Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Theatres in London

I am currently in London for two things, a research appointment with the National Portrait Gallery which I had on Monday, and a Dickens conference that starts tomorrow with an event at the Charles Dickens Museum.

Since I am here, though, I knew I had to also take in some theatre. As I wrote in my last blog post, I spent Sunday night at Shakespeare's Globe, where I saw Kathryn Hunter perform the title role in King Lear. The Globe is a unique place to see a play, since it is probably closer to Shakespeare's original Globe than any other theatre.

That wasn't why I was there, of course. I've always enjoyed seeing Hunter on stage, back to when I first saw her in Kafka's Monkey. Still, there is something to be said for getting to experience a play in a particular building. One thing I've learned is that doing what many of Shakespeare's original audience members did, renting a cushion for the duration of a performance, is a good idea.

I had never paid extra for a cushion before, but if I ever go back, I think I will again. I will probably also try to get a seat against the back wall as I did this time, so I can have something to lean against during the play. Notice that until you are in a physical theatre space, a lot of issues just seem academic. Who cares if audience members paid to rent cushions? Well, after you've felt the difference of watching a show on a wooden bench with or without a cushion, this little tidbit about the past seems much more tangible.

Monday I went to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to see Only Fools and Horses. In this case, I did choose the play for the theatre building. I've watched a bit of the television series the musical is based upon, but I'm not a die-hard fan. (Many other audience members clearly were.) What I really wanted was to experience seeing a show at the Haymarket. I did something similar back in 2016 when I went to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory primarily so I could get inside the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane.

As with getting tickets to Drury Lane, I made sure to get tickets in the gallery, so I could experience the show the way working class people might have going all the way back to the Regency period. When I went to Drury Lane, I tried to enter through the lobby, but I was redirected around the corner to a separate side entrance. That's right, poorer folks had to use a different entrance so wealthy patrons in the nice seats didn't have to mix with the riffraff like me! At the Haymarket today, audience members in the gallery don't have to walk around the corner, but they still have a separate entrance!

The other thing I noticed was how small the theatre was. Yes, I knew that the Haymarket was the "little" theatre generally just open in the summer, and its house wasn't as large as the two main patent theatres at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Still, knowing that is one thing, while feeling it in the actual space is quite another. I'm glad I went, both because I got to experience the space, and because the show itself was delightful. The songs were catchy and fun, and there was a sweetness to the musical that I didn't always get from the original television series.

Tuesday night I went to see Agatha Christie's play Witness for the Prosecution, which was staged in London's old County Hall on the south bank of the Thames, right near the London Eye. The play is performed in the old Council Chamber, where the city's government used to meet. This seemed fitting, since much of the play takes place in a courtroom, and the Council Chamber was already arranged with a central chair, seats on the main level, and galleries for the public. The main chair is now occupied by the judge in the play, and to his side is a jury box where some audience members sit.

Before the play began, and again at intermission, the woman who played the court stenographer gave instructions to the audience members in the jury box. I wasn't seated in the jury box, though. Again, I was in the gallery, but this time the gallery was also a performance space! At one point, a woman appeared in the gallery near where I was seated. (She hadn't been there before, by the way.) A spotlight shined on her, and she yelled at the prosecutor. The judge ordered her removed from the gallery, and so she was. This was all a part of the play, of course. It was nice to see how the production made full use of the improvised space.

Tonight, I didn't go to a play, as there was a poetry reading linked to the upcoming anniversary of the death of Percy Shelley. Kelvin Everest read some of Shelley's later poems, and mentioned that "When the Lamp is Shattered" was originally intended to be part of a play Shelley was working on but never finished. There were also Shelley poems read by biographer Richard Holmes and poet George Szirtes, who read "Ozymandias" both in English and in Hungarian!

Anyway, the conference begins next, so I'm back to work.