Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Walk in Southwark and a Play at the Globe Theater

Wednesday, September 1o, 2008

The sun finally peaked out today making a guest appearance during what, Londoners tell me, has been a dreadful summer on the whole. Of course, this rarity would have to occur on the one day in ten whole days that I had to stay home to prepare for my classes for tomorrow! Still, I can't complain. I managed to salvage much of the warmth and light by working hard all morning at my desk making notes for my classes and adding new pages on our Scotalnd trip to my website.

Felcy came to meet me this morning. She is to be my new cleaning lady and will come in to do my domestic chores on Fridays. I was almost certain she would refuse to accept employment with me as I need her for such a short time only every other week. But I think she was delighted to find a compatriot in London--we can both trace roots to South India, she to Goa, me to Mangalore--and wanted to oblige. Also, she was recommended to me by a family friend whom she holds in high regard and for whom she has worked for years. So, it was all settled then and she will relieve me of the bulk of my chores. She seems cheerful and companionable and, thankfully, speaks perfect English. She also seems to know what needs to be done without being trained--which is a big comfort to me.

Today was also the day my first 2 movies arrived from LoveFilm which is the UK equivalent of Netflix. I picked them up from my mailbox this evening and hope to take full advantage of the free 30 day introduction they have given me. If this arrangement really works, I shall continue to pay them 12. 99 pounds per month to receive 2 DVDs at a time--unlimited. As it has turned out, I have been so busy writing, that I have hardly found any time for TV movies.

Lunch done and with my tickets having been booked for the 7.30 pm performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe Theater, I decided to take one of those lovely walks in London as delienated in the book 24 Great Walks in London. This one is entitled "Bards and Bawks in Southwark"--pronounced "Sut-erk". It was a two hour walk that began at Borough Tube Station and ended at London Bridge Tube Station. I gave myself a spare half hour at the Theater to enjoy a hot chocolate before the performance began.

As with all these walks, I realize that each time I set out I am in for a treat. I passed three churches--St. George the Martyr, the grand Southwark Cathedral, the oldest Gothic church in London (Shakespeare, Gower, Marlowe, Dickens--all worshipped here) and St. Thomas' Church which was under heavy renovation and closed. I also saw the remains of the Marshalsea Prison in which Dickens' father, John, was imprisoned as a debtor--an experience which so traumatized Dickens and was the subject of his prison scenes in Little Dorrit. In fact, the entire area is steeped in Dickens' memorabilia. There is a Little Dorrit Playground and Court across the road and the Southwark Public Library has fascimile scenes on the wall of the first illustrated pages of the novel.

Southwark also had a totally delightful hidden garden called the Red Cross Garden created in the later 1880s by Octavia Hill from what was a paper factory, in her determination to create open play space for the poorest children of London's south bank. The garden and the cottages that border it are adorable and I was amazed at how well it has retained its original objective. The space was full of the last roses of summer, an abundance of lavender--most drying on the bushes--bulrushes in a pond and catmint. Neat pathways allowed charming strolls and a couple of people sat on benches chatting amiably on what was a lovely afternoon indeed. But for the most part, the garden was deserted--a fact that added to its serene ambience.

Just a few steps away was Cross Bones, a cemetery for the prostitutes from Southwark's brothels who were forbidden a decent burial in consecrated ground. The hypocrisy of Renaissance and Victorian Christian society was brought out in the callousness with which these women were treated. Forbidden by the Bishop of Winchester to be blessed in death, their professions were, in fact, licensed by the church! As time went by, this cemetery was used to bury paupers, the nameless dead. Today, it has been turned into a shrine by which to remember the poorest of the poor, those whom Time forgot.

Across the street, I arrived at Maiden Lane, the street on which the original Globe Theater stood in Shakespeare's Time. Careful archeological digs have revealed some remnants of the original theater which have been carefully preserved and the area cordoned off from any future development. Just a few hundred meters away is the new revived Globe Theater, built through the efforts of American film-maker Sam Wanamaker who subsequently passed away. The gradual gentrification of Southwark means that droves of tourists are pouring into a part of London that received few visitors until ten years ago.

