Archives For Travel

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A former student of mine, now a good friend, gave me a call not long ago and we tossed around dates for me to come visit him out in Seattle. Nothing was gelling properly, and I have yet to make firm plans to get out there, but I know I will before long. But the conversation got me thinking about travel and other far-flung people I know, and so a plan was hatched to take a last-minute road trip out east.

Facebook can be a very interesting way to plan a trip. Last March I kicked around ideas for spring break road trip on a post and I was amazed at the number of people who suggested that I come see them in places like Colorado, California, or Massachusetts. So for this trip all I had to do was put up an Instagram picture I took of the northeast U.S. and within 24 hours I had a trip planned, based on the comments and suggestions people left.

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First stop was Asbury Park, New Jersey. Hometown of Bruce Springsteen and yearly vacation haunt for one of my old Limelight directors and his wife. After spending the morning having a run in the Manasquan Reservoir, I met them on the boardwalk and they showed me the sights. Asbury Park seems like its on the verge of something, and there are only a handful of reminders left that this was Bruce’s “city of ruins” for a while. The downtown is clean and trendy, the boardwalk is expanding, and people will always, always want to spend their summers on the beach.

Up next was Providence, Rhode Island and a Brown graduate I once taught, a long time ago. Same class as the earlier student. Hadn’t seen her in at least five years, and it was probably longer than that since we had a proper conversation with each other. So of course we talked about Harry Potter all night and our opinion of the new story. I got the grand tour of Brown, and we bounced around from place to place, eating and drinking, and enjoying each other’s company more and more as the night went on. A former student, now a good friend.

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On to Boston. I had originally planned to spend 2-3 nights here, but wound up trimming up this leg to just one night, once the meetings and work responsibilities started piling up. Saw a former work buddy of mine for the first time in sixteen years. I last saw him back in 2000 when I was helping my friend Randy move back from Baltimore. We chatted over beers and local cider and caught up properly, and I left that night happy that I still had this man as a friend.

And then it was time to head west and for home. While I drove through upstate New York I started sketching plans in my head for a longer visit next summer, maybe, hopefully. Hope to stick around in the states for my summer wanderings. And of course I still need to get to Seattle.

I stopped for the night in Eire, Pennsylvania, on recommendation from a parent of former students of mine, and yes, now a friend. I ate blackened swordfish and roasted potatoes and walked along the lakefront and watched the sun set, aware for the first time in a long, long while that I actually felt happy.

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Act Five: Dublin Is

July 19, 2016 — 1 Comment

(After Stephen James Smith)

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Dublin is a waking dream. Terminal 2 at dawn and no sleep and a fumbling mobile top-up in W.H. Smith.

Dublin is waiting.

Dublin was.

Eleven English nights and a cheap Ryanair back across the Irish Sea.

Dublin is.

Dublin is getting collected from the airport by a friend.

Dublin is tea, not coffee. Milk in first.

Dublin is endless conversation about politics and Brexit and elections and revolutions.

Dublin is being told “Welcome home” again.

Dublin is a lie.

Dublin is a lie and a truth both at the same time.

Dublin is.

Dublin is the number 9 bus into town, was the 46A and the one-four-five. The DART and the LUAS.

Dublin is reading the paper and a pint in Neary’s. Friends and fancy cocktails in a pretend speakeasy. A lie and a truth at the same time.

Dublin was Johnson’s Court at Christmas. Wise words from writers. Frank and Conor. Theatre fest and the smell of hay.

Dublin is laundry on the line in the back garden. Butter and milk and eggs and ham from Tesco.

Dublin is Irish and English both at the same time.

Dublin is curry in Firhouse and Prosecco and chianti and limoncello and a mad sprint to the bus stop.

Dublin is knowing the spirit of 316 still lives in the countryside.

Dublin is a run in the sunshine and a run in the rain.

Dublin is playing tourist with Is at Dublin Castle and the Queen of Tarts.

Dublin is plain and unadorned and is nothing and everything all at once. Farwell pints in O’Donoghughe’s and the ghosts of Ronnie Drew and Phil Lynott.

Dublin was home, Dublin is home, Dublin will continue to be home. A faraway home, when I am not at home.

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I’m getting a ride to the Stratford rail station by one of the guys from Enterprise Rent-a-Car. He’s telling me his story. Went to a nice school on a rugby scholarship. Served in the British army, trained special forces in the U.S. for a time. Had to leave service when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and now he’s in the Enterprise management program. We’re talking about the London theatre scene. “The West End. That’s my thing,” he says. “Have you seen Billy Elliot?”

