Several years ago while visiting the United Kingdom, a cab driver quoted, in a satirical manner, a familiar UK saying that states “The sun never sets on the British empire.” I assumed that meant that the British thought very highly of themselves and that it was a statement of grandeur because the light would never dim on any of its territories. It meant that and more because of its expansive empire that spans the globe. The sun was always shining on one of its territories at all times throughout the day. Although the British territories are not as expansive as they once were, Britain still has both elegance and allure that has caused a certain amount of je ne sais quoi that caused me to think about visiting London. I previously went to Scotland and enjoyed Glasgow and Edinburgh. I imagined that this trip was going to be vastly different from Scotland.
In February 2015, I made my journey to London, a global city with which I had become enamoured. I had previously never desired to visit London because I always enjoyed going to more exotic places- countries with a culture vastly different from my own; however, since I started having a more voracious appetite for the theater, I decided that I would go to the West End to comparatively analyze theater and visit central London to get both a taste and a feel of the local culture and local color ( I previously viewed productions in the US by London’s National Theater and by London’s Young Vic ). Moreover, I had become increasingly enthralled with several BBC shows like Downton Abbey, Mr. Selfridge, and Call the Midwife (and others). As the last few years past, I realized that I had become an anglophile. While watching Shakespearean plays annually and becoming ensconced with British phrases and accents, I realized that I both admired and respected both British theater and television. Logically I decided that the best place to visit on my vacation would be London. My goal was to see as much theater that I could afford to see and to go to as many art exhibits that was humanly possible. Because I am an avid walker, I decided to walk everywhere in lieu of the tube or the bus. I walked about twelve hours daily so that I could enjoy all of the local flavor. I visited the National Theater multiple times as well as a couple of theaters in the West End and five museums, each with its own focus. As a result, I gained a greater appreciation and cultural awareness for both the British culture and for my own. As anywhere, one can reside at hotels of great grandeur or hotels of more modesty. I stayed in Fitzrovia at St. Giles, a three star hotel with a full breakfast, in the heart of the West End. European hotel accommodations tend to be small. I expected a small room because I booked a single room. The concierge and other workers were exceptionally genial toward me. Although the room was small, it did not matter. I only intended to sleep there, thus the only thing that mattered was its cleanliness. If one is looking forward to attending the theater in the West End, I highly recommend St. Giles. The Marriott Hotel, although pricier, is located on the South Bank in proximity to the National Theater and It has all the glitz and glamor that goes with a four star hotel. The Ritz Carlton, is located in Picadilly, a half hour walk to the theater district. One can get a superb afternoon tea there, but the cost is much greater than at other locations.
From the moment I arrived at the hotel, I was captivated by the frenetic pace of the city, by the avuncular people who often helped me when I looked lost, and by the people moving about while enjoying good sunny weather- three words that do not normally go together in London. I absolutely adored London. I cannot say it enough. I am not sure whether I adored it because the culture was acutely aligned with my own American culture or because of the quality of the theater and other performing arts. I spent time walking all over central London. As a peripatetic person, walking pleasantly suited me and I did not tire easily. I loved the architecture and the general beauty of the city. I visited both Selfridges and Harrods. I could have spent days basking in the opulence of each store while enjoying afternoon teas and tempting pastries that truly were works of art. The price tag attached was commensurate with their worth. Selfridges now boasts that it is the only department store with a cinema. The main film that seemed to be ubiquitous throughout central London was Fifty Shades of Grey. I decided, however, to pass on that film. The main thought that I came away with regarding British culture as I walked and perused stores was the extent that British culture influences American culture. It became apparent that the American culture is a pastiche of British culture. The nomenclature of both countries is the same (street names, districts, etc). The one thing that we have not esteemed to the same level as the British is enjoying a cup of tea. We are more fascinated with coffee than with tea. The British are still arguing over how to best enjoy a cup of tea. Does one put the milk in first or last? How hot should the water be? Tea bag versus loose tea? How long is it steeped? After enjoying English Breakfast during the morning and in the afternoon daily, I thought I might have caffeine withdrawal upon disembarkation at Kennedy. Would you like a pot of English Breakfast?
Before going on holiday (British vernacular of course), I researched the plays that I was interested in seeing. I narrowed the list down to six and I made my final decision upon arrival the first day. Visiting London without attending theater is like touring New York City without ever seeing Broadway, Times Square or the 9/11 Memorial. Why would anyone travel so far without ever taking in the Theater? While in London, I visited the New Globe Theater and the National Theater. I took tours of both theaters including a back stage tour of the National Theater. The new Globe was financed by Sam Wanamaker. It is open during the spring and the summer. Bring blankets to keep warm, as it is an outdoor theater. Contrary to the outdoor New Globe Theater is the indoor National Theater that has three theaters with many plays running concurrently. The National theater boasts about having a drum revolve that is five stories high and contains several elevators used to hoist huge objects onto the stage. It is one of two in the world. I loved the National Theater with its cafes, its restaurants, its bookstore and its general ambiance. One could stay there all day and read and relax or enjoy a great dinner before a show. Even though I attended the theater alone, I met people during the interval (vernacular for intermission). I engaged in conversations about the British and about New Yorkers. If ever one is undecided about attending the theater alone, it can be a great experience.
