Chris Coleman's Blog

To Visit the Queen

Posted by Chris Coleman | 16 May 2012

 

Just back from fantastic week in London with about 20 PCS patrons, seeing plays, visiting the sites, and generally soaking in a culture at once intensely familiar and just enough different to be interesting.  Here is my journal:

 


 

Tuesday May 8

A long flight through Vancouver, B.C – then on to Heathrow.  Arrived yesterday mid-day, then waited for others to arrive from Atlanta.

Fun at dinner last night with Terry Rowan and her friend Gary Lee.  He is an architect who designs zoos and natural habitats for animals.  He’s working on the remodel of the elephant area at the zoo in Portland. We sat with David and Linda Barber, longtime PCS subscribers. David taught history and political science in the Vancouver school district. He was also PCS Development Director Charlie Frasier’s 8th grade teacher – so we all got a kick out of that.  Fun conversation about politics, history and the sweep of world events.

 

 

This morning we took the bus to Regent’s Canal for a cruise on a narrow boat. 

 

 

 

This is in an area of the city called “Little Venice” that I had never heard of.  Prior to the steam engine, the easiest mode of moving goods around the country was through this series of canals. You can still follow them all the way to above Stratford-upon-Avon.

 

 

We rode through a very industrialized area, underneath two tunnels, and then around gorgeous Regent’s Park, where you too can purchase one of the villas, refabricated to look like an authentic 18th century home – for a mere $20M pounds. Regent’s Park was built in the early 19th century.

 

 

We stopped at Camden Lock – and wandered around Camden for an hour or so.  Totally cool area. Very young crowd, lots of earrings and tattoos, and smoothies (lol).  The most "alternative" crowd I’ve seen in London – and literally every nationality of food you could imagine being hawked from the street carts and markets. I found a cool new hat for $15. 

 

 

Then we took a bus tour to Stratford (not "upon Avon" – but the suburb in the far east of London).  Apparently the winds on the island blow from west to east.  So back in the smelly days of horse-drawn carriages (when 1000 tons of horse poop were shoveled from the street each day), if you were refined you wanted to live in the west – so your nose was protected as much was possible.  So the East End has long been the bastard stepchild of the city.

 

 

Untill recently the area had been a pretty rundown, sketchy part of the city, but the 2012 Olympics gave them the opportunity to plop down an Olympic village in their midst, and to leverage a bunch of "affordable" new condos and apartments in the area.

We got a tour of this enormous mall, the Olympic souvenir shop (overpriced), and a view of the stadium, aquatic center, etc.  Having remembered the headache of construction for the Atlanta Olympics, this didn’t hold a great deal of excitement, but it was interesting to see a different part of the city.

 

 

 

The headlines are ablaze about the election of Hollande, the socialist candidate, in France.  He campaigned in opposition to the "austerity measures" imposed by the EU to try to right their financial house.  There is wide concern in the UK that if he backs out of the economic treaty, the EU is headed for the dumps. The only reason they’ve managed thus far is because of the French/German alliance.

Apparently Prime Minister David Cameron and Nick Clegg, his Deputy from the Liberal Democrat Party, are taking a beating in the press and from the citizenry because their "austerity measures" have pushed the economy into the toilet. Cameron quoted Margaret Thatcher in a speech today about "never turning back." And Clegg said that even with the cutbacks, government spending still represents 42% of the GDP.

42%.  That’s compared with 24% in the U.S. – which is getting Obama pilloried by Republicans (as it is quite high compared to our historic average). 

I asked our guide, Stephen, if he had a sense of how that 42% gets spent, as I was trying to imagine, "Well what do you get in return for that level of taxation? Is it a fair trade?" He had to really think about it.  Of course there is the national health care system, which provides medical care for every citizen from cradle to grave. And a big chunk is spent on the educational system.  Until the recent cutbacks, education through college was paid for by the government. And transportation. And housing. Apparently there is a bigger chunk of subsidized housing here.

It’s pretty interesting to consider. 42% sounds outrageous from an American point of view.  But you start to add up what you WOULDN’T have to cover out of your pocket and . . .

 

 

 

That evening we went to see Making Noise Quietly, three short plays by Robert Holman at the Donmar Warehouse.  I hadn’t been to the Donmar – though its reputation certainly preceded it. What a cool space! 250 seats in a shallow thrust, with about half the audience wrapped around above in a balcony.  So no one in the room is more than four rows from the action. There is no wing space and nothing behind the back wall, so you have to figure out how all the action is going to happen in a space that is probably 20 feet by 20 feet.  If it’s five actors, fine. But they’ve also done Assassins and Richard II and King Lear and Cabaret.  Kind of mindblowing to imagine in that tiny room.  It has a great feel.

