The timing couldn't have been worse. The delivery date for the manuscript of my new novel WHEN I GOT OUT is January 1, and I have a lot of work to do. But the Tiny Goddess and I had planned this vacation a long time ago, and we just had to take it when the calendar rolled around. (And it was a good time to get out of the USA, away from the poison of Trump and Trumpism.)
We hadn't been in Europe since 2008 (Ireland) and had postponed this trip once before, so I was determined to make this one great. We've been lucky enough to take quite a few "vacations of a lifetime" in the past, but this one – THREE FULL WEEKS IN THE UK: a week in London, and two weeks of driving around -- was our Best Vacation Ever. It was a combination of good planning, expert advice, and pure luck that made it such a huge success, not to mention the best travel companion ever. I know that I'll be buzzing with memories of it for the next few months ... and, indeed, for the rest of my life.
I hadn't been in London in almost twenty years, not since we took the kids on a long "Western Culture 101" tour. I counted up the times I'd been in London, and this was the fifth time I've been there: twice when I was studying in Dublin during college, and once with the TG in the early 90s. It's a city I can't get enough of. (Obligatory Samuel Johnson quotation: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.") The TG had spent her entire junior year there, at the University of London, so London is part of her DNA.
I'm a fairly fanatical vacation planner, but this time I relied on the travel agents who helped us with the Ireland trip to find us all the places to stay (and the places to eat, too.) We told them what we basically wanted to see, the dates I had for things, and they did the rest. It worked like a charm.
I built the vacation around tickets for shows we wanted to see: three plays, one opera, and one musical. I got most of the tickets on the net after having scouted the available choices for months. Only one pair, the opera tickets, required help in getting.
When it comes to the theatre, I'm an Anglophile. It's not just Shakespeare, it's the entire tradition. From when I was a teenager in New York and saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's legendary "Marat/Sade" directed by Peter Brook and Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" (twice), I've been enthralled by British theatre. I think about the other things I've been lucky enough to see -- Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in "The Merchant of Venice," Robert Stephens in "King Lear," Claire Higgins in "Antony and Cleopatra," Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack in "Much Ado About Nothing" not to mention Albert Finney in "Joe Egg," Alan Bates in "Butley, Tom Courtenay three times, Gielgud, Richardson, Guiness multiple times -- and the list goes on and on. So, in preparing for this vacation, seeing great theatre was a primary goal.
And, to give myself a big pat on the back, I was 5-for-5 with my selections of what we saw:
KING LEAR with Antony Sher at Stratford-on-Avon
I started planning the whole vacation around tickets for a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company of "King Lear" with Antony Sher at Stratford-on-Avon. He is an actor I've always wanted to see, with a long string of stage triumphs (two Olivier awards and a knighthood in 2000) behind him. He shot to fame in 1983 as the Fool to Michael Gambon's Lear, he was coming off a supposedly stupendous Falstaff, so it was no big guess to think his Lear would be something great. And it was.
I've seen three great Lears (the other two were Robert Stephens and Ian McKellen), and Sher's was phenomenal. A major statement. The production by Gregory Doran, RSC Artistic Director and Sher's husband, was obviously a labor of much love and thought. If it wasn't quite as transporting as Robert Stephens' Lear in Adrian Noble's 1993 production, that's no crime. That peformance was judged to be the third greatest Shakespeare performance of all time in a poll of fellow Shakepearean actors. (For the record, number one was Paul Scofield's Lear; number two was Judi Dench's Lady Macbeth.)
Sher's Lear was stunningly effective. He's not a large man, so they put him in a big, hairy coat and headdress at the beginning of the play and bore him onstage like a sun king. By the time he was stripped down to his nightshirt, the audience had been stripped down with him. He had stage moments – when he threw the power of the sun at Goneril, etc. – that I will never forget. I felt very privileged to be there, at Stratford, seeing my second great King Lear. It was a meta-moment.
But YOU don't have to go to Stratford to see it. The Royal Shakespeare Company is streaming it to "select theatres" throughout the country, starting on Wednesday, October 12. I see that it is coming to my local theatre in Pasadena in December. GO SEE IT FOR YOURSELF. It's a great Lear.
KING LEAR with Antony Sher in local theatres
NO MAN'S LAND by Harold Pinter with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart at Wyndam's Theatre
This choice was a no-brainer. A Pinter play I've never seen, with two actors I really like. They had done this play in New York, so they must like it, to bring it to London. I've seen McKellen before in "Amadeus," in an early version of Chekhov's "Platonov" called "Wild Oats," and as King Lear at UCLA's Royce Hall, but Stewart onstage was new to me. As I expected, it was exceptionally pleasurable to see these two old pros playing off each other, angling Pinter's flat dialogue at odd angles. Their combined age is 153, so it was a joy to see these grand old men of the theatre doing what they were born to do -- to hell with Gandalf/ Magneto and Professor X/Captain Picard. McKellen was especially enjoying himself during the first act, and the feeling was contagious.
