Friday, November 14, 2008

House of Lords, Banqueting House and "Wicked" at the West End

Friday, November 14, 2008

Prince Charles turned 60 today and in his official birthday portrait, I realized with a start how much he has aged. Another Charles was very much in our thoughts as Llew and I toured the Banqueting Hall this morning...but let's begin at the beginning.

BBC's Breakfast Show reminded us repeatedly that it was "an unseasonably mild day for this time of year" and not intending to waste a minute of it, we set out on a self-guided walk entitled "Wanderings In Westminster"--what would we do without Frommer's 24 Great Walks in London? We fuelled up well on a carb-heavy breakfast (Waitrose's Muesli, Walnut Bread and Sainsbury's Three Fruits Marmalade) and set out, somewhat lightly clad, much to our regret, for the day turned progressively cooler and we were freezing by the time we got home at 4 pm.

Still, the day started out beautifully and on the Route 11 bus from Fleet Street, we enjoyed inching our way slowly to Westminster Underground Station from where we launched into our rambles. First stop, The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. We have, of course, admired those buildings often and from many angles--even on memorable landings into Heathrow airport at the crack of dawn. But never had we visited the interiors--simply because we always thought it involved a huge song and dance. Permission had to be obtained from local MPs, appointments had to be made, etc. etc. Well, we couldn't have been more wrong. A jolly policeman at one of the security posts informed me quite simply that all I needed to do was walk a few meters ahead to a gate where entry to the House of Lords could easily be obtained.

Llew and I stared at each other in astonishment. Though a visit to Parliament was very much in my plans before I returned to the USA, neither one of us expected to tour the hallowed premises this morning. So, we couldn't get over our good fortune when we were marched in through innumerable doors and heavy security gates that involved the taking of our pictures and the presentation of visitors passes, not to mention personal frisking and a surrender of our personal property, before we were permitted to enter. Since only the House of Lords was in session today, we were admitted into the ornate chamber that contained the even more ornate throne on which the monarch sits during her rare visits to the House. Immediately, we were struck by the similarity of these interiors with those of the Houses of Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, which had been modelled entirely on those of the UK and sits serenely upon the Danube. The elaborate decoration on walls and ceilings, floors and pillars that included gilding and sculpture and paintings left us unable to decide exactly on what we should focus. Best part of all was the long and somewhat forbidding Westminster Hall with its timbered ceiling and stone walls--the only part of the buildings that remained intact despite a catastrophic fire in the mid-1800s. It was here that we walked through the pages of funereal history, here that Thomas More appeared before the tribunals to plead his case before being sentenced to death, here where kings and queens have lain in state upon departing this life. It is hard to fathom how closely the stories of British Parliament are connected with the stories of royalty until one enters such august interiors and breathes the very air of solemnity that prevails.

We were seated in a queue until enough space was found in the galleries to accommodate us. When our turn finally arrived, we were ushered up a spiral staircase into the "Stranger's Gallery" where antiquated notices on the wall informed that any form of participation would be considered "out of order". Ha ha ha. As for the proceedings, there was a rather tedious presentation of an EU Committee Report on the increase of organ supply in the EU. A couple of people responded to the report, others shook their heads in a learned fashion and others looked plain bored as they sprawled in their seats in rather undignified a manner. I thought I recognized the Goan MP Keith Vaz who is somewhat unmistakable with his bald pate, glasses and cheerful smile--but I could be mistaken. He could well have been Swraj Paul for all I knew! Still, it was fascinating for us to watch the UK government at work and to see for ourselves the sort of scenes one has seen endlessly on TV over the years. What amused us was the sale of "House of Lords Apple and Raisin Chutney" in the gift shop together with more appropriate items such as 2009 pocket diaries and Christmas ornaments featuring the portcullis of the building.

Delighted at the unexpected opportunity to take in the experience of touring the Parliament Buildings together, Llew and I continued our walk. We passed by old and practically unknown parts of London tucked away behind the Parliament Buildings such as the home of T.E. Lawrence of Arabia and St. James' Church on Smith Square before we arrived in Dean's Yard and the school in which Ben Jonson, Christopher Wren and Sir John Gielgud was once pupils and from then on to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. We'd have liked to have toured those too but time and my feet did not permit us to wander around at leisure. I decided to save that treat for another day.

