Friday, December 31, 2010
London - Not only does London have great theater, it has several great museums. While the United States (and New York in particular) in times of economic trouble the arts are the first thing cut. In the UK, who is struggling with recession the same as us, it would be unthinkable to hurt the arts.
Not only are the museums offered a good budget there is no admission to any public museum. Compare that to places like the Metropolitan in NYC, where admission - though called a donation - makes the experience unaffordable to some people.
My favorite London Museums are the National and the Tate. My absolute favorite is the National Portrait Gallery. While the National has a collection of marvelous art the Portrait gallery is both art and history. Next to portrait is a story telling of the person's history and their relationship to people who's images are shown nearby. And leave it to the Brit's to be open. Next to Charles II there ate portraits of two of his reported 14 mistresses (including the infamous Nell Gwyn). Yes his wife is there too, looking a bit disapproving.
Spoiled by film and theater how cool is it to see the actual images of people like Richard III. He doesn't look anything like Olivier or Pachino. I have to go the Portrait Gallery last because it becomes so absorbing I don't get anywhere else.
I haven't been to the Tate on this visit, but I will. Last time here the museum helped alter my thinking on the worth of contemporary art. I'm certain when I go to the Tate it will stimulate me to take a trip to Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass.
We are fortunate in our area as we have more than our fair share of some excellent museums. Mass Moca, the Clark, AIHA The Hyde and the State Museum, to mention a few.
That's one of the values of travel, it makes you appreciate what we have at home.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
War Horse is playing in London and is such a hit it is selling tickets through 2012. I begins previews at Lincoln Center in NYC for an April 14 opening. If you love theater buy tickets now. It will be equally popular in the US.
I saw the show while here and it is one of the best theatrical experiences I've ever had. It's a magical show that is visually splendid and emotionally powerful. Best of all it trusts the audience's intelligence and imagination as it tells a powerful story in the most simple terms.
War Horse is about a boy's love for his horse. The first act shows the bond that builds between the two and how after the horse is bought by the army to help win World War II the boy enlists to protect his horse.
Of course it is not that simple. The horse is claimed in battle by the Germans and so begins a journey that shows the capacity for goodness, evil and stupidity that existed on both sides of the battle lines. It is caring for this courageous animal that brings out the best in everyone.
The horse is a wonderful creation as two men clearly operate the shell of the animal from beneath and another person operates the head on the outside. You see the operators but they soon become invisible as you connect emotionally with all the animals on stage. As I said, it's theater magic.
There is a lot of death as the play does not shirk from the horrors of a cruel war. However, it is emotionally honest and always touching and never gratuitous. Sad yes, but never eye-averting.
War Horse is not only the best theatrical experiences I've had in London. It's one of the most satisfying and powerful experiences I've ever had in the theater. It is that good.
Buy your tickets early. This will be the sensation of 2011.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Spending Christmas Day in the United Kingdom isn't so much different than in the U.S. It is, after all, mostly the British tradition of Christmas that we tend to follow.
The are some conspicuously differences though. For one thing on Christmas Day EVERYTHING closes down. No stores are open, restaurants don't serve food and public transportation does not exist. There are a few private taxis that can move you around but otherwise you walk or stay at home.
Interestingly, showing the social side of Christmas, are the pub hours. Though the pubs are closed for most of the day they do open from noon-3 p.m. This is so neighbors can gather after church to meet and share a Christmas pint before the big meal.
I get the feeling the holiday is celebrated more privately than in the states. Certainly it is a lot less commercial. Stores are decorated, but not overly. Most light displays are at public gathering spaces and traditional places. Few homes put lights outside the home and in the insides I've visited are decorated modestly - but tastefully. Television is not overloaded with fabricated Christmas specials. I did see the film version of "A Christmas Carol" (Patrick Stewart version) but not "A Christmas Story" or "It's a Wonderful Life." (see last blog).
Most importantly the gift packages under the trees are restrained. There is little garish or extravagant about Christmas in London.
But it is celebrated with sincerity. I was actually chided after wishing someone a Happy Holiday and told "Here, it's not politically incorrect to all say Christmas." And when people do wish you a Happy Christmas it is spoken with a quiet sincerity. Here Christmas is religious holiday celebrated in true ecumenical fashion.
However, the Brits do have their traditions. There is Christmas pudding which everyone admits tastes terrible but is served because "it's tradition." Then there is mulled wine. It's wine heated with fruit and spices - and while each variety is good there is a lot of creativity with individual recipes. The most fun is the Christmas Crackers - which is similar to pulling a drumstick. The winner who ends with the bulk of the cylinder gets the rewards found inside - a little prize like a notebook, costume jewelry or a nail clipper. The most important reward is a paper hat or crown that everyone willing wears the rest of the evening.
The traditions might vary but the spirit is the same - good food, good friends and good will.
