Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

“But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were.”

September 18th, 2010 · 1 Comment

All My Sons Poster for the Apollo Theatre

On Thursday evening I went to see Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons at the Apollo Theatre. Not to boast too much—I’m sure most people are tired of hearing about it—but three others and I purchased box seats in the theatre for only £10 each. We had to wake up early to queue for two hours in the bitter cold before the box office opened at 10am. It was definitely well worth feeling frozen for the rest of the day in order to see the play that evening.

I’m familiar with two of Arthur Miller’s other plays, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, but knew nothing whatsoever about All My Sons. The play itself was very enjoyable—natural, uncomplicated lines presented by seemingly simple characters. Without examining the acting itself, the play’s deeper meanings and the presentation and development of them was brilliant. However, I’m no qualified theatre critic, so I’ll stick to sharing my reaction to the adaptation I saw.

The Apollo Theatre itself is a “Grade II listed West End Theatre, on Shaftesbury Avenue in the City of Westminster” and was built in 1901 (cited in above link). It’s a traditional theatre in that it has a large main stage with a cozy gallery of seats located on its ground floor, two upper balconies and side box seats. The audience for Thursday’s performance was mature. I would say most of the viewers were in their sixties. Us four Dickinsonians were definitely the youngest box seat ticket holders. The playwright Arthur Miller was, after all, very popular throughout the 1940s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s, so the maturity of the audience made sense.

In regards to where I sat in the theatre, the box felt like it was almost hovering over the stage. My view was somewhat restricted, but never before did I have the opportunity to see the actors’ facial expressions and gesticulations in such detail! Moreover, the setting—which included a real grass floor, an abundance of vegetation, and the front of a country house—could also be seen in great detail. Altogether, I was able to watch an incredible play and truly be a part of the scene.

Main cast members of Arthur Miller’s Play

In All My Sons I was blown away by the two main actors’ performances. David Suchet’s reenactment of Joe and Zoë Wanamaker’s interpretation of Kate were absolutely extraordinary. For one, Suchet portrayed Joe’s sudden emotional changes flawlessly and with ease. One moment he could be furious, the mood convincingly illustrated in every corporeal and facial expression, and suddenly he would become vulnerable and distraught with tears streaming down his face. To me, the only negative aspects of the show were: the supporting cast’s American accents slipping at times (something I actually found amusing) and the set’s peculiar depiction of the Ohio countryside as looking more like the Louisiana bayou.

In the end though, All My Sons far exceeded the other theatre productions I’ve seen in London. Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor is still a favourite, especially since it was my first experience in the Globe Theatre. Bedlam, also in the Globe, was enjoyable only because of the jokes I shared with fellow classmates afterwards. I did love Les Misérables with its brilliant lighting, impressive set design, and Éponine’s angelic voice, but I wasn’t blown away by the performance (it did not help that my seat was in the uppermost balcony). 39 Steps was innovative and entertaining, but I found the slapstick humour dull after a while. The Habit of Art forced me to consider deeper, more intellectual ideas but was not the most well written play, I think. All in all, I have thoroughly enjoyed my theatre experience in London—although I would love to see some dance while I’m still here in England—and have appreciated every play and musical I have seen thus far.

If you haven’t see All My Sons yet, please do, and share your thoughts!

Patrick and Matt at the play All My Sons (personal photo)

Tags: 2010 Mary · Theatre

Theatre as Art and Theatre as a Buisness

September 18th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Theatre in England is a casual affair. In the United States, a night at the theatre is a formal event full of dressing up and champagne, a night a kin to going to a highbrow gala if you will.  To some extent in England theatre is a reason to look nice, but it is not the event it is the United States. This is apparent by the five plays I have had the pleasure of seeing in the short time I have been in London.

“How plays in a month?” You may be asking, “How can he/the program possibly afford such a feat.” There in lies the casual atmosphere of the theatre. Tickets can be acquired relatively cheaply, I myself was able to procure box seats for Arthur Miller’s All My Sons a few nights ago for only 10 pounds and a few less hours of sleep.