I was unfamiliar with Robert Holman’s work.  He’s a Brit who was apparently quite hot in the mid 80s and has influenced an entire generation of young writers. One writer in the program put his work and inventiveness in the category of Harold Pinter and Caryl Chuchill.

The show was directed by Peter Gill, who has been around for ages and used to direct at the National when Peter Hall was there.  It was on a bare, green floor – with a textured back wall.

The first play was about two young men in 1943, out in the English countryside.  The more sophisticated fellow is pretty obviously a poofter (gay), and flirts subtly and wittily with the other fellow – who is a farm boy – laying out in a field with his shirt off.  The sounds of war surround them. The first boy, an artist, is open about his desires.  The farm boy initially denies them – but it becomes subtly clear that he has questions of his own.  The dialogue was patient and simple and there was enormous, delicate tension built between the two of them.

The second play was about a mother who discovers that her estranged son has been killed in the Faulkland Islands conflict in the 80s.  She was played by Susan Brown, who I love from Game of Thrones.

The third and most complex play involved a young father (Ben Batt) and his autistic son, who show up at the country house of a mysterious German painter when the weather turns bad.  The boy is badly behaved, and it is revealed that the father beats him in frustration.  As the painter (an older woman) tries to show the father a mirror of himself and coax the boy into engaging with the world, it is revealed that she survived a concentration camp.

The writing in all three was subtle, intelligent, haunting and tense. And Peter Gill’s directing was both fluid and highly detailed.  The stories seemed linked by their connection to war, and the inability to express what is happening inside. An interesting evening.

 


 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

 

Started with a delightful meeting with Toby Moorcroft, the literary/theatrical agent who represents Mark Haddon – author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime. We had corresponded for a couple of years about the rights to adapt the book, and we thought it time to actually meet face to face.  Hilarious, smart and a fountain of information on the theatrical world in London.

 

 

Then we were off to Churchill’s War Room Museum.  I got off at the Westminster tube station and asked for directions from a policeman. It’s always impossible to tell which way to go when you get out of the Tube.  He told me that the Queen was about to come down the street to deliver a speech to Parliament, so I’d have to kind of twist around a bit to avoid it.

 

 

 

Found the place.  Totally fascinating.  It’s literally the underground storage rooms that were converted into a bunker for Churchill and his staff during WWII.  They’ve been reset with the contents they would have held during the war.  So cramped, so humble.  Large maps lining the walls, with little pins stuck in them showing the advance of the German front line.  Kind of staggering to see how very much of Europe they had conquered.  And to realize how close England came to losing the war.

 

 

 

Also interesting to learn that Churchill was born an aristocrat (all but one of his war cabinet members were aristocrats as well).  He originally believed that the old, "secure, monarchy" was the best system in the world, but in 1904 he moved from the Conservative to the Liberal Party – and pushed hard for reforms for the poor and working classes. 

1904 was the year Shaw’s play Man and Superman was first produced.  Shaw and his political compatriots were working assiduously during this period to bring about socialist reforms in England, but in an evolutionary fashion, rather than the revolutionary method proposed by Marx.  Wonder what he and Churchill thought of each other?  Churchill actually pushed for the country’s first minimum wage.

 

 


But the violence of labor unrest when he was Home Secretary (and responsible for law and order) convinced him to move back to the conservative side to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.  I can’t help but think that the Russian Revolution might have had something to do with it as well.  Reform is all well and good, but taking property away from the nobility and shooting kings was not what he was about.

Made me want to read much more about him.

Oh:  the fellow at the entrance to the museum had a Spanish accent, so I started speaking to him in Spanish. Found out he was from Madrid, blah, blah, blah.  Then as he gave me my ticket, he said, “You have a very beautiful Mexican accent.”  Doy.

 

 

 

Then this evening we went to see Matilda, the musical inspired by Roald Dahl’s children’s book (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).  This came out of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been a monster hit, winning a bunch of Olivier Awards.  Directed by Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage, Art and a slew of other award-winning shows), the music was by a fellow I don’t know named Tim Minchin.

The story is about a brilliant young girl, with horrid, cruel parents, who escapes into books. At school she is befriended by a meek, young teacher who sees her true potential. But she (and all the other kids) are also terrorized by their insane and fascistic Head Mistress.  Matilda makes up wild stories to entertain the librarian – and eventually she realizes that the stories she thought she imagined had actually occurred.

 

The brilliant set by Rob Howell was an explosion of color and detail that moved effortlessly from scene to scene.  And Peter Darling (Billy Elliott and a million others)’s choreography was fantastic. Favorite touches involved swings and scooters.  And the whole thing (except Matilda, the teacher and the librarian) was appropriately exaggerated to capture the tone of a child’s point of view. 

But the kids' dialects (mostly working-class to Cockney) made it extraordinarily hard for this American ear to understand the lyrics.  I bet I missed 40% of what they sang.  And it was frustrating because they had great voices, and were dynamite little performers. 