Friday, December 24, 2010
two views of Christmas
Yesterday on Christmas Eve eve I had the opportunity to experience two views of Christmas. In the afternoon, I went to the National Theater in London to see Alan Ayckbourn's dark comedy "Seasons Greetings." After some holiday shopping on the Southbank and dinner we went to the British Film Institute to see "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen.
You can't get more opposing views on Christmas than Ayckbourn and Frank Capra the director of "It's a Wonderful Life." The British playwright writes about situations that releases the jerk in all of us. He maintains that personality flaws always appear in a social situation filled with pressure. For example, consider a family spending three days together celebrating a Christmas. It's a holiday fraught with forced friendships that is ripe for comedy. The humor is delightful but the pain of spoiled expectations is also present. You laugh a lot at the characters and situations, but you feel bad knowing it will be much the same next year.
Seeing a British comedy with a British audience was not as revealing as I hoped. Perhaps it's because Ayckbourn is so frequently produced locally, but rather I think it is because his characters are so recognizable and the pressure of Christmas is universal. In other words good theater is good theater wherever you see it.
On the other hand, Capra is a director with an optimistic view of life. He believes that lightness is more powerful than darkness and a good life is rewarded. If he weren't so brilliant he could be viewed as a simple sentimentalist.
Therefore, I was not prepared for my response to "It's a Wonderful Life." It's not my favorite film, but seeing it on a big screen gave me new respect for the filmmaking skill of Capra. I saw details the small box doesn't permit and the expressions of love, sadness and joy emanating from giant faces is compelling.
I learned that unlike the US the film is not very well known in the UK. So seeing it with about a 1,000 people, probably half of whom were experiencing it for the first time, was quite a sensation. The laughter and tears were fresh and genuine and I have to admit affecting. I have a new respect for the film.
On an intellectual level the two experiences further demonstrated the complexity of Christmas and the effect it has on cultures. If there is one common link between the two views of the holiday it has to do with expectations. Ayckbourn's family falls apart when the holiday fails to live up to their expectations. George Bailey realizes he lives a wonderful life when he accepts his life for what it is and gives up his definition of a perfect life.
Put together the message is - enjoy the day for what it is and appreciate yourself for who you are. One of the values of Christmas is it encourages such reflection. Just remember there are 364 other days in the year. It doesn't have to be perfect on Dec. 25.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
the hoff as hook
It's 9 am in London, but 4 am in N.Y. The time is the least of the differences between the too. For one thing you could never imagine what a disruption was caused by 4 inches of snow. Everything, and I mean everything, shut down for a couple of days and now 5 days later things are still not completely back to normal.
I did get out to Wimbledon last night to see a Panto. It is a popular British theatrical custom that takes a familiar story and plays fast and loose with the plot line. Add a popular star and a lot of bawdy humor and you have a light-hearted, silly, enjoyable night in the theater.
Last night's Panto was Peter Pan starring David Hasselhoff as Captain Hook. The Hoff as he is known in Europe is an incredibly popular personality and leaving the show I sort of understood it. He seldom took himself seriously and was self-depreciating throughout. One scene where cabin boy Roger tells Hook to relax and watch out over the bay has the Hoff reply something about Bay Watch. Another moment has a voice that might be in a car talking to Hook but calling him Michael, as in Knight Rider. And yes, he sings driving the audience into a delightful frenzy.
By the way Roger the cabin boy played by the flamboyant Louie Spence is over-the-top gay and the humor was neither subtle nor crude - just funny in a way that in the US would be so politically incorrect. I'm beginning to think you cannot be politically incorrect in the UK.
An important note is Panto's are popular family entertainments. Parents bring kids without fear that they will be harmed by such humor. The parents - in turn - are free to act as kids booing the villains and yelling out at the Indian maidens or Lost Boys that danger awaits behind them.
It's all silly fun but the creators stay true to the story without disrespecting the source material. It was a great time seeing Hoff the Hook.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
running away from 2010
It's been about 6-weeks since my last post and how much has happened or is about to happen in the arts.
Today NYSTI is about to perform what very likely will be its last show. Troy Music Hall is without an executive director until the board completes a national search that could take months. Rumors have Capital Rep merging with Proctors and a number of other arts organizations are in such desperate financial straits that going out of business is a possibility.
Arts funding is considered a luxury by federal, state and local governments. The assumption is arts contribute nothing to the economy.
I wish I had some wise solutions to the problems that stem from irrational logic.
Instead I opt for the Charlie Brown philosophy that states "No problem is so big or complicated it can't be run away from." Therefore I write this from snowbound London where the arts are appreciated, funded and supported by all. I've always believed, if you're going t run away from home run to the right place.
Over the next couple of weeks I plan to post not only on theater and arts but my observations on the culture of a nation we should emulate. I promise to write more regularly than I have in recent weeks.