Across the pond: From London, with love

Sarah Morton

Taking Introduction to Theater in London allows me to actually attend productions of the plays we read for class. During the first half of term, we attended a comedic stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s film “The 39 Steps,” Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” McBurney’s “A Disappearing Number,” Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” Webster’s “The White Devil” and an adaptation of a children’s novel called “War Horse” that used horse-sized puppets to suggest cavalry horses in World War I.
Unfortunately, I don’t pay an incredible amount of attention to professional theater while back in the United States. However, in London, it is present everywhere and is fairly accessible. There are discount ticket stalls in Leicester Square, which makes seeing big shows like “The Lion King,” “Billy Eliot,” “Oliver” and “The Phantom of the Opera” affordable. There is even a set of streets in the West End subtitled “Theatreland.”
Strangely enough, we recognize many of the famous London Stage actors through their appearances in big budget American films. It’s a running joke in our theater class that we will eventually see the entire cast of the Harry Potter movies, much to the amused chagrin of our professor.
Recently, I had the opportunity to indulge my inner child: I went to see “The Phantom of the Opera” in London. Though it was not my most highbrow theater experience in the city by a long shot, it was still fun in a kitschy sort of way. I grew up listening to the cassette tape in the car, and, fancying myself a great soprano in the making, sang along.
Judging from the pictures I’ve seen, London productions are not as lavish as their American counterparts, which can be good or bad, depending on the show. In “Phantom,” for instance, I expected more intricate costuming and staging. Furthermore, the two major female cast members became obviously vocally fatigued by the end of the production.
So far, I’ve been most impressed by the productions of “Ivanov,” which starred Kenneth Branagh in the title role, and the technically beautiful staging of “A Disappearing Number.” The former concerns Ivanov and his depression, set against a backdrop of comic characters and situations. The juxtaposition between the tragedy of Ivanov’s life and the comedy surrounding him makes his final suicide all the more shocking.
“A Disappearing Number” follows two intertwining stories, one real, the other fictional. In this production, which has to be one of the most difficult endeavors in stagecraft that I have ever seen, characters entered and exited through a horizontally rotating projector screen. This allowed them, through deft lighting and sound effects, to transition smoothly between time and place.
Our most recent theater outing took us to see a modernized version of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The production transplanted the play from Renaissance Cypress to the modern day Cypress pub, complete with stylized urban dance fight scenes, a pool table, tracksuits and drug use. However, Othello’s jealousy and its poisonous effect on his relationship with Desdemona remained the thematic core of the story.
Our class sat in the front row, a consequence of cheaper tickets. Despite the neck strain, sitting so close allowed me to see the detail in the set and costumes. For example, Iago’s cynical wife Emilia wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “to tell the truth, I always lie,” and the arcade game in the corner of the pub was humorously named, in flashing lights, “Dungeons and Drag Queens.” Even some of the graffiti on the bathroom walls where Desdemona confides in Emilia was legible from our seats. The detail and care poured into the visual aspects of the production made the modernization believable and effective.
I enjoy attending all the plays and discussing the actual production rather than simply dissecting the text. However, one of the more annoying aspects of London theaters is that they sell sweets. You’ll be trying to watch a performance, and someone near you will have inevitably purchased a bag of candy, and will distractingly rustle cellophane wrappers during the most inappropriate dramatic moments.