Dear friends and readers,
As with New York City, it seems to me to be in London and not go to the theater to miss out on what’s unique and deeply appealing about the city. So since during our 10 days and night travel last week, Izzy and I had three nights in London, two free, we saw two plays.
First a play I knew might seem slow or staid to her but whose content she would be sure to take an interest in, indeed know more about than me, but which I thought I’d like. All that was true of her reaction to Claire van Kampen’s play with much Baroque music, Farinelli and the King, about the mutually fulfilling relationship of an 18th century castrato, Carlo Boschi called Farinelli, and an apparently depressive and ill (he died relatively young) Spanish King, Philip V. Farinelli gave up a promising lucrative career in London to be this king’s musician-companion. Much of the barebones outline of the story is historically accurate; the queen’s love of her husband and an implicit affair with his castrato was added as audience pleaser.
I longed to see Mark Rylance live and was not disappointed by his performance. As Rachel Halliburton writes, the text is weak, there are too many resorts to easy jokes (jocularity) and creeky comic courtiers (who lose their tempers). It’s a vehicle by a husband-and-wife team (Kampen is Rylance’s wife and both worked together at the Globe as chief composer and director). Clever staging ideas livened it up. Audience members were given seats on the stage, the actors interacted with them and were here, there and everywhere in the auditorium. The characters pour over maps, astrological charts, medicines; there is much playing of 18th century instruments on stage. The king dies off-stage and the queen in the last scenes is a widow.
It’s the radiant idea at the center, that delicate beauty and mutual generosity exist and can sustain people, especially as enacted by Rylance — he was tenderly joyful — that makes it, and it’s touching, really conveyed persuasively. No small feat in such a large playhouse (the Duke of York brought back to look 19th century on the stage too), with just outside the curtained doors all the elements of a rough hard competitive commercialized city and social drinking nightlife. A little oasis of fleeting delicate happiness.
Afterwards Izzy and I talked about opera in London in the 18th century — she did her BA thesis on Handel. Jim would have enjoyed this play.
Our other choice was a famous musical which we had missed out on when Eric Schaeffer did it in our local Signature Theater and Laura went and said she thought of Jim while watching it because he would have liked Schaeffer’s sardonic production. The musical as done in London by Cameron Mackintosh (an expert in making hits) is a brassy, blaring concoction by the people who wrote Les Miserables, Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonerg. Miss Saigon had music that reminded me of Les Mis, and its over political content, a semi-cynical take on American soldiers in Vietnam. A long way from Rogers and Hammerstein’s sacarin South Pacific. As is common knowledge, it’s Madame Butterfly story where our Asian heroine, Kim, ends up giving her child by an American soldier she fell in love with and married, to him and his American wife. She kills herself and the final scene has him grieving over her body, with the wife clutching the child, and the Engineer again deprived of an opportunity to get a VISA. This coming spring she and I will go to an HD performance from the Met of Madame Butterfly — which each time I’ve seen has made me weep copiously — how they will cope with the self-effacement of Butterfly I know not.
The problem with Miss Saigon is the music is not beautiful or thrilling as was Les Mis. It’s also hopelessly corny at the opening, presents American soldiers as boys at play, exhorts you to see the US as having meant well (absurd), doing what it can afterward to compensate (as if this were even in thought possible). But it also has strong satiric moments (especially over this shibboleth referred to by the words the American dream). The most effective songs and acting were by the Engineer, a pimp and nightclub owner who longs for a VISA to go to the US to make a million, performed with outstanding energy by Jon Jon Brighes (he does not do it every night, he could not).
Charles Spencer conveys the piece accurately: it even has a helicopter at the back of the stage for the iconic scene of the fall of Saigon (soldiers jumping in, leaving the Vietnam complicit people behind). It had an unexpected new resonance with the audience, as its central leads and songs are about an immigrant child and his mother. The songs on this issue drew more applause than the rest.
Both auditoriums were overflowing with people, both provided bars open at least an hour before performance with rooms for socializing. Outside the twisty turning streets (several were no cars are allowed) too were filled with people drinking, eating, talking, spilling out of restaurants and pubs.
There were other plays I wished we could have seen: at the Globe Measure for Measure alternating with a play about Nell Gwynne; not far from the Prince Edward Theater, Branagh’s A Winter’s Tale. Just before this Farinelli Hattie Morahan had stunned all with her daring perceptive performance of Beatrice-Joanna in The duchess of Malfi. but these were the two that we could get tickets for, fit into our schedule, and I could imagine Jim at with us. The playbill booklet I bought for Farinelli actually has real information about the era so I’m saving it to remember.