He’s a nice guy, and I appreciate the lift to the station. He recommends walking down the road to a supermarket to buy my lunch. Cheaper than anything I get on the train. We don’t mention the impending Brexit vote. No one does. It’s strangely absent from conversations and the London streets. 

I suppose it’s time to talk about Randy.

I’m in London to see Belle & Sebastian play the Royal Albert Hall. In honor of their 20th anniversary, they’re playing their first two albums (both released in 1996) on successive nights. Tigermilk tonight, If You’re Feeling Sinister tomorrow. I have tickets for both shows, purchased almost a year ago at 3 in the morning.

I am here because of Randy.

I had a blue cassette tape that I used to play in a small white car I have long since sold. Randy gave it to me one summer, a long time ago. A new band he discovered and thought I might like. “Tigermilk”, the cassette’s label reads.

I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975

I was puzzled by a dream that stayed with me all day in 1995

The opening lines of “The State I Am In” introduces me to the songwriting and voice of Stuart Murdoch and his Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian. I am in love.

To detail what this band has meant to me over the past (almost) twenty years would take far too long and would get way too personal. They often get pegged as overly-precious, something shy art school girls listen to while writing in their journals and clutching their favorite childhood stuffed animal.

Do I have an aspect of my personality that is shy and artsy and feminine and writes overly-sensitive entries in fancy journals while my favorite childhood stuffed animal looks on? Umm. Maybe. I’ll wear it proudly. They have been my favorite band for a long, long time, and I have shared them with many important people in my life. I have danced on stage during “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and I have skipped a show due to a mild panic attack during a rough spot in my life.

Randy was my best friend for a long time, until he wasn’t anymore. The rough spot had its consequences. I wasn’t listening. But I learned, the hard way, and I moved into a better place in my life. You had to earn your friendship with Randy, and you had to work to keep it. But the times we spent together were good times, and I loved him dearly. He had a profound impact on my life, and ultimately, he made me a better person.

I ran into him shortly after I moved into my current home, riding his bike. We said hello and caught up a bit. He was back living nearby. I wanted to apologize to him, find a way to make things right and start again, but I figured I would see him again and I would have the chance to make things right.

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The band walks onto the stage and those opening lines from “The State I’m In” fill the Royal Albert Hall, this amazing, iconic English place, where Bob Dylan played at the end of Don’t Look Back, “the vanishing American,” shaking, joking with Bobby Neuwirth, “give the anarchist a cigarette!” Transformed.

A year or so ago I was sitting at home on a Saturday night, watching a film. A cold February night. I heard an ambulance go by and looked out the window, wondering if it was headed to my neighbor’s house again. It wasn’t.

Mike called me the next morning. Randy had a heart attack and died last night. He was gone, and there would never be a chance for apologies and buried hatchets. The sirens I heard last night were for him.

I once gave him a poster of the Tigermilk album cover, from a set I had ordered from the band’s website. He still had it in his apartment. It’s now on my wall.

The band has played the entirety of Tigermilk and the final verses of “Mary Jo” are wrapping up. It’s never been one of my favorites. (The flute at the beginning is unfortunate evidence of that preciousness I mentioned earlier.) But it works as a closing song amazingly well, wrapping up the journey the shy and damaged characters have taken through the album.

 

Mary Jo, you’re looking thin
You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”
But oh, it doesn’t help at all

Something hits me. The tears are starting to roll down my face as it all becomes a bit overwhelming and the last fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years of my life collapse and collide and I wonder if I’ve learned anything from my life, all my highs and lows, my successes and my disasters. You think you’re fine, but there it is again.

Because life is never dull in your dreams
A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it
Life is never dull in your dreams
A sorry tale of action and the men you left for
Women, and the men you left for
Intrigue, and the men you left for dead

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The show continues and I am dancing to “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” I am happy. for a day at least.

You can’t outwit depression. It never really goes away. Fear and anxiety and sadness and the loneliness and this plague I carry in my head. I want it to stop I want it to stop I want it to stop. I want to be transformed, like Dylan in the movies, don’t look back as I cut through the park, walking briskly on Carriage Drive as the rain starts to fall on my way back to the hotel. I want it all to stop.

It’s someone else’s turn to go through Hell
Now you can see them come from twenty yards
Yeah you can tell
It’s someone else’s turn to take a fall
And now you are the one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them all

 

In which we come to my favorite portion of the trip.

