Woke up late and skipped breakfast, ate some trail mix on the way to the Paul Mellon Centre for another delightful class with Professor Roach, which featured St. Joan-centered dialogue that got me excited. A few of us walked home through Russell Square, and stopped at the Russell Square Café for buttered scones. The café was unique in that it featured indoor and outdoor seating, the latter accessorized by tens and tens of predatory pigeons: signs around the café warned patrons that food should not be left unattended, as the establishment was not responsible for food tampered with by birds. There were some unattended dirty dishes on an outside table, and about thirty birds suddenly appeared, engulfing the entire table. A harried-looking employee rushed out to shoo them away, and they retreated slowly and cheekily.
Back home I caught up on some reading and straightening up, then showered and dressed for the theatre. We caught a double-decker bus and rode it the surprisingly short distance to the theatre. There was something essential about this trip: riding on the second level of an infamous red bus, crossing THE RIVER THAMES by way of Waterloo Bridge, which has a stunning view of Parliament, Big Ben, and the London Eye. We got off at the National Theatre Stop, and made our way into a lobby of the building, where a French folk quartet was playing to an appreciative audience. At 6:30 we wandered outside to a balcony overlooking the Astroturf courtyard, where two Australian women jugglers dressed as adorable airline stewardesses performed their act. We only saw the first fifteen minutes before heading inside to meet the class and take our seats: at seven, the play began. Parts of it were simply stunning: I thought most of the acting was superb, including Joan, who was young and energetic and proud and great. The stagecraft was unbelievable: the most striking sequence was the enactment of the Siege of Orleans, not written into the script, but performed here as a series of choreographed chair movements. As Joan beats a fierce rhythm, her soldiers drag and smash and tumble frail-looking wooden chairs. The entire National Theatre stage rotates and is able to tilt up, so the climax of the sequence began as the stage tilted to its highest angle, creating a steep slope. The face of the slope turned into view and the audience saw men’s supine bodies, which began to roll lazy and dead down the hill. Suddenly, men begin to appear at the top of the embankment, pulling Joan up to join them. She carried with her a blue flag of France, and the victory (after the chair brutality and body carnage) was electric. The play ended, and it was nice to have read and discussed it: at times I was able to tell when things were changed or omitted, and was able to look forward to the parts I liked best.
Afterwards, since it was opening night, there was a free "Private Event" reception at the theatre, featuring cheese, fruit, bread, beer, wine, and orange juice. Suddenly, all the actors were amongst us, mingling with their friends and eating cheese and bread. I was a bit star-struck. We ate on the verandah, where we could hear shouting and music: looking over the edge, we discovered that it was a performance of The Tempest. How much better can this place get? Juggling airline hostesses followed by St. Joan followed by outdoor Shakespeare? Or so I thought. It was not the traditional Tempest. It was something much different and not much good, though it featured an extensive pyrotechnic and water-fountain element. Something was almost always spouting or sparkling. One thing sparkled too much, and lit the elaborate bamboo set on fire, which was quickly extinguished by a center employee. The whole audience clapped. That was pretty fun. The show ended and we walked across the Jubilee pedestrian bridge and then continued the walk all the way home. Back at Hughes Parry, a few people congregated in my room for some socializing and youtube sharing.
SPECIAL NOTE: The theatrical offerings at the National (and in London) are incredible. The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams is playing, and tickets for many of the shows are only 10 pounds. Tickets at the Royal Shakespeare Company are five pounds. And the theatre, as far as I can tell from tonight, is hyper world-class. I think perhaps this is a good place for me to be spending the summer…