Sunday, January 16, 2011

London 24.12.2010: Verity Vindicated and Disbelief Suspended

Not a great deal to report of yesterday.  After being out the night before to see “Oliver,” I was logy-headed and very tired the next morning.  And, as Steve pointed out, it’s usually around the third day that fatigue seems to hit, when one flies overseas from the west.  He, too, was tired yesterday.

And so the day’s a haze.  We had another play, “Winter’s Tale,” scheduled for 1:15 at the Roundhouse near the Chalk Farm Road tube station.  That left no time, really, for any touring in the morning.

Since we’d discovered that I booked two plays at the same time on the 24th, and the box office at the Vaudeville, where we’re sitting now waiting for “Ideal Husband,” wouldn’t change the tickets for today to a later day, we went to the agency in Leicester Square that had sold the tickets (not the half-price booth, but an online booking service) to see if they’d make the change.

We’d tried calling and couldn’t get through to their customer service person.  And we were turned away by the receptionist at their Leicester Square office, who gave us yet another number to call.  Which we did call (and their customer service link online leads nowhere), to be told, No, can’t change dates.

So we ended up giving away the tickets to “A Flea in Her Ear,” the panto I’d booked at the same time as “Ideal Husband,” to the staff at our hotel.  And concluded that the ticket bunch, who are refusing to make refunds to the many people who have had to cancel attendance at performances due to weather-related travel problems, are scammers.

After that to Chalk Farm, which turns out to be in the vicinity of Camden Town.  Very cold as we arrived, with a whisper of snow in the air.  A bustling, warm café attached to the Roundhouse Theatre beckoned, and we went in and got a seat.  Immediately after that, a young woman was seated beside us, and struck up a conversation with us, asking if we were there to see “Winter’s Tale.”

She turned out to be delightful, a doctor, a g.p., in Hove.  We talked for the good part of an hour as I ate fried mackerel on toast, with a bed of grated beets and horseradish cream sauce, and Steve had cream of parsnip soup.

The play itself was wonderful, marred only by a disgruntled, territorial Californian behind me, who complained that I was blocking his view because I had folded my jacket and sat on it to make the seat a bit more comfortable. 

(Sitting now in St. Martin in the Fields waiting for evensong.  The line was long even at 5:30 when we arrived [services begin at 6:30], but, fortunately, we got a good seat near the front.)

To resume: when I removed the coat from my seat, the gentleman then complained that I was still too tall!  A complaint I chose to ignore, because I’m not tall in the least, and even if I were, what could I do about it?  And the seats in the theater were tiered, so no one had any difficulty at all seeing the stage.

The churl’s Scottish-born wife was abashed at his rude behavior, and tried to smooth it over by talking to us at intermission.  Why do people behave this way, I wonder—all about inventing offense when none is intended or given, all about territory and control . . . ?

The play: marvelous, as I have said.  Marvelous use of props and scenery—tumbling bookcases and papers flying, smashing chandelier—to show decline and fall as Hermione and the young prince Mamillius die; a marvelous over-the-top bear operated by obtrusive (and very visible) men, to cheek the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief (an almost insuperable obstacle in this play, with its unbelievable reality-defying twists and turns), etc.

Noma Dumezweni, who played Paulina, stole the show.  It was a stroke of genius to cast an Afro-British actor to play the role, with its associations with magic and witchcraft—and so the choice plays with a deep-seated Western cultural tendency to imagine black women as sorceresses or witches.

And yet what was clear to me through this rendition of Paulina, more so than when I’ve read the play in the past, is how she is the moral center of the plot: the one who unfailingly speaks truth even when it costs her to do so.  The one who upholds the old pieties and the moral dictates they enshrine.

And so the one vindicated when Perdita is found and Hermione revealed never to have died at all.  The play affirms a moral order in which the excesses, rage, and tyranny of Leontes receive their just reward, and the faithfulness and scrupulous verity of Paulina carry the day—all of this made more powerful for us by the overturning of the suspicions long transmitted in Western culture about the connection of women of color to the dark arts.

The Roundhouse is a wonderful theater built in what Steve tells me must once have been an old roundhouse in which a train turned.  Exposed brick walls and modern minimalist appointments creating an intimate theatrical space, in which no one in the audience is far from the stage . . . .

If I have a complaint about this performance, it’s that some of the actors—especially the one who played Perdita—had such poor diction I couldn’t understand half of what they said.  Or maybe I betray my age when I think many young people nowadays speak as if their mouth is full and it’s too much bother to enunciate clearly.

Then back to our hotel, with a stop at a Chinese restaurant near the Earls Court tube station, about which I’d read good things online.  And which turned out to be hideous: slatternly carpets, brusque, unconcerned waiters, mediocre food.  And a curious, mostly Russian clientele, including two voluble young Russian women next to us who had shared a bottle of white wine and were still going strong when we left, though they had long been there before we arrived.

And, of course, the Russian presence isn’t a surprise when one considers that Earls Court has a large Russian population.  Still, I always consider it a warning sign when a Chinese restaurant seems to be a gathering place for a particular group of non-Asian restaurant-goers.  When that happens, I wonder if the food is tailored to the expectations of that group.

And, as if the food and service weren’t awful enough (and those dirty carpets!), they slyly added a £4 gratuity to our bill, without informing us of that . . . .

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