Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Festival & The Theatre

August 31st, 2010 · 2 Comments

The Notting Hill Carnival was not what I expected, but at the same time did meet some of my expectations. The ones it met: the drinking/party atmosphere (it also exceeded this one by a lot) and excellent food. The parade disappointed me; I was expecting more cultural representation and differentiation. Instead, I found it to be lacking. My initial reaction was, “Okay. This is different, but cool.” By the third “float,” however, I found them to redundant. The costumes were gorgeous, but some of the marchers should have rethought their costume decisions. Coming from a family that loves parades- we watch every Thanksgiving Day & Rose Bowl parade together- I was expecting different floats, all intricately designed and reflective of the culture of the community who put that float together. Instead, it was mostly people in sequined and glittery costumes walking behind a big truck (or double decker bus) that was playing loud music- some of which was American. I was hoping for a cultural learning experience, not a chaotic drinking party in the middle of the day posing as a cultural experience. Setting aside the drunkard-dodging and remixed American music, I enjoyed the carnival for the experience it offered; it was definitely a chance to observe the English in what Fox referred to as a “liminal” space. In different ways, I felt that people were more relaxed and open to just enjoying the experience. The typical English reserve seemed to be greatly diminished (among the sober and definitely not sober). It was a great overall experience, but I don’t think I would go to the Carnival in the future.

Billy Elliot, however, exceeded all of my expectations. It is something I wanted to see while I was here, but I never expected it to tie Wicked for my favourite musical. (Note: I’m a bit obsessed with Wicked. You probably don’t want to mention it in a 10 foot radius of me if you don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion.) About a young boy who discovers that he is a talented dancer and decides he wants to dance for life, the story concentrates on several of the topics we have (or will) discuss will discuss in class, including labor strikes, class, and the government. Throughout the entire musical, class is an issue. For the miners in Billy’s community, dancing isn’t something done. A male dancer is a “poof” not to be taken seriously. A career as a miner and providing a steady income for one’s family is the most respectable option. Billy’s dad is dead set against Billy dancing, but when he realizes he is so talented and can’t help but dance, he decides to go back to work in the mines. (They’ve been in the middle of a mining strike.) Breaking the strike drives a wedge between him and his older son, Tony. The representation of community in the musical, especially among the miners despite their hardship, is an excellent example of the way our readings have mentioned communities coming together. Furthermore, seeing this community on throughout their strike adds a human dimension that our readings could not express. It brought the stats to life for me, which is something that I normally look to art to do. The musical also touches on Thatcher’s government & the way that it reacted to the strike to break it. (“Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” had to be one of the most hilarious and poignant scenes in the entire musical, giving an excellent representation of how elitist that government seemed.) I could go on forever on the way that it relates to class. It’s an excellent musical that I think everyone should see. There is something for everyone in it, especially as we all consider the diversity of London, the struggles of labor, and the English class system.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie

Looking Back on London

September 15th, 2009 · No Comments

As our time here in London comes to an end, I find myself needing to reflect on a few more aspects of London in my blogs. So this is my overview of London blog. It’s to touch upon the parts of London I either left out of previous blogs or the parts that I found to be my favorites. Also, I am hoping to cover assigned blog topics that I had not included in previous blogs.
To begin with I want to discuss the War Cabinet Rooms. I cannot believe I did not mention the War Cabinet Rooms in an earlier post. The presentation of the Cabinet Rooms was impeccable. I found myself very content to wander through the maze of the preserved Cabinet Rooms. Moreover, it guided the viewers through the rooms in such a way that it conveyed the detailed organization of the rooms and their role in World War II. I particularly enjoyed how there was emphasis placed on not only the role of the rooms in World War II London, but also how it was a representation of the determination of the British people. It provides a look into one of the most turbulent times in British and particularly London’s history. And it does not fail to reveal the main actors and issues of the time. For me, it achieved this through creating a museum based on the preserved and restored War Cabinet Rooms. The other museums of London were beneficial to walk through, but the only one where I felt there was respect not only behalf of the museum but on the behalf of the visitors was in the War Cabinet Rooms. Other museums I witnessed a horrifying lack of respect to the exhibits and artifacts. The worst incident o f disrespect happened in the British Museum. Visitors were touching the sculptures and taking vulgar tourist pictures with the mummies. It was embarrassing to witness.
Respect is something that I realize I find in the parts of London I liked the most. The theatre for instance inspires a great amount of respect, not only in the appearance of the actual theatres but through the performances. In all, excepting one, the performances we saw in London, I was inspired by the respect seen in the appearance of the theatres and in the sincerity of the actors’ performances. Each theatre I had the chance to enter was beautiful, even the Disney version of the Globe. All were inspiring to enter and be in for a performance. Luckily nearly all the performances I saw lived up to their settings, obviously I am excluding Blood Brothers from this. As I have said in earlier blogs, the respect the British have for theatre is remarkable. They have made it almost an innate part of their daily lives, at least here in London. This respect is something I have not had a chance to observe back home, at least not in such a widespread manner. Personally, the performance that was the best was Arcadia. It was a beautiful performance of an inspired script. And the Duke of York Theatre was a simple but beautiful setting for the performance. Also, I felt privileged to be in that audience, there was no instance of disrespect in the audience or even boredom. In comparison, Blood Brothers and its audience, myself included, was just awful. The musical was poorly performed and as such the audience was unable to settle in and enjoy. Fortunately though, one bad experience with London’s theatre did not put me off at all, instead it just makes me wish to ensure that the next performance I attend will be of better quality.
Another inspiring part of London are the churches. They are numerous and each uniquely beautiful. Initially, I had issues separating them in my mind; all were striking and imposing, especially St. Paul’s and Westminster. Over the weeks we have been here I have found myself differentiating between these churches and finding favorites. I must admit I have love for the grand architecture and history of the churches like Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was an amazing opportunity to tour both of those churches and learn more of their histories. As I explored London on my own, I found that even the smallest churches here have long, intricate histories. I cannot say if I have a favorite church or even a preferred type of church in London. I guess I could answer more definitively if I had attended a service or two during our time here. Thus far though, I would say that my favorites have been ones where we have either toured or listened to concerts.
London as a whole has been a unique experience. It is one that ended too quickly now that I look back on it. Though, I look forward to the break from the city. This means I can return here in a few weeks or months and compare my experiences from now to the ones I will have in the future.

Tags: Kimberly

The Final Countdown

September 15th, 2009 · No Comments

Like many of my classmates I decided it would be worthwhile to summarize all of my discoveries this month in London. During this post I will focus on six main themes found within London: Parks, Churches, Pubs, Other Religious Institutions, Theatre and Museums. 

Parks

Each park that I visited had its own distinct characteristics that separated it from any other. Green Park was the first I visited and after perusing a few others, I realized there was nothing that exciting about it. Located right across from Buckingham Palace, Green Park certainly provides a good place to go and take a break from the busy atmosphere of the area. Besides this however there is not much going on and I would recommend that potential park goers walk the extra distance over to St. James Park.

In addition to the large number of waterfowl heckling people for food which offers consistent entertainment St. James offers some picturesque  flower beds throughout and various monuments along the way. It has the relaxing atmosphere of Green Park with a bit more excitement sprinkled in.

Regents Park offers a completely different feel from Green or St. James. Located in a separate area of London, Regents Park has a history of being used by a higher end crowd. I could tell this immediately from the feel of the park. The decorative shrubbery and elegant architecture throughout gave me a feeling that Regents is not as well used as other parks.

Since I was one of the members of the Parks group that gave a walking tour of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens I could go into a lot more detail about these two green spaces but I will choose not to in an effort to be concise. In summary Hyde Park is the largest green space in London and is often used for larger events such as concerts, festivals etc. It also contains a large number of monuments throughout including the 7/7 memorial and the Diana Memorial Fountain. Kensington Gardens is home to a variety of key monuments but is not as well trodden as Hyde. Overall it makes for a quieter atmosphere, more conducive fo reading or “snogging”.

Regents Park were my two favorite green spaces in London. Regents, is both beautiful, and extremely large and I continually felt the need to go back and explore. Kensington Gardens appealed to me in that it was quainter than Hyde Park but contained a like amount of history and monuments throughout. Although I would be content spending a length of time in any London green space Regents and Kensington would be my top choices.

Theatre

Overall I enjoyed going to the theatre on so many occasions. What better place to do so than in London after all? Here I will discuss my favorite performances and theatre venues.

All in all I enjoyed all but two of the performances we saw. The two Shakespeare productions at The Globe Theatre were fantastic. Although I did not particularly enjoy reading Troilus and Cressida it made a huge difference to be there so close to the actors. The fantastic drum chorus at the end really sealed the deal. As You Like It was probably my favorite show I saw here in London. Although it is one of Shakespeare’s simpler plays the actors really made it jump off the page. Being down it the pit was fantastic because of all the ad-libbing and constant interaction with the crowd. I even felt traces of Touchstone’s saliva on my arm at one point.

