Category Archives: London UK

A city we visit often to feast on its theatre, art, music and unmatched energy.

Judith and I went on the Women’s March against Trump from the US embassy to Trafalgar Square. The streets leading to the embassy were packed, so it took a long time to get to the embassy.

When we finally reached the embassy, the march to Trafalgar square had started. We followed.

It was a very moving experience, because of the calm, purposeful determination of the women.

Stratford-Upon-Avon: Othello

Shakespeare's funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church.

Shakespeare’s funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church.

We had seen a remarkable Othello two years ago at the National Theatre, with Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, set in a contemporary military garrison resembling those in Iraq or Afghanistan. We almost decided to skip Othello this time, so as not to overlay our memories of that production.

It’s a good thing we didn’t skip it. This Othello, wonderfully acted in an ensemble mode, proved again the limitless facets in Shakepeare’s enigmatic masterpiece. The revelation here was the relationship between Othello and Iago, brought forward by casting a black actor as Iago. Not just any actor, but the effervescent and charismatic Lucian Msamati, who might have stolen the show away if Hugh Quarshie had not radiated such controlled and thoughtful power.

When Iago is white, Othello is entirely isolated, and it is no surprise to us that Iago plots against him. When he is black, suddenly we see Iago as Othello’s trusted subordinate, someone who stands with him, ready to carry out his wishes and provide him with information. When he is passed over, his loyal service unrecognized, he turns his ingenuity toward revenge. Othello continues to trust him, because Iago is his bridge to a world he only partly understands. Msamati’s Iago, always scheming and arranging, is busy spinning his spider webs, until finally he himself is caught.

Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona deserves mention. There is no trace of victim-hood in her characterization. She is simply a young woman who follows her impulses without guile, and expects that the world will be as straightforward as she. A most refreshing take.

Grimeborn: Alternative Opera at the Arcola Theatre

The bar at Arcola Theatre

The bar at Arcola Theatre, an exellent place for a glass of wine before the show. (You can take it in with you.)

We love the Arcola Theatre, London’s most vibrant and ambitious alternative theatre. It’s up in Dalston, a maelstrom of multicultural life, once an area of dubious repute, but now verging on getting to be maybe nearly (dare I say the word?) trendy. Every summer, for those of us who can’t afford the Glyndebourne Festival, it hosts the Grimeborne Festival of Alternative Opera, where tiny, impoverished opera companies present glorious music.

Wednesday’s program was called The Clown of Clowns, consisting of two works: Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Sideshows, by Leo Geyer. The presenting companies were Constella Ballet & Orchestra in collaboration with Khymerikal. The program points out that “many of the musicians involved in this production are members of both ensembles”. Continue reading

“The Beaux’ Stratagem” at the National Theatre

National Theatre, London

National Theatre, London

“The Beaux’ Stratagem” is usually thought of as a late example of Restoration Comedy, and that’s how I was thinking of it as we entered the Olivier. I didn’t know the play, but I was ready for a saucy, boisterous romp. It took a little while before I adjusted to its more sedate rhythm and more polite treatment of sexual relations. It was, after all, written in 1707, at the cusp of the Restoration style and the more sedate (and forgettable) sentimental comedy of the 18th century.

At the interval, I said to Judith “I’m not sure what I’m seeing”. This, by the way, is not a bad thing. I love being made to stretch.

Continue reading

“A Number” at the Young Vic

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

The Young Vic is just a stroll east from the Old Vic, along the street called The Cut. (The two theatres have no connection with each other, by the way.) We like the Young Vic very well, for its adventurous programming and its pleasant and affordable cafe. So it was that on Wednesday following our arrival, having booked tickets for The Beaux’ Stratagem at The National Theatre that evening, we sauntered down The Cut to see what matinees were on offer at the Young Vic. Continue reading

Back in London, August 2015

Judith at Gabriel's Wharf

Judith at Gabriel’s Wharf

We’re back, but we almost missed the plane!

We arrived at the airport three hours before departure, pre-booked tickets and boarding passes in hand, checked in our luggage, and went off to have something to eat. They’d closed the Swiss Chalet in Terminal 3 (something to do with the PanAm Games) and moved it to Terminal 1. We had a leisurely dinner and arrived back in Terminal 3 at 9:00 pm (10:00 pm flight), to discover a huge queue in security, filling the hall and spilling into out into the next room. We knew we could not make it. I wandered off talk to the Air Transat people, and suddenly heard this enormous cry “Roooon! Roooon!” echoing through that giant space. It was Judith. She had found a lovely family from Afghanistan, near the front of the queue, who offered to adopt us temporarily. The 12-year old daughter was very surprised that Judith didn’t simply call my cell, and instead depended on lung power. Humbly, we told her that we were very old school, in this and in other ways.

