Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

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

September 14, 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.

Categories: Aidan
Tagged: , , ,

1 response so far ↓

  •   Jen // Sep 16th 2009 at 19:52

    Theres a great show on at The New London Theatre in Dury Lane called War horse,i really recommend it!

You must log in to post a comment.