A London Theater Trip
- Submitted by: Evelyn C. Leeper
- Submission Date: 11th Feb 2005
A Travelogue by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 1989 Evelyn C. Leeper
March 27, 1989: (Of course, to be British I should say '27 March 1989,' but let it pass.)
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages):
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
(And palmers for to seken straunge strondes)
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.
--Geoffrey Chaucer, THE CANTERBURY TALES
Though it's not quite yet April, Chaucer seems appropriate, especially the 'droghte of Marche.' Not even April and we are already under water restrictions--life is beginning to drift towards the more dystopian science fiction.
Well, back to the trip at hand. Having slept little last night, I dozed off as Dale and Jo drove us to the airport, waking up only to find us in a traffic jam. This of course made me a total nervous wreck, my worst fear apparently about to come true--we would be late and miss the plane. Of course we weren't and got to JFK with time to spare. We picked up our tickets, checked in, and proceeded to Gate 27 where we met Kate and Susan.
We talked for a while, then I noticed someone with a soc.motss T-shirt on so I went over and introduced myself and we talked for a while. (soc.motss is an electronic bulletin board I post to.) This was interrupted by an announcement of a gate change to Gate 39. This was on the other concourse, so we all had to go through the security check again. I told the woman in back of me it was because we had done it so well the first time, they wanted an encore. She seemed to like that.
The plane left an hour and a half late, most of which we spent on the plane. This was good, because there weren't enough seats in the waiting area. I had a window seat--good because I could lean against the wall to sleep, bad because there was a cold draft blowing on my legs. Eventually I wrapped myself in my raincoat and went to sleep for a few hours.
March 28, 1989: We arrived in London about 10 AM, but by the time everyone collected their luggage and got on the bus, it was about 11:30. On the way to the hotel, the guide told us about the money (pound notes are no good any more; luckily I had only one anyway), and other details we needed to know. Apparently someone asked if shops took dollars--Americans can be so parochial (can you use British pounds in shops here?). The guide also listed some optional tours which he seemed to think most people would sign up for. I suspect many of the people are first-timers in London, which is not what I expected.
We got to the hotel around noon. On the way we passed Madame Tussaud's, which had a much longer line than when we went ten years ago. I guess it's been discovered.
After freshening up in our room, we went out to cruise the bookstores, first stopping at a bank to change money. Then over to Tottenham Court Road and down it.
Our first stop was not a bookstore, but a pub for lunch. We all got the ploughman's lunch (bread, cheese, and salad) and split a pork pie. I also had a cider, something which is popular in Britain and impossible to get in the United States. Lunch came to 6 pounds for the two of us, or $10.80.
We then continued down Tottenham Court Road and its continuation, Charing Cross Road. Unlike our last visit, this time the weather seems to be with us--fairly mild and no rain so far.
When we got to Denmark Street, I told Kate, 'This is the street with Forbidden Planet on it.' (Forbidden Planet is the science fiction bookstore.) So we walked down the street and--surprise--no Forbidden Planet. There was, however, a mystery bookstore called Murder One, and when we went inside we found out that it used to be the location of Forbidden Planet, which had moved, luckily only a couple of blocks away. So while we were in Murder One, we looked around. I got a Sherlock Holmes comic I was missing, but most of their large selection of Sherlockia was either not of interest or over-priced. I guess I'm not enough of a fanatic to pay $20 for a novella.
Then we went to Forbidden Planet. The new store is much larger than the old one, with the main floor devoted to comics and the basement to books. They seemed to have every Philip K. Dick novel, for example, except for the one I'm looking for (VALIS). I did find one book--the new Russell Hoban novel, THE MEDUSA FREQUENCY. It's not actually new, being from 1987, but who knows when it will get to the States?
Then more bookstores, including Foyles, the world's largest bookstore (or so it claimed). My one objection to Foyles (other than the impossibility of seeing it all) is that the fiction and some non-fiction is arranged by publisher. This makes it easy for the staff and if you are looking for a specific book it's not a real problem, but you can't browse even for a particular author. I bought another book in one of the stores--far below my normal quota but I didn't have a huge list of books I was looking for and the high cost of books here encourages me to wait until they get to the States.
We finished up around 5:30 PM, then walked to Wyndham's to exchange our ticket vouchers for tickets. A brief explanation is in order here. Our first theatre package to London (ten years ago) included two tickets each which were for specific plays (NO SEX PLEASE, WE'RE BRITISH and AIN'T MISBEHAVING). These were not the plays we would have picked and the audiences were probably mostly on tour packages. This current package uses vouchers; I suspect most do, since the vouchers are obviously produced by a third party. We got a list of plays for which we could use the vouchers. There were about twenty plays on the list, but about five were no longer available. Even considering that the list is made up of the lesser plays (no PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, no LES MISERABLES, etc.), the choice is much better. We decided to try for THE SECRET OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and SINGLE SPIES. The former is Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke of the Granada television series; the latter is a pair of short plays about the real-life spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.
Well, it turned out the vouchers could be exchanged only on the day of the performance, and since we were planning on using them Wednesday and Thursday and this was Tuesday, that was out. The woman did assure there would be no problem getting seats, so at least we were reassured on that count. I had considered ordering tickets ahead of time, but decided not to and see if we got them with our package--a wise choice.
By now we were all pretty tired/hungry, so we took a taxi back to the hotel, rested about a half an hour, then had dinner. Our package includes dinner at the hotel four nights, essentially a nine-pound credit in the coffee shop each time. This is fine with me; we're not really 'fancy restaurant' people. In fact, some might claim even a coffee shop is too high-brow for us.
I had grilled lamb cutlets--I love lamb. As I was blithely eating all the fat from them, Susan asked if I ever had my cholesterol tested and was surprised to discover how low it was. Good genes, I guess.
After dinner I went to sleep. The other three walked around and claim to have seen a pub called 'The Queen's Head and Artichoke,' but I find it hard to believe.
March 29, 1989: We overslept and didn't get up until Kate and Susan knocked on our door for breakfast. I had expected our 'continental breakfast' to be a roll and coffee (as in the United States), but it also included cereal, cheese, juice, yoghurt, and fruit.
Our first stop was the British Museum. On the way out our guide asked if we were taking the City Tour. When we said no, he mumbled something about how he hoped there were enough people for it. If he was trying to make us feel guilty it didn't work.
We walked over to the British Museum (about three-quarters of a mile). Since we arrived early, we walked up and down the street looking in the bookstore windows--Great Russell Street and its associated side streets near the Museum are thick with bookstores.
At 10 AM we went into the Museum and split into two parties, agreeing to meet at noon. Mark and I headed for the Egyptian section. This was less crowded than the first time we were there, but that had been on a Saturday (I think).
When we were in Egypt we heard a lot about how much was taken out of Egypt for foreign museums such as the British Museum. So I was surprised at how (relatively) small the collection was. Oh, certainly by most standards it is a very good and good-sized assortment: one large gallery of statuary and five smaller galleries of mummy cases and smaller objects. But compared to the Cairo Museum, it was a small fraction of the collection there.
It did have one advantage over the Cairo Museum--you could walk around without people coming up to you and offering tours or asking for tips. (Does saying that make me an ugly American?)
