Friday, September 28, 2012

An Upstart Crow Has Himself a Little Moment at the British Museum

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
-Julius Caesar Act II, scene ii

This past week we went as a class to the British Museum, which, despite what the brothers Gershwin would have you believe, has not lost its charm. I can’t imagine anyone having time to go through and fully appreciate everything on display there. One of our British instructors joked that the British Museum is essentially England’s way of making up for how much stuff it’s looted from other countries during the time of the British Empire. Anyway, for this week’s post, we were specifically asked to post about a specific exhibit and though I promised myself going in that I would try to not talk about Shakespeare (Up until the last ten minutes at the museum, I was planning on talking about the impressive collection of Buddhist artifacts in the museum’s permanent collection), I ended up seeing something that just has to be commented on.

The Robben’s Island Bible

So, one of the big draws of the Museum this summer has been a special exhibition titled Shakespeare: Staging the World, which takes an historicist approach to Shakespeare’s work. The artifacts on display are generally contemporary to his life and connected to his work. The attendant comments discuss the manner in which the world he lived in effected the content of his plays. This was all interesting; some of it was stuff I already knew, while there were good swaths of information I’d never heard before. However, the only thing that is really worth extended discussion, in my opinion, is the very last object in the exhibition.

The last room of the exhibit is mainly focused on The Tempest, generally accepted as the last play Shakespeare wrote entirely on his own, so I’d read a great deal of plaques about early colonialism and European attitudes to tribal cultures and the like. I listened to the sound-bite of Sir Ian McKellen doing the “Such stuff as dreams are made on” speech and was about to leave when I noticed one last glass case right before the donation box. Inside was this:

The exhibition didn't allow photography, so I had to take this from a newspaper article.

This particular book is nicknamed “The Robben Island Bible.” During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Robben Island was one of the main facilities used to house political prisoners. One of the internees was a man named Sonny Venkatrathnam, who brought with him a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. Prisoners were not allowed reading material and the book was confiscated. However, Venkatrathnam managed to get it back by convincing the warden, who we can only assume was not greatly knowledgeable in the fields of English literature or eastern religion, that the book was a Hindu Bible written by William Shakespeare. To further the ruse, he pasted images of Hindu deities from Diwali cards sent to him by his family to the spine and cover.

The book became a source of discussion and entertainment for the anti-apartheid activists interned at Robben Island, including future South African president Nelson Mandela. Venkatrathnam encouraged the inmates to sign their names next to passages they found particularly moving. Mandela selected Julius Caesar’s short speech to his wife, which I have excerpted for the introductory quote for this post.

I think this is an absolutely incredible story. I’ll admit that I know very little about the struggle against apartheid, having been born in a country that is famously under-informed about foreign affairs two years after the official abolishment of the policy and two years before Mandela was elected. However, I do know that it was far from a tidy little conflict and that political prisoners were not treated in the most humane manner. I think its fascinating that in the face of such terrible circumstances, this book that was brought in under the guise of a Bible ended up serving the same purpose: to give comfort to people in times of difficulty. I think that this is the kind of story that needs to be told more often. The average person doesn’t ever think of Shakespeare as much other than really old plays that they have to read for English class in High School. But once you get past the initial difficulty of the language (Which, in my experience, doesn’t take very long if you’re really willing to try), there’s such an immense amount to be drawn from his works. I don’t think the men on Robben Island could have been better off if they had a real Bible.

Friday, September 21, 2012

An Upstart Crow Eats Things Out of Cans

“The grocery store is the great equalizer where man comes to grips with the facts of life like toilet tissue.”
-Joseph Goldberg

So, there’s a side to the whole study abroad experience that doesn’t really get talked about much. For many people, including me, this is the first time they have to regularly buy their own groceries. At school, I’ve got a meal plan, and at home I’ve got mom. So not only have I been thrown into the deep end on the whole providing-for-myself thing, I’ve also had to learn to swim in an unfamiliar swimming pool.