Be curious to hear what others thought.

 


 

 Thursday, May 10, 2012

 

 

Fun day at Windsor Castle.  The Queen was in residence, but we didn’t set eyes on her.  Favorite moment was watching a "changing of the guards" near the back entrance to the castle.  Four fellows had marched up, leaving a fifth at his new post.  When the one in charge barked out the "go" order, I guess the fellow in front didn’t hear, so the one behind smacked into him – and dissolved into giggles, while the other three froze in mortified silence.  Hilarious.

 

 

 

Pretty amazing seeing the rooms in which so many heads of state have gathered over the years.  The castle is 900 years old,  originally built by William the Conqueror, and then rebuilt in stone 100 years later in 1166.

 

 

 

Also fascinating to learn about the “Order of the Garter,” the most prestigious commendation that can be bestowed upon you by the Queen.  Most of the folks inducted by Elizabeth II were other monarchs, members of her family or war heroes.  She did induct Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but Tony Blair is blaringly absent.  Curious.  He wasn’t invited to the royal wedding last year either.  Hmmmmm.

 

 

 

Then tonight on to the National Theater to see Mister Man by Enda Walsh.  I was not aware of his work, even though apparently he has been a sensation for some time on this side of the pond, particulary in his native Ireland. True confession:  when I heard the name, I actually thought it had some relation to Dame Edna.  Oy.

 

 

 

The show was performed by Cillian Murphy, a wonderful Irish actor who I only knew from his performance in Inception. The set (by Jamie Vartan) was a staggeringly naturalistic(ish) warehouse: cavernous, with huge concrete columns, a second level on metal grates, and a huge garage door on one side.  It was enormous, and I was very curious how one actor was going to fill this space (the Lyttleton Theater has about 700 seats). 

But fill it he did:  the story is about a strange fellow holed up inside this warehouse.  He is childish, manic, daffy and a bit sweet at first.  But definitely strange.  He talks to characters whose voices only manifest through old reel-to-reel tape recorders in various parts of the space, so you are thinking:  Is he crazy?  Is he a performance artist? Then he starts to have visions of being visited by an angel – and has these kind of extraordinary and transcendent visions that pull him out of the dreary and awfulness of his life in a crappy, little Irish town.  And you think:  Is he a saint?  Is he crazy?

 

 

 

It was staged (and performed) with an almost danced physicality at times; bold, comedic, acrobatic.  In particular I remember a scene in which "God’s wrath" was pouring down on the town, and it was literally pouring rain center stage, drenching Cillian to the bone after several minutes.

His performance was extraordinary: spontaneous, totally inhabited, but also really bold and clear. And I was knocked out by the writing. I immediately went to the bookstore and bought five of his other plays. 

 A gorgeous walk back across the Thames on the Millenium Bridge.

 


 

Friday, May 11, 2012

 

Random thoughts:

Winston Churchill’s mother was an American heiress from Arizona.  His father was the English aristocrat. Very Downton Abbey.  I was struck by how very plummy and upper crust his accent was in the audio clips of him at the Churchill museum.  Very "Sir Ralph Richardson."

April was the wettest on record for London.  May has been the coldest.

London is also the most expensive city to live in in the world.  But you very, very rarely see a homeless person.  I still say I see more homeless people on the streets of Portland than in any city in the western world.

This morning I had a really fun breakfast with Paul Crewes, Executive Producer for Kneehigh Theater Company. They’ve been producing for 30 years, making their own boldly physical, musical and visual work in these country barns on the southwest coast of England (Cornwall).  Their productions of Brief Encounters and The Wild Bride have been seen in the States. Wild Bride was an enormous hit for Berkeley Rep this year. We are talking about bringing their new show to Portland the year after next.  It’s called Tristan and Iseult.

 

Then a walking tour to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a tour of the Globe Theater.  This was my third time, but I still love hearing the history.  To celebrate the Olympics, the Globe is presenting all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, each performed by a different company in their native language.  We watched a bit of tech rehearsal for Henry VI performed by the National Theater of Albania. Even in Albanian I could tell that the actors felt the director was being dictatorial, and were chafing at being barked at in public.

 

 

 

Then I walked down to the Tate Modern, which is now the most-attended contemporary art gallery in the world (six million visitors a year).  They had a new show by Damien Hirst, who I had heard about but knew nothing about.  He is the wealthiest living artist in the world right now.

I have to say, I didn’t get it.  Left me cold as an icycle.  Oh well.  What do I know?

