Thursday, July 24, 2014

et tu, stansted?

You know what they say about the best laid plans. Or that thing about us making plans and God laughing. That was my day today. I don't want to go into it, because it's complicated and boring and doesn't make for good print. But I had some issues with Ryan Air today; big surprise, budget airlines. And no matter how I tried to get someone to help me on the phone, they refused. "You need to come to the airport," they kept saying. By airport they meant Stansted. It's 90 minutes away. "We'll help you there. But you need to come immediately." Immediately is not awesome. But I did, I came immediately. And I came in a cab because the buses were booked and the trains only ran much later. And the cab driver was super nice and great to talk to, and then his cab broke down.

And then Miles and I sat in a wheat field on the side of the M11 waiting for a tow truck and another taxi to bail us out. There were some bugs, some sunstroke, and some allergies. You can imagine all that. After an hour or so we found ourselves at a gas station up the road, and we had some Cornish Pasties which were a big mistake. And then we got to the airport, finally, and Ryan Air refused to help me at all. Just the most cursory, "Computer says no" kinds of responses. It didn't matter how many agents I spoke to. Woe unto thee, England! Thy customer service is the worst.

You know what made it all bearable? Miles. "What are you gonna do?" he kept shrugging. And he was right. Stuff happens. What are you gonna do? Later, when I thanked him for taking the grueling journey with me he said "us bros have to stick together." And it was completely in earnest. And I wanted to cry.

We made it back to London in time to meet up with the students in line at the Globe. And they could not have been sweeter to me. Hugs and jokes and pats on the back. What a great group of people. We shared some chips and sat in the waiting line and I felt like everything was worth it. And then we saw a puppet show which was meant to explain Julius Caesar to us, but chiefly what I remember is the puppets singing 'Tequila.'

Julius Caesar, I've often said, is my least favorite Shakespeare play. Aside from a stabbing, nothing happens. For three acts people talk about what they want to do, and for the next two they talk about what they did. I know it's rhetorical and political and full of intrigue, but those are also words to describe 'talky.' All the same, nobody knows how to goose a play like the Globe does, and they did their darndest tonight. There was so much about the play I finally understood, and I feel like I get the passion some people have for it. We were also spattered with blood from an onstage castration, so that's one for the diary.

She'll probably hate that I mention this, but Kailey burst into tears when we entered the Globe for the first time. And it was so sweet. And I remembered that feeling of walking in there for my first time, March of 2002. Who cares if a play talks too much, or your feet hurt from standing? You are in the Globe, and there's a magic there that sticks with you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

in the giving vein

This morning I took a group to the London Design Museum, a hip little museum on a hip little street called 'Shad Thames.' Shad Thames is the definition of gentrification. You can tell it used to be a horror of a street in Victorian Times, sooty, babies crying, the smell of fish, murder, you know. But now it's scrubbed clean and is lined with Pizza Expresses and Prets and features a lot of dudes walking around with tight knee shorts and mustaches and nerd glasses (not me.)

The first exhibition we looked at was Louis Khan, an American architect who built everything in a grand, monolithic style. His stuff looks solid, weighty, and deliberate. Very modern. Lots of shapes. I loved it.

Here are Mr. Khan's drawing chalks. Something about the textures and colors of them grabbed me.

We next looked at some work by Daniel Weil called Time Machines, which was a series of melting clocks, or clocks in a bag, or clocks that looked like hanging mobiles.

Finally, we looked at the 2014 Design Competition, where we saw folding bikes, cars that run 100k on 1 liter of gas, Prada jackets with painted faces, 3D viewing masks, and everything else slightly terrifying and wholly futuristic.

 Here is a newly designed primer for Chinese Characters.

A lamp suggested by telephone wires.

More lamps, these built from recycled soda bottles.

We attended the matinee performance of Skylight, a David Hare play performed beautifully by Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy. There were no surprises in either performance; Carey Mulligan seemed to be Carey Mulligan, and Bill Nighy was definitely Bill Nighy (twitchy, mannered, rambling his lines with sudden stops and starts) and that's what I most loved about it. Instead of choosing a play that threw them into outer space or thrummed with African Masks, they chose a simple, quiet play about real people. Neither one of them looked overtly attractive or flashy. They looked and felt real. And the play was written so beautifully and with so much humor and meaning that I forgot, in some moments, that they were actors. It was just a real gem of a piece.

I should mention that, at intermission, I saw Jeremy Piven in the lobby. He was about 5 feet tall, wearing a leather vest and a newsies cap, looking about 20 years older and more weathered than he is, and smoking, I kid you not, a fat old cigar. He looked skeezy.

Then, tonight we were treated to Martin Freeman in Richard III at Trafalgar Studios. I think there was great anticipation from the group (who also spotted and stalked Steven Moffat in the audience) and Freeman didn't disappoint. His Richard was easily the funniest I've seen, if that was his goal. He lacked a little bit of the fear factor, though, and felt sort of teddy-bear cute throughout. But he's still really competent with text and super charismatic onstage. The production itself was arbitrarily placed in the round, and thrust into a late 60's office-style setting. Which functioned as some kind of UN counsel room as well. It was odd. And it was full of electric shocks and buzzing lights and terrifying sounds and old Queen Margaret lumping around on the floor. In a lot of ways this production wanted to be awesome; but being awesome can sometimes be exhausting. Keep it simple, stupid!