Where the Magic Happens

For the most part, I tend to do my shopping at this place called The Co-Operative about a block down the road from my flat. There’s a Marks and Spencer next door, but they’re much more expensive, as well as a Sainsbury’s quite a ways away, but that’s a bit of a trip. The Co-Op is a little shop with a lot of food that is cheap but expires fast. Fortunately I haven’t encountered a whole lot of trouble with that yet, since I shop on a weekly basis and only have to buy for one.

The other advantage is that they sell a lot of stuff that doesn’t require a lot of “assembly.” More on that later.

A New Definition of “Cooking”

I don’t cook. Well, that’s misleading. I can cook. I’ve done it before, but I tend to avoid it as a rule. It’s mostly just that I don’t feel spurred to look up recipes or be adventurous with trying new things, so for me cooking is a daunting and directionless endeavor. So I tend to limit my at-home cooking to meals that fit these criteria:

1. Stuff that I don’t have to do anything to.
Your Greek Yogurt, your fresh fruit (Which, incidentally, is AMAZING here), and your digestive biscuits. Pretty self explanatory: open package, remove food, put in mouth.

2. Stuff that you just have to reheat.
Heinz is not just a ketchup company in England. In addition to the famous beans that the Brits are notorious for enjoying on their toast, I’ve encountered their canned Macaroni and Cheese (yes, you read that correctly), their version of Spaghetti-Os, and their canned beef-filled ravioli. They’ve all been if not delicious, at least palatable. They’ll fill you up, they’ve all been under 400 calories per can, and they only cost about a quid and a half.

3. Stuff that can be easily combined with other stuff to make you feel like you’re cooking when  you’re not.
Sandwiches are wonderful things. So are breakfast cereals. But the king of this category is hummus. Or “houmous” as it’s spelled here. Either way, the past two times I’ve been, The Co-Op has been running a deal on all of their varieties. The Moroccan is a life-changing experience. 50 grams of houmous (Which is a heck of a lot of houmous) and a pita or two is a low-cal lunch that tastes like spicy, chickpea angels are tap-dancing on your tongue.

There’s a phrase I didn’t think I’d ever type.

Bonus Heading: Bryson’s Top Three Favorite Little Pieces of British Grocery Trivia

1. In British grocery stores, they don’t refrigerate the eggs. I haven’t personally bought any (They fit nowhere in my acceptable criteria for groceries.), but from what I’ve heard from my flat-mates they taste better as a result of this.

2. Nothing here is re-sealable. Even stuff like a package of deli meat or a couple of pitas that you couldn’t possibly be expected to finish in one sitting has to be put into a bag. Also, The Co-Op doesn’t sell Ziploc bags.

3. Alcohol comes packaged like soda. In that, at The Co-Operative, you can buy a two-litre plastic bottle of Strongbow Hard Cider for under £5. It’s 5% alcohol and tastes like apple juice. Which is both wonderful and dangerous.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An Upstart Crow Says "God Save the Queen(s)"

“My muffin-top is all that,
whole-grain, low fat.
I know you want a piece of that,
but I just wanna dance!”
-Jenna Maroney (Played by Jane Krakowski), 30 Rock

I’d like to take this time to talk to you a little bit about nightlife. Being in the UK has been an adjustment in many ways. One of the more fun of these is that here I’m legally able to drink. Given that I’m here with fourteen other people of roughly the same age and we all have a three-day school week, I’ve ended up taking advantage of this cultural difference on a fairly regular basis.

Before I go any further, let this be a disclaimer that I’ve still been here a short time and that all of the conclusions I’m about to draw are based on an admittedly limited experience. That being said:

I’m here with a group of theatre students. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of the guys are gay. As a result, I’ve been along to a couple of… drinking establishments inclined towards a homosexual clientele. Now, in the states, that sentence, to most people conjures an image like this:

You have no idea how difficult it is to Google Image Search "gay club" and find a picture that isn't porn.
And that was what I was prepared for. Not looking forward to, but prepared for. And at both the gay nightclub and the gay pub we went to I was very surprised.