Perhaps it is because being on Broadway just costs more for the production and therefore for the viewers, but the lower costs of London’s theatre scene allows both the viewers and the audiences to try something new. People, even on our program, are much more inclined to go see something they wouldn’t normally because it is only 10 pounds and not an outstanding 50-dollar balcony ticket like in the United States.

The lower costs also allow for more experimental theatre. Plays have the privilege to try things that the audience may not like because there is not as much of a monetary responsibility to the theatre. In the United States, a show will not be put on Broadway unless someone decides it can make money, and if it can make money it will go on an absurd 10 year run. With all of the heavy hitting Broadway shows that have been around for decades taking up the theatres, it leaves very little open space for the new, risky, and innovative.

I’m not saying entirely that theatre on Broadway has become stagnant and purely a moneymaking business, but I am saying that mostly. Off-Broadway is still a place in New York where one can see a risky new show, like this summers hit Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson which I had the great honor of seeing in early July. To me though, it’s not about the surprising hit that emerges from the risky new theatre, its about the bombs. What shows you about London’s theatre scene are the flops, the things you see in Timeout magainze with only one star and a skull and cross bones warning you not to see the show.
Seeing Bedlam at the Globe theatre was not one of my fondest memories of London but the fact that a show of that caliber, written by novice playwright, could make it to one of London’s most iconic theatres without fear of a monetary disaster is inspiring and gives me hope for theatre to come.

Tags: 2010 MatthewG · Theatre

A Review of London Theatre

September 18th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Image from http://www.reelmovienews.com/gallery/gandalf-glows/ and also from the audience of “The Habit of Art”

In our short time in London, I have gotten the opportunity to see a large sampling of what London’s theatres have to offer. From standing in Globe Theatre to watch “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (or, shudder, “Bedlam”) to leaning right over the actors of “All my Sons” from a box seat, I must say I have been quite impressed. The low cost of London’s theatres is particularly amazing. I have yet to pay more than fifteen pounds for a ticket, including seeing two shows on the West End. Given my love of ranking things, I am going to discuss each show from my least to most favorite. After that, I will briefly discuss my observations concerning the differences between American and British theatre.

Worst: “Bedlam”

Wow. Truly, astonishingly, bad. To begin with, I find the Globe to be sort of a touristy gimmick. When inside the theatre, I feel less like I’m in the era of Shakespeare and more like I’m at the Renaissance Fair in Pennsylvania. This being said, a good production, like “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” can still happen in a sub-par venue. However, a good production Bedlam is not. The actors seemed talented enough, but they clearly not invested in the show. No one was having a particularly good time on stage, and no one took their performance to the next level. Quite frankly I do not know if this would have been possible, as the script was terrible. You know something is bad when the entire audience groans at the climax of the play (On a side note, the audience seemed noticeably less touristy than the crowd at “Merry Wives of Windsor,” likely due to unfamiliarity of the show)

5: “Merry Wives of Windsor”

Now the quality of shows jumps up exponentially. “Merry Wives” is a sub-par Shakespeare comedy, but it was performed with enough conviction to make it quite an entertaining evening. The plot is quite convoluted, and the running length is far too great, but it was fun. I must ask, though: Why does the Globe insist on musical numbers between scenes? Are they trying to REALLY make it feel like the Renaissance Fair?

4: “The Habit of Art”

First of all, the National Theatre is an incredible venue. All three theatres were so meticulously thought out that there was not a bad seat anywhere. Unfortunately, “The Habit of Art” doesn’t belong on such a gargantuan stage as the one in the Lyttelton Theatre. I found the show to be a great two man drama hidden within a convoluted play-within-a-play series of gimmicks. While I appreciate Luke’s point in an earlier blog that the show at least tried to achieve greatness, and hit on a lot of themes in interesting ways, I still think that the show was far too flawed to be considered a success. The saving grace was that the audience was very receptive to the inside theatre jokes, as it seemed to be compromised of experienced theatre goers…and Sir Ian McKellen.