The other Shakespeare performance I saw, All’s Well That Ends Well, was lackluster. Although the Olivier was my favorite performing venue (this is what an auditorium style theatre should be like…why can’t Dickinson have something like this?) the play itself was odd and ended on an abrupt and odd note.

The other play we saw at the National Theatre, The Pitmen Painters, was fantastic. Although I was dozing a bit because of the Benadryl I took right before the show, the actors kept my attention and I appreciated that the play was based off of a true story. 

Easily the oddest play we saw was Arcadia. An extremely intelligent performance the play juxtaposed two different periods in time and created a singular storyline in which the plot was based. Overall it was an entertaining performance that made me think early and often.

Finally there was Blood Brothers. The lone musical I saw produced feelings of disbelief, anguish and held back laughter. The ridiculous 80′s sound track and creepy narrator just didn’t do it for me. I think it’s safe to say that I was not the only one from Humanities 309 who was a bit surprised to see just about everyone in the audience give it a standing ovation.

I had a very positive experience with the theatre here. I would go back to the globe again and again. I loved being that close to the action. I would also enjoy seeing another show in the Olivier. There really is so much to choose from here. It’s simply a matter of figuring out your tastes and saving your money so you can see a lot of performances.

Churches

From Westminster Abbey to St. Paul’s Cathedral we saw most of the major churches/cathedrals during our month in London. St. Paul’s was easily my favorite. From the fantastic crypt to the hundreds of stairs up to the tower it had so much to offer in the way of history and mystique. Westminster Abbey fascinated me primarily because of all the literary figures that had been buried inside as well as the room that was dedicated to “The Order of the Bath”. Other churches that I really enjoyed taking a look at were: “St. Martin in the Fields” which sits just outside Trafalgar Square and Nicholas Hawkesmoore’s “Christ’s Church” which is located in very close proximity to Brick Lane.

Other Religious Institutions

Overall the Sikh Gurdwara was my favorite place that we visited. I appreciated the simplicity of the religious doctrine as well as the conviction and honesty with which our tour guide, Mr. Singh spoke. The morning was capped off with a fantastic sit down meal together in which everyone was served the same food and drink.

I had different feelings about the Hindu Mandir. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the Hindu religion is not nearly as modest as Sikhism nor are they trying to be. From the extremely decorative prayer room, to the museum located right in the center of the Mandir I never felt particularly comfortable inside.

The only religious institution I wish we had gotten a chance to visit is a Mosque. I had been to one many years ago but I did not remember a whole lot from my experience. I wonder how much more lively the East End, and all parts of London would be if Ramadan were not taking place during our time here. 

Museums

I could go on and on about museums so I will attempt to stay as concise as possible.

The British Museum was massive, convenient since it was so close to the Arran House but a little one dimensional at times.  One of my favorite exhibits at the British Museum was a special exhibit on Living and Dying that drew information from all different time periods and cultures.

The National Gallery was fantastic. Although I have a hard time appreciating some visual art the gallery kept my attention for a number of hours. Seeing so many famous works of art was phenomenal. 

The Tate Modern was my least favorite museum here. Although I am trying I have a hard time understanding modern art. After about 45 minutes in this museum it ended up being too much for me.

The Cabinet War Rooms/Churchill Museum were two of my favorites. The realization that I was standing in one of the most important places in World War II history was unbelievable. The War Rooms felt so authentic. I really felt as though I had been taken back in time to the 1940′s while inside.

The Victoria and Albert was easily my favorite museum in London. There was so much variety inside and so much to see. I could have easily spent a few days inside. Two of my favorite exhibits were the silver and jewelry exhibits. I’m not sure what this says about me as a person but I found it unbelievable that individuals could even own such treasures. I also enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the V&A staff. At most of the other museums I visited I felt like I was doing them a disservice simply by being there. Although I understand that taking pictures of an object in a museum doesn’t do it  justice I like to be able to have the option of doing so.

The Sir John Soane museum interested me but it wasn’t really my cup of tea in the end. It also had a stuffy atmosphere to it that I didn’t really appreciate. 

One thing I can draw from my experience at museums here is that each and every one has something that distinguishes it. With so many museums I thought that it would be impossible to avoid some overlap but I never really felt that. Cheers to London and its museums.