I did get to read a description of the Canopic jars. First of all, there were named that in the mistaken impression that they had something to do with Canopus who was buried at Canopus (well, that's what it said) and was worshiped there in the form of a jar with a human head. The jars actually represent the four sons of Horus, each of whom was responsible for a specific organ, as follows:
NAME - HEAD - ORGAN
Quebhsenuef - Falcon - Intestines
Duamutef - Jackal - Stomach
Hapy - Ape - Lungs
Imsety - Human - Liver
So now you know.
I will break tradition with my past logs and not tell you the complete history of every piece we saw. For one thing, this is a log about London and nothing we saw in the Museum was British.
After the Egyptian section came the Assyrian section, including statuary and bas reliefs from Ninevah. This is one ancient civilization that we have not studied extensively and hence were unable to recognize even the most basic motifs (such as Ugallu, the Great Lion) without reading the labels.
We bought a few items in the shop (some imitation netsuke--I suppose I should call them replicas, which is a much higher class of imitation--and a couple of other things), then met Kate at noon. Susan wasn't back so we left Kate to hold down the fort while we took a quick run through the Oriental gallery.
This involved going through the reading room. You know how in old movies you see the British Museum reading rooms filled with tables with people seated reading old leather-bound volumes? Well, now the rooms are full of display cases of old books; so far as I can tell no one reads there any more.
After the Museum we walked down Great Russell Street toward Tottenham Court Road stopping (of course) at the Cinema Bookshop. Mark bought a couple of books about Peter Cushing; Kate also found a couple of items. Plastic is wonderful; we're using credit cards for almost all our major expenses. Visa seems universal; Susan commented on the absence of Mastercard signs.
Lunch was at a Greek fish and chips place, with a waiter with a sense of humor. We all had plaice, which is either unavailable in the United States or goes by a different name. I had lemonade, which is lemon soda. I may have been wrong about cider--it's not as widespread as I said.
After lunch we stopped at Wyndham's to get our tickets for THE SECRET OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. We got stalls (orchestra seats) and from the tickets I guess the tour companies pay half-price, so the vouchers are like twofers except you don't have to stand in a long line at a set time to get them.
Then on to the Queen's Theatre to check on tickets for SINGLE SPIES. No luck--they weren't taking vouchers. We decided we wanted to see it anyway and bought a four-seat box for Saturday night at fifteen pounds each. That's $27 for a West End top show--sure beats New York prices! (Even assuming you could find a non-musical in New York.) I guess we'll try for RICHARD II with Derek Jacobi with our vouchers.
[It turns out that by charging them on Visa they were only $25.50 each--you get a much better rate with Visa.]
The next stop, and our major activity for the afternoon, was the Piccadilly Theatre for METROPOLIS. When I went to pick up the tickets they couldn't find them and I started to get very nervous (even though I had copies of all the correspondence and the Visa bill), but the clerk eventually found them under 'Evelyn' instead of under 'Leeper.' So there we were, front row, center, Royal Circle (what we call mezzanine, but doesn't 'Royal Circle' sound better?).
Since Mark is doing a full-fledged review, I'll do a halffledged one (maybe even quarter-fledged). the phrase 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing' comes to mind, but that's not quite fair. What it signifies, however, it almost antithetical to Lang's message (and possibly Von Harbou's, though I haven't read the book). Lang concluded with conciliation between the workers and the elite ('There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.'). In the play the elite (called the elitists, a major semantic difference) are destroyed when the Master of Metropolis blows up the city in despair over losing his son, and the workers come up amid the rubble and vow to build a better Metropolis for themselves. It's a question of peaceful change versus violent revolution.
What about the other aspects of the play? The acting is unremarkable except for Brian Blessed, who is delightedfully overdone as the Master of Metropolis. He is more like the mad scientist of the old movies than the play's actual scientist, but (as we all observed) is no singer. I refer to the characters by description rather than by name since all the names except Maria's were changed from the film to the play.)
The music is loud, but the tunes and lyrics are often trite (especially 'The Children of Metropolis' and 'You Are the Light'). The sets and special effects are the real stars and, yes, they're impressive, including laser light effects, but you can't sustain a two-show show on sets and effects only. (As we agreed, it's no PHANTOM. It's not even a SWEENEY TODD. It is better than CHARLIE AND ALGERNON.)
After the play we decided to grab a quick meal before the evening's play. After walking around a while, we went into the Aberdeen Coffee House. First they indicated a table which still had people seated at it. Finally they gave us an empty table--and promptly forgot about us. After about fifteen minutes we gave up and left. We then went to Garfunkel's, where we had eaten last time we were in London and had good service. (Actually, it's a chain all over London, but we had eaten at this particular one.) Sure enough, we were seated almost immediately and the food came fast. I had avocado with prawns--very good. Also tea to keep me awake.
I then made a quick run (literally) to the Phoenix Theatre to see about getting for RICHARD II. Again, we can exchange only on the day of the performance but the clerk said there would be no problem. When I got back to Wyndham's I discovered Mark had bought me a book on Sherlock Holmes in the media--how appropriate.
We had seats in the stalls, about half-way back. Mark found himself behind someone tall, so we rolled up my coat and he sat on it (there was no one behind him).
Again, Mark will be reviewing THE SECRET OF SHERLOCK HOLMES so I'll just make a few comments. Most of the first half was short vignettes from various stories (Holmes and Watson's first meeting, Watson's listing of Holmes's shortcomings, etc.). Of course, they're all familiar to Holmes fans (and that is far and away the audience, or for that matter the intended audience), but the performances by Brett and Hardwicke are the point more than the plot. In the second half the scriptwriter (Jeremy Paul) takes more liberties--perhaps more than many would consider reasonable. But, as I said, it's the performances people come to see--not the plot, not the sets, and there is no music (except for the violin). In summary, a must for Holmes fans, but probably not vital for others.
After the performance we went around to the stage door and waited (for almost an hour) for Hardwicke and Brett to come out and sign autographs. Hardwicke came out after a half hour, looking very much like an English country gentleman. Though Brett gets more attention than Hardwicke, I think Hardwicke is his equal in making the series (and the play) successful. Where would Holmes be without his Watson? The two stories told by Holmes answer that--they are among the worst of the Canon (in my opinion, anyway).
As Hardwicke was signing, a man came up to the crowd and asked me who he was. I told him and he went away, then I said to Kate, 'Wouldn't it have been funny if that was Jeremy Brett in disguise?' She thought this extremely risable and insisted I include it here. But it wasn't Brett, and we had to wait quite a while longer.
When Brett finally did come out, he was very apologetic about keeping us waiting. I figure he was probably receiving visitors from some branch or other of the Baker Street Irregulars. Mark wishes me to comment on Brett's attire: busboy's pants (whatever they are), cloth cap, and a gold earring. Very Bohemian, but then Holmes was always the Bohemian to Watson's English gentleman. Brett was very gracious and asked each person to whom the autograph should be inscribed. When he heard Kate's accent, he asked where in the States she was from and when she said 'Massachusetts,' he said that he used to live there with his 'dear late wife.'
When this was done we went back to the hotel via the Underground and to bed...
