Category Archives: theatre

London Adventure Day 2: Hunterian Museum, Sir John Soane Museum, Les Miserables

For my second day in London, I had grand plans of waking up at a decent hour and going on a street art tour. Alas, the fatigue of jet lag and travel had not quite worn off, and I somehow turned off my alarm and then fell back asleep with my phone in my hand, waking up hours later to the glare of sunlight. So I missed the first plan, but in the long run it was probably good to get some rest at some point. The goal of this vacation was, after all, partly to get some relaxation away from NYC where I’m constantly running around to a million and one places.

To motivate myself to speed out of the flat and into the sunny day, I decided I would visit the Hunterian Museum, one of the places I most wanted to see in London. The medical museum is contained within the Royal College of Surgeons (their logo is above) and is based in the collection of pioneering surgeon John Hunter. Photography was not allowed, but that gave me the opportunity to just focus on the dense display of anatomical specimens.

I was lucky enough to be visiting when one of the surgeons of the college was giving a tour focused on bladder stones, which turned out to be a particularly awful ailment for the days of early medicine. (I don’t think they’re at all pleasant now. I immediately drank about a gallon of water after the somewhat foreboding tour.) I also spent time wandering the two floors of the museum, packed with every type of medical specimen in jars and plenty of skeletons and even an art and extinct animal collection. While the museum now looks like this, it used to look something like this.  Unfortunately, the bombings of World War II which ravaged much of London did not spare the Hunterian Museum, and the collection had to be rebuilt and restored until it could be reopened in 1963.

There are around 3,500 specimens in the museum’s collection that originate with John Hunter himself, including some pieces that demonstrate his skill and innovation with surgery, as well as his more curious collecting habits. Most visibly is the skeleton of the “Irish Giant” Charles Bryne, who was around 8 feet tall and exhibited himself as a curiosity in London. Unfortunately, fame encouraged his drinking habit and he died at 22. He was well aware that anatomists had an eye on his massive skeleton, so he paid someone to bury him at sea. Unfortunately, John Hunter was able to pay more and now Bryne’s skeleton keeps a towering watch over the Hunterian Museum.

The Irish Giant is not the only person who lived as a curiosity who ended up in eternal rest at the Hunterian Museum. Caroline Crachami, known in her lifetime as the Sicilian Fairy, has her 19.5 inch skeleton on display at the Hunterian, despite her father’s late attempts to secure her body away from the anatomists. Of course, not all the specimens at the Hunterian were seized from unwilling donors, but those skeletons of strange proportion that watch you with gaping sockets from behind the class do tend to have the best stories. On the same square (Lincoln’s Inn Fields, at one time popular with duelists) as the Hunterian Museum is another space of curiosity: Sir John Soane’s Museum. Once the home of the Soane family led by the neo-classical architect Sir John Soane (designer of the Dulwich Picture Gallery among other structures), the museum is packed with carefully organized clutter composed of Soane’s collections of antiquities and art. No photos were allowed inside, so click here, here, here, and here for an idea of the space.

The most impressive room was the Sepulchral Chamber, named for the sarcophagus of Seti I that Soane acquired (and was so excited about he had a party that lasted for days), which reminded me of the cast gallery in Oxford with its dense presentation of classical and ancient sculptures and reliefs. Except unlike the cast gallery, which has plaster casts of famous classical sculptures, this was all real. From a window in this lower level, I looked out to a courtyard and saw a grave that said “Alas! Poor Fanny!,” the final resting place of Soane’s dog Fanny who got to be buried not far from the funerary vessel of an ancient king. To say that Soane was whimsically eccentric would be an understatement,  and it the museum is mostly exhibited exactly as he left it. He ended up leaving it to an organization that would continue it as a museum, rather than his son, who he despised for his lack of interest in architecture and drunken ways. After an evening break to get over the last of my jet lag, I walked to my planned theatre activity and ended up cutting through Piccadilly Circus, a sort of more charming Times Square. Which still isn’t very charming, but much less aggressive. Alfred Gilbert’s statue of Anteros is its most recognizable icon and a popular meeting spot, always busy with a movement of people. Random fact: I read that Piccadilly Circus was the code name for the Allied invasion on D-Day. If you know me well, you won’t be too surprised that I was seeing Les Misérables that evening, which is my favorite musical, but which I haven’t actually seen in person many times due to living in Oklahoma for most of my life. The first time I saw it was actually at the Palace Theatre in London, although it is now at the Queen’s Theatre, which has an ornate Edwardian interior. You wouldn’t expect that from its modern exterior that doesn’t look too different from the advertising-covered building in Piccadilly Circus. The facade was destroyed by a German bomb in 1940 and was totally rebuilt, although the interior was preserved. An appropriate location for a musical whose pivotal scene is a deadly battle. Les Misérables has been playing in London since 1985, so we are pretty much the same age, and I’d like to think we still feel young.