Pubs

Finally we have pubs. What would London be without it’s public houses? In some cases pubs are the true museums of London, designating what an area was like in the past and what type of clientele it attracted. During my month here I had a chance to visit a few pubs and get a general sense of what some possible differences could be. It is clear to me that each pub brings something different and unique to the table. The Marlborough Arms was convenient being so close to the Arran House and was a great place to enjoy a pint over a meal with friends. The Court was conducive to socializing in a different way. The music was louder, the people louder and the drinks cheaper. Other places I visited offered other things that made them stand out as well. One thing that i’ve learned about pubs is that it’s hard for one to please everyone. Since everyone has different tastes and desires when it comes to pubs you are better off going to one with a small cohesive group.

To conclude this novel I would just like to say that I think we saw a lot of different faces of London this month. I realize there is much more to see here but between walking tours throughout the city, trips to major monuments and museums and individual exploration I have learned a ton about London, it’s history and where it is going. I look forward to more London explorations in the future but for now, ON TO NORWICH!

Tags: Churches and Cathedrals · Henry · Pubs · Theatre

Four out of Five Sure Ain’t Bad: Reflections on Theatre Experiences in London

September 14th, 2009 · 1 Comment

In hindsight, loading our month in London with plays was a very good idea. I wasn’t so sure when we began that it would be. Especially given the diversity of the theatre experiences we had: The Globe, a heady comedy-drama in the West End, Shakespeare at The Olivier Theatre, Back to the NT for a contemporary English class drama, then finishing up with a musical that’s been running forever in the West End. That hardly sums up the entirety of London theatre, but these experiences gave us a small sense of the myriad theatre traditions and experiences the city has to offer. Maybe as importantly, they served as a break from tours, walks and other activities which involved actively learning about the history and economics of London and instead allowed us to enjoy one of London’s truly greatest products firsthand.

“Hector is Dead!”

I was perhaps most surprised by enjoying Troilus and Cressida at the Globe. I was not heartened when, in the minutes before the show started, the guy behind me showed up with Starbucks cup in hand (A.N. Wilson had specifically lamented the fact that there was a Starbucks within shouting distance of the recreated Globe). With what I knew about the original Globe and after reading Wilson’s dreadful review, I was all ready to agree that a Disney-ish Globe recreation where groundlings stand but there’s no audience interaction or adjacent bear beating just wasn’t The Globe. But a few minutes in I decided I should just stand back and enjoy it. The cast and crew should be commended for making a consistently compelling production of a difficult Shakespeare history, even if it occasionally was a bit Disney-ish. I don’t think any of us who read the play were expecting such a good experience.

“Bring a Book”

Head craning and head scratching though it may have involved, Arcadia was my favorite play and the Duke of York Theatre my favorite theatre. I thought the Duke of York was a cool space; intimate enough for an intricate and intense play like Arcadia but not too small to provide the uproarious laughter the play deserves. I actually liked where we sat, which I thought provided a better view of the whole play’s upstage and downstage action. I’m sure I didn’t even come close to understanding Arcadia, but with any difficult work of art all I ask the first time around is if I’m left intrigued enough to want to see it again, and I absolutely feel that way about Arcadia.

“My Mind is Wrapped in Dismal Thinkings”

I feel mostly positively about All’s Well That End’s Well at the Olivier, and I think that puts me in the minority. It’s certainly a frustrating play in terms of a sort of flimsy premise and (personally) unsatisfying ending (sometimes it seemed more Gilbert and Sullivan than Shakespeare), but I thought the unique set design, lighting, and music deserves credit for making the play much more endearing than I imagine it would be on the page. The Olivier must be the largest space I’ve ever seen a play in, and this particular production did suit the enormous space. I’m not sure if I’d go back to see another play there unless I was sure that particular production could accomplish this. That said, I feel very positively towards the National Theatre, both in terms of the building and its mission, both of which I addressed a few weeks back.

“No One Ever Gave Them a Paintbrush!”

I wish I’d gone back to the Globe for As You Like It, which I heard glowing reviews of from everyone, but I felt a little tired and Shakespeared out. The Pitmen Painters at the Lyttleton Theatre more than made up for it, though. Almost everyone has put in their two cents on the philosophical or political meaning of the play, and there certainly is a lot to ponder and debate there, but the main theme that stuck with me is the debate over what art is supposed to mean and what relationship the individual is supposed to have with it. Of course the play frames this as a political question, but I think it’s a fundamentally human one that works of art themselves don’t always address well. I had a few problems with the play as well, particularly the last scene (which was like being hit with a socialism-lamenting dead fish after several hours of relative subtlety). I thought it was worth seeing for 27 foreigners trying to understand England as it obviously focuses on class distinction, but also language and accents and geography. We often (given our maybe skewed perspective) don’t think of where one lives in England as having as much of an effect on identity as where one lives in America. However, I think Ashington is a good example of a place that’s  so socially and economically isolated from the rest of the country, even if it’s not as geographically far away as, say, West Virginia is from New York City. All the more reason The Pitmen Painters was a good thing to see before heading off to Norwich.

“(ominous keyboard chord)”

I won’t pile on Blood Brothers at the Phoenix, and instead I’ll say that it certainly represents a mainstay of the London theatre scene. Namely the for-profit, familiar show of middling quality which thrives (but doesn’t necessarily dominate) the West End. Rick Fisher talked about this kind of show, and how it’s come to mean that some of the best, most innovative and fun stuff now is at the pub theatres and black boxes all around town. A thing to think about next year might be going to the National Theatre’s black box (presuming the play there is worth it) or venturing even further into the fringe of London theatre. However next year is scheduled, I hope the students somehow get as much quantity and quality in their theatergoing experiences as we did.

Tags: Aidan

Cheers to All Things Not Made in the 1980′ (Besides Me)

September 14th, 2009 · No Comments

Just when I thought things had taken a turn for the better in my London Theatre experience. Ah well, it’s probably for the best. Everyone knows that happiness is unhealthy for you, but I digress, let’s make structured arguments on how Blood Brothers managed to be so awful.

I think the greatest problem of the play had to have been the music. Premiering in the West End in 1983, I would not be surprised if the score has not changed by even a note since then. With crashing synthetic drums on every number (why people got it into their head that actual drums were simply not good enough is simply beyond the scope of imagination. That being said, the single greatest success in synth drumming: The Pinacle of the Synth Drum) and saxophones trumpeting at seemingly random times, the score was disorganized at best and a reason to pop a handful of Advil at its worst. All of this can hardly go being mentioned without also adding also that this music was being played so loudly, that it was actually drowning out the actors and actresses trying to sing. Amid complete the complete chaos that was the soundtrack, I feebly tried to pick out whatever words I could, the most frequently heard phrase being “Marylyn Monroe”. After having a generally pleasant time going to both theatres and concerts in London, I was shocked to see how something like this could be in existence. I realize that show has been playing for nearly twenty years, but at some point the directors of this show have to realize that this is a theatre performance and not a museum exhibit. It seems that at some point along the two decades of Blood Brothers, the producers and directors and even actors forgot that Theatre is something that grows and changes over time. While I’m sure that several people would be upset if the writers cut out half of the pointless and sometimes tactless references to a certain blonde-haired actress, most of the audience would understand that at some point the show has to grow beyond its original conception.

Take the Shakespeare performances at the new Globe Theater for instance. It’s pretty safe to say that the performances that go on today are quite far from how they were a few hundred years ago. In As You Like It, Touchstone’s role in the play was expanded to play more of a comedic role. While this was in no means necessary for the progression of the plot, Touchstone’s added hilarity only added to the jubilant and light-hearted nature of the play.

After walking out of Blood Brothers into the fading afternoon with a profound headache, I was struck with a slightly twisted thought. Maybe Blood Brothers should stay at the Phoenix as an exhibit more than a production. People can come from around the world to see what happens when complacency replaces ambition and something that lives and breathes as theatre does can be turned into nothing more than a VHS tape (no DVD’s back then), playing the same video that lost its significance somewhere between the 500th and 1000th showing (I’m actually slightly scared to even imagine the 2nd showing, much less the 1000th).

Tags: Paul

Cultural Differences and London Theatre

September 13th, 2009 · 1 Comment

     I almost cried at the end of Arcadia, did cry during the Pitmen Painters, and wanted to cry after seeing Blood Brothers – clearly for different reasons. When London theatre is good, it’s incredible, but when it’s bad, it’s atrocious.

     I’ve been to countless theatre performances outside of London, and never took much notice of the lighting. I am usually so wrapped up in the dialogue, sets, costumes – or, if it’s a musical, the song and dance – that I never took into consideration lighting as a component of the production. However, after talking with 2 time Tony Award winning lighting designer Rick Fisher, I made sure to pay special attention to the lighting during Arcadia. Once I was – excuse the pun – enlightened by Rick as to the intricacies of lighting design and how important it is to shape the mood of a show, I was amazed by how exactly the lighting did just that.

     Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Arcadia is set at different times of day and those natural changes in the color and intensity of the ‘sunlight’ were recreated beautifully in the lighting. Morning was soft, dawn was blue-green, and midnight was obscure and the moonlight realistic. What really touched me, however, was the closing scene in which Thomasina and Septimus waltz around the room and their silhouette is flung against a wall lit with orange-pink light. The sight was stunning.