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It’s time for a road trip.

The first time I rented a car (and drove on the left) was in 2009. I drove from Dublin Airport to Galway on the Irish M6 and then turned the car over to my buddy Eric, who was more than happy to do the rest of the driving. I was content to navigate and look out the window.

The next summer I was in Scotland and had planned to wander the highlands. Twenty minutes after leaving Glasgow Airport I popped a tire after driving too close to the curb. Always had trouble guessing how far to the left I was supposed to be. I ended up driving on a spare and had to restrict my travels.

I like trains.

And yet, they can’t take you everywhere. Trains don’t get you to the best parts of the countryside. And I love to drive, so I had to summon some courage and rent a car. Pro tip: renting a car out of a smaller city like Stratford can reveal some fantastic deals. A “premium” car was only a few pounds more per day than a standard sedan, and so I found myself behind the wheel of a lovely 2016 black BMW.

The first leg only took me an hour south, into the green hill country of the Cotswolds. The A road became a B road which became a town center and then a larger city and then a parking garage. Test after test. Lunch in Cheltenham and then to my B&B, the Malvern View. A walk up Cleeve Hill, a shower, and then a short walk to The Rising Sun for dinner. This is the only place within walking distance for dinner, but it serves nicely. Abbot Ale while reading a book about the Back Room Shakespeare Project.

I wait out a short downpour (with another pint) and then decide to walk back. It’s almost 9 PM but there is still another hour of light in the sky. I stop and watch the sun setting, the lights of Woodmancote and Bishops Cleeve in the distance, mist rising from a wet field. A man in Wellington boots appears and walks through a gate and disappears down a footpath, a line of sheep waiting to greet him.

I took this photo. It’s got an Instagram filter on it, but only to better capture how I experienced that light, those colors, and that moment.

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You can’t get here by train.

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The next day was spent walking the Cleeve Hill Ring. Through farmland and wood, up a hill and down a hill. Green fields and crackling power lines overhead. Words and pictures will never really describe what I saw, or how I felt during this walk or the ones that followed in the Lake District. All I can really say is that walking in Great Britain is pretty much my favorite thing in the world. They do it better than anywhere else on the planet as far as I’m concerned. The British have something called “right to roam”, which gives walkers the right to walk through privately-owned lands, whether it’s a sheep pasture or a country estate. It is simple and democratic and perfect.

But let’s get back to that car.

I left the Cotswolds via a narrow one-lane road, passed through Bishops Cleeve one more time, and then found myself on the M5 and the M6, driving to the North and to the Lake District. By now I was feeling more and more comfortable behind the right-side steering wheel, and I finally found that sweet spot that told me how to center the car in the lane. Google Maps and Bluetooth and turn-by-turn directions meant that all the guesswork was taken away regarding my navigation. My favorite music played through my phone, and all I had to do was enjoy the ride and the precision steering of the Bavarian Motor Works.

I have been following The Herdwick Shepherd on Twitter for a long time now, and recently finished his wonderful book The Shepherd’s Life. And so the Lake District had a new fascination for me. I also have a Beatrix Potter story I’ve been wanting to tell, but this entry is getting a bit long so we’ll save that for another time.

It rained all afternoon and evening, and so I spent a long while lingering over beef bourguignon and Cumberland Ale in the hotel bar. My hotel room had no wifi and no phone service, and so the only thing waiting for me back there was spotty TV reception and the Sunday Observer.

At least the local ale is good.

The Lake District seems to attract all the wealthy walkers. The parking lot is filled with Mercedes and Jaguars, a strange contrast to the spartan condition of the hotel. Everyone has “proper” walking gear. The right shoes, the right packs. I find a launderette in Ambleside and chat with a B&B owner for a bit while I run a load of clothing. I have lunch in Bilbo’s Cafe, because why wouldn’t I, and then the afternoon is spent wandering the Cumbrian Way. The weather is glorious and I want to walk and walk and walk forever. A couple I meet along the way is surprised that I don’t have a map with me, but the way is marked easily enough, and I have a good sense of direction. I know my way back. And there is good beer waiting.

It all ends far, far too soon, and the next day I’m back on the road. Signs marked LEAVE dot the landscape as I head south. The vote is in a matter of days.

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For me, the greatness of Britain isn’t defined by family ancestry, its political history or imperial might, as fascinating and checkered as that topic can be. Rather, it is Britain’s cultural contributions that continue to entertain and inspire me. The Beatles and Belle & Sebastian, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and of course, Mr. William Shakespeare.