Are You Sure This Is a Gay Pub?

One of our professors suggested it, calling it a “rainbow pub.” When we went inside and had a pint, the only difference between it and literally every other pub I’ve been in since arriving is that it was slightly cleaner, slightly better lit, and the patrons were, on average, slightly younger. I’m still convinced that it’s just a regular old pub. Maybe a good number of gay people happen to go there, but my impression was if that’s the case, it’s strictly coincidental.

That was just a precursor to the gay club, however, which was likewise confusing. Not as much, mind, it was, indeed, very clearly marketed as a club for a primarily gay crowd. But, if you go inside and look around, yeah there are more men on the floor than you’d see in a heterosexual establishment, and yeah there is quite a bit more Rihanna and Katy Perry on the playlist, but compared to some of the theatre department’s off-campus parties back in the States, the place was a Sunday school as far as I saw. Also, I’m not entirely sure why there were a bunch television monitors all throughout the club playing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Now, granted, as a straight guy I didn’t exactly seek out the illicit side of this establishment, so I’m not going to discount the possibility that there was an all-male orgy happening just outside of my line of sight, but for the most part people just seemed interested in dancing.

And I think that’s the cool part. As a guy, when you go out, there is a certain expectation that you will at least think about attempting to hook up with a girl, but at a gay club, where every girl is either a lesbian or firmly in the entourage of her gay friend(s), the pressure is off. You can just have a drink or two and just dance, which is a nice change of pace.

Plus there was no cover charge on that particular night, so that was nice.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An Upstart Crow Meets London Theatre Halfway

“We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!”
-The Player, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

As of this writing I’ve been in London for a little under a week and a half. I’ve experienced a great many things that I can’t begin to cram into one post and still maintain a coherent focus. In the future I’m going to try (Keyword: try) to make a few short posts throughout the week and then a longer, more focused one at the end so all five of you who read this thing can get a more complete picture rather than just the broad strokes of this experience.

That said, this week I’ve decided to talk about the theatre I’ve seen thus far on the trip. Part of the study abroad program I’m participating in involves seeing productions all over the city. Thus far, we’ve seen three: The Illusion at the Southwark Playhouse, As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe, and Brand New Ancients at the Battersea Arts Center.

The most striking thing I’ve observed so far concerning British theatre as it compares to its American counterpart is the way the British treat the audience. In class at The Globe on Tuesday, we had a question and answer session with Bill Barclay, the theatre’s Music Manager, who also happens to be the only American on staff there. During the session he mentioned that the biggest difference he’s seen between British and American actors is that American acting tends to be concerned with being as realistic as possible, trying to actually feel the emotions of the character, and, in kind, giving that emotion over to the audience on a silver platter. The British, on the other hand, expect their audience to meet them halfway. They don’t try to play the realism to the hilt the way Americans do. I found this idea very interesting and, though this observation is definitely a generalization, the works I’ve seen here so far have definitely demanded a great deal more on the part of the audience, if not in acting style, then definitely in their themes and presentation.

The Real Illusion is the Theatre Entrance

We saw The Illusion at the end of our first week of classes here. Our last class of the day was at The Globe, which is quite close to the Southwark Playhouse. However, we were warned to not overestimate the time we had between the end of class and the start of the show, as the entrance to the theatre was not immediately obvious.

This was a gross understatement.

We passed the theatre entrance at least three times before we saw it.

The theatre, which is housed in the repurposed vaults below the London Bridge rail station, is accessed through a modest set of wrought iron gates with a sign on them (I’m given to understand that this lights up at night, but it wasn’t nearly dark enough yet) that sit in the back of the beer garden of one of the most ostentatious pubs I’ve seen since arriving. Between its bright blue painted exterior and the mass of businessmen at the end of their workday, the only way we discovered this inauspicious entryway was by looking very carefully at the street address.