... but not to sleep. About 12:30 AM the fire alarm went off. We looked out and, yes, people were leaving their rooms. So we threw on some clothes, grabbed our passports and money, and went outside (conveniently, our room was on the first floor--American second floor--right by the fire exit). After about fifteen minutes a fireman came out carrying a charred pillow. Mark had commented that if the alarm was a false one it would probably be because of drinking and, if real, because of smoking, and this appeared to be the case. After another ten minutes we were allowed to go back to our rooms and then to sleep.
March 30, 1989: Breakfast at 7:30 AM, then a nap until we left (about 9:30). I'm not sure why we're eating so early. Today was shopping day, so we walked down Great Portland Street and then Regent Street (a major shopping street).
We stopped in several stores, notably Liberty (where Susan bought a good supply of fabric), Marks & Spencer (we bought some candy), Hambly's (an enormous toy store), several china and crystal shops, a Boots' (Kate bought half a case of shampoo), and Tower Records. The weather was gorgeous, as it has been the whole time. I suspect the umbrella I packed will prove superfluous.
After Susan took some pictures of Piccadilly Circus we headed west along Piccadilly. Near Wellington's Monument the roads get somewhat confused and there is a system of pedestrian subways (underpasses) to get you where you want to go, complete with wall maps of the system. This was new to Susan and more elaborate than any others I can remember from previous visits. (Mark points out the system near the Marble Arch is more complicated.) Susan also remarked on the number of stores that had security guards near the entrances. I hadn't really noticed, since it's not all that different than New York.
We eventually reached Harrod's and wanted to eat there, but their pub was too crowded. (It was called The Green Man, which seems to be the most popular name for pubs in England, just as most Ethiopian restaurants are named The Blue Nile.) So we went back outside and found a place called Wolfe's where we had lunch. Eating out is expensive in London--the prices don't look too bad until you realize they're in pounds rather than dollars.
After lunch we spent an hour wandering through Harrod's and the shops nearby. At one point in Harrod's, a woman walked by saying she would like a tour that spent every day in Harrod's. I turned to Mark and said that was my idea of Hell.
After Harrod's Kate and Susan decided to take a taxi back to the hotel. (Later, when Susan saw how far we had walked, she was amazed she had gotten this far.) Mark and I pressed on to the Victoria and Albert Museum. On the opposite side of the street from us was something called 'The Reject Shop.' Mark said he wondered what was in it. I said I didn't care if it had a new Olaf Stapledon novel, I wasn't going into another store.
At the Victoria and Albert we went through the Oriental halls, since we had come mainly for the netsuke. Then to the tube station where we had a fairly long wait for our train. This was due in part to the fact that our train on the Circle Line shared the tracks with the District Line trains. The Circle Line circles central London, while the District Line goes west, carrying commuters out of the city, and since it was almost 5 PM, there were many more District Line trains running.
Anyway, we did finally get back (we even got to get off at the station closest to the hotel; usually we need to use the next one over).
We changed clothes, then joined Susan and Kate and walked down to the Phoenix, where we changed our vouchers for seats (in the stalls) for RICHARD II. At this point we had some time to spare, but still needed to plan plays for Friday night and Saturday matinee. We narrowed it down to A WALK IN THE WOODS and LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, but the situation was complicated by the facts that 1) Mark and I would rather see A WALK IN THE WOODS, 2) Kate and Susan would rather see LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, 3) either or both might be sold out for either or both performances, and 4) the theatres were many blocks apart.
Luckily, the theatre for LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES was just around the corner from the Phoenix. So we went there and established that tickets were available only for the matinee. Then we found a phone booth. There was a queue for it but luckily the phone that took credit cards (such as Visa) was free. On calling the theatre for A WALK IN THE WOODS, we discovered that tickets were available for Friday night. Bingo! So we booked those (by credit card again), then returned to and booked LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES for Saturday afternoon.
This accomplished, we returned to the Phoenix for RICHARD II starring Derek Jacobi in the title role (or as they say here, the eponymous king). I had never seen or read this play before, but there were familiar sections ('This other Eden, demi-paradise, / This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war, / This happy breed of men, this little world, / This precious stone set in the silver sea, / Which serves it in the office of a wall / Or as a moat defensive to a house, / Against the envy of less happier lands, / This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.' et al). Jacobi was, of course, good and I enjoyed seeing a new (to me) Shakespeare play. (We could have chosen RICHARD III, but Mark wanted something new.) I won't review the play, but will leave that for Mark, though he may feel that he needn't review a Shakespeare play as thoroughly as a newer work.
The safety curtain was the most ornate we've seen. Theatres are obliged to lower the safety curtain at least once during each performance and usually do so during the interval (intermission). Some are plain, some have a flowered border, but this one looked like a medieval tapestry with an elaborate hunting scene.
After the play we had a snack at Garfunkel's, and then walked back to the hotel. Many people recommend the Transit Card (unlimited use of the Underground for 1, 3, 4, or 7 days), but we find it doesn't pay because walking is so interesting that we don't take the tube enough to make it worthwhile. (Four trips a day is the break-even point.) For non-walkers, it's a good deal. Probably if it were raining, it would be a good deal for us too.
March 31, 1989: Breakfast at 7:30 AM, then a rest until 9:30, when we took the tube down to the Embankment. Susan got off earlier to see Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, etc., but the rest of us were heading for the Museum of the Moving Image. To get there we crossed the Thames on the Hungerford Foot Bridge, which afforded us a marvelous view of London, including Cleopatra's Needle and St. Paul's. There also were a lot of homeless people begging near the bridge. This phenomenon was much more noticeable than on past trips, though not at the level one finds in New York. Mark commented that he thought the British public assistance system would have precluded this--we may ask our guide.
We spent three hours in the Museum and, while we could have spent longer, I think we saw most everything. (The additional time would have been spent watching more newsreels, Laurel and Hardy films, documentaries, or early television in the exhibits running them.)
The Museum starts out with early experiments: anamorphic art, camera obscura, fantasmagorie, and so forth. Then there is a section on the early pioneers such as Muybridge, Marey, Edison, and Reynaud. Larger sections follow devoted to Lumiere and Melies. One of the 'moving' exhibits--an anthology of segments from early silent films--is next, and then a sequence of exhibits documenting the spread of cinema world-wide and the 'Birth of Hollywood' (actually prompted by the filmmakers' desire to get away from the trusts on the East Coast), as well as the 'Temple of the Gods,' a tribute to such screen idols as Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow. A special section is devoted to Chaplin; the changing exhibit at the end was also about Chaplin in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. (Did you know he played Billy, the page boy, in William Gillette's SHERLOCK HOLMES? Did you care?)
The next exhibit is one of the most interesting and one where more time would have been welcome: the Russian agit-train. This is a mock-up of a train car such as was used to show propaganda films during and after the Revolution (the Russian Revolution, of course). There are six or seven different films they were showing excerpts from in a cycle, including some Eisenstein and some Dovzhenko. A museum employee dressed as a Russian revolutionary stands outside the train haranguing the visitors to come in and then describes the film being shown in a thick Russian accent. Apparently the 'filthy capitalist pigs' (as he calls them) refused to sell film stock to the Russians after the Revolution, so already existing footage was used and re-used as much as possible (sounds like Roger Corman). We watched a film (newsreel?) about a cream separator. There were more exciting films coming up (BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, OCTOBER, EARTH, and STRIKE), but we needed to press on.
