Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The play’s the thing. Act One

There was a time when I was a regular theatre goer. For a number of reasons it has been quite some time since I have last had the pleasure of seeing a play in the West End or elsewhere. Despite the expense, I always bought programmes. Consequently I am now able to remind myself of the many performances I have seen over the decades.

I first started going to see plays as a schoolgirl. We were taken to see Macbeth at the Young Vic and The White Devil at the Old Vic. Three years after winning her second Oscar, Glenda Jackson played the lead, Vittoria Corombona, in the latter play. Four years later, there was a furore over the depiction of male rape in Howard Brenton: The Romans in Britain. It was play I had intended to see but before I had a chance to go, it was banned and the director Michael Bogdanov put on trial for obscenity. He was later acquitted. What angered me most was the fact that the courts had not sought fit to prosecute the depiction of the graphic murder and sexual assault of Glenda Jackson’s character in the 17th century play: The White Devils. It seemed the self-proclaimed guardians of public morality were only outraged when the victims of violent sexual assault were male.

Long before Helen Mirren portrayed the Tudor Queen in the award-winning mini- series “Elizabeth”, Glenda Jackson gave what was deemed to be the definitive portrayal of the sovereign in the television series “Elizabeth R”. Unlike Mirren’s graphic version, the depiction of horrific torture and execution in the 1970s could only be hinted at. Nevertheless it could be as chilling in its way as any modern blood soaked gore-fest. In 1982 Glenda starred as Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress in Robert David MacDonald's “Summit Conference” at the Lyric Theatre. Georgina Hale played Mussolini's mistress Clara Petacci. Helen Mirren had played Clara in a BBC television play 7 years earlier. The director decided that Helen Mirren should play the real-life brunette Clara as a blonde, claiming, somewhat fatuously I thought, that a flaxen haired mistress of such a powerful man would be more credible than a woman with darker tresses.

In 1998 I saw Helen Mirren star with Alan Rickman in Anthony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre. I was more taken with her role as Moll Cutpurse in Middleton & Dekker's “The Roaring Girl”. This Jacobean play was performed at the Barbican theatre in period costume to great effect. Memorably, Helen Mirren had to perform a lively dance whilst singing raucously at the same time. I was also admired the caddish Luxton, played by Jonathon Hyde. The Roaring Girl was one of the few theatrical productions I saw at least half a dozen times or so during its run.

Vanessa Redgrave, along with Glenda Jackson, is one of those stars of the stage who I judge worth seeing, regardless of the quality of the production itself. For my birthday in 1991, the Partridge and I saw Vanessa as Isadora Duncan in “When she danced.” More recently I saw her in Hecuba. Only by reading through my collection of theatre programmes did I realise that I had seen the late great Paul Scofield play the title role in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman”, alongside Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins in 1996.
He died 4 years later. Ten years after I had seen her on stage in “Summit Conference” Glenda Jackson retired to take up a new career as a Member of Parliament. I have always regarded it as a special privilege to be able to see actors of the calibre of Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Scofield and Maggie Smith perform live, even when I can only afford uncomfortable and rickety seats up in the gods. In a darkened auditorium it is quite easy to imagine that they are performing for me alone.

In recent decades there has been a tendency for famous American stars of television and film to chance their arm at performing on the London stage, hoping to take a successful production back to Broadway. Not all of them, unlike the Vanessa Redgraves and Glenda Jacksons of this world, are proficient at mastering the differing mediums of stage, film and television. Kim Cattrall gave a moving performance as Claire Harrison the quadriplegic lead character in Brain Clark’s “Whose life is it anyway.” Claire fights for the right to be allowed to die, something she is unable to undertake at her own hands being paralyzed. I saw the original London production with Tom Conti in the late 1970s. We chanced to pass by the actor Anthony Andrews and his wife on their way backstage just as we walked to our coach to take us back home. At the time I had a huge schoolgirl crush on Andrews and it made my night.

Glancing through the Cattrall programme I see it contains an appeal by Debbie Purdey the prominent activist campaigning for the right to be assisted in ending her own life, should her debilitating condition make it untenable, without the fear that those helping her would risk a lengthy jail sentence for simply carrying out her heartfelt last wishes.

Another Hollywood actor who impressed me on stage was Brendan Fraser in “Cat on a hot tin roof”. I still have the programme and have discovered it has currently attracted a bid of £2.99 on e-bay. It cost £3.00 which represents a loss of one penny to the seller. Still, perhaps if I were to likewise auction off my entire collection of programmes I might garner enough to pay for a seat in the stalls of a current production.

Now the curtain must fall on the subject albeit temporarily. It will rise again not just on stage plays but also on the operas I have enjoyed.

Always look on the bright side of life (Revised November 2011)

I have often been impressed by the quiet stoicism of people facing serious illness. When Ruth first told me she had been diagnosed with cancer I was stunned both at the news and her fortitude. Usually she displayed a highly strung disposition. Tragically, despite her firm resolve to the contrary Ruth succumbed to her illness. Her death brought to mind the lines from Macbeth: ”Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

Helen was also faced with a life threatening illness only a year or so back. Fortunately she is now in remission. We met up for dinner yesterday. As she was working nearby, I suggested we go to the Andaz Hotel in Liverpool Street as it housed a number of different restaurants, all of which seemed to be reasonably priced and had received good reviews. Having looked at the menus we chose to dine at the Grade II listed 1901 restaurant. As the restaurant area did not officially open for another 30 minutes, I asked if we could sit at our seats and order from the wine bar until it did, saving us from having to change seats later. It also gave us an opportunity to go through some administrative matters relating to her proposed academic studies before we dined.