It is 2016, and that means that William Shakespeare has been dead for exactly 400 years.

It is my second night in England, and I am watching a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. A Play for the Nation.

I listen to the lines of the play roll out from the actors’ mouths. I recognize Peter Hamilton Dyer’s voice even before I see his face. “Full of vexation come I, with complaint against my child, my daughter Hermia.” I am pulled back suddenly to the Globe, in London, and it is 2002 and Dyer stands at the edge of the stage, as the Fool, Feste, verbally sparring with Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night. It is a warm summer’s night and I am on my first solo trip to Britain.

“How now, spirit? Whither wander you?”

Puck enters. The words continue to ring out, familiar and comforting, this most familiar of plays.

We are backstage in a bombed-out theatre, apparently sometime in the 40s, during the war. The fairies resemble child evacuees, sweater vests and brown leather shoes. Titania and Oberon otherworldly and exotic, India and Africa, reminders of Britain’s colonial empire.

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The Mechanicals scatter. The Lovers battle.

Nick Bottom dreams.

It is 2003 and I am directing my first show by Shakespeare. Titania and Oberon spar over a child. The Mechanicals rehearse. The Lovers wed.

Bottom dreams.

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It is 2012 and I am again in the wood, with the fairies and the lovers and the actors. “It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.” It is 2014 and I am back at the Globe, saying hello to one of my British heroes, Mark Rylance. It is 2011 and I am directing Feste and Olivia and I am saying goodbye to the only family I created.

It is 2016 and I am in London at the British Library, walking through ten acts of Shakespeare. Vivian Leigh stands imperious and commanding as Titania. Peter Brook strips everything away but the truth and tells his Midsummer in a white box. In the next room I stare at Rylance’s original costume for Olivia.

It is 2016 and I am again at the Globe, watching another performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this play for the nation, England or Britain, a no-longer united kingdom that today has voted to leave the European Union and bring about its eventual destruction.

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Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and yet his life and his work lives and breathes everywhere I look. His words transport me through my own life, across stages and classrooms and cast parties. He reminds me over and over again about the importance of art and dreams and stories, and the responsibility I have, with my own small talents, to keep telling those stories to new audiences. He reminds me to give dreams to people.

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

Bottom wakes.

It is 2016. I am behind the wheel of a brand-new BMW 3 Series. I am driving on the left. I am terrified and I am exhilarated all at once.

I am heading north.

 

We begin in an airport bar, as stories like these usually do. I am sipping a beer and writing in a notebook, watching hot, tired, and cranky people pass me by. I can’t tell who’s starting their trip or ending it. Airports generally bring about the worst sort of resignation in people

And as all stories about me and my wanderings go, we must begin with exposition and a soliloquy and establish internal struggles.

I have a job. I teach mostly math, and a bit of reading, to gifted kids. I am now known as a somewhat-expert in the field of gifted education. Endorsed and whatnot. A while ago I told myself it was time to start specializing in things, pick a lane and go. Gifted was one, drama another, history is in there somewhere as well. The gifted thing is fine, but these days there is little room for drama and history in gifted education. The era of STEM.

And so I teach Math. And I find ways to be creative. My fourth graders wrote a play, and it was wonderful. The kind of thing worth getting out of bed for in the morning.

It is time to board my plane.

I stare out the window at a darkening sky and I fly east, as a continent rolls away and a great ocean stretches endlessly before me. I sit in silence. I read, a little. Try to sleep, and fail to do so. The plane is dark as the people around me sleep and dream or pretend to sleep and dream.

I am thinking about a conversation I had with a former student the other night. A former student, a former member of my theatre company. No – I am the former member. We are recreating a scene from a play I wrote 13 years ago. She is giving me counsel. She, like so many others, is wondering where I’ve been. I have barely left my house in three weeks.

I have not been myself lately. Or, more to the point, I have been too much of myself lately.

I am on a train. I am in England. Green, lovely England.

I have been awake for over 24 hours. But I’ve done this many, many times, and I can function well on autopilot. Grab my bag, find an ATM, top up the local SIM-card-with-unlimited-data-in-Ireland-and-the-UK.

It is sunny in Stratford-upon-Avon as my bag rolls along the cobbled high street and I pass the home where William Shakespeare was born. I arrive at my hotel only to find out Google Maps has directed me to one of TWO hotels in Stratford with the name Premier Inn, and so, sweating and becoming more and more exhausted by the moment, I walk another ten minutes and finally arrive.