The avant-garde cinema exhibit, including the showing of 'Un Chien Andalou' (which I did not watch) is next. I spent my time instead looking at the German Expressionism display, complete with photographs of METROPOLIS and even a large model of Maria.
The 'coming of sound' exhibit is more like the 'history of sound,' from the early piano accompaniment through early sound recording all the way through Dolby sound. Each stage is demonstrated with film and sound using that technique, and makes the information more immediate than just a written description would have.
The censorship section tells more about British censorship than one normally hears in the United States. The first 'production code' consisted of two rules: 1) No nudity, and 2) No depiction of Christ. The latter was synchronistic with our recent discussion of the silent BEN HUR in which Niblo (the director) had to go to great lengths to avoid showing more than just an arm or a foot. (In the Last Supper sequence he was forced to position Christ in the center rather than off to one side, and so had to put a waiter in front of Him, blocking Him for the whole scene.)
(Time for a totally irrelevant sidebar here. When Jews are writing about Jesus, should they call him Jesus or Christ? For that matter, should it be 'He' and 'Him' or 'he' and 'him'?)
(We now return you to your normally scheduled log.)
Anyway, as I was saying, gradually more and more rules were added, until the head of the British censorship board was able to say that the public could rest assured that it was impossible to do a film about any of the important issues of the day. Those times are past; now they could make films about the important issues today, but they don't want to, because no one would go see them.
The newsreel exhibit consists of various newsreels of famous (and not so famous) events. They have the Hindenberg disaster, the liberation of Auschwitz (followed, in an unfortunate juxtaposition, by a cricket match), and other such sequences. The documentary section is another where more time could have been spent. On the other hand, French cinema of the 1930s interests me very little, so that exhibit didn't cost much time for me.
The animation display describes and illustrates the many techniques of animation. It also has several monitors showing various examples, including 'Gertie the Dinosaur.' Again, with more time we could have seen all the film clips.
The Hollywood exhibit is actually several, each on a different aspect of production (make-up, sets, costuming, etc.). The special effects display has a copy of the final scene of KING KONG (actually the penultimate scene, the final scene being on the ground) and one of the actual models used by Willis O'Brien for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. They also run on a large screen a compilation of famous scenes which I've seen before, either before a film in New York or during an Academy Awards ceremony. (I lean towards the former, since I think we would have kept it on tape had it been the latter.) I can't recall absolutely the title, but I think it was something like 'Precious Images.'
The 'Birth of TV' is mostly about television in Britain, including Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, the first coronation broadcast live. Sets went for one hundred pounds each and that was when a pound was worth almost $5. King Edward V's coronation was the first one filmed; I know they filmed Queen Victoria's funeral procession.
A section on British cinema is followed by the MOMI cinema, a screening room where they were running old Laurel and Hardy shorts. The ushers kept waving their flashlights around and making loud comments about the patrons, possibly in an attempt to make it seem like a real 1950s movie house, but it was merely annoying and they kept getting shushed.
Much of the remainder of the Museum is devoted to television, including early television dramas such as the Quatermass series, which gets particular mention. It's hard to believe that they so enthralled the British public, but apparently they did. 1984 (with Richard Burton) caused such an uproar that the 'rerun' was canceled. (A rerun in the days of live television consisted of all the actors just doing it again.)
There is some science fiction in the television section ('Dr. Who' et al) and at the end a small display devoted just to science fiction and horror. This seemed in one sense strange since there is not a section devoted to Westerns, nor one to gangster films, nor any to any other genre. On the other hand, the Museum knows what's popular and sells.
We finished up browsing in the museum shop. I bought a couple of postcards and an exhibit catalogue; Mark bought a poster from THE FLY (the original one with Al Hedison).
Kate went off to the Tate Gallery in search of William Blake's engravings. She didn't find them, but they did have a collection of his paintings, so she was happy. We walked back toward the West End, passing the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Trafalgar Square. We had taken pictures of them previous trips, but always in the rain, and now it was bright and sunny. So we took more pictures.
We proceeded to Chinatown (surrounded by the theatre district) and selected a restaurant for lunch. Lunch was pork and abalone soup, squid in chili sauce, and Singapore fried rice noodles. We also had tea--unlike American Chinese restaurants, British ones charge separately for tea and for rice. It was all yummy (except possibly for the noodles, which were more gummy than yummy). And, as usual, we paid by credit card. It's easier here, they don't ask for your address or phone number each time. We changed only $200 in cash and probably won't need more--in fact, we sold some of our pounds to Susan.
We strolled back to the hotel after lunch, visiting all the Charing Cross Road bookstores we had skipped before. One of them had--in synchronicity with my comment of the previous day (see page 9)--a first edition of an Olaf Stapledon book I didn't have. (At least I don't think I do--it's only about 100 pages and could be part of one of the collections, but I don't think it is.) My first trip to London I also bought a 'new' Olaf Stapledon (NEBULA MAKER), but couldn't manage to find one last trip. So it's not quite a tradition yet.
84 Charing Cross Road is now, alas, a music store. It could be worse, I suppose--it could be a souvenir shop. There is a plaque on the outside wall, indicating it was once the home of Marks and Company, made famous by Helene Hanff.
Our last stop was the Samuel French Theatre Bookshop about four blocks from our hotel. Samuel French is a major publisher of playscripts in the United States (another is the Dramatists' Play Service--in both cases, they publish 5' by 7' chapbooks--you'd recognize them if you saw them). We bought five scripts here: BREAKING THE CODE (which we had seen on our last trip), SINGLE SPIES, LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CURIOUS ADVENTURE OF THE CLOCKWORK PRINCE ('a Victorian romp'), and A WALK IN THE WOODS. It is a wonderful store--where New York theatre bookstores seem to concentrate on currently running plays and theatre souvenirs, Samuel French in London bypasses the souvenirs in favor of an exhaustive selection of current, older, and out-of-print plays. (For those of you who want something closer to the West End theatres, Foyles has quite a respectable playscript section as well.)
Before going back to the hotel, Mark showed me the Queen's Head and Artichoke Pub. It does exists but is a relatively new pub and has only a metal sign with a stylized Queen's head and artichoke on it. I was hoping for one of those wonderful painted pub signs of the Queen with an artichoke crown or some such.
When we got back to the hotel we changed clothes, rejoined Kate and Susan, and had dinner. Mark and Kate had lamb cutlets, Susan and smoked salmon and eggs, and I can't remember what I had.
As time was short, we took a taxi to the theatre. It was only slightly more than the tube, considering there were four of us. It was a good thing this was the night for A WALK IN THE WOODS (with an 8 PM curtain time) rather than LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (which had a 7:30 PM curtain), though up until dinner I was thinking we had the latter.
Our tickets were waiting for us at the box office. We got stalls again, which was a surprise. We had asked for balcony, but at the end of the phone conversation, Mark stuck his head in the booth and said people wanted stalls if possible. I had asked the person at the other end if it was too late to change and he seemed negative, so I said to let it go. But apparently he decided to go ahead and make the change after all, for which Mark in particular was glad as it gave him a much better view of Sir Alec Guinness, who played the lead. Though that is misleading, as the two roles (yes, another two-man show) are not greatly disparate in length. But even if Guinness's had been the smaller part, he would have made it seem the lead. Not that Edward Herrmann is a bad actor by any means--for he is an excellent actor--but Alec Guinness is Alec Guinness. And he was superb. I can't recall who played the roles on Broadway, but I can't imagine it being up to this cast.