Helen’s brush with death has made her reappraise her life. She has decided to embark on two very different paths: she plans to undertake a MBA, a task daunting in itself for someone who has recently been so gravely ill. I believe studying for a MBA is an excellent idea. It is something I did myself. When I thought I was going to be relocated to the North East on a permanent basis, I was concerned about the prospect of not knowing anyone there. At least if I were studying for a MBA, I would come into contact with fellow students. When the relocation fell through as a result of a corporate merger and I returned to the London HQ, I decided to still go ahead with my MBA studies. I chose the Open University as it meant that my studies would not be adversely affected if I was obliged to move house. Similarly, I liked the idea of being able to attend my graduation ceremony at a location outside of the UK. As I had already been to Singapore, I chose to graduate within the Palais des Congrès in Brussels, part of a complex housing the buildings and gardens of the Albertine, the Musées des Beaux Arts and the Musée des Instruments de Musique. Mandip accompanied me and we spent the weekend wining and dining in the Belgian capital before returning home by Eurostar. At the time, I had thought it a pity that my late mother had not been alive to attend this second graduation ceremony. The bald truth was even when she had the chance she chose not to amend her holiday plans and come to the ceremony when I had first graduated in England. My mother’s actions were not out of character. When I was still only a child she had left me on my own, despite the fact that I was desperately ill with quinsy, so that she could go away on holiday. Some people are just not cut out to be parents.From Russia with love

By contrast, Helen is keen to raise a family with her husband and has been looking into the possibility of adopting a child. They would prefer to adopt a baby but as she is closer to 50 than 40 it seems highly unlikely she would achieve her goal in this country at least. She is also considering surrogacy using her own eggs. Again, her age and the toll taken on her body by her cancer treatment conspire against her.  In the same edition of the Guardian magazine that my article appeared in, the artist and film director Sam Taylor Wood, then 42, described her own experience of surviving cancer. She explained that she had developed a core of steel to cope with her illness and that the steeliness remained even after she had gone into remission. Helen echoed these sentiments last night. Sam Taylor-Wood also talked about dating her 19 year old partner Aaron Johnson, the star of her film.Sam Taylor Wood interview Since that article was first published, it has been announced that Sam is expecting a baby by Johnson which perhaps gives a glimmer of hope that Helen might be able to do the same, albeit using a surrogate.

I wish Helen well in her plans. Whether adopting from abroad or from this country she will need to go through UK adoption agencies. I was aghast when she used a contentious term to describe a mixed race child.
“For heaven’s sake, don’t use that word when you meet up with social workers. It is considered highly pejorative and borderline racist.” I counselled
I also had to warn Helen not to talk of using corporal punishment on any child she adopted. Helen was born in Africa and despite living in this country for many years still retains the more robust attitudes of her homeland rather than the politically correct values of this country. To her credit, Helen is not a hypocrite. As I have mentioned before, having worked in HR I became somewhat jaded with the number of people who were quick to seek official redress when non-pc language was directed at them but remained blithely indifferent to their own use of inflammatory terms.Let he who is without prejudice cast

Once we had sorted out some paperwork, we were able to sit back and enjoy our surroundings and meal at 1901. The building dates back to 1884 and was once the Great Eastern Hotel. (I realised later that Mandip and I had originally dined at the restaurant when it had different owners and was called the Terminus). Being Grade II listed the interior combined contemporary décor with original classical pillars and a magnificent stained-glass dome in the ceiling. Its menu focusses on dishes made with British-grown produce I had wood-pigeon for my starter and Helen had smoked salmon. She had not realised that the fish was cured rather than cooked and could not eat it. By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed my wood- pigeon. We both had sea bass for our main course and I chose a mint parfait for my dessert. Used to peppermint oil in such dishes as opposed to what seemed to be fresh garden mint, I found the taste interesting though somewhat overpowering. Nevertheless, all in all it was a delightful meal, the more so when Helen insisted on picking up the bill. I offered to pay my share but as she insisted, I demurred with good grace. I jokingly said that if I knew she was going to pay I would have ordered vintage champagne. Once, when I was similarly short of funds, I decided to treat a male friend to dinner at an upmarket restaurant as it was his birthday. The three-course set menu was reasonably priced and came with a suitably diverse range of options. To my consternation, given that I had just explained how I was living off an overdraft, my male friend opted for the most expensive item on the menu: the lobster.
“What are you having?” he asked, having thrown my finances into complete disarray with his  choice.
“The stale bread looks good,“ I replied lugubriously.

Since writing this Helen discovered she had fallen pregnant at the age of 48 without medical intervention. Given her age and her illness it is a true miracle. I congratulate her and her husband and send them my heartfelt wishes. Life can prove very unexpected at times.