While in London, I saw five plays. I saw Man and Superman, by George Bernard Shaw. This play expands on Nietzsche’s concept of superman in which man explores his own morality and shakes off the conventions that have been placed on him. The main character is played by Ralph Fiennes who tries to live by his own set of rules and opines on women and marriage. This four hour performance was exceptional. I also saw, A View from the Bridge, in the West End. It was directed by Ivo Van Hove and written by Arthur Miller. It was fresh on the heels of their Young Vic production. It is my belief that this play will arrive on Broadway within the next year. We love Arthur Miller and we love Brooklyn. The play was spectacular (I will review it in a separate post). If it arrives here, I strongly recommend it. Additionally, at the National Theater is Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a play adapted from the non fiction narrative by Katherine Boo. This play is about a group of people who live behind the airport in Mumbai. This group lives in the shadow of great development in Mumbai while millions continue to live in indigence. This play is emotionally moving, and it prompted me to read the original narrative. Also, at the National Theater is Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem. The play explores consciousness. It asks the hard questions about the things of which we are aware and that can be proved. Although Stoppard is known to be logorrheic, the issues discussed were fascinating and the verbosity of the play did not detract from its themes. The set was minimalistic and the acting was superb. The lead actor, Olivia Vinall, reminded me of Carey Mulligan in Skylight. She was passionate in her beliefs as she opined on her belief of the consciousness of God. Do coincidences exist or are we merely unaware of the circumstances that create them? Does God exist or are we orchestrating our own paths? Lastly, I saw War Horse, which was great in spite of technical difficulties that caused the show to stop for about ten minutes to correct the problem.
Viewing exhibits at various museums proved to be an enjoyable experience filled with didacticism, yet not dull in its presentation. I visited the Tate Modern, The Natural History Museum, the British Museum ( I saw the Rosetta Stone), and the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of London, which is the most comprehensive museum about the history of London. It chronicles the great fire of London as well as the Roman occupation of London. It is filled with details about Londoners dating back more than a thousand years. Currently on exhibit there is Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die. It is there until April 12, 2015. After having watched the Hound of the Baskervilles and some other Sherlock Holmes films, I became intrigued with the story. Often I have believed that he was a real person because very few people mention the author of the works, Arthur Conan Doyle. The exhibit begins behind a book case that presents itself as a library. One must tap the “books” to enter the exhibit and then the exhibit opens. This is something that one would experience when watching his films. Inside the exhibit are artifacts, films, portraits, paintings and anything that is related to Sherlock Holmes via Doyle. The layout of the exhibit was spectacular. One could watch clips from some of the films and well as read about Conan Doyle’s life. If one were not familiar with his work, the exhibit would cause one to have a keener ( I cannot tell you the amount of times I heard “keen” used in London) interest in Sherlock Holmes. The exhibit encompasses the many actors who have played Sherlock Holmes, including the most recent actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock Holmes is quintessential London.
The National Portrait Gallery gives visitors a great history of the kings and queens of England. Viewing the exhibit has inspired me to gain a more complete picture of the history of the British monarchy. Much has been written about the British monarchy, but the exhibit gives a complete and accurate history without embellishment. Currently on Broadway are two productions about the British monarchy, Wolf Hall (Parts I and II produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company starts March 20th) and The Audience. All anglophiles are rushing to get tickets now!
As a result of my vacation, I have gained more wisdom from traveling and I have a better consciousness of London and its environs. I am now positioned to return and branch out to other areas of England and also to visit Wales and Northern Ireland. When I return in subsequent years, I will continue to visit the theater and art museums. I will also visit Stratford so that I can see the Royal Shakespeare Company and the place of Shakespeare’s birth. I learned that if I am having difficulty understanding someone, it is also likely that he or she is having difficulty understanding me. Walking and not taking bus tours is really the best way to get around (if you can walk without fatigue). When converting currency, always use “the hole in the wall” (vernacular for ATMs). The best rate is given through the machine. Bring a small amount of local currency before arriving. Always include respite in your day by having an afternoon tea at one of the better locations. Get to know some of the locals. That is how one learns the true culture of a place. Take time to enjoy the night life. London is a beautiful city at night. I cannot wait to return. In the meantime, Wolf Hall awaits me as well as the new season of Mr. Selfridge. Has anyone seen Eastenders? Cheerio!