Once it’s been located however, the interior is quite cool. Much of the existing structure has been maintained from its days as a rail station, meaning that the lobby and bar is done out in brickwork with high, arched ceilings. The lighting is subdued and intimate and the low tables and large, soft couches lend the bar an almost Bohemian air. Not to mention that the cost of a pint was surprisingly low for a theatre bar, though, if memory serves, they only have two or three beers on tap, so there’s a bit of a caveat there.

The Illusion is a translation/adaptation of a 17th century French comedy by Tony Kushner (Most famous as the writer of the two-part epic that is Angels in America). Though nowhere near as dark or grandiose as Angels, it shares its love of poetic dialogue and fantastical elements. An aging lawyer visits a sorceress, asking her to show him what has become of his estranged son. She does so through a series of constantly shifting illusions on which they comment in the manner of a theatre audience. Indeed, as the play progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that the play is not about the literal action, but about the manner in which we understand and participate in the theatrical experience.

Though this is an American play, it did not achieve a great deal of success in the United States. It predates Angels in America, and thus received only a short run in New York in the 1980s and only the occasional regional production since then. Indeed, this production marks its UK debut, almost 30 years after its initial iteration. I think the latency of its success is because, despite its American origin, it is not as literal or straightforward as is the norm for mainstream American theatre. In general, thematically speaking, an American play is expected to be entertaining on the merits of its own plot. If it incites intellectual discourse and activity in the audience, that is an excellent added bonus, but this is not understood as being good enough on its own. In this case, however, the mental side is the point of the thing. The plot is less a string of cause and effect and more a puzzle for the audience to solve. This is not to deride its entertainment value. The play is wildly entertaining. However, it’s not a “sit-back-and-let-it-happen-to-you” kind of entertainment. It’s a “let’s-try-to-figure-out-what’s-going-on-and-then-compare-notes-with-our-friends-after-the-show” kind of entertainment.

Globe-al Studies

This past Tuesday was our first show at The Globe, As You Like It. I’m going to do my best to stick to the point I’m trying to make with this post, as I can (and have) yammer about Shakespeare for pages and pages and pages.

The theatre is beautiful. There’s no other way to describe it. One of the few things Shakespeare in Love was completely accurate about was the interior of an Elizabethan theatre, which is what The Globe is meant to replicate. The intricate woodcarvings and detail work are unlike what you’re likely to see in a theatre anywhere else in the world. I’ll leave it at that, as I plan on doing an entry about my Globe experiences a bit later in the term.

As for the play itself, one of the striking things is the manner in which The Globe presents Shakespeare, at least this particular comedy to the audience. In the States we have a tendency to not muck about much with the text. Setting and time period, sure, but if someone’s going to talk, they’d better be doing so in iambic pentameter. Not so here. The clowns on several occasions felt free to break character if the moment warranted it. For instance, a scene involving the successful catching of a bouquet thrown from an elevated platform to an actor standing stage level prompted the catcher to comment, “That’s a first.” Whether this was truly improvised or not, it is not the sort of thing I’ve seen in American Shakespeare, or in fact most American theatre at this level. It’s not only refreshing, but also quite appropriate to the text. The so-called “Fourth wall” between the characters in a play and the audience wasn’t fully established until the rise of Realism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tearing it down is another way of engaging the audience and discouraging passive theatergoing, which I think speaks to the heart of the difference between American and British theatre styles, at least based on what I’ve seen.

Epic Poetry is Not Dead

Thus we come to Brand New Ancients. I saw this literally right before sitting down to write this entry, so the memory is quite a bit fresher for this one. As with As You Like It, I’ll try not to rant too much.

Brand New Ancients can’t quite be called a play. In modern terms, it’s something between a poetry slam and a one-woman show. In more precise, historical terms, it’s the 21st century successor to the oral tradition of Homer that gave us The Odyssey and The Illiad. Kate Tempest, the playwright and performer, tells entirely in verse, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, sometimes rapped, the saga of two half brothers growing up in modern London framed as a latter day heroic epic in which, to paraphrase the piece itself, the gods have forgotten they are gods.