Instead we crossed Birdcage Walk to enter St. James' Park which looks totally different in its autumn avatar. Though most of the leaves have fallen already, there was a golden glow reflected in the duck pond where we saw magnificent black swans with vivid red beaks and grey mallards with orange beaks fight for crumbs. Then, we were crossing the Horse Guards Parade to arrive at the Banqueting Hall where we spent the most fascinating hour with audio wands that took us in detail through the history of the building, its spectacular Hall decorated with the ceiling paintings by Peter Paul Reubens that reminded us of England's troubled Civil War years, the victories of Oliver Cromwell and the tragic execution of Charles I.

Needless to say, we found Reubens' work compelling and were able to study the panels carefully through mirrored tables on casters that allowed them to be wheeled across the vast room so that the tiniest details could be scrutinized. Depicting the glorious reign of James VI of Scotland who became James I of England (father of Charles I), and the union of two great nations through the crown that sat upon his uneasy head (he was fiercely Catholic in a nation that had become staunchly Protestant), Reubens used classical mythology to glorify the king--the Goddess of Learning Minerva features prominently in the design as do fat and cheeky putti--cheeky because they had bulging cheeks and rotund bottoms! I marveled at the thought that it was within this room that the elaborate masques of Ben Jonson of which I had learned so much during my History of Literature classes, were once performed with even the King and the Queen taking part. The audio guides gave us such a wealth of insight and perspective on the many ways in which this single room affected the annals of history. No wonder Llew and I were absorbed for over an hour as we listened intently and gazed in awe.

The building is no less renowned for the architectural genius of Inigo Jones who was deeply influenced by the grandeur of Italy following a visit to the country and upon returning to England was determined to include, for the first time ever, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns in his work--forever leaving his mark on London's landscape. Prior to his time, only the half-timbered buildings of Elizabethan and Tudor architecture had prevailed. Jones' desire to introduce the classical lines of Andrea Palladio to England paved the way for the magic of Christopher Wren who was to follow a century later. I was thrilled that we visited this grand mansion--something I have long been meaning to do--and that we indulged in the opportunity to see a part of the city that few tourists visit.

We left feeling deeply moved by the poignant fate of Charles I on a day when another Charles, the man who will be king, celebrated his diamond birthday while waiting to ascend the throne. I have been told that when he does become King, he plans to change his name as the Charleses who preceded him to the throne have met with such morbid fates.

We were out on the street then in a day that seemed to have turned suddenly frigid and as Llew spent the afternoon resting at home, I caught up with telephone calls and made some more bookings for theater tickets in the spring. I am thrilled to have found practically the last available tickets to see Judi Dench in Madame de Sade and Jude Law as Hamlet, both at the Wyndham Theater. While Llew took a nap, I also managed to get tickets for a traditional British Christmas pantomime, Peter Pan, which stars Simon Callow (one of my favorite British actors) as Captain Hook in a version that will be performed in Richmond. My friend Jenny-Lou Sequeira from New Jersey will be here to spend a few days with me just before Christmas with her daughter Kristen and we thought she would especially enjoy this children's show.

It wasn't long before Llew and I were on the bus again headed for the Apollo Victoria Theater to see the musical Wicked--finally! Chriselle had seen this show on Broadway years ago when it first opened and had not stopped raving about it. The title refers to The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and the story of this play precedes Dorothy's arrival in Kansas and her meeting with her co-travelers on the yellow brick road in the famous ruby slippers. Those, Wicked inform us, happens to belong to the Wicked Witch's crippled sister, Nessa.

Chriselle, of course, knows The Wizard of Oz rather well having acted in it as a Munchkin years ago while still in high school. Llew and I enjoyed it but were not unduly impressed. While the sets and costume were spectacular, the music did not appeal to either one of us. Amazingly, the theater was full with not a single seat available and though we were perched high up in the Stalls, the opera glasses for which we paid a very reasonable 50 p allowed us to see the actors up close and personal. Though poor Llew has been afflicted by a horrendous cough that has kept him awake at night and made the viewing of the show rather dismal for him, I did cheer him up at the interval with that most British of theater traditions--a cup of double chocolate ice-cream that comes in a cup with its own spoon cleverly attached to the cap! Far from annoying his throat even more, the ice-cream seemed to soothe it and he was spared a coughing fit for a good half hour after he enjoyed this treat.

We were out into the cool night air soon enough, looking for a bus that would take us back home to Holborn. Passing down Oxford Street, we realized that Yuletide has arrived in London as strings of lights hang in chandelier-fashion above the roofs as the buses pass under them and the department stores seem to be vying with each other in the dazzling spectacle of holiday lights that adorn their premises. It is a great time to be in London and we are soaking it all in.

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