Monday, October 21, 2013

Day 34 - A Trip to the South Side for Edward II

Somerset House from the Waterloo Bridge
Today we got tickets to the Royal National Theatre's production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, but more about that later.  Since our flat is so close to the Waterloo Bridge we decided to walk there.  The walk allowed us to take several pictures from the bridge that were difficult to take from the bus.

Somerset House as seen from Victoria Embankment
As the first picture indicates, it is Somerset House as seen from Waterloo Bridge.  Somerset House is a large Neoclassical building situated on the south side of the Strand in central London, England, overlooking the River Thames, just east of Waterloo Bridge. The building, originally the site of a Tudor palace, was designed by Sir William Chambers in 1776, and further extended with Victorian wings to the north and south. The East Wing forms part of the adjacent King's College London.

Somerset House Courtyard
Today, Somerset House is a major arts and cultural center in the heart of London. During summer months 55 fountains dance in the courtyard, and in winter you can skate on London's favourite ice rink. Somerset House also schedules contemporary art and design exhibitions, free displays, family workshops and guided tours.

Somerset House viewed from the Strand
The earlier Tudor palace that originally existed where Somerset House stands today was demolished in 1775.  The demise of the old Somerset House coincided with a move to house many of the government's offices and the principal learned societies under one roof, and led to the site being chosen for a new building to solve this pressing problem.  This approach was a radical departure from the established practice of using separate buildings for different departments of state and was seen as a means to promote greater efficiency among the government bureaucracies.

St. Paul's Cathedral from the Waterloo Bridge
As we continued along the bridge we took pictures of a few well-known landmarks.

The London Eye and Parliament from the Bridge
Then, as we approached the theatre we notice some grass-like statues outside the Hayward Gallery.  I affectionately referred to them as "giant chia pets," but I couldn't find any information on what they are meant to represent.  All the same I thought I'd share them with you.

Turf statues outside the Hayward Gallery
We had about an hour or so before the show started, so we stopped for dinner at "The Riverfront at the BFI Southbank."

The Riverfront at BFI Southbank
We ordered light.  I had a Turkey Bacon Club with Guacamole, and hubby had BBQ Pulled Pork with chips (fries).
Turkey Bacon Club with Guacamole

Pulled Pork and fries with pickle and mayonnaise
Royal National Theatre
The National Theatre building houses three separate auditoria, with a temporary structure added for a year from April 2013:

The Olivier Theatre (named after the theatre's first artistic director, Laurence Olivier), is the main auditorium, and was modeled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus; it has an open stage and a fan-shaped audience seating area for 1,160 people. An ingenious 'drum revolve' (a five-storey revolving stage section) extends eight meters beneath the stage and is operated by a single staff member. The drum has two rim revolves and two platforms, each of which can carry ten tonnes, facilitating dramatic and fluid scenery changes. Its design ensures that the audience's view is not blocked from any seat, and that the audience is fully visible to actors from the stage's center. Designed in the 1970s and a prototype of current technology, the drum revolve and a multiple 'sky hook' flying system were initially very controversial and required ten years to commission, but seem to have fulfilled the objective of functionality with high productivity.]
The Lyttelton Theatre (named after Oliver Lyttelton, the National Theatre's first board chairman) has a proscenium-arch design and can accommodate an audience of 890.
The Cottesloe Theatre (named after Lord Cottesloe, chairman of the South Bank Theatre board) is a small, adaptable studio space, designed by Iain Mackintosh, holding up to 400 people depending on the seating configuration. As part of the National's NT Future redevelopment, the Cottesloe was closed for refurbishment in February 2013 and is planned to reopen in spring 2014. On reopening it will be renamed the Dorfman Theatre (after Lloyd Dorfman, philanthropist and chairman of Travelex Group).
The Shed, a 225-seat temporary performance space at the front of the building was opened in April 2013. The distinctive 'red wooden box' structure, designed by architects Haworth Tompkins, will be open for a year to maintain capacity whilst the Cottesloe/Dorfman Theatre is out of action. Tickets for Shed productions will cost £12 and £20.

Denys Lasdun's building for the National Theatre – an "urban landscape" of interlocking terraces responding to the site at King's Reach on the River Thames to exploit views of St Paul's Cathedral and Somerset House.
The riverside forecourt of the theatre is used for regular open-air performances in the summer months. The terraces and foyers of the theatre complex have also been used for ad hoc experimental performances. The decor is frequently dynamic, with recent displays of grass turf as 'outside wallpaper', different statues located in various random places and giant chairs and furniture in the forecourt. The National Theatre's foyers are open to the public, with a large theatrical bookshop, restaurants, bars and exhibition spaces. Backstage tours run throughout the day, and there is live music every day in the foyer before performances.

The dressing rooms for all actors are arranged around an internal lightwell and airshaft and so their windows each face each other. This arrangement has led to a tradition whereby on the opening night (known as 'press night') and closing night of any individual play, when called to go to 'beginners' (opening positions), the actors will go to the window and drum on the glass with the palms of their hands.

The style of the National Theatre building was described by Mark Girouard as "an aesthetic of broken forms" at the time of opening. Architectural opinion was split at the time of construction. Even enthusiastic advocates of the Modern Movement such as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner have found the B├ęton brut concrete both inside and out overbearing. Most notoriously, Prince Charles described the building in 1988 as "a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting". Although the theatre is often cited as an archetype of Brutalist architecture in England, the carefully refined balance between horizontal and vertical elements in Lasdun's building has been contrasted favourably with the lumpiness of neighbouring buildings such as the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. It is now in the unusual situation of having appeared simultaneously in the top ten "most popular" and "most hated" London buildings in opinion surveys. A recent lighting scheme illuminating the exterior of the building, in particular the fly towers, has proved very popular, and is one of several positive artistic responses to the building.