Even this line-jumping was not enough. At 9:30 Judith ran off and came back with an Air Transat official, who hustled us right to the check point. Judith saves the day (as she so often does).

The picture is of Judith, the heroine, sitting in one of our favorite restaurants in Gabriel’s Wharf, on the South Bank. Proof that we made it to beautiful, phantasmagorical London Town.

Cycling in London, with Boris Bikes

BorisBikes

Boris Bikes at Hyde Park, photo by ZanMan (from WikiMedia)

This visit, I decided to try cycling in London.

When I first went to London, many years ago, the traffic was scary. The streets were filled with cars tearing around corners at high speed, especially cabs. And, of course, for a Canadian visitor, these cars came rushing from behind as you peered carefully in the wrong direction. Tourists were picked off like flies.

As the decades passed, London became more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Street crossing islands sprang up, with traffic lights, and “look left” or “look right” painted on the streets. Mayor Ken Livingstone (“Red Ken”, bête noire for Maggie Thatcher) instituted a hefty congestion charge for the core, which reduced traffic to manageable proportions. He also lowered fares on the buses and underground, which actually increased revenues, but after his term the prices went up again. The Millennium Walk transformed the south bank of the Thames.

And in 1910, the Barclay Bikes appeared, quickly dubbed ” Boris Bikes” after the Mayor, Boris Johnson, who (though Conservative) was an enthusiastic advocate of biking. Barclay’s Bank was the sponsor from 2010 to 2015, but now it’s Santander Bank, though most of the bikes still say “Barclays”.

Biking is big in downtown London now. There are hundreds of bikes whizzing along the roads, seemingly getting along pretty well with the autos, lorries and buses.
Bicycle lanes are quite frequent in the core. There are also two-lane “cycle superhighways” from the more outlying districts.

Generally speaking, the cyclists are well-behaved. London cyclists never ride on sidewalks, tempting as it often is. They usually signal and stay well to the left. And the motorists are generally patient, even when they have to go a little more slowly than they would like.

It’s easy to use the Boris Bikes, and no commitment is required. You can just stick you debit or credit card in a slot, and the machine spits out a 5-digit access code. You go to the bike of your choice (they’re all the same) and key in the code. Then you jerk the bike out and ride away. The bikes are solid, with a “step through” frame, and three gears. There’s a small luggage rack for parcels, secured with bungee cords. For two pounds, you have 24-hour use, but you can only keep out a particular bike for a half-hour, before returning it to some other docking station. You can keep it longer, but there’s an extra 2 pounds on your card. The idea is to keep all the bikes in use, rather than sitting somewhere while the rider is shopping or visiting the British Museum.

You can also register online for 24 hours, 7 days or a year. For 3 pounds you get a key, and you can pick up a bike anytime during the selected period. I’m sure that if I am there long enough, I would buy a key, but I think that it is wonderful that you can try the system out in such a casual way. The costs are the same.

I’m very intrigued by the new sobi bikes in Hamilton. I own a bike, but I will sign up just to try it out.

I think, though, that the comparison with the Boris Bikes is interesting. The sobi bikes cost $4.00 per hour; Boris Bikes $4.00 (2 pounds) for 24 hours. And you don’t have to sign up in advance. Just saying.

 

Ensemble theatre company Idle Motion: Shooting with Light

Shooting with Light. Photo by Richard Davenport

Shooting with Light. Photo by Richard Davenport

Our biggest surprise in our recent London theatre binge was a production by an ensemble company called Idle Motion, at a small space called the New Diorama Theatre near Euston Station. The play was Shooting with Light, “devised, written and directed collaboratively by Grace, Sophie, Nathan, Ellie, Juian and Kate” (to quote the program). The company uses dance, theatrical movement and multimedia to tell its stories, and this of course appeals to us. So on a whim, we decided to forego the musical Made in Dagenham (which sounded interesting, but nothing we hadn’t seen before under other names), and seek out something that just might be more surprising. We were quite knocked out. We had hoped for good enough, and got something pretty close to marvellous. The story was compelling, the dance/movement was skillful, the acting was honest and unselfconscious, and the inventiveness just kept happening.

