It wasn’t easy to get to see Richard II. It was sold out, so we figured we’d get day seats, something we’re quite used to doing. We figured Saturday would be good. Two performances, matinee and evening, thirty tickets each. Horrible weather, surely we’d get tickets? We arrived an hour early to a sight usually associated with rock concerts. People lying on the floor, the queue snaking around and around and around. It seems that that the actor playing Richard, David Tennant, is a teenage heart throb; who knew? We counted the queue, turned around and went back to the flat. On Monday morning, the weather even more blustery, we tried again, getting there even earlier, and this time, we were successful, barely.
I regret to report that the production was disappointing. The staging was static, with the actors forming an arrangement in front of a projected backdrop, and pretty much staying that way for each scene. The lines were delivered emphasizing the verse over the meaning. Perhaps to compensate, the pace was leisurely, with lots of pauses. We have been so used to seeing London productions of Shakespeare that whip along, finding new rhythms and new meanings, that I was really quite surprised. This seemed a throwback to days I had thought long gone, when The Bard was done with dignity. The design was all towering steel pillars and a metal platform wide as the stage that glided up and down. It was a lot like the Barbican, but did nothing to help us understand the play. It turned out that David Tennant was really the redeeming element – not so much in the first half, when he went along with everyone else providing formal stage pictures and stately speeches, but in the second half, he came into his own with the wonderful introspective soul-searching set pieces that Shakespeare gives Richard when he undergoing his extended fall.
I am fascinated by that strange British theatrical phenomenon called the Christmas pantomime. It’s a glorious holdover from the 19th century, featuring a traditional story outrageously sent up, a “principal boy” (the hero) played by a woman in tights, one or more “dames”, played by men in dresses, candies for the kiddies, ribald jokes intended to go over the heads of the youngsters, singalong songs, nasty villains introduced by firecrackers, elaborate dance numbers, and shouts of “look behind you!” and “oh no it isn’t.”
Last night, we went to the Hackney Empire to see their version of Puss in Boots, a traditional British Christmas pantomime. Hackney has a very mixed demographic, including Blacks from the Caribbean, Turks, Kurds, Asians (many from Vietnam), and artists. In other words, the kind of community that we like.
The Hackney Empire, has deep roots in its community. Originally a magnificent Music Hall, it fell on hard times and spent a couple of decades as a TV studio and another couple as a Bingo Hall. Threatened with demolition in the late eighties, it was rescued and rebuilt as a theatre.
It has been famous for its pantos. This year, it was Puss in Boots. Puss was played by a wonderfully charismatic Jamaican actor know as Kat B. (No Principal Boy, sigh.) He insisted that whenever he said “Puss” we had to holler “in boots dem”! The entire cast was mixed, and families were too. The usurping Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha is a Jamaican momma, with a spineless white husband and a milk-white spoiled brat of a daughter, Princess Pertunia. Dame Nettie Knowall (white) has a dame daughter, Amnesia (black). Nobody worries and everyone has fun. There’s also an evil witch and an ogre, who is really a prince. My other favorites, after Kat B (the Puss) was Amy Lennox as Princess Pertunia, who had the most amazing spoiled brat body language, and Sharon D. Clarke, Queen Talulah, who can own any stage she walks on. Local references abound, starting with the Kingdom of Hackneyonia. The connection between the community and the acting company was tangible, and gave a lift to the evening. I believe that the supporting chorus was drawn from young people in the neighbourhood. Hats off to Susie McKenna, who has been writing and directing these Hackney pantos for fifteen years. (I know this, because we went on the last night, and she received flowers and made a speech.)
I was hooked on pantomime by my first panto, a smart, sassy, crisply political version of Dick Wittington performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Joan Littlewood’s theatre (though after she retired). Like they say about drugs, I’ve been looking for that thrill ever since. One Christmas in London, I dragged Judith to about twelve Pantos, always assuring her that the next one would be wonderful. Too often, the principal boy was a boy, usually a TV personality, and the snap and sparkle that I remembered just wasn’t quite there.
One year, we did see a remarkable play called Poppy, at the Half Moon, based on the conventions of Panto. The thigh-slapping principal boy, his lady love, and his friends go off to confront the evil Emperor of China, whom we were instructed to boo and hiss. Their mission: to compel him to reopen the opium trade. As the play goes on, it becomes harder and harder to cheer for our British heroes and boo the Emperor, particularly when the lovely heroine becomes a grotesque opium addict in a wheelchair. A brilliant deconstruction of the form, but not really a panto as such.
I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a panto, and this Christmas I pretty much got my wish. Scroogissimo at Artword Artbar had many of the elements: a send-up of a traditional story, singalongs, magic, a Dame, outrageous jokes (including some groaners). Interestingly, the main character is the villain, “Ebenezu Scrugi”. The ghosts of Past, Present and Future, all played by women, were three “principal boys”. Most people would not have noticed the association with panto, but I had some fun with it.
When our plane landed, December 30, the sun was shining, but the 31st, our first real day in London, was umbrella weather. It didn’t discourage us, or the crowd watching a band from (I’m guessing) the Philippines doing synchronized manoeuvres in Trafalgar Square.
We went to our first play that evening at the Old Vic, Fortune’s Fool, by Turgenev. We thought we’d have a pleasant, inexpensive dinner at the Young Vic, but the cafe was closed. So we walked along the South Bank to one of our favorite restaurants, TAS, across the road from the Globe Theatre. They serve Anatolian cuisine, specializing in many varieties of pide (a little like pizza with its sides turned up. It’s very reasonable in price, with lovely decor, friendly staff, and a musician playing Turkish music on two unusual instruments. Later, I talked to the musician, who identified the one as a Baglama, also called a Saz (played like a guitar with a pick) and the other, violin-like but held vertically, as a Kemane. He drew little pictures for me and wrote the names — that’s how I know.
After dinner, we walked along the South Bank. The rain had stopped, and there was a lustrous light over all.
Judith and I are in ecstasy. Sparkling sunshine this morning (after dismal yesterday), so we hurried off to the Menier Chocolate Factory (it’s a theatre) to try for returns for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. This musical has had a very checkered history, subjected to revision after revision, but it happens to be very dear to Judith’s heart. She played the record of what was probably the first version over and over. After I met her, she used to love to cry out at odd times “I’m so easily aseeemilated! Por favor! Toreador!”, the Old Lady’s song. We saw a COC version a long time ago. The music was wonderful, but the staging with stodgy (as I faintly recall).
This production was breathtaking. It was done just the way we like theatre to be: in the round, popping out from everywhere, full of surprises, with unflagging wit and energy. Everyone sang beautifully, the choral harmonies were luscious, and Scarlett Strallen’s (Cunegonde’s) coloratura truly show-stopping. Candide can be a hard show to make work, folks! But this production nailed it. We just may go back.