Thursday, July 30, 2009

Windsor Castle and Helen Mirren as Phedre at the National

Monday, July 21, 2009
Windsor and London

With Llew on vacation, we are taking it easy in the mornings—waking late, breakfasting at leisure, showering and dressing as if we have the entire day ahead of us—which we do! However, I did want to make a day of it in Windsor; so without wasting too much time, we took the Tube to Paddington to catch one of the commuter trains to Slough for a change to Windsor.

The weather gods smiled upon us, bestowing sunny skies and a very comfortable temperature as we walked from the station to the ramparts of the Castle. How different the place seemed with teeming tourists everywhere. When we were last here together in November of last year (or was it March of this year?—it is so difficult to keep track!), the place was less crowded. Yet, today, with the sun warming the backs of so many enthusiastic sunbathers, the crowds grew with each minute. Having reached Windsor at noon, however, we missed most of the morning commuters from London who arrived early to make a day of it at Windsor and Eton.

Queen Mary’s Doll’s House:
For us, the biggest attraction today was a chance to see Queen Mary’s Doll’s House which, the last time we came here, had attracted a long queue that deterred us. This time, our wait was no longer than ten minutes. While one might think that this is nothing more than a plaything of some privileged royal family member, it is, in fact, a completely charming showpiece. Designed by the great Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (designer, among other projects, of the city of New Delhi in the second decade of the 20th century), it is a massive wooden house completely furnished with the fittings of a royal residence of the Edwardian era. Every item inside is not only of the finest material but superbly constructed to scale. Hence, there are real bottles of wine in the cellar (no bigger than your pinky finger) and real sterling silverware and plates on the dining table. Of course, some things are not quite real—the maid’s bedroom, for instance, is just at the side of the owner’s—something that was unheard of, given the Upstairs Downstairs arrangements of Edwardian mansions that strictly segregated living quarters along class lines. Still, it was charming to notice the attention to detail and the manner in which it seems the entire country cooperated to create this royal showpiece.

Equally noteworthy were the two French dolls presented to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret while they were little girls by the French government on the occasion of their state visit to France with their parents in the early decades of the last century. The French not only presented the princesses with these dolls but used them to showcase the couture talents of their most predominant designers such as Chanel and Worth. Whole sets of beautiful clothing to be worn on different occasions were designed, executed and packed in a traveling trunk—one for each French doll. It would appear as if the princesses did not play with them at all for they and their wardrobes are in pristine condition and made for a truly delightful addition to this part of the Castle.

The Queen’s Private Collection of Drawings and the Special Exhibit on Henry VIII: Moments after we finished touring the Doll’s House and its precincts, we found ourselves in another exhibition area with an opportunity to peruse the Queen’s collection of drawings, most of which are rarely on exhibition as she has such a vast stash that they are rotated regularly. Llew and I were fortunate enough to see a few of the drawings by Leonardo da Vinci that are in her private collection—we saw some of his anatomical drawings, some drafts for his far-sighted flying machines and some of the drawings that formed studies for his most famous paintings such as the Virgin of the Rocks (versions of which we saw both at the National Gallery in London and at the Louvre in Paris).

But, by far, the most interesting part of this exhibit was the one on Henry VIII that coincides with the five hundredth anniversary of his birth. There are special exhibits on Henry VIII this year all over London and I have seen the one on him at the Tower of London which focused on his wardrobe (being cleverly entitled “Dressed to Kill”—that’s what’s so admirable about the English…their wacky sense of humor!). This one focused on Henry as a Man of Letters and I was delighted to see several original drawings and paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger (Henry’s court painter) as well as several first editions of some of the most famous books of the era. Llew was particularly fascinated by first editions of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Martin Luther’s Treatise challenging the power of the Vatican and Henry’s spirited refutation of Luther’s arguments (which, ironically enough, earned him the title of Defender of the Faith from the Pope—this, of course, was before his bitter battle with the Vatican began and his divorce with Popery became final). So many of the exhibits I have seen all over the country this year have focused on the Tudor period and despite my in-depth knowledge of this dynasty, I simply never tire of learning more.

