Friday, May 20, 2011

Travel Tales Pt. 9 - "If I Were as Tedious as a King"

(Sorry about the gap in postings but we had to get some vacationing in while we're here. However, I've got plenty of thoughts, photos and videos to share so I'll post as I have time.)

Betsy and I enjoyed a performance of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End. (Right next to the Leicester Square tube station, in fact. Literally.)
I'm no Shakespeare scholar, but I have performed in both Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream as a young man in school so I'm not completely unfamiliar with his work. In addition, the 1993 film production of the play by Ken Branagh is one which we've viewed many times. (Though Keanu Reeves is not the strongest member of the ensemble. We just squint whenever he's on screen.)
Any theatrical production is only as strong as its source material and I consider this play to be one of the authors most approachable works. The superb timing, the expert and lightning-fast shifting between romance, drama, tragedy and comedy, each emotion intensifying the others, shows that this style of writing did not originate with Joss Whedon but that Joss stole from the best. (And I say this as a devoted Whedonite.)
In addition, Betsy and I are big fans of Doctor Who and the fact that our favorite play starred David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice, one of our favorite Doctor/Companion match-ups, meant that we had to see this, come what may. The rest of the cast also did not disappoint and looked to be enjoying themselves thoroughly.
But first a few sentences regarding the theater. The Wyndham's is in London's famous West End and is what is known as a 'listed building'. This means that it is of historical significance and that you are not allowed to do any significant changes, additions or renovations without prior approval from the appropriate authorities responsible for conserving landmark architecture. Of course, this also means that you can't bring listed buildings in line with modern accessibility requirements and as Betsy was in a wheelchair for the trip, this was a consideration that was much on our minds.

Fortunately, the theater had a work-around. There is a box seat at the rear of the Stalls which is used for disabled customers. It is accessed directly off of the street and there are about two small steps leading down into a small enclosed area with four chairs and a little bathroom off to the side. Two theater employees helped carry Betsy down into the box.
Here's a quick iTouch shot:

Despite being at the back of the theater, we had a pretty good view:

The Wyndham's was smaller than I had pictured and that actors weren't miked as they often are over here (I wonder if that would have constituted a 'significant renovation'?) So they had to resort to good old fashioned projecting from the diaphragm as I was taught in my youth. Still, I had the sense that if I hadn't already been somewhat familiar with the play I would have missed more of the dialogue. (I just checked the Wyndham's Web page where they note that they have an infrared sound amplification system....with 20 headsets. But we did fine.)

This production was set in Gibraltar, in the early 90's, the tail end of Thatcher's Britain. Not a great time to be working class or poor, but a fabulous time to be rich. This was the first stage production I had seen of this work and the differences, while reasonably obvious, are worth noting for their effect on how I perceived the story. In a film, we view what the director lets us view and the soundtrack tells us what feelings to have as the story progresses. This production had no orchestra (all of the music was generated on-stage as part of the scene) and I could focus on any part of the action I wished.
This changed the way I viewed both Beatrice and Benedick. Beatrice is outwardly a snarky, funny lady who is the life of any gathering. But Beatrice also keeps a lot of pain inside. First of all, she's generally the smartest person in the room, which was not considered a positive quality in a woman and this is referred to (albeit jokingly) by several others throughout the play. She can't respect a man who isn't at least as smart as she is and men in general don't care for women as smart as she is. So she resorts to sarcasm as a defense mechanism, to put off men before they have a chance to reject her. Tate portrays the internal life of this character beautifully, even as she uses her considerable comic skills to elicit laughs with as little as a word or glance.
Physical casting also made for some differences as well. David Tennant is a very slim 6' 1'' and Tom Bateman (who plays Claudio) is at least a head taller and is built like a linebacker. So the scene where Benedick confronts Claudio over his treatment of Hero and challenges Claudio to a duel is made more serious by the physical disparity between the two actors. Benedick issues the challenge with the knowledge that there is a good chance he won't survive the duel. But Tennant plays this scene (one of my favorites) perfectly and it's almost heartbreaking to see Benedick risk his life this way out of love for Beatrice.
The entire cast, for that matter, was just pitch-perfect. The production moved quickly and was a wonderful roller-coaster ride of emotions. As the old gag goes, "I laughed, I cried, it changed my life."

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