This would never have been produced in America. At least not at a level above regional fringe or Off-Off Broadway. It is gorgeous in its language and themes and Tempest is unbelievably dynamic in her performance, however your average New York theatre audience would never go to see it. It is challenging, painful, heavy, sardonic, and utterly beautiful. However, the long and short of it is that there is nothing to it other than a woman with a microphone, four musicians acting as a back-up band, and some very interesting minimalist light design. The commercial theatre in America is, for the most part, built on spectacle and novelty. However, this work offers no falling chandelier, no celebrity stars (Unless one counts a memorable passage involving the lambasting of Simon Cowell as a false idol), and no brand recognition. The novelty in Brand New Ancients is, again, the way it challenges the audience. Tempest’s work encourages the audience to meet her halfway in her examination of urban violence and emotional turmoil as a parallel to Ancient mythology. It’s an exercise on the part of both the performer and the audience in both emotion and intellect, not just aesthetics. And it pays off. Standing ovations are not de rigueur in the UK the way they are in the US. This was the only thing I’ve seen so far that got even a partial one.

So, what do we take away from this? I don’t think it’s that UK audiences are necessarily smarter than US audiences, I think it’s more that the people who make theatre here are more willing to trust their audiences to engage with them on a more than aesthetic level, allowing a more unique product to emerge.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

An Upstart Crow Crosses The Pond

“This weighs a ton.
Travel’s a curse,
but here we strive
to lighten your purse.”
-Monsieur Thernardier, “Master of the House” from Les MisĂ©rables

I’ve been in the UK now for about three days. I’ve experienced a lot of cool stuff which I’ll hopefully be able to talk about in-depth later this week. First though, I’d like to have a frank discussion about flying.

Flying sucks. It just does. Sure, we enjoy the results, but the process itself is miserable. If it weren’t, stand-up comedians would have had nothing with which to pad their acts from 1950-1985. And though from here on out I’m going to be saying many glowing things about London, for now, let’s just talk about plane travel. Specifically, my own experiences these past two days flying from Chicago to Dublin to London.

Act I: Things Fall Apart (Sometimes Literally)

I have a horrendous habit of doing things last minute. I can count on one hand the number of papers I’ve started before the night before the due date. I’ve paid late fees on library books I finished reading weeks ago. And even when I try to be responsible before a trip, there’s still a pretty sizable amount of packing that gets done at the last minute.

This usually isn’t a huge deal, but for this trip there was an x-factor. A free radical, if you will: the bag. The bag was brand new, ordered online. Never tested. So, after a long night of packing and procrastination, I finally think my work is done. I go to zip my bag and it rips. The cloth around the middle of the zipper splits and snags and what was supposed to be the last thing to worry about before settling down to watch Passing Strange on Netflix before nodding off to bed turns into me and my mother driving all the way to the only 24-hour store in town that sells luggage, finding nothing, and eventually jury rigging a patch out of the strap of an old backpack. The moral of the story, children, is that it pays to have a mom who knows how to sew. Or maybe that you shouldn’t do things last minute so that when problems arise, they do not become life or death situations. One of those two.

Act II: Planes Are Not Built For Vikings

So I’ve gotten to the airport fine, I’ve found my flight fine, I understand how to get to my connecting flight once I’m in Dublin. My bags are all an appropriate weight. We’re golden. Here’s the thing, though: I can’t sleep on planes. Which stinks, because on an international flight, the only other option is to stay up more than twenty-four hours in a row to avoid becoming nocturnal.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it is I can’t sleep on planes. I have no problem sleeping in cars. Sometimes even while driving them. But planes are a whole other kettle of fish. And I think I’ve funneled it down to one very basic fact:

Planes were not built for people of Scandinavian descent.

I’m a quarter Norse and this is what I most closely resemble, physically. I am blond-haired, blue-eyed, and 6’2” with a long torso. These last two properties mean that not only does my spine curve at exactly the wrong place to make the average plane-seat remotely the right shape for sleepy-time, but my knees get jammed right into the seat in front of me unless I pay the extra million dollars for an extra few inches of leg room and the privilege of watching the coach passengers fight to the death for my amusement. In case you can’t tell, I don’t really know how first-class works. Also my in-flight movie was The Hunger Games.