I believe the show has already closed in New York, which I attribute to three reasons. First, it requires a really strong actor for Botvinnick (played here by Guinness). Somehow, it seems as if the really great actors play more in London than in New York. Second (and this is somewhat connected to the first reason), dramas don't seem to do well in New York. In any week's VARIETY listing of Broadway plays, all but one or two will be musicals, and those one or two may well be comedies rather than dramas. Off-Broadway your chances are better: theatres too small for lavish musicals may have a serious drama. But they never seem to last long. Even David Mamet's SPEED THE PLOW (a comedy praised by the critics for its wit) lasted only while Madonna was in it. Is it any wonder than Derek Jacobi and Alec Guinness head for London? Yes, they're British, but I suspect that that's not the whole reason. Pacino and Hoffman have appeared on Broadway, and their plays, though well-received by the critics, have had short runs to less than capacity crowds. (Naturally, when I checked the current listing, I find nine plays versus fifteen musicals, but I still think the proportion is usually much lower.)
And third, the script is somewhat negative toward Americans. John Honeyman (Edward Herrmann's character) is an idealist, true, but he is also at times the archetypal ugly American. This is a message that the American theatre-going public may not like, but is not so unpleasant to the British theatre-goers or to the Americans who have come to London and see the play, since they are somewhat less parochial than those who have never traveled outside the United States.
We spent our time during our after-theatre snack discussing the play and even arguing over it. But we all agreed it was excellent and strongly recommend it. (Again, Mark promises a full review.)
After our snack we took the tube back. At the base of the escalator at the station at Leicester Square was a man in a gorilla suit, complete with gorilla head, playing the trumpet. You see the oddest things in London.
One of the problems with the Underground this trip is that they are in the process of replacing the old, wooden escalators with new, non-wooden ones. So many stations have their down escalators inoperative. At least they're using the principle of having the working escalator be the up escalator, but it's still awkward.
An observation here: access for the mobility-impaired to the Underground seems exceedingly poor. It's possible there were elevators that we didn't notice, but I suspect not. This is interesting in a country which makes all its coins and bills different sizes and shapes so that the blind can count their change correctly. But then, the Underground was built over a century ago.
April 1, 1989:
Oh, to be in England now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
--Robert Browning, 'Home Thoughts, from Abroad'
This morning Kate, Mark, and I took the 'Sherlock Holmes Trail of Mystery' walk with London Citywalks while Susan went to Dickens's House. (She is evidently a real Dickens fan.) London Citywalks is an organization that offers various guided walks through London for three and a half pounds each (with discounts if you buy more than one). They have four or five different ones each day and maybe fifteen completely different ones in all. The difference is due to the fact that several tours are given more than once in a week; in particular, there seems to be a Jack the Ripper walk every day.
We started outside the Baker Street Underground station (to which we walked, since it was so close). There were about twenty of us plus the guide. The first adventure of the walk (as he put it) was crossing Baker Street and walking a half block to 221, now the home of the Abbey National Bank. In Holmes's time, this wasn't even Baker Street, but had a different name, and in any case, its proximity to the Underground station would preclude its being the correct site (one client mentions he had considered taking a cab from the station to Holmes's rooms, indicating a much longer distance). Still, this is the address to which 5000 letters a years arrive, addressed 'Sherlock Holes, 221B Baker Street, London W1.' Someone--it's unclear whether an employee of the Abbey National Bank or a member of the Baker Street Irregulars--answers each letter as 'Mr. Holmes's private secretary.' And so on this building is a plaque commemorating Holmes and Watson. (Another plaque in St. Bartholomew's Hospital commemorates their first meeting.)
The mysteries to be presented on this tour turned out to be the cases themselves. I was the only one who both knew the answers and was willing to raise my hand to give them, so I was almost always the one 'solving' them. This walk seemed to be Holmes 101. Now I admit it would be difficult for a walking tour to show you many authentic Sherlockian sites, since they are spread out over all of London and indeed all of England. Yet I had hoped for something more substantial than this, something along the lines of BaringGould' s annotations. The walk was through Dorset Square, across Marlybone Road (with a look toward the Marlybone Library, which boasts a complete collection of all Sherlockian books), through various mews, and down George and Blandford Streets. The mews (or is it mewses?) were chosen for their similarity to those in Victorian times. Because the gas lamps are still in place (though now wired for that 'new-fangled electricity') and the chimneys remain intact, mute reminders to the famous London fogs which were actually London smogs and disappeared with the Clean Air legislation in the 1950s, these mews are often used for filming stories set in Victorian times. Of course, there are pitfalls. THE WRONG BOX used an aerial shot of these rooftops, but not until it was released to the theaters did someone notice that they had failed to remove or conceal the television antennas.
George Street is another street often used for filming, providing an entire block of house fronts of the Victorian period. As I said, the settings were reminiscent of Holmes without having any actual connections.
I have to say I wouldn't actually recommend this walk.
Some asides here, this being as good a place as any. I can't recommend that anyone travel with us. We tend to start early, go steadily, do a lot of walking, and require few rest or food stops. The result on this trip is that Susan and Kate found themselves tired out while we still wanted to keep going (e.g., at Harrod's). And we also have a problem in that we usually write our logs while waiting for dinner or waiting for a play or whatever. This trip we've been spending those times talking to Kate and Susan, so I have fallen well behind in my log. In fact, most of this is being written on the flight home.
The walk ended about noon and we returned to the hotel for lunch. I had the eggs and salmon this time and a cider. Then we walked to the Ambassador Theatre for LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, stopping at Foyles on the way for some last-minute bookshopping. We couldn't find either THE SECRET OF SHERLOCK HOLMES or METROPOLIS. The former is due out later this year; no word is available on the latter, nor is the music available on record/tape/CD.
If you've seen the film DANGEROUS LIAISONS there is little point in seeing the play. Since the author of the play (Christopher Hampton) also did the filmscript, there are few differences, and the actors in the film are in general better than the stage actors (at least these actors). It is true that we saw the understudy of the Vicomte de Valmont, who was certainly no match for Johns Malkovitch, but I can't see how the regular actor would have bettered Malkovitch's performance. The actress playing the Marquise de Merteuil gave a more restrained performance than Glenn Close, but I think Close was much better at projecting the Machiavellian nature of the character. The film's ending was also more satisfying, though I won't say how lest I ruin the film, the play, or both for you.
I think in general I will adopt the policy of avoiding plays for which I have seen the movie, particularly if the latter is based on the former.
Having but two hours before SINGLE SPIES, we decided to eat between the two theatres. However, Susan and Kate decided that if they could get good tickets for THE SECRET OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, they would see that again and sacrifice their tickets for SINGLE SPIES. Luckily Wyndham's was on the way to dinner and they did in fact get tickets. And people think I'm a Sherlock Holmes fan!
