Sunday, July 3, 2011

Learning London by Theatre

A quick note to all my readers - the following is the text of my creative final project for class in London. I thought it would be more fitting to post it here for my professor to read than just using a word document. Also, in order to enhance what I write about, I have included pictures and scans relating to the material I present, which will hopefully help create a better picture of my entire theater experience. Enjoy if you so choose!

 Learning London By Theatre
     Before arriving in London, I had no idea what to expect. I knew very little about the city, besides the commonly shown photographs of iconic London locations. I wasn’t sure if the culture of the city would resemble other large cities I’ve visited, such as New York or Chicago. Although I had previously read literature set in or near London, by such authors as Dickens and Austen, I still had little idea about the important ties between London and literature. I viewed London as one entity, one city that was cohesive and combined. It was just LONDON. Now, after having spent time not only touring through London, but also living and studying in the city, I feel I’ve come to appreciate the wealth of literary and theatrical history that the city, as well as surrounding countryside areas, have to offer. Not only does London serve as such a literary location in history, but also continues to be a city that promotes and sees developments in literature, theatre, and film. Overall, I  feel that my exposure to theater in London had the greatest impact upon my three weeks in London.

     From my limited perspective, I considered New York’s Broadway to be the hot spot for theater. I knew London had theaters as well, but I was woefully ignorant to the extent of theater that London has to offer. The first show we went to see, School For Scandal, helped me to immediately bring both the past and the present together in one instant.

With the original text and dialogue from Sheridan’s play which premiered in London in 1777, 
Ticket stub from the School for Scandal performance
 and some modern costuming and scene changes, the whole play came together in a totally new style. I loved seeing the individual interpretations of the director and the actors, especially after reading the play and making my own assumptions beforehand. The similarities and contrasts between my interpretation and the show’s interpretation showed how literature can mean different things to different people. For example, while reading the play, I didn’t feel much sympathy for Lady Teazle’s situation near the end of the play, but during the production we saw, I found my sympathy much greater towards her plight.

Harry Melling and Matilda Ziegler as Sir Benjamin and Lady Sneerwell
     In addition, it was also a pleasure to see Harry Melling, the actor who played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films in a completely different role. To be honest, I would not have recognized him if not for some more devout Potter fans in our class. 

Claudie Blakley and Zoe Wanamaker as Varya and Ranyevskaya
     This crossover aspect between film and theatre continued to permeate almost all the shows I saw during my trip.  During Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, I was thrilled to see Claudie Blakley, a character from the most recent film of Pride and Prejudice. Not only was it thrilling to see a well known actress in person, but I enjoyed seeing her take on a completely different role in a totally new setting, much in the same way I enjoyed watching Harry Melling.

Pamphlet from the Nation Theatre advertising the Cherry Orchard
     Although we did not read The Cherry Orchard, I was oddly enthralled by the entire performance. Many shows that I have chosen to go see are usually uplifting shows, with happy endings.  Chekov’s play, in contrast, does not end ‘happily,’ and I remember several classmates who expressed dislike of the play. Personally, I thought it was extremely well staged and well cast, and the deeper meanings behind the play left me thinking long after we left the theater and walked across the Thames on our way back to the flat. With The Cherry Orchard, I felt my theatre horizons broaden, and I look forward to other opportunities to see shows somewhat outside the norm.

     Thanks to some interest by other students in a particular performance of Much Ado About Nothing, I was fortunate enough to not only get a ticket to the show, but a ticket to the official press night of said show, starring the Scotsman David Tennant and the lovely Catherine Tate.

Much Ado About Nothing advertisement!
Needless to say, it was an excellent performance from the start, with the added attention and excitement from both the media and from my fellow classmates who enjoyed David Tennant’s work in the show Doctor Who. Instead of setting the play in Shakespeare’s traditional location, with traditional clothing and such, the show was set in the 1980’s in Gibraltar, which added a unique twist to Shakespeare’s original lines. Despite standing for the entire show, I loved every minute of it. The witty lines delivered so well between Tate and Tennant, and the continued support of humorous props and staging had me laughing the entire show, all while hanging onto every word. I was also struck by how the play made Shakespeare easy to understand, and that I could use this example in my own classroom when I begin to introduce my students to Shakespeare. I feel that not only will adapting some Shakespeare pieces to a more modern setting help students make sense of the plays, but will also allow them to take ownership in their own work.

     London’s a city that’s not only big enough to pull of several different productions of Shakespeare but TWO productions of Much Ado About Nothing. The second production I attended was at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and was completely different from my first experience. 

      If I were asked to choose a favorite between the two interpretations, I would fail to 
Ticket Stub from Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe
decide. Both shows were excellent in their own respects. The Globe’s production kept everything traditional, right down to the staging, costuming, and delivery. I especially enjoyed how the actors interacted with the audience throughout the play, delivering lines to specific people in the crowd, or making dramatic pauses when an airplane passed overhead. 

      I felt like I was part of the production in more ways than the first production. It may
My view of the Globe stage before the Much Ado About Nothing performance
have also helped that my ‘seat’ was much closer than before, as I was now standing directly in front of the stage instead of at the back of the theater. I view the first production as a show, and the Globe’s production as more of an experience of theater.
     Either way, Shakespeare’s play is truly magnificent, and I’m pleased I was able to see two different interpretations. In addition, our class tour of the Globe helped me understand how theatre fit into London’s history. Being a groundling, and standing throughout the entire performance was something the other financially limited people might have done, just to  see one of the production.
Much Ado About Nothing playbill from the Globe
     Our class was also fortunate to be given a chance to see a show of our own choosing, which allowed us to branch away from our class and into our own interests a bit more. I decided to see Les Miserables, and it was by far my favorite show that I saw in London.

     Everything about the show was spectacular – the set, costumes, music, singing, and acting. I sat through at least half of the show with my mouth open in pure wonderment.
The theater where I saw Les Miserables!
We were also blessed to have the well known singer Alfie Boe sing the lead of Jean Valjean for our performance. Later, we discovered that director Cameron Mackintosh and actor Russell Crowe were both in attendance to hear Boe sing. Speculation has circled since the Crowe might be playing Jean Valjean in the upcoming film production of Les Miserables. As incredible as it was to catch a glimpse of Russell Crowe right before the second act, or to hear the incredible tenor of Alfie Boe, I was again struck by the close relations of the theater and film. Here in America, I feel we make a large differentiation between the film and theater. Usually, actors in movies stick to movies, and actors on Broadway stay on Broadway. Rarely do the two intermingle. In London however, an actor can be seen on stage one night, and seen on the big screen the next night. Their acting craft carries both live and filmed performances, which undoubtedly gives them an edge in adjusting to changes on both stage and screen.

Mom and I outside Her Majesty's Theatre
     To top off my theater experiences in London, I attended the production of The Phantom of the Opera with my mother. I was especially excited to see the live production after being such a fan of the film version. I was not disappointed either. 

     Throughout the production, I found myself making comparisons between the two productions, how the stage was similar to the film, and how it was different. I found many similarities between both, but also some subtle differences, many concerning the unique ways in which scene changes were conducted. It’s always interesting to see scene changes after you’ve seen a movie where virtually anything is possible. The stage has much more limited space and time to complete their production, and yet the scene changes effortlessly to help the story continue moving forward.
     After six shows in about three weeks, my view of London as a place of theatre has completely changed. Not only has it surpassed the high level I always associated with Broadway, but it also brought some of my literary studies to life right before my eyes. Visiting the Globe theatre was especially important to helping me understand the importance of theater in London’s history, as our guide explained during our Globe tour. Without a doubt, I will never view London the same again.

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