And now, for something completely different. Over the course of the semester, I have seen a variety of shows. We’ve gone to about one show per week, sometimes less, sometimes more. It’s been an amazing way to immerse in the theatrical environment of London and see a lot of different theatres and areas of the city as well. But one of the most interesting aspects of seeing all these different shows is how they reflect on British culture and how that juxtaposes with our culture as Americans.
The first show we saw after coming home from break was a very odd but enjoyable production called Teh Internet is Serious Business. This was, by far, the most temporary show we saw – it focuses on very modern-day scenarios and internet popularity, so in a few years’ time, it won’t make sense and/or be entertaining anymore. This is kind of an interesting concept for a show because, in theory, the dream is to have a production that can outlast the years – think of Phantom of the Opera, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This show did a really good job of bringing together the multi-dimensionality of the internet and the unique aspect the web has of bringing people from all over the world into a space together where they can communicate. The characters in Teh Internet is Serious Business were based in all different parts of the globe – UK, US, Asia, etc. – and I think this show highlighted the communal culture of the internet and how that culture can change based on your attitudes, the current events and where in the world wide web you are. It brought to attention how similar everyone can seem behind a screen and how culture and the ideology of someone’s location don’t always come through when talking to them on the internet; often, it is how you paint yourself and how easily you can morph your identity when it’s not real life.
The next show we saw was King Charles III. This was a really engaging look at the royal family and the current dynamic of politics and the role of royals in contemporary United Kingdom life. This show is set in the future, after Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has died and Charles has assumed the throne; it was written in the same meter and style as many Shakespearean classics, using the iambic pentameter and rhyming verses. I was wary of this at first since it could have easily been very kitschy, but it turned out to be really brilliant. This performance was really interesting for me since I know about as much about the royal family and British politics as the average American citizen – which is not much at all. King Charles III examined the relationship between the queen or king and Parliament and how the king or queen is very much a figurehead and doesn’t exercise much or any power that s/he may have. This was really intriguing to see since while Americans often think of the President just being a figurehead, this is even more prevalent in the United Kingdom. The show also looked at the relationship between the royal family and the media, a very similar situation to celebrities and tabloids’ obsession with them in the States. This was one of the best-written shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing and I think it painted a picture of the future of Britain that has encouraged people to talk about their government and how it’s led.
Next, we saw the Chekov classic The Cherry Orchard. I’ve never been a devoted Chekov lover but I did really enjoy reading Uncle Vanya in high school and was excited to see what this director had done with the production. Her intent may have been good, but unfortunately, I don’t think her ideas translated well to the stage. The show itself seemed flat and rather boring. It did a good job of making the viewer think about the importance of home and physical things like money or property, but that was much more due to the acting and Chekov’s writing than any of the staging or direction choices. Unfortunately, this was a show that didn’t give us a lot of insight into anything, really. One of my favourite things about seeing so much British theatre this semester is I appreciate how willing British actors and directors are to take risks – and while this show did something that was not classic Chekov (trying to strip away a lot of the over-the-top intense emotion), it didn’t take risks in the right ways.
This is unlike the next show I saw, which took all the right kinds of risks. I saw Henry IV outside of my Drama and the London Theatre class because the Shakespeare course had some extra tickets and I nabbed one. This production of Henry IV was special because it was set in a women’s prison and therefore performed entirely by a female cast. This was a really cool take on the show since it is so dominated by father/son and traditionally “masculine” roles such as kingships and war leaders. I think this did a phenomenal job of examining the dynamics between the genders (which, of course, interested me as you could tell by my last essay for this class) and brought the audience’s attention to the words and story itself since they had a very barren set. One thing I will say that was unsuccessful about this production was the fact that they set it up as a play-within-a-play (granted, a great idea), but in a way that was fairly confusing to some audience members. You were ushered in by “prison guards” through the back entrance of the theatre, and it was unclear in the beginning of the show that this was supposedly being performed in the prison. I picked up on this early in the show, but it went unreferenced until almost the end, and I know many of my peers were frustrated by the lack of attention drawn to the fact that it was a performance within a performance. Other than this, I think it was a brilliant revival of Shakespeare’s classic.
By the end of the semester, we starting to explore more of the major West End (the London version of Broadway) productions, and our last three shows were popular and widely-known shows. We first saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, based on the book more affectionately known in my household as “the upside down dog book.” I had read this in the past and really loved it, so I had high expectations for the performance. Luckily, it definitely lived up to the hype. This show was a great look into modern-day family dynamics in Britain and by far the most technically stunning production we saw this semester. They used every space in their theatre really well and did a great job using technology and lighting effects without being too overwhelming. This show was based around Christopher, a 15-year-old boy who lives with his divorced father and goes on an adventure to find his mother, who his father said was dead but he discovers over the course of the story that she is indeed alive. In this production, one of the biggest things about British culture that I took away was a look at the family dynamics and dealing with a child who can be difficult or has special needs. This prompted a great discussion in class of the differences between American and British school systems as well, which is always an intriguing – if heavily debated – topic. I think there are a lot of similarities in child-rearing between the countries and their attitudes toward educating kids who don’t learn the same way as everyone else.
The penultimate show we saw was War Horse, which, in short, I was extremely disappointed by. This was a great look at World War I and I took a lot away from our research of the war and the dynamics of the different countries – especially France and Britain, since they had such a tumultuous relationship in the past. War Horse was wonderfully staged and the puppeteering was phenomenal, but the story itself fell flat and that was distracting to me. It seemed like the performance dragged for me since the only truly engaging part for me was the construction and operation of the horse puppets. This show highlighted a large difference I’ve observed between the UK and the US which is the focus on remembering and commemorating wars – we have much more influence on celebrating events and dates in history but not as much focus on things like Veteran’s Day or other days of remembrance, while in Britain they have the Poppy Appeal every single year which prompts discussions surrounding wars and the horror that comes with them.
The final show we saw was Billy Elliot, which I had, of course, heard of before, but had never seen, so I was excited to be in the audience. One of the things that surprised me about this show was how Brit-centric it was. Definitely not in a bad way, just since I had heard of it so often in the States I was particularly interested in how a lot of the story focused on a majorly British event – the coal strikes while Margaret Thatcher was in power. Before coming to study here, I hadn’t heard much about Margaret Thatcher and the attitudes surrounding her role as PM. Adding the context of British attitudes towards her and her decisions, especially regarding the coal strikes, (which are fairly consistently negative) made this a much more interesting show to watch (especially the ‘Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher’ scene, which wouldn’t have made any sense to me before coming to Britain).
Overall, this semester has been a great glimpse into British life. Sometimes, there are major differences between UK and US culture, and other times, there is barely any at all. I think many of the shows we saw gave us a good historical and contemporary context of living in Britain (such as The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, Billy Elliot, Little Revolution, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, King Charles III), while others, set in a more mystical landscape, still said a lot about the differences in British and American theatrical styles and staging – especially when examining the different theatres in London and how that can affect the technical aspects of shows (such as Pitcairn, Teh Internet is Serious Business, Medea, Antony and Cleopatra). It’s been a pleasure to be able to experience so much theatre in such a short period and I cannot wait to go back to the States and examine the differences and/or similarities between our cultures even further.