Sophie Cullen as Gerda Taro, photo by Margaret Durow

Sophie Cullen as Gerda Taro, photo by Margaret Durow

Based on Jane Rogoyzka’s book Gerda Taro, Shooting with Light tells the true story of a young woman living in Paris in the 1930s. She hooks up with a disheveled young photojournalist who can’t seem to sell any photos, smartens him up and starts to manage his career; in return, he gives her a camera and teaches her how to use it. They decide to invent a fictitious American photographer, always out of town, called Robert Capa, and the photos start selling. She changes her name to Gerda Taro, and starts to sell her photos, sometimes as Robert Capa and sometimes under her own name. They both go to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, where Robert Capa shoots the iconic photo of a Republican soldier in the moment of being shot. Gerda takes more and more risks, and insists on returning to Madrid after the fall of the city. She is killed at the age of 26 by an out-of-control tank. Treated as a martyr to the Republican cause, she has a couple of years of posthumous fame, and then is largely forgotten, her work subsumed into that of Robert Capa and remembered primarily as Robert Capa’s girlfriend.

One reason for this seeming neglect was that most of her negatives, along with many of Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, had been stored in a box that was smuggled to the Mexican embassy and forgotten. Robert’s photographer brother, Cornell Capa (he changed his name as well) devoted years to tracking down this so-called “Mexican suitcase”.

The play opens with Cornell and his assistant June examining rolls of negatives from a compartmented tray. The set is an enlarged version of this tray. They find a roll that contains what they are looking for, and suddenly Gerda (the actor) bursts through the corresponding compartment in the set. It’s a wonderful shock, that sets us up for the transformations to come, through the use of projections and physical rearrangements.

Dance and movement are used to break through the convention of naturalism and propel the story onward. The script alternates between the search for the negatives and the truth about Gerda Taro, and the relationship between the two photographers, as they participate in the invention of the craft of photojournalism. This is a story worth telling, in this age of embedded journalists and manipulated media.

 

Lullingstone Castle and the World Garden

On a whim, we visited the ancient castle of the Hart Dyke family, with a pedigree going right back to William the Conqueror. Our friend David Hart Dyke, Green Party Candidate for Stoney Creek, would sometimes mention (after I had served him a beer or two) that in England he was a Baronet. “Our castle is in Kent. You should visit my family. They’re lots of fun.” Sure, David. Another Artbeer?

Easter Monday, bank holiday, we take the new Thames Link train service to Eynsford, south east of London, to see Lullingstone, an excavated Roman Villa. It was as interesting as expected, with explanatory material that explained just enough of all the right things.

Lullingstone Castle Gatehouse

Lullingstone Castle Gatehouse

There are two castles in Eynsford, one in the town and the other a little further down the road. Arbitrarily, we chose the second, Lullingstone Castle. The Gatehouse looked magnificent in the distance. Small (compared, say, to Warwick Castle), but beautifully proportioned .

We headed for the refreshment tent (bank holiday, remember?), where they advised us to start with a look at the World Garden. A labour of love by an obsessive “plant hunter”, the World Garden has plants from all the continents of the world in beds shaped like those continents!

World Garden

World Garden

A didactic panel at the entrance declared that the idea for the garden was born when its creator was kidnapped and held for ransom while collecting plants in Colombia. The name of the collector was Thomas Hart Dyke. “Look, I said to Judith. Hart Dyke! I wonder…”

In the Manor House, we were greeted warmly by the chatelaine. She asked if we had met Thomas. “Is he here?”, I enquired. “Oh, yes. I believe he’s dressed as a chicken.”

I mentioned a little diffidently that we knew a Hart Dyke in Hamilton, David Hart Dyke. “Oh, yes! David is Thomas’s cousin. He has the title, you know.”

“Should I mention him to Thomas?”, I asked. I wondered if there was some sort of Downton Abbey feud. Was David the black sheep?

Thomas Hart Dyke

Thomas Hart Dyke

“Of course. He’ll be delighted. And you must meet my husband. Guy! This couple know David in Hamilton.” We met Guy Hart Dyke, David’s uncle, who owns the castle, and were formally introduced to Sarah, his wife. And then we did meet Thomas, the eminent and indefatigable plant hunter, dressed indeed as a chicken.

The house is fascinating. Beautifully designed and appointed, it has paintings, carvings and furnishings representative of a history that stretches back to the 1497.

The Church of St. Botolph, also on the grounds, is equally ancient. It serves as the parish church for the town. Inside, there are magnificent memorials to the early Dykes and Harts. (The Hart Dykes represent a merging, by a marriage in the time of Elizabeth I, of two families both going back to the Norman Conquest.) Another reason to vote Green! Right, David?

Lullingstone Castle Manor House

Lullingstone Castle Manor House

Church of St Botolph

Church of St Botolph