Archives For July 2014

A few stories more from London, told mostly in pictures…

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The Sutton Hoo helmet, from an Anglo-Saxon grave. Circa 600 AD.

I went back to the British Museum for the first time in over thirteen years. I was there for a big Vikings exhibit, and they had a new wing open devoted to the Anglo-Saxon era. Between that and the other sections on British history, I kept thinking, “Why haven’t I been in this area until now?” I guess¬†when you go to the British Museum for the first time, you tend to stick with the Rosetta Stone and the Greek Parthenon sculptures.

I also tried to get into the reading room, but they don’t have it open anymore for just anyone to visit, and… (wait for it) …theyTOOK OUT¬†ALL THE BOOKS. I guess they’re at the British Library now. Disappointing, because the room was pretty spectacular. Here’s what it looked like in its glory days:

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Something I always try to visit, when in London, is the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. If my memory is correct, it’s the very first thing we visited when I first came here in 2001. The pictures I have are from a cheap 35mm camera, and the light is terrible, thanks to a lovely overcast March day. This one came out a bit better, I think.

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J.M. Barrie commissioned the statue, and had it erected in the middle of the night, so that it would seem as if it appeared “by magic.” He was disappointed, though, that the sculptor hadn’t caught enough of Peter’s devilish nature.

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This just seems like it shouldn’t exist, right? I guess he’s pretty decent in it, based on the reviews, but Martin Freeman will always be Tim Canterbury to me. Or maybe Bilbo, if they’d let him actually be the main character in his films.

The last set of photos are from the walk home from the Globe. It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but it was officially Midsummer, the longest day of the year. These photos were taken sometime¬†after 9 PM, twilight¬†slowly settling in across the Thames.

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All I kept thinking about, while crossing the river¬†and walking towards St. Paul’s, was how perfect the night felt.¬†I got on the Circle line¬†at Blackfriars and meant to head back to my hotel near Paddington Station, but quickly got off at Westminster. I just wasn’t done with the night, and walked along Westminster Bridge for a bit, sharing the moment of the summer solstice with fellow tourists. Italian men and Japanese teenagers¬†and women in hijabs posed in front of Big Ben (technically, the Elizabeth Tower), took pictures of the London Eye, and everyone seemed happy to be where they were. And all the problems of the world were forgotten, at least for a moment or two.

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What’s that Jane Austen line? “Nobody is healthy in London, no one can be.” That was the early 19th century, but even today your snot turns black after a while, or least I’ve been told. I have a strange relationship with the city…sometimes I’m just overwhelmed by the crowds and the smells and the prices, and I can’t wait to leave for somewhere quieter and greener. “Melancholy London,” William Butler Yeats called it. And sometimes….man. London can just bowl you over with everything it has, all that history, all those iconic places and stories and characters, and all that…majesty, for lack of a better word.

Here’s hoping my second visit to London this summer, and my…sixth overall, I think?, goes as well as it did last month. Things are finally starting to wrap up over here, and I’ll be home two weeks from today. This weekend I’m off to the Galway Arts Fest, and then one more time on the ferry and the train and the Tube, one more time with the pack on my back and the wander and the wonder.

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I mentioned in my last post (Part One of this trip to London) that I was over to do some “independent study” of theatre. That’s quite true. Since I don’t see myself coming up with the cash and time off work to finish the degree I was working on in 2012, the next best thing is to continue my studies on my own. And since all that was really left was the massive research paper, which I didn’t want to write anyway, I’d say traveling around and going to actual shows is the next best thing.*

So aside from living the quiet life in Terenure, I’m also here to see a massive amount of theatre. Here are three I saw in June, along with a few brief thoughts of my own.

The Drowned Man, by Punchdrunk Theatre

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This was the show I was most excited to see, and the one I was most disappointed with. Punchdrunk stages their shows in massive spaces like old hotels and abandoned warehouses, and transforms them into interactive worlds¬†where the audience and performers share the same space. All audience members are masked at the start and then set loose to wander through multiple floors of an imagined Hollywood film studio in the mid-20th Century. Few words are spoken, and most of the action is done via dance and mime. You are encouraged to wander freely through the space, creating your own version of the show, which will be different than everyone else’s version. Some audience members attend multiple stagings, searching for new scenes and clues, dissecting everything on Tumblr, desperately trying to figure out what it all means.

But, as many a rabid fan of shows like Lost or Twin Peaks (which The Drowned Man owes a lot to) can admit to, obsessing about the forest oftentimes means missing out on the trees right in front of you. I had no idea what the show was supposed to be about**, and instead just enjoyed the intricate set design, the expert choreography, and the overall spooky mood of the show. There’s something interesting about the audience members wearing masks, and how the anonymity allows you to, in a sense, become part of the show. My own movements became a bit more smooth and sinister as I moved from room to room, stumbling upon a scene in media res, or surprising a couple of audience members rifling through desk drawers, searching for those ever-elusive clues.