I would end up see Les Misérables twice while in London, as my friend who arrived for my second week of travel had not seen it before, and who am I fooling about my obsessive tendencies with the things I love. For this first viewing, I’d booked a ticket online before arriving in London (despite this show running so long, it still sells out regularly) in the front row at the very right, which is designated as a cheap seat because you can’t really see the actors’ feet or the back of the stage. But you do feel like the barricade is right in your face, and I enjoyed the view into the orchestra pit brass section. I have a feeling I am the type who usually buys this seat, as the second time we were in the balcony and I looked down to see another girl in her late twenties arrive by herself and studiously read the program. One perk of being so close was that I got to see how quickly the ensemble actors switched characters, from chain gang to farm workers, to desperate poor, to rebel students, with seemingly no break and slight differences of acting for each. I also like that, despite some more modern orchestrations, it still has some of its 80s vibe in the admittedly silly wigs a lot of the performers have to wear and just over-the-top nature of the whole production (think of its fellow 80s shows like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, etc. and their bombastic sets and music), which isn’t seen in newer musical productions. And it’s totally embarrassing that something I know by heart can still almost make me cry at the end (sometimes good I go to some things by myself).

My days of being an intense online fan back in high school are over, so I’m not sure what the general opinions on the principle actors are, but I thought they were all great, especially David Shannon who I felt really inhabited the character of Jean Valjean from convict to redeemed father figure. I also liked Hadley Fraser as Javert, who I have an embarrassing theatre crush on, even if there was way too much makeup caked on his beautiful face in an attempt to make him look older and more serious and you do end up wondering why he wears such giant hats. But I guess we were in the QUEEN’s theatre, and she is quite the hat aficionado. Anyway, a wonderful experience and I’m sure if my high school self knew she could one day travel to London by herself and see Les Miserables as many times as she wanted she would be thrilled about the future.

A day 3 post will be up soon, except I won’t be in London! More England adventures are on their way.

London Adventure Day 1: Arrival, Jet Lag, National Gallery, & Sweeney Todd

To not lose a vacation day to travel, I scheduled my flight from NYC for Tuesday evening to arrive Wednesday morning in London. I still can’t get over how great it is to be able to take a direct flight somewhere that is not Dallas or Houston. I enjoy the Oklahoma airport experience as much as the next calm-loving person, but there is something to be said for one-plane international travel.

The flight was mostly smooth, although the passenger behind me seemed not to understand the fundamentals of the online video screens and kept fiercely prodding my headrest, despite me asking multiple times for him to stop. Oh well. The flight arrived on time to Heathrow and I took the train to the center of the city. While I did technically go through a sort of night on the plane, I really only had a couple of hours of drifting in and out of lucid dreams, so I was fairly exhausted when I finally was able to put down my luggage. It was late morning, so I decided to try to rest my eyes for a spell and somehow dragged myself out of the welcome sleep shortly later. I’d had three late nights out before traveling and worked right up to my departure, so the jet lag and general fatigue was pretty strong. However, I knew I had to stay away, as I’d bought a ticket to see Sweeney Todd that evening. Yes, somewhere in my travel planning I thought it would be a brilliant idea to go to the theatre my very first night in London, forgetting that I am a human. But there is so much that coffee and the anticipation of exploration can do, so I set out from the flat for both.

