I'm going to London in October. And if you're like me, planning a trip there
involves (from the get-go) finding out what's playing in the West End. More to the point: who's playing. When I get to see actors trained in the British tradition doing what they love most and do best, then I know I'm in for some memorable theatregoing.
I have been fortunate in the past to see such actors on the London stage as John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Kenneth Branagh and Tilda Swinton—all in productions which never came to America. There is a feeling of an added excitement when in London seeing something your fellow compatriots back home might never will. Not that I mean to incite some sort of one-upmanship. What I am attempting to describe is the thrill of a play entirely out of the box. Or one that is not commercial enough to succeed in the high stakes world of Broadway. Or one that just
makes you feel lucky to be in a theatre on that given day or night. Naturally, that good fortune works in the reverse, I imagine, when some Brit who is a big fan of Broadway comes here and sees someone like Denzel Washington in Fences, knowing there's little chance of seeing that performance in the West End.
In the past, some of those above mentioned actors gave me experiences from which I have yet to come down. Alec Guinness's Shylock in Merchant of Venice and Maggie Smith in Cogreve's Way of the World, (on the same day in 1984, matinee and evening) were astounding performances. But years earlier in 1978, when I saw John Gielgud in Julian Mitchell's Half-Life, I thought I had witnessed something close to a miracle. It wasn't a play that demanded the actor curse the heavens or perform some death defying feat. It wasn't very theatrical at all. He was just ... a person. A man in the throes of a deep depression and closing himself off from the world and the people who loved him. The way he finds his way back was deeply moving to me, and Gielgud gave a performance that will stay with me forever. I was so taken with it, that with all the other shows I could have seen on my short visit then, I decided I had to see Half-Life for a second time. At its intermission, I was moved once again, only this time felt a need to write about it. So I jotted a note on the back of an understudy notice that had been slipped into the program and thought if I had enough courage, maybe after the show I would give it to the stage
I was twenty-one, and well versed in going backstage by that time. Over the years, I had opportunities to meet the American equivalent of theatrical royalty, but this was Sir John Gielgud. I mean, he really was royalty (or so I thought). I had no expectation or even intention of meeting the man. I just wanted to let him know what his performance meant to me, which is why I decided I had to deliver the letter. I was all alone that evening and walked down the long alley beside the theatre where I found the stage door. I handed my note to the doorman and as I began to leave, he said, "Wait here." He then knocked on a nearby door where someone took the note. And in that moment I realized that there was a distinct possibility I might soon be meeting John Gielgud.
And that is exactly what happened. His dresser opened the door for me and there was the great man himself—buttoning a beautifully tailored shirt while looking in the mirror, a cigarette dangling from his lip. He turned towards me, squinted so as to avoid the smoke, and extended his hand. "That was a lovely note. You were too kind." Then I spoke to him about my feelings about the play, and he thought that my seeing it twice must have been "frightfully expensive." I remember that phrase, as well as when we parted shortly thereafter, his repeating it once more: "Thank you again for your note. It really was too kind." (If you are familiar with the dulcet tones of Gielgud, put the emphasis on "too" for the proper line reading).
To this day, I still find it difficult to believe this encounter really happened. It was dreamlike and still feels that way. And so, with an adventure like that one still fresh in my memory, it is with a keen and hopeful eye I am searching for plays to see when I get to London in October. There is always a sense of overwhelm from the sheer volume available there, mostly to do with the British repertory tradition. These "roving" plays make it impossible to see what you most want on a tight schedule. If you arrive on Thursday and leave the following Tuesday, you may miss a show that's only performing the following Wednesday through Sunday. And there is always the gnawing feeling that if you had only come the previous week, or were staying a few more days, you would be able to see that one show that feels just out of reach.
What is going to be playing (and I am hoping to see) is the National Theatre's production of a new play by David Hare, The Red Barn, which will star the fine American actress Hope Davis and Mark Strong, who I thought was sensational in last year's A View from the Bridge, on Broadway (which began in London).
Suzan-Lori Parks's Father Comes Home from the Wars, which I missed in its first production Off-Broadway, will be having its premiere at the Royal Court Theatre with all three plays performed in one evening, exactly as they were at the Public Theatre. The rarely done Travesties, Tom Stoppard's Tony Award winning play from 1976, will be revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory, so that's high on my list as well. There is also the chance to see Kenneth Branagh, tackle the role of the seedy music hall comedian, Archie Rice, in John Osbourne's The Entertainer. And Glenda Jackson, who hasn't been on the stage for twenty-five years, is returning. A committed Parliamentarian, she has spent those years away from acting altogether and now, at the age of eighty, is to play the role of King Lear.
And guess what? She opens ten days after I leave. See what I mean? Just out of reach.