Diane & Paul Return to the U.K. - Day 8 London Theater


Back to the Brits and Their Theahtah,

by Dickens


As we packed up, the morning TV show was doing an interview with two of the stars in the play we were seeing that night, Hothouse: Simon Rusell Beale and his son Harry Melling. The interviewers called Beale the greatest living stage actor today, and noted his son was all grown up from his Harry Potter acting days. Beale said he was glad to be playing a bad guy and loved how he got to throw a glass of whisky in another character’s face since he so often played a good guy.

We left Wales mid-morning for the two-hour train ride to Paddington, then back to the Tavistock Hotel. After dropping off our suitcases, we left posthaste for the nearby Charles Dickens Museum. Dickens didn’t live there long, but it’s the only place still standing where he did live, and they’ve managed to gather enough Dickens-abilia to make the tour worthwhile, especially since, like the Freud house we saw in Hampstead Heath years ago, it’s my favorite type of tour: they let you roam the rooms yourself, read the information on the wall (all very low-tech, but then so was that part of Dr. Who) without some docent giving long corny lectures as you stand there not getting too close to anything. (The Emily Dickinson House comes to mind.) They even let us take photos, as nearly everywhere else did, but the Dickens house photos have disappeared from the camera. What the dickens???

*****My Dickens’ chat begins here. Skip to the next*****if you don’t want it.

I have a relatively new, deep, and conflicted relationship with Dickens. We read him in junior high school, of course—still recall the thrill of all the eighth graders being filed into the gym at Edison Junior High to see the ancient black and white version of Great Expectation, our reward for most of us actually reading it. (I recall Marsha Brown saying, “Pip” over and over, making both “p’s” as unvoiced plosives, as a linguist would describe it, and I can’t figure out how else to convey it.) I remember one of the quiz questions that Mrs. Kate asked about the novel was what color gloves some character wore. I missed that one on the quiz and would miss it today. Pretty much missed the details in my novel reading in those days. Do now.

And then in college, no one read Dickens. Not a lot of ambiguity in Dickens, never mind not seven kinds. A lot of class issues, and man, we didn’t talk about those in literature classes during the New Critics. Somewhere along the way, I read A Tale of Two Cities on my own. It was a far, far better thing than many other things I read.

And then decades went by until this last decade, when I was trying to uh, incentivize my walks along the Atlantic Ocean. (And these days, through Sippo woods.) You’d think the ocean and woods would be enough to get me out, but I needed more, and “walking with my ears, reading with my feet” has been my habit for about 8 years now. I have never been all that keen on plot, but for this exercise, plot propels me forward, so I looked for plot-heavy works I can follow by ear. Dickens proved just the thing, and Bleak House, Little Dorritt, and currently, Our Mutual Friend, have kept me going for weeks. Still, the man’s life is not real nice. Jane Smiley’s recent biography, concise, clear, and complete, filled in all the gaps on that which Drood colorfully re-created.

******end of chat

I really dislike Dickens’ treatment of his wife. Like some movie stars of our times, he announced his separation from her in the papers without telling her. He was all around not very nice to her, and his children were divided on how to be supportive of her and not be cut off from their father’s wealth. Her sister, Georgina, moved in with him and then, there was his 16-year affair with the actress Ellen Terry. In the Dickens house is a very large, jewel-encrusted snake as a ring his wife gave to Georgina to tell her just what she thought of her sister’s betrayal.

The museum places a fair amount of emphasis on Dickens’ parents’ poverty; the family, including little Charles, actually lived in the debtors’ prison, The Marshalsea, which is the setting of Little Dorritt.  Little was known about that in Dickens’ lifetime except for one very close friend he told, but it greatly affected him all his life, and a section of the museum addresses that epoch of his life, including his being hired out as a child to work. The house also has quotes from the novels inscribed on the walls, including Mister Gradgrind’s famous horrid, pedantic scolding of a little girl who likes flowers, and a really funny (and satiric) one I didn’t know about what a waste poetry is. One of the family portraits that hangs in the house was painted by Millais. 

We walked the house, from basement kitchen, out to the wine cellar, up to the top floor, with its time line of what was going on in the rest of the country while his life went on. Mrs. Gaskell died a few years before him, for example. As always, we wrapped up with a visit to the gift shop, where I bought Victorian cards, and the café, where we shared an Earl Grey cake with lavender icing and Earl Grey tea.

Next activity on the agenda was a play in the West End at Trafalgar Studios, and after freshening up, we set off early to master the Tube. We walked to Euston Square and took the Picadilly Line to pick up our tickets, walking through Trafalgar Square which was just beginning to get crowded and out to find a park with cranes posing and squirrels performing for the crowd. The gardens were beautiful, and there was a historic cottage that had once belonged to the gardener.
A tour book mentions that the National Museum (next to the National Portrait Gallery) had a good café, so we stopped in for dinner. It was good. I had a good plate of hake and Paul had an artichoke  risotto. Good wine. Good bread. Good. And then with time yet till the theater opened, we sat on the steps of Trafalgar Square and watched the children pose for their parents and play on the lions, watched them warily then gleefully approach a new child and together chase the pigeons. Families of four and five with teenagers speaking Italian and Arabic, women with hajib and three with the veil. No skateboards, and I didn’t see a single cell phone. The sun was shining at 6:00 p.m., and it was really a golden hour at the Square.

At 7:00 the doors opened to the theater, and we got our seats. The Trafalgar Studios is relatively new as London theaters go, small (in a good way) with great sightlines. Part of the audience was seated on the stage facing the audience. The play was Pinter’s Hothouse, written in the 1950s, after accounts had surfaced of the Russians using electric shock therapy on political prisoners (and the play has strong undercurrents of abuses with EST by people in power.) Then Pinter put the play aside, unperformed, and never got it out until 1989 when he directed it himself. A satire, it is shockingly funny, a black comedy with some terrific dialogue and characters. But the plot is a bit iffy to say the least, and the ending seems absolutely half-baked. Still, the star, Simon Russell Beale, was amazing, and the whole cast did a terrific job of the lines, which were like Mamet on steroids. I don’t think it is giving a thing away to say that Mr. Beale got to throw more than one glass of whisky, and his character, while being very bad indeed, was very duplicitous, clueless, and very very funny He does bug-eyed incredulity quite well.

The audience was not nearly as rude as the ones we experienced 20 years ago in London, though I was surprised that a couple (in our row, naturally) were seated late, between the second and third scene. Pleez. And it seems odd to me that the ushers are forced to stand round on the stage at intermission waving programs (5 pounds!) and hocking ice cream and beverages. People ate a LOT of ice cream between act one and two, let me tell ya.

After the curtain and before a Q and A, we walked back through Trafalgar, back past the two museums, back to the Tube, back to the hotel and to bed before day nine in STOKE POGES!!

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