Kudos, however, to the great Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth. Her scene with Richard, while literally duct taped to her chair, was riveting. Still a big fan from Notting Hill, Gina! You were my Steven Moffat tonight.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

beneath every history, another history

 Miles and I had lunch today in Hyde Park. Lisa told me that I needed to introduce Hob Nobs to him, even though I'm sure he ate them by the handful when he was little and we lived here. I guess it was more of a re-introduction. So we had lunch and Hob Nobs, and an aggressive squirrel came along and stole one. And ran up a tree with it.

We jumped on a bus to meet the group downtown at the National Portrait Gallery, my favorite museum in London. The bus was old-timey and sort of rickety, but fun to ride. I don't think I've seen another bus like this still in usage. It rattles along, huffing and stopping along Kensington Road, and a kind little Asian man comes and checks your oyster cards like a train conductor.

I loved the Portrait Gallery, because it's another reintroduction; you walk through the Tudor wing and remember the faces of these people you've been thinking about since you saw them last. Having spent the past two months immersed in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it's like going to a really dysfunctional and scheming family reunion. Here are the major players:

Thomas Cromwell, looking anxious and fiscal. He's the protagonist of the Mantel novels.

 Henry VIII, hands on hips, making his demands, expecting that they're met.

Anne Boleyn, her lips pinched, her eyes worried, and always wearing that Boleyn family necklace.

Katherine of Aragon, bloated and righteous.

The Portrait Gallery was also doing a profile on Vivien Leigh. What a fantastic actress. What a sad life. I know she's most famous for Gone With the Wind, but her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire is still one of the best on screen.

Since it was a particularly sunny day and since I've always wanted to do it but could never force anyone to go with me, I took Miles swimming at the Oasis Center. Miles is the best travel companion. As long as I feed and water him regularly he's basically up for anything. And who can complain about swimming on a hot summer day? In the middle of London, no less. This place is tucked carefully behind the summertime chaos of Shaftesbury Avenue and Endell Street; literally in the heart of the West End. So calling it 'Oasis' was particularly inspired. Not so inspiring were all the Speedos; so much junk, so few trunks. Miles and I swam for a bit and then dried off in the sunshine of a little garden alongside the pool. Provo Rec it ain't, but we were happy to cool down.

Miles has been fixated on a store called FOPP since we went there on our second day, and I promised we could go back. He's been saving his money to buy something special, even though he didn't know what that special thing was. He just knew he would know it when he saw it. And so, today, he bought a Wilco Summerteeth LP to play on our record player at home. I'm excited for that selection. I bought a Vampire Weekend album as well. We're both excited to go home and listen to something besides just the Momo Tabs singing "The Impossible Dream" from 1977, a record we kindly inherited from Lisa's Grandmother.

Alex joined us for dinner at the Stanhope Arms pub on Gloucester Road. We first tried the Hereford Arms, but that place was for fancy people and mostly about wine and people saying 'hooray' so we went to the Stanhope, which is all dark wood and cheap balloons and sticky tables and just our style. I had bangers and mash, and it's about time!

Tonight's show was Bring Up the Bodies. This is the RSC's adaptation of the novel I was telling you about earlier. Wow - what a show. The way they were able to condense the action of that tasking and intricate novel was pretty astonishing. It moved at lightning speed and yet, somehow, captured the essence of the novel. It's all about Henry VIII getting rid of Anne Boleyn and marrying Jane Seymour. The RSC also did a version of Wolf Hall which, sadly, we don't get to see. I'm not sure how the show will be received by audiences who haven't read the book (my sense is that my students who didn't read it were pretty bored) but for those who have: you won't be able to stop watching it. Or thinking about it. It's that good.

Miles and I stopped by Somerset House on our walk to the bus tonight. It was all lit up and the fountains were going. We ran through them like little kids.

Monday, July 21, 2014

don't you think she looks tired?

I have never been a fan of Doctor Who, though I know I'm supposed to be. My main memories of the show were falling asleep to it when it came on, late nights, after Friday Night Videos in the mid-80's. I remember cheesy, wobbly sets, a lot of stage smoke, and dour looking actors shouting at robots. So when the reboot came along, I just couldn't get that worked up about it.

But many of my students are big Doctor Who fans, as are Lisa and Miles, so I scheduled a Doctor Who walking tour just for them. Our guide was Jolyon, who was the highlight of the whole thing. He showed up wearing a fedora and a scarf, which I guess is a Doctor thing, and took us on a 2 1/2 hour walk down the river, spouting facts, episode names, and actor anecdotes. He was thoroughly entertaining, even if I didn't understand 80% of what he was talking about. Daleks? Slitheens? Sylvester McCoy?