The Akash is an Indian restaurant right off Leicester Square. We ate there last time with Kate and she was eager to get back. This was Susan's first experience with Indian food so we suggested tandoori chicken. However, she didn't want chicken on the bone, so we settled on an all-vegetarian dinner: matar paneer, bhindi bhaji, mixed vegetable curry, birani, nan, and paratha. Not bad, and with tea it came to only 21 pounds for the four of us--a major bargain in eating out.
So they went off to their play and we went off to ours.
Now, a box in the United States (from our one experience with them) seems to be seats at the far sides of the mezzanine, right next to or over the stage. Other than their location, they are much like any other seats, not set apart or anything (they may have slightly more leg room). In London, a box is like you see in the movies: a separate little room overlooking the stage, with movable chairs instead of fixed seats. Ours even had a small ante-room. Mark calls it the Royal Box and undoubtedly if royalty attends this would be the box they get.
The play was actually two one-act plays: 'An Englishman Abroad' about Guy Burgess in Moscow (Simon Callow played Burgess and Prunella Scales played Coral Browne) and 'A Question of Attribution' about Anthony Blunt (with Alan Bennett, the author, as Blunt and Scales as Her Majesty the Queen, or 'HMQ' as she was called). I had hoped for a more historical bent to the plays, but they were more character vignettes. I ended up feeling that there was probably a lot more than I was able to get on one viewing. Bennett also wrote PRICK UP YOUR EARS and TALKING HEADS (six monologues, of which the recently PBS production 'Bed Among the Lentils' is one). An unusual presentation, perhaps not to everyone's tastes, but worth at least a mild recommendation.
During the interval, Alan Bennett walked through our ante-room. It's almost like being backstage. For the second play the usher put someone else in the box with us (after asking our permission). We weren't sure why but after the show we found out his original seat in the stalls had collapsed and we had a couple of the few empty seats. He was grateful we had let him join us. After we had exchanged a couple of sentences he asked if we were royalty. I answered, 'Do we sound like royalty?' (meaning our accents) and he said, 'To me, you're royalty.' And they say the British are cold.
After we left the theatre we joined Kate and Susan at Garfunkel's (establishing which one we meant ahead of time was of vital importance). They had already eaten but I got an avocado and decaffinated coffee. They have very good avocados here.
And so ends another day. I suppose I should observe that the crowds seemed stranger-looking--it must be Saturday that draws them out. London-or at least the souvenir sellers--seem to relish the punk image; there are a lot of postcards and posters of people with punk hairdos and outfits.
April 2, 1989: Our last full day in London. The vacation has just been too short. But then, there's so much to do in London, or as Samuel Johnson said, 'When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.' Of course, Dr. Watson referred to it as 'that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained,' so who can tell?
It's raining. I suppose we can't complain since we've had beautiful weather up to now, but it would have been nice to have it last. Kate and Susan went off on a day trip to Stratford and Oxford, hoping the rain would let up. (Ken assures us it will: 'Rain before seven, clear by eleven.')
Given that there's not much to do on a Sunday morning in London, we decided to go to the Jewish Museum, only a few blocks away, since we hadn't seen it on either of our other two trips and it opened at 10 AM. So off through the rain we slogged.
The Museum is actually a single large room on the second floor of a building which also houses other Jewish organizations (such as a burial society). The building has a more secure entrance than other museums--you enter one set of metal doors (opened by a buzzer inside) and stand in a small entranceway with room for about a dozen people. The second set of doors won't open unless the first set is closed. (Sounds like a fire hazard, actually.) All the internal doors have mezzuzot, but the entrance doesn't. It seems strange, especially as the building is labeled.
The actual collection of objects is small, much smaller than that of the Jewish Museum in New York, but they do have a couple of videotapes explaining many of the objects. (Mark found out that tradition would have required that, as godfather, he hold Stephen during the bris, so he's glad Alan and Joan weren't real traditionalists.) We ran into some other people from our tour there as well.
From there we decided to walk to Hyde Park and Speakers' Corner. It was still raining (so much for 'clear by eleven'), but not heavily and we were protected by awnings for much of the walk down Oxford Street. And I did get to use my umbrella, so it wasn't a waste to pack it. We got the Hyde Park about noon. The rain put a damper (so to speak) on the activity; there were only four or five speakers. We recognized a couple of the speakers (and a couple of the hecklers!) from last time--there is obviously a set of regulars. A though occurred to me: I wonder if all these people are employed by the Tourist Board as a tourist attraction. (I suspect not.)
We stayed about a half hour, then tubed to Sloane Square for the National Army Museum. Sloane Square looked familiar; we had stayed near there last time we were in London. In fact, we also passed the Russell Hotel (where we had stayed on our first trip) earlier today, so this was a sort of nostalgia day.
Walking toward the Museum we found an Indian restaurant and had lunch, splitting a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian thali. No tea, however--their machine was broken. (I didn't understand this; surely all you need is a way to boil water.)
The National Army Museum is a newish building (1970s, probably). Its exhibits cover '500 years of the British Army,' as it describes itself. Admittedly the first one or two hundred get less thorough treatment than more recent times, but there was a fairly complete exhibit of arms and armor from the pike to the rocket launcher.
The main halls show a chronological history of the army. Of particular interest were the descriptions for each war or campaign, each giving both the long-term and short-term causes. Of course, these are from the British point of view, so for the War of 1812 the long-term cause given is fear of United States expansionism and the short-term reason given is the United States invasion of Canada. The British impressment of United States seamen, given in United States schools as the cause, is not even mentioned. Which, I wonder, is the truth?
Another interesting idea is that when a sign refers to the Civil War, it's talking about Cromwell in the 17th Century, not Lee in the 19th. Somehow, saying this sounds trite or obvious, but it is a bit of a mental hiccough.
We left the Museum at 5 PM and the sun had finally come out. We arrived back at the hotel just in time to change clothes (well, socks anyway) and blow-dry our shoes before going out again for our Jack the Ripper walk ('On the Trail of Jack the Ripper'). This left from Tower Hill Station, so Susan got a good view of the Tower (from the outside) while we were waiting.
The same person who led the Holmes walk came around to collect the tickets and/or money and I was a bit worried that he would be leading the tour but, no, he was just doing the bookkeeping.
The actual tour leader was Martin Fido, a recognized expert on Jack the Ripper. (There's even been a television documentary based on his theory.) He began by giving us the chronology of Jack the Ripper's crimes, which was helpful, especially since we were visiting the sites in pretty much reverse order (except for the murder site of Liz Stride, which was further away in a court off Berner Street and which we weren't visiting at all). In other words we started with the site of the killing of Catherine Eddowes (a.k.a. Kate Kelly) (killed 9/30/88 in Mitre Square), then that of Mary Kelly (killed 10/31/88 in 26 Dorset Street), then that of Annie Chapman (killed 9/8/88 in back of 29 Hanbury Street), and finally that of Polly (Mary Ann) Nichols (killed 8/31/88 in Buck's Row). We also saw other sites pertinent to the investigation including the site where the bloodstained apron was found and where 'The Juwes are not the men who will be blames for nothing' was scrawled on the wall. (Well, sort of--the passageway is now blocked by a door, since vagrants had been using it to sleep in.)
I will not elaborate all the theories that Fido described, nor his own theory--you can read up on all these if you want. He did say that the recent Michael Caine made-for-television movie was a total fabrication (though the Gull theory has been put forward by serious scholars). Much of this we talked about during the pub break we had about halfway through the walk, when we got a chance to ask him questions that he wouldn't have had time for during the walk itself.