Act III: In Which Our Hero Loses Some Faith in Mass-Market European Candy

So, by the time I reached the Dublin airport I was far too tired to take full advantage of the three hour layover and very much found myself wishing I’d just taken the one with the 45 minute layover for $20 more, though exceptionally glad that I had the good sense not to take the 6 hour layover for $20 less.

After quite awhile blearily wandering the airport, I finally found my gate and sat down to do a bit of reading (Over the course of my travels I ended up reading the entirety of Shakespeare’s King John, which turned out being incredibly entertaining and easy to follow for a history. I don’t know why it doesn’t get much play.). However, after King John was poisoned to death (Spoilers), I realized that what I really wanted was something to snack on. If you think airline food is bad, just try and imagine Irish airline food. So then I remembered Yorkie. Yorkie is a brand of chocolate bar made by NestlĂ© that I discovered when I went to Ireland after my senior year of high school. It has the most hilarious marketing tagline I’ve ever seen.

It's like the Trix Rabbit only 100% more real.

So I make my way through the miniature mall that is the terminal’s duty-free section until I finally find a place that sells them, where I am greeted with a sad fact: Yorkie is no longer not for girls. I later looked it up and it seems that though the continent has changed, some people’s inability to take a joke remains the same. Nevertheless, I still felt honor-bound to purchase and then choke down this bar of incredibly dry and, oddly, slightly spicy chocolate.

Act IV: The First Time Airport Security Has Ever Made Someone Less Worried About Getting Arrested

So, I finally touch down at London Heathrow and once getting through baggage claim, I find myself confused. I don’t see any signs for immigration and customs. So I think, okay, maybe since this is such a huge airport they have desks at all the exits, you know, to keep lines short. So I head for the Underground, thinking there’ll be a little booth with a disgruntled man to check my passport and my visa and begrudgingly let me into his country. And sure enough I did find a little booth with a disgruntled man, but all he was interested in doing was selling me a ticket for the tube, at which point I began to suspect that I had somehow managed to enter the country illegally. I knew this was, on the hole, unlikely, given that this is a G8 country that just hosted one of the largest international events ever and, therefore, probably has a pretty airtight system for ensuring that foreigners don’t just go waltzing right across it’s border. And yet, there I was, nothing stopping me from leaving the airport.

So, at this point extremely confused, rather nervous, and, if I’m honest, a little bit proud at the thought of having accidently pulled one over on the United Kingdom, I decided I had better ask someone about this. So, first person I found with a badge, I went up and explained the situation. She then explained to me that part of the United Kingdom’s deal with commonwealth countries, which semi-includes the Republic of Ireland, is that there is a freedom of travel between them and the motherland. At this point I remember that there had been a little booth with a disgruntled man who I’d shown my passport to when I landed in Dublin. I had thought this was just to make sure that I was going to be allowed to enter the UK when I got there. I guess technically, that is what was happening, but in a much more official manner than I had thought.

Act V: Allons-y!

So, with the relief/disappointment that I hadn’t accidentally become an illegal immigrant, I made my way to the tube station conveniently located right in the airport and caught the next train to my new home. There’s nothing terribly interesting about this. I’ve been on a number of subway systems before, and as far as I’ve seen so far, the only special thing about the London Underground its size and intricacy.

So, after a pretty tense couple of days, I finally arrive at the tube station just a short distance from my new home. I’m not going to lie, at this point I was a little irritable and a lot sleep deprived. But, as I wearily stepped out of the Earl’s Court Tube Station I saw something. Something that made me cheer right the hell up. Something I still can’t handle passing everyday in an adult manner. That something is this:

*Dun-duh dugga-duh dun-duh dugga-duh doo-wee-ooh wee ooh-ooh*

It’s going to be a good semester.