     The plot and dialogue of The Pitmen Painters, as well as the themes they addressed, struck a deep nerve with me. My mother is an artist, one who has always been very insecure about her abilities, (and she need not be) just as Oliver was. The painters’ monologues about the value and universality of art touched me viscerally, and reminded me of my own mother’s struggles with identity. An effective play is one like The Pitmen Painters; one that is relatable and emotionally moving.

     Blood Brothers was neither of these. This musical was undoubtedly the worst performance – not the worst musical, mind you, the worst performance, period – that I have ever seen. The actors (this term might be too kind) all wore microphones in a small theatre – a sign of weak singers. The sound mixing was terrible and only served to amplify the flaws in the voices: the inability to properly belt(maybe if ‘Mrs. Johnston’ learned how to open her mouth when she sings, she wouldn’t need to tape a microphone to her forehead); flat notes; narrow vibrato; no vibrato at all. The sets were lackluster, the costumes unimaginative, the score repetitive and the lyrics forced. The plot had the potential to be interesting, but it was poorly developed. And one final piece of scathing criticism: Now, I have no problem with the omniscient perspective, but Blood Brothers gives a new meaning to the term “intrusive narrator.” If you’ve has the misfortune of seeing the show, you’ll know what I mean, and those of you who have not, do keep it that way.

     In conclusion, Brits drive on the wrong side of the road, call baked potatoes “jackets,” use way too much coinage, have great taste in plays and terrible taste in musicals. Just another cultural difference.

Tags: Anya · Theatre

Bloody Hell.

September 12th, 2009 · 3 Comments

I feel the need to pop the Blood Brothers cherry in the Norwich Humanities blog. Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly impressed, to put it lightly, nor do I think many of us were. Unfortunately, I’m not a great lover of musicals in general, so I already had a bit of a strike against me going into the performance, but I felt my mind was open enough. After the first number or two, I began to realize what I was in for, though I tried my best to take the play for what it was all throughout the first act. Unfortunately, what it was was an over-the-top, stereotypical fluff musical marred by samey 80′s inspired music, bizarre British superstitions, melodrama, sound mixing that was too loud even for me, and too many mentions of the name “Marilyn Monroe.” By act two I could barely keep it together. Every time the narrator/Greek chorus/God figure made an appearance onstage (which was about every thirty seconds), Sarah and I would start snarfing, and then the Bon Jovi-esque drums would come in, and it was all over for me. I think my lip is bleeding from biting it so hard, and the narrator man is going to haunt my dreams.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, but some of my attitude is coming from being a bit punchy from working on my walking tour for too long. In all honesty, I thought most of the acting was quite good, especially given the fact that the actors didn’t often have a lot of character to work with. I also thought the story itself actually had potential to be interesting, even though it’s one of those stories you come across several times a lifetime (I was reminded heavily of the Prince and the Pauper and even White Teeth, though the themes are a bit different in the latter). The “nature vs. nurture” theme is an interesting one to consider in light of the class structure in England, since at the end Mickey laments that if only he had been the twin to go to the Lyons’ his life would have turned out very differently, without pain or struggle. This is an interesting note to end on without further exploration in the play, since the wealthier characters never seem to be happy with their lot, either: Mrs. Lyons was unable to have a baby, and when she finally got one, she lived her whole life in fear of anyone finding out what she had done, and Eddie was torn between two worlds, as well as struggling with his secret love for Linda. I understand that the play is supposed to be a tragedy, but I would have been happier with the ending if I got more of a sense that the characters (or the ones that were still alive) had learned something, rather than just crying over the dead bodies before the curtain dropped. And there was a standing ovation. There wasn’t a standing ovation at Pitmen Painters, but there was for Blood Brothers.

Frankly, I just don’t think there are many musicals out there that will ever grab me (besides Urinetown!, but the whole premise of that one is to mock musicals themselves). I also thought Blood Brothers suffered from a severe case of melodrama, cookie-cutter characters, overproduction (I mean, really, I don’t need a drastic light cue as well as an ominous synthesizer noise to tell me something’s about to happen)…and those damn 80′s hair band drum fills.