The only really scary part of the walk was when we were standing in a narrow alley and a car need to get by. We all pulled to one side or the other, but Kate stumbled just as the car went by and fell against it. Luckily it was going slowly, and did not run over her foot (as we thought in that first instant), but we were all pretty shaken up.
When the walk finished it was almost 10 PM. We decided to go back to the hotel to eat, and rushed to get back by 10:30 (which we thought was the closing time for the coffee shop). It seemed as if the Fates were conspiring against us. First the train sat in one of the intermediate stops for about five minutes. Then it turned out we had purchased 60p tickets, but the ride from Whitechapel to Great Portland Street was actually a 90p ride, so we all had to pay extra (which took time). It turned out that on Sundays the coffee shop closes earlier anyway, and there is only room service for food after that. Susan ordered some dinner, but Mark and I settled for a candy bar, since we weren't really hungry anyway.
April 3, 1989: We had a bit of extra time this morning before we needed to be on the bus, so we made a quick dash over to Samuel French's, where Susan tried (unsuccessfully) to purchase a copy of A WALK IN THE WOODS. Apparently Mark got the final copy. I took this opportunity to get TALKING HEADS, so it wasn't a wasted trip.
Most of us were on the bus by 10:45 AM. We were scheduled to leave at 11 and wouldn't you know it, there was one person who didn't arrive until precisely 11 AM. (Hi, Brad!) That's what happens when you have engineers, but Ken was convinced this person was off somewhere and would be late. We managed to worry ken also, because we had no luggage outside our door to be taken to the bus, and he was worried either we had forgotten or the hotel had misplaced it. Several people returned unused theatre vouchers to Ken, which he said he could use for a mentally-handicapped theatre group he was working with. (I'm a bit suspicious; he could just as easily re-use them for the next tour and pocket the money allocated for buying new ones, but I suppose it doesn't matter.) I was surprised that people didn't use them, especially as this was billed as a theatre tour, but I guess some people just weren't interested.
On the way to Heathrow Ken talked a bit about what we were passing. One of the sites was a theatre where Tod Slaughter used to perform his melodramas and Ken occasionally had bit parts in them. Tod Slaughter (for those who don't know, which I suspect is 99% of you) was an actor in the 1920s and 1930s of melodramas such as THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET and THE RED BARN. Some of these were filmed and the videotapes of these are just becoming available; they're a bit of a cult item.
Security at Heathrow was very thorough, no doubt as a result of their recent lapses and the bad press surrounding them. We went through three different security checkpoints and they made us demonstrate that the cassette players and radios were actually what they appeared to be. We had just enough time (barely) to grab a quick cup of tea and use up the last of our British money (well, I have twenty-one pence left) before we boarded the plane, which then sat on at the gate for over an hour before finally getting clearance and taking off.
The flight back was uneventful, the food mediocre, and time passed fairly quickly. On arriving back at Kennedy we were through Customs in about five minutes (we had only carry-on luggage, so didn't have to wait for the luggage to be unloaded, and we had nothing to declare). But when we got to the arrival area in the terminal, Binayak, who was supposed to pick us up, wasn't there. We gave him a few minutes, then called him at work. No answer. We called him at home. No answer. We waited a while longer. Kate and Susan left on their bus to Hartford. My soc.motss friend had to write us a check for $10 so he could have cash for the bus ride home, which came up higher than he expected. Finally, after about an hour we called another friend. She said she would pick us up if he didn't show up in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes later we called her back, but when she realized we were at JFK, not Newark, she said she couldn't pick us up because she had a prior commitment later in the evening. However, she tried Binayak again and he was home. He apparently thought he was supposed to pick us up Wednesday, not Monday. So he raced out to JFK, finally arriving about three hours after we had.
Our adventure was not quite over. On the way home, we missed the correct exit leaving JFK and ended up going through Queens and back down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. After a quick dinner at Ground Round, we arrived home about 10:30 PM. And so ended our whirlwind London theatre tour.
THE SECRET OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
A theatre review by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1989 Mark R. Leeper
There was a time when if you said 'Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson,' people automatically pictured Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. To be honest, I was never fond of Rathbone in the part and Nigel Bruce was an irritatingly bad choice for Watson. Happily we are past the days when Rathbone is so closely associated with the part. Today more people would picture Holmes as the brilliant and neurotic and quirky sleuth as portrayed by Jeremy Brett. There is no question in my mind that he is the best Holmes I have seen.
Brett and his usual Watson (Edward Hardwicke, the son of Sir Cedric Hardwicke) put on a two-man show in THE SECRET OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The play might almost be called 'Holmes 101.' Threequarters of the play consists of Watson's memories of Holmes at his oddest. All are familiar to me from one source or another, even with my minimal reading of the original stories. Watson remembers meeting Holmes, Holmes's ignorance of basic cosmology, Holmes's affection for Irene Adler.
It is not until the second act that the play starts giving us anything unfamiliar and original about Holmes and Watson. The speculation then made about Holmes does vary from Arthur Conan Doyle's intention but is well within the range of speculations that have been made before. Suffice it to say that Holmes's secret is less than totally unexpected.
But where the play fails to give us anything very novel to add to the Sherlock Holmes mythos, it does do a great deal with the relationship between the two men. Holmes's snobbish disdain and condescension toward Watson ironically alloyed to his genuine affection have rarely been shown in so rich or concentrated a dramatic form. Again, no real surprises here, but the relationship is well expressed in the acting, making for a pleasant if not totally enthralling evening.
* * * HEADING * * *
A theatre review by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1989 Mark R. Leeper
There is an old adage that says well begun is half done. Well, clearly with METROPOLIS somebody began well and then went to lunch and never came back. The first ten minutes are almost worth the price of admission. The last ten minutes, on the other hand, more than offset the first and it's the last ten minutes that people will remember as much as they'd like to forget them.
METROPOLIS is supposedly based on the 1926 Fritz Lang film and admittedly there are a few undeniable similarities in the plot, but not enough. On the face of it, adapting the Fritz Lang classic to the stage seems doomed from the start. METROPOLIS worked by the scale of its production: its huge sets, its cast of thousands, and its spectacle. Its story and its human drama were weak and the plot really makes no sense. In short, its weaknesses were precisely the things you might do well on a stage, but its strengths are precisely what would be lost by transition. One can do all sorts of amazing things on the stage, but adapting METROPOLIS does not seem as if it is one of them, and even less so after seeing this attempt.
Lang's film, inspired by seeing the New York City skyline and presumably by reading H. G. Wells's future history works, tells a story of a world stratified into an effete ruling class living above ground and a working class living below ground in slavery-like conditions. The play goes a step further, claiming that with Earth's resources depleted, the city has returned to human labor. Interesting, though since almost all the labor we see done could be done far cheaper by silicon chips, the slavery takes on the aspect of charitable make-work.
