Saturday, 14 January 2012

For the love of J and other theatre tales

Today’s Guardian told us that people are now queuing up all night long outside the Apollo theatre in London to get their hands on tickets for the multi-award winning play Jerusalem whose run is about to end.

I saw the play for the first time two years ago and was so transfixed, both by the themes explored and by Mark Rylance’s mesmeric performance, that I got tickets (presciently early enough) as soon as this latest run was announced. In between, the play went on to win every award going in both the West End and Broadway. My second viewing of the play didn’t disappoint, in fact sharpened my pleasure and awe at the writing, the performances, the set design.
The Guardian piece thus cheered me up for three distinct reasons.
I’m a great fan of queuing, as you know, and this almost loving description of the agony and the ecstasy, the quirkiness, the sense of satisfaction and camaraderie, the sheer anarchic power of a good, long, honest overnight queue is joyous for me to behold. Well done England!!!
Which brings me to my second point. The miracle of this play for me is its rendition in front of your eyes of what England and Englishness is about, in flesh and blood.
Having spent my first three years in the UK in Scotland, which has a strong, definite, in yer face identity, then decamped to London, a metropolis, unique in its own right, I’ve always had a problem perceiving what Englishness was all about. I have travelled around England, I’m familiar with the sites, I can just about tell the accents apart, I know the stereotypes...I just could never feel the place.  
I seemed to be suffering from a particular form of mental colour- blindness which meant that when I moved to England I could just about make out that it was Anglophone and not Scottish but,  to misquote Gertrude Stein, there was no there there...
All my references were historical and literary, and pretty much, well, dead, (William Shakespeare, George Orwell, Winston Churchill, stiff upper lip, the Queen Mother relieved after the bombing of Buckingham Palace  to be finally able  “to look the East End in the eye”, Ted Hughes’ magic in nature stuff , Chesterton’s  “people of England who haven’t spoken yet”), apart from a few nasty modern ones, like the violence of football casuals and the racism of the English Defence League.
Jerusalem made me see the connections between a lot of dots I had not joined and brought tears to my eyes in the process (good theatre does that to me but more on this later). The weird druid-like mysticism (achieved by most of the characters by assiduous drug-taking, true, still this is not German, Italian or even Scottish drug-taking, not a bit of it),  the love of nature coupled with a complete acceptance of small time urban squalor, the fascination with and revulsion against The Outsider, a timeless quest for freedom seen as the ability to live life in one's own terms, a certain  heroic “my-word-is-my-bond”- type proud stance coupled with the dullest of reflexive, unthinking prejudice and a philistine compliance with the lowest common denominator take on anything  - all is here.
The dumbing down of the BBC, Top Gear, an eccentric erudite professor, Morris dancing as (double genius) a brewery marketing ploy,  all get a mention or play a part in the play. Not to mention, well, the song.
Does this light-bulb moment suddenly make me love and appreciate England, or even, dear god, feel English in any way? It’s more complex than that.
I despise a number of those traits (say the anti-intellectualism), many more are completely alien to my psychological make-up (the nature worship bordering on the mysticism, the Morris dancing) but the crucial fact is that I know this place, I recognise it and that makes me love it a little bit too.
Maybe like a biologist, who’s been observing but not quite seeing a virulent strain of something or other under a microscope for years- a certain attachment develops, you know?  Or like a sibling you have been indifferent or even hostile to for years but whose instincts, expressions and reactions you are suddenly able to evoke, anticipate, double-guess. To know is to love, for me, to a certain extent.
Now to my third point – the Guardian piece highlights one of the great pleasures of life on earth and specifically of living in London today and one of the few surviving un-digital experiences of our age: first class theatre. Each performance is unique and by and large time limited, transient, un-recorded and thus un-U Tube-able. You have to physically be there to be part of the experience, to witness it and – pace Gertrude – there is definitely a there there which shifts and changes and evolves each time.
In case you are interested, below are some of the top theatre experiences of my life so far, in whatever order I hall happen to remember them. I’d like to hear what yours are or if we miraculously did experience some of the same magic in the dark and did not know it....
Mark Rylance – twice in the last two years – in Jez Buttherworth’s Jerusalem (The National and the Apollo production)
Rufus Sewell in Royal Court’s production of the Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n Roll about six years ago – I sobbed for so long after the curtains came down that my mild mannered intellectual (then) boyfriend was alarmed and rather touched.
Cate Blanchet in the National Theatre production  David Hare’s Plenty thirteen years ago. I laughed and cried so hard I thought I was going to be ushered out.
Every production of Stoppard’s Arcadia I have ever seen (but it’s worth remarking that my love affair with the theatre begun in and was fostered by my sojourn in Edinburgh, and I was there, probably during the Festival that I saw this play for the first time). It just makes your brain hurt and your heart melt.
Every line of David  Hare’s Stuff Happens at the National about eight years ago – plus I did a lovely bit of queuing early that morning to secure the only tickets till going, a small allocation kept back each day under the Travelex £10 scheme which got me the best seats in the house virtually for free. This scheme is one of the most civilised things I can think of in the world. The queue was largely made up of intellectual but penniless pensioners who told me they “were out seeing a play every night”.
A very young, very charismatic Kenneth Branagh in a wonderful Look Back in Anger production with Emma Thompson as Alison.  Beyond bliss. Put me off ironing for ever though. Actually, that was a further bonus. Result!
A still unknown Carey Mulligan weeping silently, effortlessly and hypnotically like only Carey Mulligan can do in the Royal Court’s production of Chekhov’s the Seagull with lots of big shots (Kristin Scott-Thomas, Chiwetel Eijofor, Mackenzie Crooks) who left no lasting impression on me.
The impact of the sheer weirdness of Caryl Churchill’s  Far Away in the Royal Court production a decade ago. I didn’t exactly enjoy it at the time but I have thought about it lots in the intervening years and it now seems to me just genius.
An amateur/student,/who knows play entitled To the Ladies who drive Mercedes,  watched for reviewing purposes in a disused church in Edinburgh during the Fringe twenty years ago. I have no idea who wrote it and what became of the cast and playwright. It was the story of a white middle class female journalist who ends up imprisoned in some horrid black site type prison in a Latin American country. “Where am I?” she asks her fellow prisoner at the very start of the play. “This place doesn’t exist” is the answer.  

To this day no couple of months go by that I don’t think of this play, about which I remember very little, for some reason I can’t explain. I guess it just had a huge impact on my impressionable young mind.  It got me reading Isabel Allende, then Garcia Marquez and reinforced my hatred of US-sanctioned, market-driven right-wing dictatorships.
I could go on but clearly I shall have to stop sometimes so, finally, but by now means conclusively, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot -  in too many productions to remember, in  too many theatres, in different cities (remember Dublin twenty-god help us-odd years ago Oren?).
So, there.
What do we do now, now that we are happy?

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