An American Back from Mother England

Well, that’s over!

I’m now back from London, alive and well.  This is normally the time someone would do a wrap-up, but as you may have noticed, I find blogging about my real life to be staggeringly boring.  If I’m forced to write about my life, I am prone to making shit up.  I do my best when I am required to write fiction to begin with, or when I have a more academic or theoretical aim.

So instead of telling you all the wonderful things I’ve learned in the UK for my wrapup, I’ll do something different.  Here’s a list of the plays I saw, listed from worst to best.

Macbeth (Catford) – Notably, I also saw three productions of Macbeth, and the best one was the last play I saw a few days before leaving.  There’s not much for me to say about this specific production other than that it was basically not thought through at all — a Spanish Civil War setting, plus witches who are crossdressing meth addicts.  Pretty slapdash all around.

Richard IIIAlready written on this baby.

The Sanctuary Lamp – This play is pretty controversial, and I had the opportunity to see a revival staged by the writer himself.  However, while I liked the story well enough, and thought there were some cool moments, there were a few problems.  Namely, that what was startling and excitingly controversial in the 70s doesn’t seem to be so today, and also, the whole thing was just kind of boring.  The lead actor didn’t convince me at all.  The best thing about the production was the set, which very accurately managed to recreate the interior of the cathedral in what was the back room of a pub.  It was seriously an astounding piece of work.

Twelfth Night – See here.

Macbeth (Cheek by Jowl) – The second Macbeth I saw.  It was a mixed affair, unlike the first — Cheek by Jowl, as a company, know what they’re doing.  However, while the play was intellectually stimulating on a few fronts (it emphasized hands a lot, Duncan was blind, there were some brilliant psychological tricks with the staging), in the end it was simply not fun to watch.  In a way it’s similar to the Twelfth Night I saw: competent, but disengaging.

The Woman in BlackHere we are.  Notice a trend with the prior Macbeth: intellectually interesting but not as fun as it could be.

DunsinaneAlready covered.

King Lear – Ovah heah.

Macbeth (Globe) – The best Macbeth I saw.  It wasn’t deep, it wasn’t challenging, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t fun.  It didn’t even take the easy route and make Macbeth a crazy monster — he was actually a pretty likable guy who was a bit unstable.  But the production didn’t get caught up in the Deep Issues that Cheek by Jowl stumbled over, and in the end it was definitely a play about watching people die gruesomely.  And it worked — well.

The 39 Steps – The first play I saw, and a pretty good one at that.  It’s more or less pure entertainment — unless you want to wax philosophic about postmodernity and the reappropriation of Hitchcock or something, there’s really nothing of substance here — but it’s a good time.  From a technical standpoint it succeeds because it has a cast of four  and about 200 characters.  It’s so tightly put together that it’s almost superhuman; that’s also why it beats out the Globe’s Macbeth, because while I enjoyed both plays about equally, I just have to give this sucker props for being so ridiculously (and successfully) economical.

Measure for Measure – Funny, entertaining, intellectually stimulating.  Though it definitely had its faults, I forgive it because it offered me an entirely new way of looking at the play.

Ghost Stories – See here.  This is a good play, a fun play, and is conversant enough in its genre to be a little jewel for people like me.  It recently won a transfer to the West End, and it definitely deserves it.

The AlchemistThis play blew me away.  You may have picked up, from my other short descriptions, that I’ve been placing a lot of emphasis on entertainment.  This is because I believe plays, while being art, are also supposed to be fun to watch.  Well, The Alchemist is definitely fun to watch — I’ve read it before, and it’s confusing as hell, an absolute bastard.  But seeing it, and seeing a very competent modern-dress staging of it, is absolutely amazing, because suddenly the play makes wonderful, perfect sense.  And you know what?  It’s fucking hysterical.  This play is four centuries old and it is funnier than most movies being made today.  As a bizarre side-note, the guy who played Malcolm in The Worst Macbeth played Face here.  And while his Malcolm was bizarre, his turn here was excellent.  For a while it seemed like The Alchemist was going to be the best play I saw in the UK.  That is, until I saw…

Jerusalem – I could write so much about this play.  I could, I really could.  I feel like I could write a 50 page dissertation on it.  But I won’t; I won’t even tell you what it’s about.  I’ll just tell you it’s the best piece of theater I saw, and it might be the best piece of theater I’ll ever see.  It seems like everyone in London was in love with this play, for various reasons, and the praise was effusive.  I had been in the country for less than three hours — my flight was late, it was two in the morning, I’d lost a bunch of money on a cab ride, I wanted to just go to sleep or die — and my host father told me I should see the play if at all possible.

I was skeptical, but the play proved itself.  Part of this is the acting, which is great all across the board, but especially helped out by Mark Rylance in the lead role.  Part of it is the subject matter, which despite dealing very specifically with England, seemed to tap directly into my own concerns and anxieties about various things.  I bought the text, which I didn’t do for any other play, so that tells you something.

Jerusalem is not only entertaining — wonderfully entertaining — but intellectually intriguing and one of the most emotionally intense pieces of fiction I have ever experienced.

In the end, the easy access to theater was one of the greatest things about my time in London in the UK.  My time, no matter how much it was wasted for various reasons, was well spent because I saw so many plays and approaches; Jerusalem alone may have justified me going, I don’t know.  It sounds ridiculous, but the play affected me that much.  And no, it’s not because its title is an allusion to the same William Blake poem that deeply influenced the really crazy last leg of my AtME series — that was a happy coincidence.

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