At one point, Jolyon recruited Miles to play Christopher Eccleston and Paige to be Billie Piper and he had them re-enact the allegedly famous scene where the Doctor and his assistant run along the Westminster Bridge just as a double decker bus drives by. So there we were, on the Westminster Bridge, watching Miles and Paige holding hands and running, just as a double decker bus drove by. Jolyon is an actor, and understudied James Cordon in One Man, Two Guvnors at the National. He didn't speak highly of his life as an actor, telling the students "There's no money in it. You'll just wind up walking up and down the river wearing a scarf." Later we bumped into a director he had worked with, and once he was out of earshot Jolyn said "the only thing I can tell you about that man is that he is a tw*t. And I hate him." And we laughed about that for about five minutes.

In the end I started to create a framework for Doctor Who, and maybe got a little interested in watching the upcoming season. Even if just to honor my friend Jolyn, who calls me 'Professor Chris,' who will doubtlessly be watching the premiere on his couch in Brighton with beer and cold pizza.

Things got gritty tonight at Medea, and not a moment too soon! After a week full of musicals I was ready for something a little meatier, and this one didn't disappoint! Helen McCrory came roaring out in a tank top and cargo pants and spent the next 90 minutes poisoning princesses, murdering children, and hiding knives in the floor. The Greek chorus, all women in bridesmaids dresses, spoke individually rather than in unison, and twitched at random. There was movement and a very specific Sonya Tayeh style dancing throughout, and the whole thing was imaginative, fascinating, and clear. I love this kind of theatre. It was gripping and challenging and beautifully directed. Always great to see the National Theatre at the top of their game.

Incidentally, before the show we saw Damien Lewis a few times. He's married to Helen McCrory.

After the show I took Miles, Kailey, Amber, Brenna, and Caleb to eat at Leon. Our waiter was spooky and was not afraid of eye contact. Amber spilled red sauce on her brand new white Primark pants. There was some palm reading and some ghost stories, and then we climbed up top of the #9 bus and rode it home.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

nobody's perfect

One of the blessings of staying at the flat on Queen's Gate Terrace is that the Hyde Park chapel is about a 3 minute walk away. In terms of distance, it's about the same distance from my house to my chapel in Provo, except I always drive there because I'M LAZY.

The Hyde Park Ward has now split in two, and it's about time. The old Hyde Park Ward was always filled through to the overflow. Today, the Hyde Park Second Ward barely filled 3/4 of the pews. This is nice because I didn't feel like I was taking someones spot. And 7 or 8 of my students were there too, and they were all able to sit together. Miles remarked that this felt like the American Embassy rather than the church he expected; everyone is American. The Bishop and the counselor, the families sitting all around us, and even the talks were given by a missionary couple from Provo. I don't mind it, because I'm used to it. But I think the students are always expecting something a little more British. We did, however, hear the sacrament blessed by a man named Mike, who studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama with Judi Dench in the 50's. It sounded like it was being blessed by Peter O'Toole and it was fantastic! Very dramatic. I met Mike afterwards and had a great chat with him, as well as my old friend Martin Juul Sorenson. It's always great to see him, too! Miles, seeing Martin's hair, told me "that's what I'll look like when I grow up."

We had lunch at the 2 pound Sandwich Shop and then did laundry and homework. Miles plucked his bass guitar in the flat and I caught up on emails. It was a quiet Sunday, and I like that.

At 4:00 we decided we wanted to do something, so we walked to Hyde Park to catch a bus. But apparently there was another police "incident" so the buses weren't running. And then we tried to pick up some bikes to ride downtown, but they had all been turned off; unavailable for check-out. And the skies were stormy and thundery and threatening to rain. People were stressed out all up and down Kensington High Street - there was nothing to do but walk. It felt like the Walking Dead. But Miles and I kept our spirits up and we walked to the Knightsbridge Stop and got on the tube, which was understandably packed.

We walked to St. Martins-in-the-Field to hear the choral evensong. It's my favorite service. There is some preaching but it's mostly scriptures and Bible stories, and the rest of it is this glorious choral music sung in the perfect acoustics of St. Martins. I love to sit there and take it all in. When the sacrament bag comes around I pretend I don't see it. Is that bad? I told Miles he could play with his ipad while I listened to the music, but he told me he didn't want to. He wanted to sit and listen, too. I thought that was very sweet and respectful. He liked it a lot.

After evensong Miles and I walked to the India Club for dinner. It's the oldest Indian restaurant in London! And possibly the best. Miles has only had limited experience with curries (he told me "mom made chicken curry and naan bread for dinner once, but everybody except for you and mom just ate the naan bread") so he was a little nervous to try it. But he ordered a prawn curry and loved it. Later tonight he asked if we could go back sometime. So his palate is stretching. I played it safe with a little chicken korma. I would recommend the India Club to anyone - if you can find it. It's hidden near Gregg's on the Strand - just around the corner from Somerset House. Walk two floors up and watch for the waiters in white coats!

After that Miles and I walked around the south bank for a little while. We eventually ended up at the BFI, which has a cool little screening room with thousands of titles on demand. Miles watched something about autism and I watched something about Hitchcock until the screening room closed. And then we watched Some Like It Hot on the big screen. We both had seen it, but it's a film you can never see enough. We laughed and laughed and quoted it the whole way home.