3: “The 39 Steps”

As Luke points out, and I think quite accurately, “The 39 Steps” excels at its rather un-lofty goals. The show is simply meant to be pleasant, and that’s what it delivers to a much more casual audience than the National Theatre. I still rank it above “The Habit of Art” because it appealed to a whole lot of my interests. As a huge Hitchcock fan, it was fun to see all of the clever references. I enjoyed all of the puns, clever staging, and impressive comedic acting. Yes, it was about as deep as a puddle, and it was not funniest show I had ever seen. However, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

2: “Les Miserables”

This is my favorite musical, and while it was not the best production of it I have ever seen, it was still solid. I wrote another blog about the only difference I saw between this and U.S. versions of the show. Other than that, it felt like a Broadway production in what might have been a slightly smaller theatre.

Best: “All My Sons”

The box seats might have helped. However, this show was incredibly powerful and moving. Once you got over a couple hiccups in the American accents, the acting in the show was impeccable, particularly by the lead actor David Sachet. The theatre itself was very similar to that of “Les Mis” and “39 Steps.” We were about twenty years younger than everyone else in the audience, but it did not matter in the least. Incredible writing, mesmerizing acting and solid directing made this the best show I’ve seen in London.

In comparing London theatre to that of America, and in particular New York, I am reminded of Rick Fisher’s analogy of Hollywood(Broadway) versus Independent Theatre(West End). I don’t think the comparison truly works. In terms of on-Broadway shows versus the West End shows, both are almost entirely comprised of very commercial, un-risky ventures. The West End has “Wicked,” “Chicago,” and “The Lion King” like Broadway, and adds to it stage versions of Thriller and Queen songs. Certainly, there are more avant-garde and quirkier productions around London in the National Theatre and elsewhere, but those are directly comparable to the quirky productions you might find off-Broadway. In terms of the shows themselves, I personally don’t think there’s huge difference between London and NY. For the past twenty years, it seems as if the two cities have simply been swapping shows. Broadway will get “Les Mis” and “Billy Elliot” from the West End, and in exchange London will get “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys.” The difference is in the audience. Because tickets are so much cheaper in London, the shows are blessed with a much more theatre-literate audience. It raises the energy of the production and, from my experience, makes for a better show. In conclusion, cheap theatre tickets are awesome.

Tags: 2010 Andrew

London’s Museums as Commentaries on Imperialism

September 18th, 2010 · No Comments

The museums of London seem to all fall around one dominant theme: imperialism. Seeing that this defined the British Empire for a majority of the last three centuries, it is no wonder that one can see its influence in each place one visits in London. Every museum either boasts the riches and plunders of the imperial era or makes some sort of comment on imperialism by what the curators chose and didn’t choose to include. As imperialism is, in my mind, the central idea around which all these museums exist, I’m going to take a look at each of the museums I have visited as reflections on the topic:

The British Museum: Many have already commented about the BM’s collection of artifacts and treasures from around the globe. It’s hard not to look at the mummies of ancient Egypt or the Elgin marbles without wondering just how exactly the BM got a hold of them. For its part, the museum seems to take delight in owning a collection that many would not consider rightfully theirs. On the “History of the World in 100 Objects,” I noted the quip the curator made about the “four languages” on the Rosetta Stone (as “Captured by the British Army” appears in English on the side of the artifact). While the BM could just ignore England’s imperial past, it seems to be content with making quips about where these objects came from. Essentially, the museum feels like a chance to show off the spoils of imperialism to rest of the world.

The Victoria and Albert Museum: This museum feels like a massive palace packed with valuables. In keeping with the British Museum, everything is thrown into areas based around vague “themes.” If you want to see jewelry, be prepared for a lot of rooms with a lot of randomly assorted riches. If you seek a certain historical artifact, you can probably find the right room based on the era and location of the piece, but after that you might have some problems as the rooms are randomly set up and gargantuan. Given the opulence of the collection, one cannot help but wonder how in the world the V&A wound up with all this stuff. The riches of imperialism are on full display at the V&A.

The Sir John Soane Museum: If the Victoria and Albert Museum feels like a massive palace packed with valuables obtained through imperialism, the Sir John Soane Museum IS a house packed with valuables obtained through imperialism. The place screams overkill, with walls of paintings that open up to more walls of paintings. I was particularly struck by the ivory chairs from India obtained during the eighteenth century: a very offsetting piece of the collection.