There is time for a shower and a meal in the hotel restaurant before I collapse in a wide bed with white sheets and soft, plush pillows.

It is nine pm, and I sleep deeply, and I dream.

Tomorrow a woman named Jo Cox will be murdered on the street while visiting her local constituents as an MP of the British government. It will be the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.

I’m down to my last day or two here in Dublin, and I’ve gotten behind in the chronicles, so I’m going to try and dash out a few quick posts before I leave.

After we celebrated my friend Linus’ 40th I joined his family for a few days in County Kerry, in the southwest corner of Ireland. It’s the gorgeous part of Ireland. Mountains, lots of green, lots of water. Lots of Kerrymen. The people in Dublin don’t have the highest opinion of people from Kerry. Well, from anywhere that’s not Dublin, really. Lot of City Mouse, Country Mouse business. As someone who grew up in a small town and comes from a farm family, I’ve heard it all a million times, but it’s sad to find the stereotypes yet again.

And yet…

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Photo via Broadsheet

This was found in the town I stayed, and NO, it had nothing to do with my booming teacher voice. We Americans are tagged as “loud” all the time, but I’m trying to counter that stereotype by pointing out that we tend to project our voices more than the Anglo/Irish peoples do, who tend to keep everything closer to their chest. It’s difficult to admit, but half the time I can’t hear what anyone’s saying if we’re in a pub or a restaurant with a lot of background noise.

Anyway. It felt good to be in the country, and see mountains and mist, and eat seafood chowder and spend some time with friends. We drove the Ring of Kerry and visited little towns and cafes and watched World Cup matches and let their little daughter play in the ocean for a while.

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The reflectors on the side of the road look like the Irish flag! (At least in Waterville they do.)

I spent the next two weeks in almost complete isolation, just hanging around the house, going for walks, drinking tea, and reading a lot. Needed to be frugal for a while since I decided to take a second trip to London. (More on that one later.) I keep hoping I’ll grow out of this prolonged introverted mood of mine. I can spend days and days and days without coming into contact with anyone and I’ll be perfectly content. This is not exactly the best habit to support, so I was hoping that I would burn myself out of it after a while. It’s not good to wall yourself off into your own little world for too long, and I’ve neglected far too many relationships back home as a result. I dunno…maybe it’s a necessary thing. Maybe you need to cocoon yourself off from life for a while until you’re ready to head back out into it again. I won’t go into any tired metaphors about transformation and turning into a stupid butterfly. But I definitely feel like I’ve come to the end of something, whatever that is.

But after all that I got out of the house and went to the Galway International Arts Festival for the third time. Another couple of friends of mine from Dublin hadn’t seen me much this summer, so they decided to take a weekend away from family duties and join me. We met up in one of my favorite places to hang out while in Galway and stayed up far, far too late, but looking back it was more than worth it. My first and best memories of Ireland were spent in the Rosin Dubh and in Galway, and while they’ve ripped out the front seating area (for the most part) and turned the place into a late bar, with disco, it can still be a great place to have a pint and a chat.

It was brutally hot in Galway that weekend, and the tiny room in my B&B offered no comfort at all, so after a rough night of sleep and a full Irish breakfast we met up again and wandered around a bit before I left for a matinee performance of Ballyturk, the new play by Enda Walsh. It starred Cillian Murphy; kids, you may know him as the Scarecrow from Batman Begins. I can’t even begin to describe the play, as it was quite strange and brilliant and weird and profound all at once. Gonna need a bit more time on this one.

We had a nice dinner away from the crowds in Galway and found a quiet place called the Scholars Rest to wind down the evening and have some of the local varieties. “Thunder Road” played in the background and I could start to feel it. That little tug, that little reminder of American roads and restlessness. Tried to push it aside, but it kept reminding me of that little truth I sometimes like to ignore: America is your home. In the end, you’re just a guest here.

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The essentials

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Poulnabrone dolmen in the Burren.

You can read more about this rock formation here. It’s a portal tomb, in short.

 

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A mass murder of crows, on top of a hospital?

Sunday morning comes and I walk from my B&B through the town centre, which is quiet and sleepy after the final mania of the arts festival. The buskers are out, though, ready for one more day, and a man in black sings “Over the Rainbow” in a deep baritone and once again I’m being pulled back, back, by those songs, those American songs, all about getting out and away and not looking back, and all they really do is slowly pull you home.

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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.

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.)