I began a long walk, passing by Buckingham Palace and walking through St. Jame’s Park. While St. Jame’s gets its name from a leper hospital that was once in the area, it’s a much more illustrious place now. The park has been redesigned several times by kings and queens since the 16th century when it was started by Henry VIII as a royal chase, and fell on some hard times in the 18th century when it became more favored with prostitutes and people staging duels than aristocrats (actually, they definitely came for some of that as well). Now it’s quiet and rather unassuming for a space bordered on one side by Buckingham Palace and the other by Parliament offices and the horse guards.

Most of St. Jame’s Park is softly rolling green grass and small ponds, but there are some curious structures on the grounds. One is a hermit’s hut on an island, where a hermit actually used to live (this was a fashionable thing for gardens at a certain time), and another is the bird keeper’s cottage shown above. Birds had long been a feature of the park, and the cottage was built in 1837 by the Ornithological Society of London as a home for the bird caretaker. A bird keeper is still employed for the water fowl of the park, which includes a flock of pelicans.

Cutting over to the river (looking at a map now, I have no idea how I wandered this far, but this photo proves it), I came upon this striking statue of a winged soldier. It is part of the memorial to the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. The statue is called “Daedalus” after the character in Greek mythology who built the wings that his son Icarus guided too closely to the sun.

Walking back to St. Jame’s Park, I saw this strange bunker across the street, contrasting with the more stately structures around it. The vines were grown in an attempt to make it look less ominous, but I think they instead make it look more menacing, like a monolith that has suddenly appeared from an apocalyptic jungle. In researching, I found that this was a military fortress built for World War II in case fighting ever reached the city center and now it is impossible to destroy.

I then walked up to Trafalgar Square, picking up more coffee on the way and sat down for a moment to watch people scramble up on the backs of the imposing lion sculptures for photographs. The four lions are situated around Nelson’s Column, topped and named for the admiral who died in the Battle of Trafalgar.

Here is another view of Trafalgar Square where you can see the fountains and the silhouette of Nelson on top of the column. Fun fact: the square used to be totally overrun with feral pigeons, with their flock reaching its peak at 35,000 birds, so that the city had to take action in employing birds of prey to eliminate some of the population and ban the feeding of pigeons in the square. I don’t see a single pigeon in this photo, so it looks like the hawks were a success.

One of my favorite London museums, the National Gallery, is in Trafalgar Square, and currently sitting behind an Olympic countdown clock. I should mention that I’ve visited London before, but every trip is different even if some of the sights are the same. And in London most of the major museums have free entry, so I went into the National Gallery for a quick visit before it closed. Maybe because I spend more time now looking critically at art than in the past due to my writing, but I was totally exhausted by the amount of exquisite painting in the galleries. Every work was just so demanding in its amazing execution that I was worn out even in just a brief visit. Oh, maybe this was part of the jet lag and lack of sleep? I did have time to see one current exhibit, Titian’s First Masterpiece, presenting “The Flight into Egypt,” the Italian artist Titian’s first work where he displayed his brilliant use of color and detail. (It’s gorgeous, and worth a look even on the internet.)

When the National Gallery closed, I walked over to Covent Garden, where all these giant Easter eggs painted by different artists were displayed (and getting a lot of photo attention). They were part of the Big Egg Hunt that happened in London, where 200 eggs were hidden around the city with QR codes you could scan. I had missed the hunt and instead got to see they all displayed in front of the old market.