 

 

 

Then back to the National this evening to see Nicholas Wright’s new play Travelling Light.  A whimsical piece about the birth of filmmaking on the Russian schtetl (true-ish story).  It was charming and an interesting take on the early film world.  But the production felt unevenly acted. Only one or two of the group felt like they were really inhabiting their roles to me.  Sometimes feeling either too English, or too caricatured.  I also thought the set design looked like a college production of Fiddler on the Roof.  It was Bob Crowley, who is usually fantastic, so it was kind of mystifying.

Made me want to read the play and see if there isn’t a better production available inside that script. 

 


 

Saturday, May 12

 

Great meeting with Mel Kenyon at lunch.  Mel is the "doyenne" of new playwrights in London these days (according to Toby Moorcroft) and she had agreed to have a sit-down. She showed up late, apologizing, as she had been stuck in a meeting with Kathleen Kennedy (Stephen Spielberg’s producer) who is talking with her about making a film of Matilda (Mel represents the writing team).  

We had a fascinating conversation about politics in the UK.  Her accent sounds pretty refined, but she grew up with a single, working mom in southern England. She got a scholarship to a good school, so adopted the accents of her classmates.  She talked about England still being obsessed with class, and living under the shadow of the memory of empire.  And that the country was really about halfway between Europe and the U.S.  That all of their current dealings with Germany ("they are dangerous") and France ("they will cave on us") were still played out in the memory of WWII. 

Also talked about how the upper crust here are still quite different from the States, because they grow up with the assumption that "they" have been ruling the country for a thousand years, and are still "born to rule."  There was actually an editorial defending the House of Lords, to that effect, two days ago.

She started out as a dramaturg at her university, and was hired (through a friend) to be Max Stafford-Clark’s assistant at the Royal Court, right out of school.  She said she wasn’t a very good assistant, but when they lost their literary manager eighteen months later, she landed that job (literary manager of the most significant producer of new plays in England) at 25.  Amazing.  Later got an offer to join a major agency, and the rest is history.  She also represents Simon Stephens (Blackbird) and the team behind Once.

She is going to send us new script ideas.

 

 

 

Then to the National to see Collaborators, acrazy new play that won the Olivier for Best New Play. It's about Mikhail Bolgokov, the Russian novelist and playwright, and his infamous pact with Stalin through the Moscow Art Theater.  As Stalin was beginning his reign of terror, he agreed to let Bulgakov’s work be produced if he would write a play about Stalin’s early life.  It was by turns hilarious, goofy, and eventually very chilling.

Alex Jennings (who I had seen in The Habit of Art) was fantastic as Bulgakov, and Simon Russell Beale as Stalin was, as always, better than the play he was in.  You can’t wait for him to come back on.

The set, by Bob Crowley (again), was pretty hideous.  Inspired by constructivist painting, it was the most awkward ground plan I have seen in ages, and genuinely ugly to look at.  Made for the worst staging I have ever seen out of Nicholas Hytner, the director. Just really surprising.  Made me want to see a different production of it.

 

 

 

Then that evening we went to the Royal Court to see Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett.  The play begins in 1968 with two young brothers:  one very working class and straight-laced, the other a student at Oxford who is actually a pot-smoking "layabout."  The straight-laced one brings home a sexy young girl he’s been dating, and eventually she seduces the Oxford brother. 

Second act is the same couple, twenty years later, married with teenage kids and living in the suburbs.  Their "normal" life has become a bit of a straightjacket and kind of explodes in their face.

Third act is the same couple twenty years later – divorced and retired – with grown children who can’t wholly support themselves.

The whole thing was extremely funny and terrifically acted.  The male lead was Ben Miles, who starred in the revival of The Norman Conquests at the National and on Broadway.  Amazingly complete transformations from a 19-year-old slacker, to a hard-ass businessman, to a sweet old retiree.  And Victoria Hamilton, as his wife, was hysterical, sexy and extremely dynamic.

It’s quite an interesting piece about the self-involved baby boomers of the 60s generation, and the damage that ultimately inflicts on the next generation.  The fight between mother and daughter in the final act was pretty blistering.  And several members of our group afterwards said they thought it extremely topical.

 

 

All in all, another great week. Stimulating on many fronts.  So interesting seeing that many plays in such a tight timeframe.  And fascinating hearing the Brits struggle with what the future of their own political system is going to look like.

 

Comments (2)

Thanks for the great travel-theaterlogue. As to whether or not Churchill and Shaw knew each other, someone just emailed me a list of fabulous insults (mostly British). Among them, and perhaps apocryphal, was this exchange:

“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.”
  - George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill
“Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second .... if there is one.”
  - Winston Churchill, in response.

Tim Minchin is a hilarious musical comedian, his stuff on YouTube is fantastic.

I had the pleasure of seeing Kneehigh’s Brief Encounters in SF a couple of years ago and it blew me away. Is still pretty much the gold standard of innovative theater for me. Having them in Portland would be phenomenal.

  • Rachel
  • 17 May 12 12:50

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