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In the end, though, a little of that type of show goes a long way. After a while you want some Story to suddenly step in amidst all the artful clutter and creepy straw men. The same basic conflict was repeated over and over again, and I grew bored watching couples flirt, fight, and murder each other.

King Lear at The National Theatre. Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Mendes

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Now this was more like it.

There’s a reason these 400-year old plays by Shakespeare are still being performed in the West End, on Broadway, in parks and schools and studied in classrooms around the world: the man knew how to write a good story.

Lear was directed by Sam Mendes. You might know him as the guy who directed American Beauty, and Skyfall, but he’s got a rather extensive theatre background as well. This was at the National Theatre, the one with the statue of Laurence Olivier out front, so you walk in with certain…expectations. And boy were they met. I’m fairly new to Lear, having never been assigned it in school or seen it performed live before, or even on film. The closest I came was my old gig as Colin Firth’s stand-in for A Thousand Acres, a forgotten film based on Jane Smiley’s novel (which is based on Lear the stage play) about a farmer who divides up his land amongst his three daughters.

In the original, though, Lear is an English king who divides up his kingdom amongst his three daughters, and then everything falls apart. Lear quickly succumbs to dementia and madness, is cast out, and by the end of the play most everyone is dead. Typical Shakespearean tragedy.

There’s lots I could say about the show, but I figure most of my readers started to fast-forward once I busted out the phrase “in media res”, so i’ll wrap this up and just say I thought it was great, and Simon Russell Beale, as Lear, was heartbreaking. As someone who has seen a grandparent suffer and die from Alzheimer’s, I can say very truthfully that he got it.¬†

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Julius Caesar at Shakespeare’s Globe, Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of The Globe.

Later that night Kevin and I attended the third show we had booked, a Renaissance-staged production of Julius Caesar at the reconstructed Globe Theatre. I could probably write an entire post just on The Globe, and maybe I will someday, because I need to give a proper telling to the brief hello I was able to give Mark Rylance that night. Chills and butterflies, people.

Anyway, what the Globe does best is show how well Shakespeare’s plays work when presented in their original setting. There are no lighting tricks, no real scenery to speak of, just a bare stage where the actors make the words come to life. It’s all you need with him. Story is everything.

Not much needs to be said about this one. Most people know the plot, and I’ve directed it in the past, so part of the fun was seeing how the pros do it, compared to my own (former) youthful company of players. We didn’t have actual seats, but went the cheap route and bought groundlings tickets and stood stock-still the entire time. The air gets rather close inside that wooden O, and a few people had to leave because they were about to faint. One guy fell right to the ground right next to me, but that might have been because of the “blood” in the play.

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There’s Kevin! Actual proof that he and I were in London together.

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I have more to say about this remarkable place, and more about the London trip in general, so I’ll write more tomorrow. I’m heading back to London next week to see three more shows, including Antony and Cleopatra back at The Globe.

This time I’m sitting down, though.

 

*I bring this topic up, partly because I wonder how many people look at my time over here in 2012 as a sort-of failure. “Ah, he ran out of money and didn’t finish the degree. Poor, poor Brian.” It’s hard to control the narrative of your life, but I’ll tell you, it was the smartest move I could have made. I avoided a LOT in student loans and got the credits I needed for a theatre endorsement (which is all I really wanted or needed.) I had a lot of pining away for more time over here, though, and that’s why this summer has been so enjoyable. I’m filling up the cup nicely.

**I mean…I do, but I won’t bore you with all of my theoretical thoughts on a show no one else saw.

 

Sail and Rail to London

July 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

It has been, by most accounts, a most unusual summer for Ireland. The sun comes out most days, the temperature sits comfortably in the high 60s/low 70s, and rain has been fairly absent since I arrived in early June. This is not normal. When I moved over here two years ago, Dublin had just experienced two months of nothing but rain, and everyone had this angry, resigned look about them when talk of the weather would come up, victims of a cruel mother nature that just wouldn’t relent.

So this has been a good summer to be here, to spend some time doing Nothing for a while. A good summer for walks, for hanging the laundry on the line, a good summer for letting a cool breeze float through the living room while I work through a pile of books.

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Summer in Dublin: St. Stephen’s Green at midday.

I’m also here to continue my own independent study in the world of theatre, so I headed to London last month to meet up with an old Limelighter of mine named Kevin, to see some shows and indulge our mutual anglophilia. (Kevin’s the real Anglophile, but I have to split mine with an equal love for most-things-Irish, which can make for an interesting and sometimes conflicting set of interests.)

While it would have been faster to fly into London, you can get a cheap Sail and Rail ticket and spend the day crossing¬†the Irish Sea and riding a train into Euston Station, which was my plan. And it was all going well until there was a derailment (not on my train) and left many of us stranded in Crewe for a while. While we waited for news, many passengers wandered around the station in confusion, wondering when the trains would resume service, or if we’d get to London at all that night. I checked for updates on Twitter, and the National Rail app on my phone told me that there were several trains still scheduled for London that night. We’d be fine.

