where we've been and where we're going

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Bridge Project

While in London, I was morally obliged to take in some theatre. After a bit of research as to what was available and immediately crossing off anything I’d be able to see on tour in the states (Spring Awakening or Avenue Q) or anything I believed Kander and Ebb would scoff at (Sister Act, the Musical or We Will Rock You), I settled on and convinced L to join me for The Cherry Orchard.

Some of you might know that it is very difficult for me to choose a favorite movie, but I can list favorite directors. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) is in the top five, and his first love is theatre. He won a Tony for his direction of the revival of Cabaret with Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming. Anyway, he’s currently directing a very special three-season project called the Bridge Project, which is an attempt to connect London and New York with a talented British and American cast and shows in both cities.

The company is doing two plays, with the same director and cast, alternating nights and occasionally doing both the same day. They are The Cherry Orchard, written by Anton Chekhov and interpreted by the witty Tom Stoppard, and The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespearean romance (?). The cast includes the brilliant British stage actor Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona and the Prestige), Josh Hamilton (Away We Go, Diggers, Kicking and Screaming), Richard Easton (Revolutionary Road), Sinead Cusack (Eastern Promises, V for Vendetta), and Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Gattaca, Reality Bites).

The project did a run in NYC a while back and is now in London at the Old Victoria Theatre (the Old Vic), where L and I went to see the Cherry Orchard. The performance was hilarious and so superbly acted. The plot revolves around a family who is in the process of losing everything to the combination of financial ruin and proletariat revolution. Stoppard’s interpretation emphasizes the comedy of their situation while the subtlety of the performances emphasizes confusion, fear, naïveté, and inevitability of it. Beale, Hall, and Cusack were absolutely stunning in their roles. Hawke was distracting and overwrought. I was so very pleased, and reminded how thrilling excellent theatre could be. I missed St. Louis and the days when I went to two or three plays a month.

In fact, I enjoyed the Cherry Orchard so much that I convinced a student, K, to join me for the other play in the double-bill, The Winter’s Tale. It’s not a “great work” in the scheme of all things Shakespeare, but it was so very perfectly Shakespeare in that no one could have written the same tale as wrenchingly or marvelously. It’s considered by some to be a romance, as it contains the elements of comedy and tragedy so fluidly in the same piece as to make neither category apply appropriately.

According to a review I read afterward, directors and actors have always had great difficulty interpreting this text, and the motives of King Leontes in particular, who Simon Russell Beale played with incredible ambiguity and nuance. Rebecca Hall was stunning and glorious as Queen Hermione, and Sinead Cusack was once again wonderful in this, though I felt like her talents were underused in a role that felt too small. The scenes without one of these three players felt lesser, somehow, and like filler until we were able to return to the scenes in Sicily, though of course Bill Shakes would have never written filler. Ethan Hawke was better in this play than in the Chekhov, playing the rogue in a way that lent itself to being a bit overdone more appropriately than the other role of the tutor. In fact, he was hilarious.

The staging of the Winter’s Tale was also gorgeous. The lighting was outstanding and set a terrifying and glorious mood. The transitions between scenes were very fluid and felt like a dance signifying the passage of time rather than just the movement of props. Oh. I love the theatre. For as many performances of as many kinds of plays I have seen in my life, there are only a few moments that I can recall as magical and true insights into humanity: Blue/Orange, The Last Five Years, Doubt, A Little Night Music, Porgy and Bess. I want to add both the Cherry Orchard and the Winter’s Tale to that list.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Fox news on LSD"

We visited the Parliament building for a tour and a meeting with a member of Parliament (MP). The building itself is, of course, lovely. The main chapel area is the oldest part, having survived the London fires, at something like 1200 years old. Here is where kings and queens lie in state after they die but before they are buried, and Winston Churchill was the only non-royal to do so (apparently they break a lot of rules for the old war horse). It was also the place of famous trials, including kings and William Wallace (Braveheart).

We were able to meet with an MP of the ruling Labor party, though he's not a member of government. For those who don't know (or haven't previously cared to know), the British govt is not known for its separation of powers, and this, in fact, does not exist. The people vote for parties, who then choose the representatives. The majority party (or a coalition to create the majority) choose the members of government, including the Prime Minister. This means the executive branch IS the legislative branch, and the legislative branch has no ability to oppose the executive except, essentially, in debate. Additionally, there is no written Constitution in Britain, so the courts have no ability to declare a law unconstitutional or sanction executive action. Absolutely no separation of powers.
This works for some Britons, but not others. In particular, the MP to which we spoke spent a long time praising the American system of checks and balances and expressing his wish that the citizens of Britain be better able to control and have a hand in their own governance. He was very outspoken in his criticisms of the system (though not specifically the current govt led by PM Gordon Brown). He also blamed the media, saying it was like "Fox news on LSD" and hindered the ability of the citizens to focus on important political debates rather than distracting scandals. It was a very cool meeting, and the students really fed off of his energy.

Finally, we were able to sit in on a session of the House of Commons, which, though sparsely attended by MPs, was like I'd always imagined/seen in films. MPs grilled the minister of energy (or something like that) on the newest plan for climate control, sometimes being quite aggressive and rude to one another. Yes, some people wore wigs. I love what I do.