When you take a seat on a plane, train, or bus, you expect to travel a set number of miles in a specific amount of time. When you take a seat in a theater for a live stage performance, you can anticipate an infinite journey across time and space.
I signed up for a week-long, Road Scholar tour featuring London theater. I knew I’d see six plays in as many days but I didn’t know which ones. Formerly known as Elder Hostel, Road Scholar specializes in educational travel for seniors. The tour included lectures and other adventures during the day and a play each evening. It was a satisfying mix: some Shakespeare, some contemporary, some comedy, and plenty of soul-searing drama.
Live theater is all about being “in the moment.” Many, if not all of the plays spoke to what’s going on in our world today: especially politics and the #MeToo movement. The week began with “Bitter Wheat,” billed as a farce but in reality a disturbing commentary on the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The main attraction was the chance to see the brilliant actor, John Malkovich, live on stage. The play was still in previews, and as we watched, David Mamet—its celebrated author—stood directly behind us, more or less breathing down our necks. Many in our group who disliked the play were joined by newspaper reviewers a few days later, after it officially opened. Some of the reviews were more scathingly clever (like this one) than the play itself.
Politics can unite and divide. Both the U.S. and England are experiencing a profoundly divisive political era, which, playwrights would remind us, is nothing new. More than a century ago Henrik Ibsen wrote “Rosmersholm,” a dark drama enmeshed in political differences, with suicide and incest added for flavor. During England’s Thatcher era (when Conservative Margaret Thatcher became England’s first woman prime minister), Caryl Churchill wrote “Top Girls,” an examination of the severe cost to women who aspire to power—and not just political power. Our seats in those theaters were comfortable enough, but the message? Not so much.
Sometimes the setting itself—even the audience—can have as much a role in the play as leading characters. The Old Globe is a modern recreation of Shakespeare’s theater, allowing us to experience the bawdy hilarity of his era while watching “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Action was not confined to the stage, but spread into the “pit,” where the rabble of Shakespeare’s day would’ve been standing. And drinking. And brawling.
Agatha Christie’s venerable mystery, “Witness for the Prosecution,” was performed in the opulent council chambers of County Hall, once the seat of local government. The play—a murder trial— is lightweight entertainment, but the setting gave it the somber depth a murder trial deserves.
My favorite—the show I want all the world to see—was “Come From Away,” a musical about, of all things, 9/11. After the attack, thirty-eight planes were ordered to land in the small Canadian town of Gander. The tightly choreographed musical is based on the true experiences of those small-town citizens and the seven thousand stranded visitors they hosted. It sugar-coats nothing but depicts the full spectrum of human behavior, from prejudice to compassion, from hostility to charity.
Six evenings. Six plays. Sunday I would board the plane taking me from London to Seattle, a journey of mere miles.