After an hour’s wait and a horrible sandwich from a W.H. Smith, a train bound for London was announced for Platform 12, arriving in a matter of minutes. Everyone gathered wheeled suitcases and oversized backpacks and rushed up the steps, across the walkway over the tracks, and back down the steps to Platform 12, and waited for the train to come.

Suddenly there was another announcement about the train for London arriving on Platform 5, and almost everyone panicked and headed back up the stairs and across to the platforms on the other side of the tracks. Almost everyone. Myself and a couple of others realized there were two trains coming in almost back-to-back on account of the delay. While everyone else crammed into the compartments of the train on Platform 5, we waited patiently until the next train arrived. The the three of us boarded the train via the first class compartment and one guy¬†asked the train manager if it was okay for us to sit there. “If you’ve got a first class ticket you can!” he said back, chuckling. We looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. Hey, we tried.

We walked to the end of the compartment and were about to head to the next one when the manager whistled and said, “Go ahead. You can stay.”

So that’s how we finished the trip to London. Three guys sitting in first class, enjoying free drinks and sandwiches as the sun went down, occasionally giving¬†each other a grin and a little nod. Sometimes it pays to be patient, folks.


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I figure that’s enough for this post. I’ll get to London and the shows in a bit. (Part Two of this story can be found here.)

I suppose I should tell a story or two about what I’ve been up to for the past six weeks. I’ve been spending the summer back in Dublin in a rented house, with occasional short trips to London and Kerry. I’ve also had visitors.

Right after school ended I packed my things and set off for the airport, a Business Class ticket on Aer Lingus in hand that I had managed to finagle without damaging the pocketbook too much. This meant I sailed through security in 20 minutes and got to spend some time in an executive lounge, where I caught up on some final emails to parents from my classroom and finally started to relax. It was a long year with that group of students, although still memorable, as they always are.

Flight over was a blur of beverage and food and long conversations with a Scottish oncologist on his way home from a conference. Got into Dublin Airport before 6 AM, grabbed the Aircoach into town, then a taxi to the house in Terenure. It pays to travel to places you know well.

A good rule of thumb when trying to avoid jet lag is to immediately set yourself to the local time. I ignored that rule. When I crawled under the covers it was not even 7 in the morning, which was just before 1 AM “my” time. I hadn’t slept on the flight at all, and I was exhausted. And since I wasn’t on a hard vacation schedule, I just decided to sleep a few hours right then and there.

And that’s pretty much what I did for the next several days. Caught up with some friends, but spent a lot of time sleeping in and laying in bed watching Homeland on my laptop, via UK Netflix. For lack of a better word, I crashed, and looking back on it now, I realize how much i needed that week. I spent a lot of the past year stressed and sick, fretting about what I was going to do with myself, work-wise, worrying about Common Core and changing styles and the lack of a North Star in my life.

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The Sunday papers

But then David and Rachel came to town, so it was time to be a proper host and show them around a city I’ve come to call a second home.

David is a cousin of mine, much younger than me, so there’s a bit of an uncle-nephew relationship there, too. This was his first trip overseas, and he and his girlfriend Rachel arrived in the Dublin port from the UK where they had just spent several days in London and Bath. My friend Linus was kind enough to help whisk them from the port down to Terenure, where we dropped bags and then headed back into town* for dinner and a short walk around a few of the more well-known areas of Dublin.

We spent the next day down in Glendalough, hiking in the soaking rain, but enjoying the chance to be outside among some fairly dramatic scenery, the kind we just don’t get in northern Illinois. The next day I showed them more of the city, including the Little Museum of Dublin, which I highly recommend for people interested in something not catering to the typical band of tourists.** We parted ways so they could visit the Guinness Storehouse, which I had seen on my first trip over in 2002 and didn’t need to visit again.

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MacPhisto and Me

The next day they took a day trip out to the Cliffs of Moher and I took care of some school business, but I met them later for dinner and pints in Neary’s, my personal favorite place to have a drink. Their final day was Kilmainham Gaol¬†and an obligatory visit to Carroll’s souvenir shop to get silly gifts for friends and family back home. (I waited outside.)

While I liked giving them tours around the area, I suppose I enjoyed just hosting people, and taking care of them for a few days, making sure they were well fed and always had a drink in their hand. “When you’re at your Grannie’s, you can do what you like.”*** Hosting guests is¬†something I don’t get to do very often back home. It was nice. And I would get to do it again two weeks later.

Next up: Shakespeare and getting “Punchdrunk” in London with a fellow Limelighter.¬†

 

*While we might say “I’m going downtown” or “into the city” to describe heading in to Chicago, over here if you’re heading into Dublin proper, people just say “I’m going into town.”

**The Little Museum is not above capitalizing on certain aspects of Irish culture in order to turn a profit, mind you. The third floor is devoted solely to U2, and they’re currently featuring something “Mrs. Brown’s Boys: D’Exhibition.” Don’t ask.

***Wise words from a most excellent host. 

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A little shout-out to Uncle Lar’s Pizza.