after Blanche has snuck her first drink, and it was clear she felt the movement as a result of her knocked-back whiskey. A really draining show to watch, but it was an absolute pleasure watching Anderson prove how amazing she is (again, some more). 8.5/10
Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies: I kind of don't know how to talk about this pair of plays, based on the first two books of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy. They take place on a single set, nicely designed, and cover a number of years and dozens of characters speak. Everyone involved in the plays was clearly very competent, from the actors (Ben Miles as Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker as King Henry VIII, Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, Paul Jesson as Cardinal Wolsey, Joshua Silver as Rafe Sadler, and Jay Taylor as Thomas Wyatt particularly) to the director and set designer and costume designer. But the plays are so rat-a-tat dialogue-heavy that the actors – even Miles – don't get much time to develop their characters. It's like the Pushing Daisies scene in which Chuck and Olive, sent undercover at My Best Friend, are asked to play happy, sad, surprised, etc., and do so with a series of increasingly adorable faces – the acting here is quick and to the point, but not necessarily something that seems to be psychologically motivated. (Does that make sense?) I would have liked to see Cromwell in particular breathe a bit, show some doubt about his course, but condensing about 1300 pages into about six hours of drama precludes that possibility. I read a review that said that the plays are so action-packed that they seem like radio dramas, and that seems like a useful comparison to me – there really wasn't a lot that had to be seen to be expressed, no cutting glances or subtle staging. It was grand, but not particularly expressive. 7.75/10
Richard III: So, if you've been paying attention, you'll know that I think Martin Freeman is staggeringly talented, that Richard III was a fascinating figure, and that I saw this play three times. What I didn't say earlier is that Martin Freeman gave three entirely different performances, which was mind-blowing. It wasn't just a line here or there that he changed – it was the whole thing. He was intensely watchful during every moment he was on stage, reacting to the other actors' words and movements and emotions as if he were encountering them for the very first time; while it was clear that part of that watchfulness belonged to Richard, I did get the feeling he'd be as reactive and collaborative in any part he was playing, and the effect was extraordinary. Even when he got a big laugh from something on Monday, he tried something new on Wednesday. The line-readings offered different shades of meaning - "Madam, my mother, I do cry you mercy," was spoken three different ways, so that once it was clipped and brisk, once pleading like a child, and once terribly sardonic and shelled - and that was tremendously exciting. (It's a pity that the one line I could absolutely hear in Martin's voice as I was rereading the play - "A cherry lip, a bonny eye, a passing pleasing tongue" - was cut for this production, but while I wasn't entirely won over by it, I do think that the abridged script was fast-paced and effective.) I should note here my thoughts on the other actors. Simon Coombs as Tyrrel was adequate at best, and Philip Cumbus as Richmond/Henry VII was terrible. But Gerald Kyd as Catesby, Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth, and especially Jo Stone-Fewings as Buckingham were all fantastic. Back to Martin Freeman - how does he have the energy to be so very responsive, eight shows a week? I couldn't tell you. All I can say is that he completely justified my decision to spend ten days in England, and I hope that I get to see him on stage again. 8.75/10
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/443832.html.