The city is ruled over by John Freeman (Frederson in the film), who hatches several plots more cruel than logical to maintain his control. One of the joys of the film is his relationship with the mad alchemist/scientist Rotwang, a fine screen villain. The play replaced Rotwang with a mousy scientist here called Warren. If the name 'Warren' seems less intriguing than the name 'Rotwang,' that is just how the characters seem. This play is not big enough for two villains, so sadly the film's most interesting character is lost. The play is built around Freeman's villainy and a tyranny that knows no bounds. At one point he seems even to be able to choose who the best-liked poop-stars will be. I can imagine what would happen if New York mayor Ed Koch tried to start dictating who would be the popular recording artists in New York City. Freeman is played by Brian Blessed making the best of a badly written role. When the script calls on him to sing a solo while blowing up his own city, even his best is not sufficient.
Freeman's son--here called Steven--is supposed to look sympathetic and appealing, so he has been dressed unimaginatively to look like Rod Stewart in a jacket with rolled sleeves. Judy Kuhn plays Maria and the robot Futura. A better actress could have been the focal point of the whole play, but she is just not quirky enough somehow as the robot and not particularly inspiring as the leader of the worker activists.
Visually the story has been scaled down and elements of cheap science fiction scripts have been added to fill the vacuum. The most successful piece of scaling is the huge machine set that opens the play. One machine 20 feet high with two levels of walkways virtually fills the stage. It is rumored that they needed to excavate under theatre to add extra support under the stage. The film's huge elevators have been replaced by elevator tubes, which are used as often as the script would allow. To simulate the electronic effects of the film, especially the creation of the robot, laser lightshow effects are used. These are mostly prosaic loops of light and figure-eights. However, since the scene is filled with dry-ice mist, it is rather obvious that they are being projected and where the laser is. The film's water effects are replaced by unoriginal fireworks a la VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. And speaking of the tired and overly familiar, the introduction of high-tech stormtroops seemed gratuitous.
The music for this extravaganza was provided by Joseph Brooks, whose greatest credit to this point is the song 'You Light Up My Life.' For METROPOLIS he wrote a very similar song, 'You are the Light,' which is clearly intended to be another smash hit. One way you can tell is at the end of the play everyone in the cast, live characters and dead one, joins together in a chorus of 'You Are the Light.' It's just that kind of play.
One of the ushers quoted a critic as saying that in the play 'the only thing that works are the lifts.' I cannot improve on that assessment. And when you cannot improve on something, it is best not to pretend you can.
A theatre review by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1989 Mark R. Leeper
I have a very bad memory when it comes to Shakespeare. It is difficult for me to remember for long that I really like and enjoy Shakespeare plays. I usually go into them wondering if I will be able to figure out what people are saying and if the story will be of interest. And of course I rarely find a Shakespeare production that I do not find I have thoroughly enjoyed and for which my fears were groundless.
Derek Jacobi is, of course, masterful as Richard II, who made the mistake of believing that God wanted him to be king. He uses that belief as license to do much as he pleases as king, making enemies as he goes. When one of his banished enemies returns to England intent on deposing him, Richard's reaction is one of incredulity that mere men could so oppose the manifest will of God. He soon finds out, however, that kings can be deposed and that God is quite willing to let it happen. Richard's almost childlike feeling of betrayal and regret form the emotional core of the play.
Jacobi's performance is powerful and very emotional, though occasionally his tendency to spit when he talks is a bit distracting and probably is unwelcome by his fellow actors. Still, it is clear that it is Jacobi that the audiences have come to see and the play is mostly his performance.
A WALK IN THE WOODS
A theatre review by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1989 Mark R. Leeper
The setting is the strategic arms limitation talks in Geneva. The discussion is in its usual state of being bogged down by minute details and the Soviet negotiator has suggested to the American negotiator that the two of them take a walk together in the woods. This is the first of four short walks dramatized in Lee Blessing's play A WALK IN THE WOODS. The American negotiator is a new man, John Honeyman, a human oaken stick, stiff, formal, wooden, even stuffy, but dedicated to finding a way out of the nuclear dilemma the two superpowers find themselves facing. In marked contrast to his business-first professionalism is the style of Andrey Botvinnick. The Russian seems simple and likable, a bit ironic, but is maddeningly evasive on the subject he is negotiating. He wants to know the man the Americans have sent, not the proposal. He prefers to discuss country-western music or Mickey Mouse to nuclear arms.
Structured much like the play SAME TIME NEXT YEAR, A WALK IN THE WOODS visits characters in pretty much the same setting in each of its episodes and gives us a view into how they (or at least the American) change over time. The four walks we see take place at roughly three-month intervals, so we see the woods go from summer to fall to winter to spring, and we see how the American changes under the strain of trying to negotiate for one of the two superpowers who do not want to be bargained out of their arms race.
In the West End production at the Comedy Theatre, John Honeyman is played by Edward Herrmann and Andrey Botvinnick is played by Sir Alec Guinness. I know that Guinness is twenty years too old for the part (by the age of most negotiators and by the age stated in the published play), and I don't give a darn. He is a great actor now and is an indelible part of the history of film and theatre. And I have actually seen him live on stage. So there! But enough bragging.
The play is about two things: It is about the Cold War attitudes of the two superpowers and it is about the two men and how each copes with the stress of a job both know is vital but also doomed to failure. The audience goes into the play naturally enough hoping the negotiators will succeed and disliking Botvinnick for his obstructionism, but Botvinnick is a remarkable character, extremely well-written and Guinness is better. The Russian's natural wit as expressed by Guinness immediately wins the audience to his side. He realizes that both sides are vitally interested in 'the quest for the appearance of the quest for peace' rather than in peace, and it is his adaption to that fundamental hypocrisy that is the real core of the play.
LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES
A theatre review by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1989 Mark R. Leeper
Some plays get better treatment than others when adapted into films. AMADEUS was far better as a play than as a film. At least the performance I saw was superior to the film. This was decidedly not the case for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES. Louis Hilyer's Vicomte de Valmont with a perpetual three-day growth of beard was hardly believable as the super-seductive cad. Penelope Beaumont seemed young for the part of La Marquise de Merteuil, though her performance was every bit as good as that of Glenn Close in the film, and Amanda Royle might even have bettered Michelle Pfeiffer's lackluster performance as Le Presidente de Touvel. But overall the performances could not match those of the film, nor recreate the spectacle. The play seemed simply a redundant experience after seeing the film
A theatre review by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1989 Mark R. Leeper
Simply put, I have the feeling I missed the point of SINGLE SPIES and cannot in fairness pass judgement on the quality of the play. I did not greatly enjoy SINGLE SPIES. The play is really two short plays, each involving a famous mole in British intelligence. 'An Englishman Abroad' is a dramatization of an actual meeting in the Soviet Union of Guy Burgess, defected spy, and Coral Browne, British actress. They spend an uncomfortable hour or so together, then Browne returns to England and tries to procure for Burgess a suit and some pajamas. This was the more interesting of the two plays.
'A Question of Attribution' follows Anthony Blunt in the period after he has been discovered to be a Soviet agent but before it has been made public. Blunt, who holds the position of Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, is questioned by a boorish security officer with a budding interest in art. Blunt then goes to the Palace where he has a long, dull conversation with a somewhat ditzy and vacant Queen Elizabeth. The conversation is, however, fraught with double meanings concerning Blunt's odd position of unrevealed traitor. It is unclear if the Queen is aware of his crimes or not.
If there was more going on, I missed it. Seemingly a pointless play.
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