As far as the play ... it was typical Pinter: mysterious, enigmatic, funny, flat, underlined with the potential for violence, bewildering, vaguely silly, and ultimately riveting. Even though it rambles and cheats -- are the two characters strangers or old friends? – the play kept my interest throughout. I was glad to be in the room. While one of the most memorable plays that I saw as a teenager was Pinter's "The Homecoming" with his then-wife Vivian Merchant and Ian Holm, it's interesting to note that, these days, "The Homecoming" gets derisive laughs from the audience. What was chilling and dangerous in the Sixties is now seems mannered and a little fake. Times change. But even imperfect Pinter, like NO MAN'S LAND, works its magic.
A little from the Broadway production
Trailer for the London production
A long, two-man interview with McKellen and Stewart
THE ENTERTAINER by John Osborne with Kenneth Branagh at the Garrick Theatre
To complete the Trifecta of British playwrights – joining Shakespeare and Pinter – I chose this one, and it was basically a winner. I remember when my parents saw Laurence Olivier in the original Broadway production in 1958, back when lower middle class people could afford to go to Broadway shows, and how thrilled they were. I've seen and enjoyed the Tony Richardson-directed movie, also starring Olivier. I generally like Kenneth Branagh's work and admire his devotion to good work in the theatre at the Donmar Warehouse, etc., and in the movies. ("The Entertainer" was part of a four-play season that he produced at the Garrick Theatre.) The TG worked with him on the mega-bomb "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."
While Branagh wasn't exactly Olivier (but who was? and this was one of Olivier's greatest roles), he was excellent as Archie Rice, the seedy, washed-up comedian who -- cut to the chase -- symbolizes the decay of the British Empire as his family and life fall apart; better than I expected. I liked the production and admired the play, which differs from the movie considerably. The staging by Rob Ashford, an experienced/routine Broadway director
/choregrapher, gave Archie's numbers – and the whole look of the show – an effective show-biz sizzle. But he didn't make Archie's act too good; it was just bad enough.
There were a few nice surprises ... and one very bad one. The nice surprises were how good the play was, and how strong some of those famous lines of dialogue were, even as Branagh didn't hit them too hard: the "I'm dead behind these eyes" speech ... and "Don't clap too loudly; it's a very old theatre," and the super bitter "Next week, I'll come and see you." Great stuff. Osborne was evidently a nasty, horrible man, but he could write. (His screenplay for Tom Jones is one of my favorites.)
The other nice surprise was the performance of Greta Scacchi in the large role of Phoebe, Archie's wife. She carries most of the first act and turned in a very good performance. I always liked her movie work (Heat and Dust, The Player, Presumed Innocent). I'm glad that she turned out to be a more-than-competent stage actress.
The bad surprise was the terrible performance of Sophie McShera in the key role of Jean Rice, Archie's daughter. This was the role that Joan Plowright played onstage and in the film, and while it's not fair to compare any actress to Lady Olivier, an actress of the highest caliber, the work of Ms. McShera almost ruined the play. This is the second time I've seen a star from "Downton Abbey" absolutely tank onstage. We saw Dan Stevens ("Matthew Crawley," the big blond heir who almost marries Lady Mary but dies in a car crash) stink up an already mediocre revival of "The Heiress"on Broadway. He played the Montgomery Clift role opposite Jessica Chastain. She was barely OK, but he was a lox.
Ms. McShera's performance was one-dimensional, and that dimension was annoying. Her voice piped along with no warmth, no feeling for this complex, troubled character. Maybe the schtick worked for her when she played Daisy, the scullery maid and assistant to Mrs. Patmore in "Downton Abbey," but she almost killed this play. Not quite, but a good actress could've made this production soar.
Even though I was fighting off a six-tissue cold, I was very happy to be in the theatre. It was the perfect last play before we left London. It's being broadcast live to theatres on October 27 at BranaghTheatreLive.com and is worth checking out. Not as essential as the Lear, but worth seeing. Branagh is very, very good. (And he looked exactly like my brother-in-law!!)
THE ENTERTAINER -- trailer
His season at the Garrick Theatre
A piece of the wonderful Tony Richardson movie
NORMA by Vincenzo Bellini at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden
Seeing something/anything at the ROH was a Bucket List thing for me. Fortunately our trip coincided with a performance of Bellini's great, seldom-staged bel canto masterpiece NORMA. This was the toughest ticket to get. Anna Netrebko was originally announced for this production, but she wisely dropped out. The part of Norma is the most taxing in the repertoire, and she said that her voice was "going elsewhere." What the TG and I did see was the fine young Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, top tenor Joseph Calleja, and solid Italian mezzo Sonia Ganassi in a well-sung, well-conducted, genuine Eurotrash/regie-theatre staging, the likes of which is seldom presented in the US.