Tags: Chelsea · Theatre

Shameful Shakespeare in a Vibrant London

September 5th, 2009 · No Comments

In our recent talk about the state of theatre in London, Rick Fisher described the different types of theatre that exist. From small plays run out of pubs to full-blown productions of the Lion King, Fisher claimed that it was in London that the art of theatre is truly living. Although I have only been to three plays so far in London, I would agree with Mr. Fisher’s claim. Although there are places like New York City that house both Broadway shows and those of lesser fame, the difference lies in how it is accessible to people. For ten and five pounds respectively, I was able to see two of Shakespeare’s works, All’s Well That Ends Well and Trolius and Cressida . These plays were not staged in some low capacity theatres as well, but the National Theatre and the re-imagined Globe Theatre. Can anyone even imagine paying so little to see a show at big name theatre in New York City? I didn’t think so. In their infinite wisdom, England subsidizes various theatres in order to encourage the art. While not everyone gets a piece of the pie, enough do to encourage new plays and possibly even innovations in theatre. Whether England and more specifically London does it is a matter of debate. Is it truly interested in helping develop the play as an art form, or is it instead purely a way to attract tourists to spend more of their money into an aspect of London? One option certainly seems to fit in with the pattern that London follows with most aspects of itself (rhymes with door-ism), but we should at least entertain the notion that there could be different intentions behind this, if only for a second.

My personal experience with London theatre is admittedly only limited to the more successful theatres (The National, The Globe, The Duke of York), yet I feel that in terms  of identifying a genuine tourist element, it is ultimately helpful. The answer is it turns out… is mixed. Or rather it tries to do both. Take the two Shakespeare plays for instance: Trolius and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well. All’s Well was almost completely true to the actual spoken word of the play, but reinvented the set and the stage arrangements for many of the scenes. Trolius on the other hand took a more traditional approach to the set and costume design, but took slightly more liberties in terms of the script. While this in both cases by itself is no grievous crime, Trolius did something that I’m not so sure I liked: made it too easy for people. Perhaps this is just the English major in me complaining, but in terms of Shakespeare, its difficulty of language is one of the most important parts of it. In the performance of Trolius and Cressida, the acting really left nothing to the imagination. Every piece of complicated acting was overacted to make it simple to understand, Characters were making comments of selling photographs and selling souvenirs in order to get a few cheap laughs, but worst of all, the actors and actresses acted out every single sexual innuendo. If there is one thing the Shakespeare was good at, it’s bending and molding words in order to make the raunchy mind of Shakespeare seemingly appropriate. However, this expert craft of words is lost when an actor points to every part of the body that he is referring to through metaphor. The audience in turn stops listening to what the actors are saying and instead depends on the visual cues from the actor in order to understand what part they should be laughing at. When people stop listening to the literary genius of Shakespeare, you know that something is wrong. I have no problem with helping the audience understand major plot points, but there has to be a line drawn as to what is made obvious. Otherwise the actors are doing the equivalent of explaining the punch line of a joke after you tell it: it makes the joke less funny.

(That all being said, Arcadia at the Duke of York was an excellent play that everyone should see)

Tags: Paul

“The Theatre is Irresistible; Organize the Theatre!”

September 2nd, 2009 · 1 Comment

Mr. Arnold:enthusiastic about theatre AND a pair of mutton chops to die for

Mr. Arnold: enthusiastic about theatre AND a pair of mutton chops to die for

So said poet Matthew Arnold, more than eighty years before a National Theatre largely subsidized by the government, to which he referred, would actually come about. Last night I saw a good, fairly ambitious staging of All’s Well That Ends Well at the National Theatre for 10 Pounds. I, too, am wondering why this institution which serves as both promoter of theatre to the wider public and patron of the fringe and experimental, wasn’t part of British life sooner.

The last few days have truly been remarkable. I’ve gotten to see great, well acted productions of Stoppard and Shakespeare for free (for me at least). I’m fairly sure there’s nowhere else in the world that this could be done (without a great deal of generosity). After last night and tonight, I’m particularly regretful that I won’t be able to see many more great plays (because of time constraints) even though I’m spending a whole month in London and I might be reimbursed for it.

Anyway, I really did enjoy Arcadia, even if I’ll need to read it, see it again, and then read it again to even get a whiff of what Stoppard ultimately meant. I had the same feeling on reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead only one time through (oh, and Travesties was the other play I was thinking of the other day).

All’s Well That Ends Well, despite being a sometimes infuriating play in terms of theme and (ironically) the ending, was also a valuable experience. Mr. Fisher would be happy to hear that I made a conscious effort to consider the lighting as part of the storytelling for probably the first time ever. In retrospect, the lighting went a long way towards creating a feel of a dark, imperfect fairy tale that I think this production was going for. The set design, which frankly is what really got me interested in coming back to see the play, was even better than I imagined.