I was somehow still awake with the fall of night (having lost track of coffees) and made my way to the Adelphi Theatre for Sweeney Todd. I happened to read that the Adelphi is supposedly haunted by the actor William Terriss, who was stabbed to death at the stage door by a rival. He is also said to haunt the Covent Garden tube station, yet with all those opportunities I experienced no apparitions, except that of fleeting free wifi. Sweeney Todd, however, was plenty ghoulish without the ghost. Way back in 2004, I saw John Doyle’s London revival of Sweeney Todd, where the actors also played the instruments on an almost claustrophobic black stage with red lighting, only disturbed by a long black coffin used creatively as a prop. It was an intense experience, to say the least, and I was curious how this current production would compare, with the usually jovial Michael Ball playing the dark lead. It turns out that despite him always being a lovestruck Marius in my head, the guy can be decidedly insane and convincingly menacing. I was totally amazed, both at the vocals and his transformation into the character. Imelda Stauton, who was playing his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett, was fantastic as well, as was the industrial set that seemed to have a constant, ominous chatter of machinery. The throat slashings were especially brutal and bloody, which was a shocking sight right up to the end. Anyway, it’s probably good it’s not playing in New York, because you know when I like something I see it like a million times. And by the end, I was wide awake.

So with the first day including a bird keeper’s cottage, mesmerizing amounts of art, and haunting musical theatre, so many obscure obsessions were already indulged, and it was just the beginning of the trip! And there was much more to come.

Under the Radar Festival

I’m rediscovering my love of theatre this year, and what better way than with the Under the Radar Festival? The January festival is an international program of emerging talent, with each of the performances affordably priced so that you can take a gamble on something without caring entirely about what you’re getting yourself into. For the 2012 festival, I ended up seeing the one-woman show Chimera, the glam rock musical GOODBAR, and the group dance/poetry performance Word Becomes Flesh.

Chimera was an unsettling piece about a woman who finds out she is her own twin, or more specifically, she absorbed her twin in the womb and contains her DNA. That DNA of her unborn sister is what is in her son, making him effectively her nephew. The three characters in the piece, including a sardonic narrator, the mother, and her son, were all played by one actress, Suli Holum, who created Chimera with Deborah Stein. It was all played out in the tiny HERE theatre, with a kitchen backdrop that had many secret openings. The digital effects and lighting were also surprisingly good, creating a strange sort of atmosphere and fit with the scientific/medical focus. As a fan of medical oddities, I was also interested in the exploration of chimerism and what that would do to your sense of self, to be technically to people at once, to have a child who was not your own, but that of someone who you never allowed to be born. Like I said, unsettling.

The next Under the Radar performance I saw was GOODBAR, created by Bambï & Waterwell. It was my favorite of the festival, an over-the-top glam rock musical based on the 1975 novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar, about a schoolteacher who was brutally murdered, and turned out of have a double life, one that brought her close to many dangerous men in many shady clubs. I’ve been wanting to see the band Bambï again ever since I saw them as the house band at Littlefield’s talent shows, where I was blown away by the two singer’s: Hanna Cheek and Kevin Townley. (Watch their video for “Primatology,” filmed in the Natural History Museum, that’s a factually accurate and glammed out rock tribute to Jane Goodall.) Both Cheek and Townley have amazing, chameleon voices, especially Townley who plays the series of increasingly lecherous, growling men in the show. There were also video cameos by Ira Glass, Reggie Watts, and Moby, as well as enthusiastic backup dancers to the band. I’ve been listening to the GOODBAR EP on Spotify at work all week, and hope to be able to catch the NYC-based Bambï again soon.

The last performance I saw was Word Becomes Flesh, a piece by Marc Bamuthi Joseph based around dance and poetry. It was originally a one-man show performed by Joseph, but for Under the Radar it was staged as a collaborate performance. Different actors would come forward to embody fathers composing letters to their unborn sons, focused mainly on black male identity and played out with dance punctuations. There was also a great DJ, which will always get points from me.

This month, I was also able to see Looking for a Missing Employee at the COIL theatre festival (read my review for Hyperallergic here), and have tickets to the spring performance of Gatz at the Public, which I’m thrilled about. (It’s a six-hour performance that revolves around a reading of the Great Gatsby.) And, well, I’m seeing Sleep No More for the eighth time in February. Maybe 2012 will be the year of theatre for me!

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