Having seen the rest of Windsor Castle earlier, including the State Apartments and St. George’s Chapel, we decided to make our way home but not before we stopped at Waitrose to buy some of the Wensleydale cheese with ginger that both Llew and I really like. Back on the train, we arrived at Paddington and took the Tube back home to arrive just in time to get our boxes of books ready for the shippers. Our friend Janie was kind enough to offer to take them in her car for me to the North Acton depot of Headley’s Humper where I had dropped off my antique bureau-desk a few days ago. Since I will be occupying a portion of a container, it made sense to fill the crate being made for me with my large collection of books and bed linen that have to be shipped back to the US.

Meeting Janie at the National Theater:
Janie had made plans to meet us at the National Theater on the South Bank of the Thames just before our show began in the evening. Having packed our boxes, we took them across in a cab and arrived at the National well in time for our 7.30 pm appointment with Janie. She did arrive soon enough which allowed us to transfer the boxes to her car as well as take a few last pictures with her. She has been a such a great friend to me in London, ferrying me around to places of interest (Syon House, Dulwich Picture Gallery and Village and Rochester in Kent), introducing me to so many fascinating aspects of English architecture (Georgian is her own favorite) and telling me about so many London attractions that she thought I ought not to miss. As she drove off, I felt a pang of sadness…though I know I will see her again (if not in London then in Southport, Connecticut, where her brother Jonathan is a good friend of ours).

The Hottest Summer Theater Tickets—and they were Ours!
As Janie drove off, Llew and I made our way towards the National Theater and looked to find our seats. I became excited (even though I have so much on my mind right now with my return to the States and the vast number of things I have to do in the hope that everything will fall into place). The auditorium was filling quickly as Helen Mirren’s presence in the cast (playing Phedre in Racine’s famous play of the same name) ensured an exciting evening at the theater. I had actually forgotten that another star name was in the cast—Dominic Cooper who played the male romantic lead in the smash hit film version of Mamma Mia last year. It was only when I saw him on stage and found him familiar in the role of Hippolytus that I remembered that he too was in the cast—a very fortunate bonus, I thought.

As it turned out, I found Mirren’s portrayal deeply melodramatic and while I do realize that I was watching classic Greek tragedy which is expected to be played in this fashion, the performance got rather monotonous being so devoid of a range. Oenene, her aged counselor, played by Margaret Tyzack was equally one-dimensional if very good and I guess, given the pathos of the situation and the excess of emotion portrayed by the principal characters, Cooper’s decision to underpay his role stood out in contrast against the rest—but too stark a contrast, methought! The play’s intriguing plot kept us spellbound, however, and as we watched Phedre’s machinations on stage in her attempt to retain Theseus’ favor (despite having professed love for his son Hippolytus), I realized that despite its somewhat predictable characters and outcomes, it was a rare treat to see Greek tragedy so masterfully portrayed on a world-class stage by world-class actors. And, of course, there is the brag value attached to having seen Mirren in the flesh—so we felt profoundly privileged that we managed to get the hottest summer stage tickets in the city and made such a fine night of it at the theater.

A Moonlight Walk along the Thames and Drinks at the OXO Bar:
It was the perfect night to walk aimlessly along the banks of the Thames whose colorfully illuminated buildings threw their changing neon reflections into the swirling waters. What better an idea than to hot hoof it to the rooftop bar at the OXO building where Llew and I enjoyed a cold (okay make that cool) beer while watching the buildings on the opposite bank glint in the ink blue night? It was a truly romantic evening for the two of us as we snacked on spiced bar nuts, sipped our drinks and thrilled to the knowledge that we had all of London seemingly spread out at our feet.

An hour later, drinks consumed and with a heady buzz that added to our enjoyment of Londres: La Nuit, we walked on the Embankment to Blackfriars Bridge from where we hopped into a 63 bus that took us home to Farringdon, a hot dinner made up of remains in my fridge and then called it a night.

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