Although one might expect a national theatre to put on spectacular stagings of Shakespeare in spaces that fit upwards of a thousand, the thing that struck me on our tour yesterday was that the National Theatre also devotes resources to creating and staging experimental work even if it will not appeal to the general public or bring back much money. Creating three spaces to fit the needs of very different plays when the Theatre was created is evidence that the Theatre is devoted to both offering inexpensive access to great productions and helping to foster a wide range of plays and playwrights.

Stunning Photo of the NT at night

Stunning Photo of the NT at night

I wonder if Brits are aware of how spoiled they are compared to Americans in terms of having fine art subsidized and made somewhat affordable for them (maybe this is why they wear jeans to plays). Judging from the crowd at All’s Well (a near sellout on a Tuesday night three months into the production), they are appreciative of the National Theatre and want to support it. I can’t help thinking this is a great example of how a governmental investment in the fine arts can truly pay off, and how the United States should consider a greater investment in such artistic institutions which are beneficial to society in more ways than one.

While I don’t know if an institution exactly like the National would be feasible in America, I do know that seeing multiple great, professionally produced plays in the US often means going only to New York and spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars. While people spend that much in London, too, Mr. Fisher mentioned that the more innovative and ultimately worthwhile theatre is generally done by the cheaper, subsidized theatres. Also, although this might be hard to sell to constituents who understandably have government money in mind for other purposes, it’s just in a country’s interest to support the creation of great art. It’s great to see that this seems to be understood in Britain.

Tags: Aidan

“It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.”

September 1st, 2009 · No Comments

Possibly one of the most personally thrilling aspects of being in London are our ventures out to its numerous theatres. I have always enjoyed the performing arts – backstage, onstage, and in the audience. Besides finding performing onstage a thrill, I enjoy theatre for its ability to transport, reflect, commentate, and juxtapose. It takes a subject (society, culture, science, etc) and turns it into a picturesque/edgy/nonsensical/expressive form for an awaiting audience. Some interact with the audience face-to-face, while others prefer to let the audience engage with the performers from their seats. Either method has its immediate advantages and disadvantages, but both demand some reflection.

London has provided several different uses for theatre. I guess it sounds odd to see theatre as a “tool”, but it undoubtedly has some uses. Take, for instance, the plays of Noel Coward (the subject of my research paper). His plays (usually comedies) make some social commentary of British society during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s – the time during which he wrote his plays. Theatre can be used as ways to mock, mimic, reflect, or reinforce themes found recurring in society. Even today, we learned about the play An Inspector Calls from Rick Fisher, the show’s lighting designer. As a commentary on wealth and the prevalence of blissful ignorance, this play aims, in part, to lead the audience towards some sort of understanding of self-reflection and self-improvement. Certainly a single show does not always solve these issues, but J.B. Priestley – the author – certainly saw the point of confronting them.

On the other hand, theatre can, and does, entertain. Take the list of musicals available in the West End. Several are highly entertaining and well-done. No, they do not always include profound thought or interesting social commentary, but the story is usually popular and well received. Some are edgy, but many have glitz and glamour and are eagar to please audiences (e.g. Legally Blonde the Musical). I can’t really argue that this theatre is useless and without meaning – primarily due to the fact that I have seen some of the shows on that list (I am still holding out on Sister Act the Musical, though. Don’t worry.).

But London theatre also combines the two in order to deliver entertaining yet serious shows. The two shows we have seen – Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Stoppard’s Arcadia – exemplify their successful combination. Both reflect on the ways of the past and comment, albeit loosely, on British society. Both entertain their audiences by pricking their minds and engaging their attention through clever language or comedic timing. Both frustrate and confuse their audiences due to fast-paced or even outdated language. Both step into the far reaches of complex issues ranging from love and thermodynamics. Both were enjoyable in this way, or, at the very least, deserving of some appreciation as works of performance art.

Theatre has several universal properties (namely the several noted above – social commentary, entertainment, etc.). London has adapted these properties to fit its own diverse audiences by providing a long list of plays, musicals, and other forms of performance art in the theatre. Each has its own purpose. Each attracts a different type of London theatre-goer. I often walk outside the auditorium during intermission simply to look around and listen to the other people around me. These people may or may not be seeing the same show that I am watching. It’s at this point in my experience of London theatre that I wonder who you can really pin down as a London theatre-goer. Can you even identify them?

I hope my next outing to see All’s Well that Ends Well will help bring me closer to providing an answer.

**The title of the post is a quote from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

Tags: Brandon