Natural History Museum: A few of us went through this museum after visiting the V&A, as the museum originated from the leftover collection at the V&A. While most of what one sees in the museum would not instantly recall British imperialism, some elements of the collection, like precious gems from South Africa, lead one to wonder just exactly how the museum got a hold of these pieces.

National Gallery: I really enjoyed this museum, but it is entirely Western European paintings. Given the Docklands Museum of London’s reference to the beauty of the arts in Africa before imperialism and slavery, why are none of these cultures, or those of the Middle East, represented?

National Portrait Gallery: I won’t go too much into this one, as several of my colleagues have already commented on the National Portrait Gallery’s imperialist nature. There is a stunning lack of racial or economic diversity in the collection, and I think a lot of that is a result of Britain’s imperialist past.

The Imperial War Museum: For a museum with the word “imperial” in the title, this museum actually had some of the least evidence of Britain’s imperial past of any of the places we visited. Only part of one wall was dedicated to all of the events surrounding the colonization of Africa, and I cannot recall any of the exhibits examining the struggles and fights for independence in any other former part of the British Empire. It is almost as if the curators wanted to sweep the entire history of British imperialism under the rug to focus on the glories of WWI and WWII. Based on the exhibits, one could easily come to conclusion that the Britain is embarrassed of its complete history. It was a cool museum, and I loved the section on British espionage (Who can’t love an exhibit that begins with James Bond clips?), but I found the museum incomplete because it ignored England’s imperial past.

The Cabinet War Rooms/Churchill Museum: My personal vote as the coolest museum in London, the Cabinet War Rooms show Britain near the end of the era of imperialism. Given the museum’s narrow focus, looking just at Churchill’s life and the struggle of the War Cabinet during the WWII Blitz, there was not much focus given to imperialism. One section of the Churchill Museum commented on the prime minister’s stance, early in his political career, in opposition to Indian independence. The part of the exhibit took a very apologetic tone, acknowledging Churchill’s mistake in taking such a position. Considering this museum is run in conjunction with the Imperial Museum, this part of the exhibit may provide an insight into the mind of the curators at that museum. Clearly, there is some sense of remorse on the part of the curators, evidenced by the Churchill Museum, for the British Empire’s actions, which could explain the lack of information about such events in the Imperial War Museum. Perhaps the curators are too ashamed to even broach the subject of British Imperialism.

Based on my observations, every museum I’ve seen in London is either indebted to imperialism due its bountiful collection of artifacts, or it tries to comment on the British Empire’s imperial past, typically by covering it up. Fifty years after the fall of imperialism, which is not that long ago, we still see its effects on the city of London.

Tags: 2010 Andrew

The Habit of (Bad) Art

September 18th, 2010 · No Comments

It’s not often that I dislike a play.  I can often look past mediocre writing or questionable acting to see the good side of a show.  As someone who worked in community theatre throughout high school, I know how much work goes into a show, so when I go to see a show, I try to appreciate how hard everyone involved worked to put it on.  Last night, however, at The Habit of Art I found it hard to appreciate much of anything.  I could very easily nitpick about how the entire show was lit almost entirely with florescent lights (which look horrible) or something like that, because technical theatre is my thing, but I’ll stick with bigger themes instead.  First of all, the entire premise of the show is the rehearsal of a show, creating a show within a show, which is an effect that can be done tastefully, but isn’t in Habit.  It begins with the actors showing up for rehearsal for a (poorly-written) show that most of them hate, which leads to a lot of interruptions of the rehearsal, including a lot of conflict with the “writer” of said poorly-written show about interpretations and such.  This really prevented me from getting into either part of the show, because the “outside” play wasn’t present enough to really make a difference, but it was there just enough to be really annoying.  Meanwhile, the play within the play (the “inside” play) actually got to be good at bits, but these bits were always interrupted by the “writer,” the “stage manager,” and the “lead actor” yelling at each other.  Adding to this was that the whole premise of the “inside” play was very strange.  To sum it up in a few sentences, W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten (a famous poet and a famous pianist/composer, respectively) are both in Oxford towards the end of their lives, having been good friends since they were young men (which is a fine plot of a play, and would be one I could enjoy).  At the time the action is happening, however, they’re grumpy, old, sex-craved, homosexual pedophiles.  Auden regularly pees in his sink, while Britten plays music with young boys to replace another kind of playing that he’d rather do with them.  Auden hires “rent-boys” to give him blowjobs, which it seems was a normal thing for Oxford professors to do at the time, because the rent-boy in the inside play talks of several of his more intellectual “clients.”  I’ll stop there, because I’m sure you get the idea.  I seem to remember there being more of a plot to the play, but it was overshadowed so much by it making two of England’s greatest intellectuals look really, really bad, that I simply can’t remember anything else.  Previously, I have had some experience with the music of Britten, which is beautiful, but have had no experience with Auden.  While my opinion of Britten really didn’t change much with this play (mostly because it was clear Britten in the play was trying to restrain himself), I’m not sure that I could ever take Auden seriously now, if I ever got up the nerve to read his poems, which is a shame because he’s one of the best poets the world has ever known.  Even though the play is supposedly based on true stories, I feel that the characters were exaggerated under the false idea that this would make them more suitable for the theatre.