Norma is notoriously hard to stage effectively. This was the first NORMA at the Royal Opera House in more than thirty years. The TG and I recently saw a just-as-bad production at the LA Opera that ultimately ground to a halt in classic "park and bark" style.
Staged by Alex Olle of Barcelona's La Fura Dels Baus, this NORMA was pretty damned silly, even for NORMA. The mix of modern day/KKK/Spanish Inquisition styles churning around the stage -- "Casta Diva" sung from a forklift? -- culminated in the ridiculous, insulting-to-the-singers staging of "Mira, O Norma," one of opera's greatest duets, with Norma's endangered little daughter bouncing around the stage on a space-bouncer as a cartoon "Watership Down" played on a giant video screen. The production team was booed on opening night.
The singing was excellent especially from the young Norma, and it was very well-conducted by Antonio Pappano, the musical director of the ROH and one of the top opera conductors in the world. I know this opera well, and I was very glad to be there. Covent Garden!!! And I'm sure I'll be seeing Ms. Yoncheva again.
There were no flower girls selling violets outside after the performance, which disappointed me a little.
But afterwards we ate at nearby Rules, the oldest restaurant in London.
NORMA – "Casta Diva" from this production – more concerned with the giant swinging censer than the singer – but the singing is very good
NORMA – trailer for this production
NORMA – TV featurette on this production – take a look
"Mira, O Norma" with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca – ah, for what might have been
FUNNY GIRL with Sheridan Smith at the Savoy Theatre
When the TG found out that I had gotten us tickets for "King Lear," "No Man's Land," "The Entertainer," and "Norma" – none of them exactly a bundle of laughs -- she pleaded, "Can we please see a musical?"
So I went with the well-received revival of "Funny Girl" starring Sheridan Smith, an actress I didn't know but who is a big star in England (two Olivier awards, an OBE, etc.) "Funny Girl" has never been revived on Broadway because of the long shadow and existing film of Barbra Streisand, but this was the big theatrical surprise of our trip: Sheridan Smith's performance was probably the best thing we saw, out of all five shows.
Was she better than Streisand? Maybe. She isn't half the singer that Streisand is, but she's twice the actress. She isn't a dead-ringer for Fanny Brice in the way that Barbra was, but that didn't matter to me. I know the William Wyler movie well, and I appreciated the changes and nuances that she found in the role. (Confession: I didn't see Barbra play it onstage, but I saw her replacement Mimi Hines, who was surprisingly OK, but I do know the stage play.)
This production by Michael Mayer who did "Spring Awakening" on Broadway was crisp and inventive within its limitations. He had to present Ziegfeld-sized production numbers with a chorus of 12 and a total cast of 24: not a big cast by Broadway standards. But Harvey Fierstein improved the book quite a bit.
They don't do standing ovations in the UK the way that every show on Broadway gets a standing ovation. (If you've paid a couple of hundred dollars for each ticket, you have to tell yourself that what you saw was worth a standing ovation.) But when Sheridan Smith came out to take her bow, people leaped out of their seats and cheered. It was a genuine standing ovation. Part of it is because she's had some personal problems (missing performances, taking a sabbatical from the show, a drinking issue, a messy public break-up) but most of it was because she was so damn good. Hers was one of the best musical comedy performances that I've ever seen.
Cuts from the London Cast album – Sheridan Smith can't sing like Barbra, but she can act rings around her.
Sheridan as Cilla Black in a 2014 TV movie singing a killer “Anyone Who Had a Heart”
That made me 5-for-5 in my choices. Three plays, one opera, and one musical.
Of course, later this fall, after we're gone, the great Glenda Jackson returns to the stage as King Lear and one of our favorite actresses Imelda Staunton is doing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I guess we'll have to go back to London sometime soon.
Our travel agents put us into seven of the best hotels in the UK: three in cities (London, Bath, and Edinburgh) and four in the country (Devon, the Cotswolds, Warwick, and the Lake District.) More on those.
And they set up dinners for us at some of the best restaurants in the UK. (More on those, too.)
And the PURE LUCK -- ??
We had only TWO DAYS of light rain out the whole three weeks in the UK!!!! Only two days of rain the whole time!! We anticipated and packed for rainy, cold weather. Instead, we brought the California weather with us.
And while I missed Vin Scully's last games, I got back in time for the playoffs. Go Dodgers. Win for Vin.
LOTS more to write about. From Adventureland, Museumland, Scotland, etc.
But now back to my real work. As Noel Coward said, "Work is more fun than fun."