Olivier Theatre Seating
After dinner we headed over to the Olivier Theatre where Christopher Marlowe's Edward II was playing.  I enjoyed the play, though I must admit it was very different in the way it mixed modern dress with classical robes and modern day technology including scenes that happened offstage and on camera with phone calls delivering messages to the beleaguered barons.

Opening set of Edward II
When we first took our seats there was a vacuum cleaner sitting stage left and I briefly wondered if it was a prop when a stage hand came in and "hoovered" the yellow carpet visible in the picture above.

Isabella, Edward II, Piers Gaveston
On the National Theatre's site, they describe the play as follows:

"Hot on the heels of his coronation, Edward II recalls his lover Gaveston from exile, lavishing him with titles and riches. Their all-consuming lust makes enemies of the furious barons and bishops, alienates the King’s once-devoted Queen and tears England to pieces. Ultimately, the monarch himself is destroyed as are many of those who stood both at his side and in his way.

All live to die, and rise to fall.

A behind-the-scenes exploration of power, sexual obsession, and a king who treats the realm as his playground. The National offers a contemporary take on Christopher Marlowe’s magnificent, erotic and violent play.

I will have Gaveston, and you shall know
What danger ’tis to stand against your king.

The play telescopes most of Edward II's reign into a single narrative, beginning with the recall of his favourite, Piers Gaveston, from exile, and ending with his son, Edward III, executing Mortimer Junior for the king's murder."

Edward II lounging on the coronation chair with Gaveston seated on the floor
Charles Spencer of the Telegraph gave the following review:

"The heart sinks as one enters the Olivier for this production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (c.1592). The set is unpainted plywood, and the backstage area is revealed to show racks of costumes and stainless steel ladders.

This is just the start of an evening that begins to resemble a bumper compendium of modish theatrical devices. There are Brechtian captions telling us what will happen in each scene and extensive use of live video, sometimes filmed backstage, or outside on the NT’s concrete balconies, sometimes on the stage itself with the camera operators mingling with the actors and occasionally getting in their way.

The costumes are a mixture of ancient and modern, with ceremonial robes and suits of armour juxtaposed with jeans and leather jackets. And, oh, I almost forgot the sex changes....

Edward II’s brother Kent has become his sister, sporting a sharp business suit and stiletto heels. Meanwhile Edward II’s young son, who in the course of the play is crowned Edward III following his father’s deposition, is played by a diminutive adult actress dressed in a smart blazer and flannel shorts like a prep-school boy.

John Heffernan captures all the petulant foolishness of Edward, as he flaunts his affair and insults the nobles. Nevertheless he persuades you that Edward is finally a man more sinned against than sinning in the moving later passages of the play, when his desperate situation becomes genuinely pitiable. He gets full value too from Marlowe’s “mighty lines” of poetry.

And the American actor Kyle Soller offers a spectacular double as both the insolent Gaveston, provocatively winding up his opponents as he leads the King into an amour fou, before turning up again in the second half in Edward’s dank dungeon to play the giggling and horribly solicitous psycho-killer Lightborn."

Edward II was murdered in a particularly gruesome way, and I didn't realize that Kyle Soller played two such very diverse roles, so that says something about his talent.  And though I agree with some of Charles Spencer's comments, I enjoyed the play because of some of its oddities rather than despite them.  We sat next to two women from California who shared some reminiscing with hubby who got his PhD from USC. One of the women told me she had worked for Harlequin.  She was seated too far away for me to have a lengthy conversation with her, but I would have loved to ask her some questions about her former employer.

On our return, we attempted some night time photos that will need retouching, so I'm going to end here and wish you all a good night.  Until tomorrow.


  1. Your pictures are great. Those "Chia pets" are fascinating and creative. Too bad details were elusive.

    It's always interesting when a director takes a period piece, like Edward II, and modernizes it. The production you describe looks confusing and maybe discordant. I've always preferred that period plays be performed in the style they were written. I think that to modernize them is to lose something of the purity of the original, and to make it about the director's, rather than the playwright's voice. If the theater-goer is there because they love the director, they'll be satisfied, but it she's there because she loves the original play or the playwright, she'll almost certainly be disappointed. Every production takes some chances.

    1. The Royal National Theatre is known for taking risks, so this particular version of Edward II combining modern technology with Marlowe's language could only have been done there. Most of the critics did not care for it, and in the beginning of its run many audience members left during the interval with great "disappointment." However, it was different enough that I found the performance fascinating while hubby didn't care for it.

      While we both agreed the actor playing Edward II was phenomenal, we disagreed on the director's vision. Some critics said the director played the story for laughs, and Edward II's tale is definitely not humorous. The audience did laugh in several places, and in others twittered uncomfortably. But the laughter reminded me of the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode from the Mary Tyler Moore Show's 6th Season. You laugh at points even though you know you really shouldn't.

      I couldn't say the production was disjointed, but since Time Out London reported, "Soller is effortlessly charismatic as a skinny-jeans-wearing Gaveston – I won’t spoil details of how he makes his first entrance, but it’s a) spectacular and b) pretty impressive that modern health and safety rules permit him to do it," I suspected the evening was going to be unconventional, and it was.

      But you're right, those attending who expected a traditional version of Marlowe's play, would have left disappointed.