I guess I should talk a bit about the venue, because it is one of the reasons such a questionable show was allowed to be put on.  Habit is being performed at the National Theatre which, as its name suggests, is publicly funded.  Because it doesn’t need to worry about its bottom line, it’s free to host more experimental theatre, which I’m totally all for.  If not for places like this, where else could new theatre be tried out?  However, the downside to this is that every once in a while, a weird show slips through.  It comes with the territory.  And as I look at it, you have to see a bad show sometimes to make you truly understand what a good show is.

For the sake of comparison, let’s examine the other two straight plays (in the non-musical sense, not heterosexual sense) we’ve seen and compare and contrast their quality and their venues.  Merry Wives of Windsor was a very high-quality play and by far the best performance of Shakespeare that I’ve ever seen.  It was put on at the Globe, which is a privately-funded, for-profit theatre.  Because of this (and the history of the Globe with Shakespeare, which is definitely the biggest factor) the Globe can’t put on that many “new” plays.  The notable exception is Bedlam, the first play written by a woman to be performed at the Globe, the world premiere of which I saw a few weeks ago.  It wasn’t a great show, but it’s hard to write a show for the Globe in this day in age.  It was quite enjoyable, though it was not nearly the best I’ve seen.  Even so, it was clear that it was good enough to make money, which is really all that matters to the theatre in the long run.

The other play we’ve seen is The 39 Steps, a farce of the old Hitchcock film by the same name.  It was very good, in my opinion, which isn’t surprising because it is performed at the Criterion Theatre.  A West End theatre, and therefore a for-profit theatre, it only shows shows that can make money.  The one downside to a theatre like the Criterion, however, is that they only show one show at a time, as opposed to the National, which can be showing 8 in its three theatres at the same time, or the Globe which can have many shows in its repertoire at the same time because of its sparse sets and flexible space.

Looking back, I’ve noticed something interesting about the plays we have seen as a class (and I’m sure that this was intentional), because they were each held in a different kind of venue.  Merry Wives was held in the iconic Globe, with its standing room on the ground (The Groundling seats), raised galleries, and wooden stage, while 39 Steps is in a traditional, for-profit, proscenium arch theatre, and Habit of Art is in a huge, publicly-funded theatre complex.  I feel that, despite my disappointment with Habit of Art, we’ve had a very well-rounded theatre experience whilst in London, one I hope to supplement with a few more shows before we leave.

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Theatre

Making a Fuss in the British Museum

September 18th, 2010 · 1 Comment

As Kate Fox says in Watching the English, there is nothing the English dislike more than “making a fuss.” We see evidence of this in the English propensity for dirty looks and harrumphing in incidences of queue jumping, rather than directly confronting the social deviant, and apologizing incessantly when asking anyone in the service industry for the tiniest bit of service, among other things. Why, just moments ago, as I was asking Pat a question about the unfortunate current state of the blog site in a very hushed whisper, I was given the disgruntled throat clear by the elderly man sitting a couple seats to my left here in the Humanities Reading Room in the British Library.