Today, the neglected, crumbling buildings of the neighborhood are being revitalized through modern housing projects that cost tens of hundreds of pounds. I was fascinated to walk through the former Bear Gardens where, in Medieval and Elizabethan times bear and bull-baiting tournaments were held--a bloody sport that fired the public imagination and was extrememly popular. I also passed by the old Rose Theater which staged plays by Ben Jonson and his contemporaries. Indeed, this part of Southwark was a cultural hothouse in the days of Elizabeth I and it slowly seems to be attaining that level of theatrical and cultural proficiency again.

Past The Globe, I saw the Clink Prison, the oldest remaining medieval prison in London and the remains of the Palace of the notorious Bishop of Winchester who, as can plainly be seen, lived a luxurious and lascivious life. Just a few steps ahead is a replica of The Golden Hind, the famous ship of which Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake for his solo circumnavigation around the world. This brought me directly to Southwark Cathedral where the altar was recently refurbished and freshly gilded and looked stunning. (I had seen only glimpses of it shrouded under scaffolding when I was last there this past March with my friend Amy Tobin). I passed the famous Borough Market, England's most famous food emporium and crossed over on to Borough High Street towards St. Thomas Lane where at the Church of St. Thomas, the Angel of Mercy Florence Nightingale worked as a nurse in an operating theater that is today, like the Clink Prison, a museum. I am stunned by the number of buildings that have been reconstructed and turned into museums. No matter how small they are, they are still receptacles of curiosity and of an epoch that is fascinating in its antiquity.

Then, I was at the New Globe Theater, Sam Wanamaker's baby, its unique circular shape a wonderful addition to the river scape. It sits cheek by jowl with the equally unique Millennium Bridge and by their very presence these two structures--one essentially Elizabethan, the other Futuristic--have revitalized the South Bank and made it a must-do tourist destination.

It was a little past mid-summer when I got down to the comic business of seeing A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Bard's last comedy, at his own Globe Theater. What a difference it made seeing the evening show. When I had last seen a play at the Globe, a few years ago, I had attended a matinees show of Hamlet as a groundling, i..e. standing in the 'pit' by paying just five pounds for a ticket. I was unable to stand for more than an hour then and I had left having seen the entry of all the major characters.

This time I was seated, like Elizabethan aristocracy, in one of the 'galleries', enjoying the view from up above. The entire production was 'over-the-top', portrayed exactly as things happen in dreams, that is to say, with no resemblance at all to reality. The characters interacted with the audience in the pit in the same way that Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men (later The King's Men) had done, resulting in an enormous amount of ad-libbing which the groundlings relished. Costumes were sumptuous, stage movements--including the choreographed dances--were strategic, performances were uniformly good--the best part of all was the clarity with which Shakespearean poetry is articulated by these well-trained artistes. Despite the 'strangeness' of the language, there is never any difficulty following the plot and the actors were so effortlessly able to roll the poet's words off their tongues. Slapstick, great good rollicking humor, rough and tumble, the kind of high jinks that appealed so much to his audience kept this contemporary audience in splits and there was never a dull moment. There was even an attempt to delineate double roles through a change in accent, with Theseus and Hippolyta employing a Scots accent (with which I became so familiar on our recent travels in Scotland) when playing Oberon and Titania respectively. This, I thought, was an inspired example of dramatization.

During the intermission, I went downstairs into the courtyard, stood "Bankside" and gasped at the panorama of London laid out before my eyes. As the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral glowed softly, the varied heights of the other buildings were bathed in neon colors that brought a completely different vista to the urban landscape. These lights, reflected in the waters of the river as the Thames flowed gently downstream, took me back to the time of Elizabeth I when the traffic on the waters was thick with the "bards and bawds" of the walk I had taken earlier. How privileged I felt to be able to relive the grandeur of the greatest of Renaissance drama in the land of its birth, in a space that was so evocative of the exact atmosphere of a century long past.

I walked back to London Bridge Station with Prof. Mike Hattaway (no relation to Shakespeare's wife Anne who spelt her surname with an 'h'!) who teaches Shakespeare at NYU and is a Professor Emeritus at Sheffield University. We made a companionable twosome on the ten minute walk and have made plans to meet soon for lunch. To my enormous delight, though I changed Tube trains, I still made it home in 20 minutes flat! I simply cannot get over how quickly and easily I can travel from anywhere in London to my flat.
It is for nights like this that I have longed for London in my dreams and to see them coming true night after flies in the face of all my fondest expectations.

No comments: