A Second Day in London

March 13, 2007

What’s the best way to start a most excellent adventure in a wildly expensive city on a wildly expensive theater trip when your theater can’t really afford to have you gone for 12 days?

Well, you wake to a great review on line in the Washington Post and watch the ticket sales go up by $200 every 20 minutes. That’s sort of fun. And then you get back to preparing to meet Arnold Wesker. You tell your breakfast companions, Marcella Brenner and Monty Combs and Patti Sowalsky the good news and they beam and the sun’s out and streaming into the Milbank Lounge as our group assembles to meet the Cultural Insider Tours team, headed up by James Ryan, my playwright buddy and States-side tour organizer, and the two London-based culture mavens, Rebecca Lassman and (let’s call her Lady because she might as well be) Joyce Hytner, mother of National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner and board member herself at the Royal Court. Between Rebecca and Joyce, they know everyone who’s anyone in the London theater and art world and we’re going to meet a bunch of them on this trip. And we’ve got the really-hardest-to-get tickets – they tell us that, and we believe them. Kristin Scott Thomas in THE SEAGULL? We’re soon to see at the Royal Court, what with a cancellation line running up two flights of stairs and down into the basement, that we’ve snagged a hot ticket indeed. But back to the Millbank: We get our briefing, our theater tickets; our Oyster Card applications – that’s discounted fare cards for the Tube (which is still outrageous at 23 pounds – or 46 dollars – for a week’s worth of rides). For those envious, vicarious, and looking on, here’s what the itinerary has in store:

• The (aforementioned) Seagull at the Royal Court with Kristin Scott Thomas
• Sir Arnold Wesker reading Whatever Happened to Betty Lemon in the Royal Court Studio
The Entertainer at the Old Vic with Robert Lindsay
The Caretaker at the Tricycle
The Reporter at the National Theatre
John Gabriel Borkman at Donmar
Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace in the West End

• Private tour of National Gallery
• Curator tour of Tate Britain – Mark Wallinger exhibit
• Roundtable discussion with Sir Arnold Wesker
• Briefing by Joyce Hytner and Rebecca Lassman
Dominic Cooke, Artistic Director of Royal Court
Max Stafford-Clark book talk at National
• Assistant Director Jeremy Whelehan of The Entertainer
• Post-performance discussion at Donmar
• Roundtable with London Playwrights Suzan Glass and Heather Blake at City Inn
• Walking Tour of Old Jewish East End with Blue Badge Guide, Rachel Kolsky, with tour of historic Synagogue, Sandys Row
• Cabinet War Rooms
• Critical Roundup with Patricia Nicol of The Sunday Times

Sounds like fun, eh?

And if you had $4,000, you could have done it too. Of course, $500 was a donation to the theater and that chunk of change is what sent me. So in the end, with a small but stellar group, this turned out not to be a Fund-Raising Bonanza, but at least we came out ahead and not behind (which is more than can be said for some of the world premieres we’ve been working so hard to produce of late – Yes, our world premieres often lose money… And so why do we do them, you ask? Because it’s why we’re here; it’s why we’re put on this earth; to create; to add; to try. And of course it’s why everyone subscribes too, right? And why we have a Shakespeare Festival in Washington, right? Because we all love new plays, right? Right? Never mind.) So we’ve kept our vision of what we’re aspiring to be by not canceling this trip, even though it’s not Bonanza, and by doing so we’ve brought good luck; we’ve brought good energy to our enterprise and now–here’s the news–we’re raising our game in the process by seeing Great Art. And I mean Art of all kinds including the Best of Great Visual Art; as in Rembrandt Art. Which was yesterday. A curator’s tour of the National Gallery’s Rembrandt and Reubens holdings, significant not because Rembrandt was Jewish—though Reubens was—but because many of the great Rembrandt’s subjects were, and he painted in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam. Most fascinating is to see Rembrandt descend in his self-portraiture from cocksure and confident and affluent and aloof in his 20s, to ruddy and worn-down and tattered and ashen in the last year of his life, around 63. Quite a striking decline. For a man who fell out of favor as he moved further and further from the fine painting of his ascendant youth with all that heightened realism and north-eastern light pouring in from the top left hand corner of virtually every canvass, to his much more impressionistic work where paint texture becomes more a part of the subject, and the contrast between definition and impression through brush work comes to dominate his concern while the patronage moves away and he dies with very little left… Well, isn’t that the artist’s tale over and over?

And is that what’s in store when we meet 75 year old, Sir Arnold Wesker?

Well no. Not at all.

Sir Arnold at the Royal Court is most excellent indeed. In great shape, sharp as a tack, and an estimable performer of his own work. My introductory preparation was, of course, way more than I needed to. Re-reading SHYLOCK was great homework, though, and it’s a play we could produce. With Theo Bikel in the title role and Ed Gero as Antonio, reprising their intense kinship spawned during THE DISPUTATION… I was charged in the re-read about how great a conversation-maker Wesker’s version of MERCHANT could potentially be. We’ve got Ed and Theo lined up for the May readings of SHYLOCK and, much later in the evening, Patty Andringa gives me some great fund-raising ideas about really trying to maximize our potential on SHYLOCK in much the same ways that Signature did on the recent Israeli production of HAMLET (Ah, to be like Signature… But that’s the subject for a whole nother blog I’m never gonna write).

So, to the quick, cause it’s late and who wants to hear me natter on…? Sir Arnold reads a 35 minute play called WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BETTY LEMON and its wonderful. It’s about a handicapped geriatric with a foul mouth whose wheel chair magically keeps running away from her. She chases after it. It’s illusive. She natters on. It stops. It feints to the right, to the left – “a relationship is struck between the two.” It’s one of a series of solo, one-woman plays Sir Arnold has written, for different actresses but on related themes.

In my preparations for the interview, I chance upon a superb bio written by Phil Gibby of the Bristol Old Vic. Allow me to quote just a bit, beginning with the perfect header: “Never Compromise. Never Compromised.” Hell, maybe I should just stop there. It’s the perfect place, to end on an epiphany.

Sir Arnold. Still Ticking After all These Years.

Nah, I won’t stop. There’s more. Back to Phil Gibby:

Arnold Wesker, born in London in 1932, is not only one of the great modern dramatists. He is also one of the true agent provocateurs of the British theatre – a man who, after four decades in the limelight, still delights in walking the tightrope between the casually provocative and the genuinely controversial.
Where might one begin the story of Arnold Wesker?
With his early plays – The Kitchen, Roots, Chips With Everything – THE WESKER TRILOGY – all initially turned down by the Royal Court, and all of which went on to become acclaimed worldwide?
Or on that famous day in 1971 when an RSC cast refused to perform the world premiere of his play The Journalists? (A seven year legal battle followed).
With the notorious – but apocryphal – tale of Wesker pulling a gun on a director? (“I love myths like that.”)
Or with the much-publicized spat with National Theatre chief Trevor Nunn earlier this year, when Wesker implied a certain over-familiarity between his own play, Shylock and Nunn’s much-garlanded production of The Merchant of Venice?

“In this age of political correctness, the artist’s voice must be that of an individual – not the mouthpiece of a group, or of a dogma,” he argues. And there are few as fiercely individual as Wesker. He is the writer to whom the phrase “never compromise” might have been originally applied. It has been so ever since that warm July day in 1958 when Chicken Soup with Barley – having been turned down by the Royal Court – was premiered at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. John Dexter’s production, supported by the Arts Council, was on stage in Sloane Square within weeks.

In many ways, this opening salvo set the tone for British theatre’s relationship with Wesker. His work has, ultimately, yielded little commercial success. But ever since that benchmark year of 1958, Wesker’s constituency has remained the same – the regional theatre with its in-built access to real communities and real lives; the Royal Court, that crucible of new writing, where the ability to stimulate, provoke and contest has always proved valuable currency; and Europe, where Wesker’s uncomplicated approach to the dilemmas of modern society has long found an audience. He is not just the playwright who wrote Roots, but of all and any of the post-war dramatists, it is Wesker who has remained true to the grassroots. Ronald Bryden described him as “the unique outsider in British theatre.

I love this write up and I love that we got Sir Arnold up close and personal for so long. What followed the reading was a spirited Q & A and then canapés and drinks and then THE SEAGULL, where we sat next to each other, Sir Arnold with his wife and me with mine.

THE SEAGULL here was done better than I’d ever seen it before. And Christopher Hampton, whose “version” this was – which meant that he got all the royalties, Sir Arnold and I quipped to each other – well, Christopher Hampton was at the theater too with a young Asian babe under arm and looking very much like the Albino rock star playwright that he’s been for a while, only heavier. Now that’s a successful playwright. Arnold struggles in the commercial world. Christopher Hampton, like Tom Stoppard, sails right on by. Fascinating that; the contrasting fortunes among the literary lions.

On the walk home from the Tube, the Morfields and I talk about the Stoppard Trilogy we’ve all seen at Lincoln Center. They did the Marathon in one day. Is Washington ready for a marathon? Produced by a Cultural Behemoth, maybe. But could Theater J ever produce The Wesker Trilogy? Could we do all three plays in one day? Wesker tells us of a production where they did all three shows every night — a 6 hour evening with intervals —er, that’s intermissions—coming not between every act, but between every play. And his wife helped make the chicken soup that they would serve to the audience every night! I like that. Free chicken soup. 3 plays. One night. Six hours. If only they were world premieres…

See, now that’s comedy.

And it’s 2:36 in the morning. A second blog is done. Tomorrow, it’s THE ENTERTAINER and THE CARETAKER. Another two giants from the Old New Wave.

Night all…


2 thoughts on “A Second Day in London

  1. Every play was once a world premiere–if no one was willing to produce a new play, there would be no plays to perform. People tend to prefer that which is road tested I suppose, but someone’s got to take it out for its frist drive–even if it crashes and burns!

  2. Pingback: Chekhov in NY: on Lake Lucille, in Buffalo « The Theater J Blog

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