At the British Museum, which attracts a great deal of tourists, you would think the employees would be more accustomed to handling the directness of foreigners, but you would be wrong. I’ve been amassing quite a collection of postcards since I’ve been here in London, and in my opinion the British Museum gift shops offer some of the most attractive options. They are, however, rather pricey at 60p a pop, so I was delighted when I saw a significant amount of postcards available through the 10 for 1 pound deal. I was decidedly less delighted when I noticed that a few of the postcards I had paid full price for were included in the discounted selection. So I sifted through the postcards I had purchased and fished out the ones that were on sale, so that I could take them back to the counter to return them. The saleswoman I spoke to said they didn’t do returns, I then explained the issue to her and she said there was nothing she could do about it, with the faux-polite “so sorry” of course. Being a student on a budget, I was not about to resign to paying 60p for something being sold for 10p so I requested to speak to a manager. The look of complete befuddlement and horror that spread across her face when I didn’t simply sigh and walk away with my over-priced postcards was fantastically English. The manager did arrive, and he corrected the problem, but not without displaying that he was obviously annoyed with me, telling me how complicated of a process he was about to undertake. As other customers queued up behind me at the till, he would sigh and say to them, exasperated “There’s another till ‘round the corner, it is going to be quite awhile.” The whole scene was like something out of a bad sitcom.

This experience was the complete opposite of what would have happened in America, where quality customer service is something many businesses and institutions pride themselves on. The phrase “the customer is always right” is replaced here by something like “even if the customer is unhappy, they’re unlikely to say anything about it, so, all’s well then, carry on.”

Tags: 2010 Rachel

A 6 million pound waste

September 18th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Many blogs and class discussions have centered upon the use (and in some opinions, misuse) of public funds for the museums. No funds have been squandered quite as much as those used for the Sir John Soane museum. Outside the building there is a plaque proudly proclaiming that over 6 million pounds had been raised, primarily via the national lottery, to restore the illustrious home of the architect Sloan, most famous for designing the London Bank (I only found this out because it was one a small plaque inside).

taken from http://blog.londonconnection.com/?p=2799

Honestly, the museum is a huge waste of money. It is like colonial Williamsburg in the sense that it’s a preservation of an older house from a past time, except that it’s completely misrepresentative of early 19th century architecture because it’s too well-designed. Soane’s house is architecturally impressive – many roofs feature intricate designs and the different rooms have many different magnificent qualities. However, there is nothing explaining the various architectural concepts (at least that are clear enough to museum-goers, or just me). There are only few plaques explaining, or even defining, pieces of art or sculptures, which are arranged in hodge-podge and haphazard fashion. Yes, the architecture is impressive. However, it is truly ridiculous to spend 6 million pounds, of public money, to preserve and restore a bit of tiny, though spectacular architecture.

The British Museum, though certainly more expensive, is far more educative than the Soane museum. It not only contains incredible items from world history – it organizes and explains them, giving them far greater meaning then random objects that look cool (or don’t). Because it serves a purpose, it is worth the public money required to fashion such an institution.

Clearly, the Soane Museum best exemplifies the reverse robin-hood syndrome (stealing from the poor, giving to the rich, a common criticism of the publicly-funded museums) because it’s so obscure and not educative that it really serves no purpose to the poor but does cater to rich architecture fanatics and people who already know enough about artifacts and art that they don’t necessarily need plaques explaining them.

There are simply too many better uses for 6 million pounds, the public sponsorship of the Soane museum is, in my opinion, un-sound. What do I make of this then? I think the preservation and sponsorship of the Soane museum highlights England’s obsession with its past, and more specifically, a superficial past. Just as the Imperial war museum champions Britain’s involvement in WW II and skirts over that whole Africa colonialism bit, the Soane museum makes late 19th and early 20th century Britain look classy, as this is a model house from that time. It also simply echoes what we’ve seen before: Britain loves its past, and making it look good.

Tags: 2010 ChristopherB · Museums