“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” – William Shakespeare. I recall that throughout high school, I hated reading literary works, such as Shakespeare or Dickens, but coming here in London, I’ve learned to appreciate their works. In English class, I would always say to myself, “Why are we reading this? This language is so outdated and the book is not going to help us today.” In the past six weeks, our professors had taken us to see at least a play per week and exposed me to a lot of modern English Theatre. They’ve taken us to many great theatres, such as the famous Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre, and the Young Vic Theatre.
I’ve come to the point where I see why Londoners prefer plays over films and I wholeheartedly agree with them. Plays here are interactive. Probably the main reason why I don’t enjoy watching films too often is because you’re just staring at a screen for about two hours. You aren’t socializing, you aren’t moving, your eyes are just glued to the screen and I find that absolutely torturous. But these plays make you feel as if you’re part of the story. Some plays have audience involvement and some plays ignore the audience completely and have us acting as the fly on the wall observing.
A play that had the most interaction with the audience that we saw was Treasure Island ( If you don’t know the story, perhaps you’ve seen Treasure Planet?) at St. Pauls church in Covent Garden, London. Treasure Island is the original pirate story that features an adventurous to be a pirate that joins a respected pirate captain’s crew in search of buried treasure. It inspired all the stereotypical pirate things like “X marks the spot.” The first thing that the production did was separate the audience into two crews, the good pirate’s crew(Jim Hawkins) and the bad pirate’s crew ( Long John Silver). The audience is part of a pirate crew! How amazing is that? The best part about this play was that the location changed every act. The first act was about Jim Hawkins in his home dreaming about finding buried treasure. We were watching this inside the church. Then, as Hawkins embarks on his adventure, we move outside the church to this mock pirate ship and sit inside it. Members of the audience were recruited to turn the wheel that drops the anchor of the ship. After that, we went to the front of the church and then back inside it. It was amazing to move along with the actors across the church and see the story as it progressed. Some of us got to dress up as pirates and hold pistols and been in a gun match.
In contrast, we saw Yerma, starring Billie Piper (who played Rose in the Doctor Who series) at the Young Vic Theatre in London. The Young Vic was a cool theatre/bar. The theatre itself was a glass box that made us feel as if we were a fly on the wall peering in on the story. Yerma had no interaction with the audience whatsoever yet made us feel as if we were right there with the characters. Originally set in Rural Spain, Yerma tells the story of a young woman struggling to bear a child and believes that once she has this child, everything from her relationship with her husband to her career as a blogger/journalist will go well. This play drastically changed to adapt to a modern audience. The cast of Yerma is British and is set in modern London. The production actually changed Yerma into a nameless protagonist, played by Billie Piper, which I assumed represented the everyday woman. (I will still refer her as Yerma) This play, however, is a tragedy, and Yerma, because of her desire to bear a child, causes her to neglect everything around her. She goes off a crazy breakdown and pushes her husband away from her, and she starts doing drugs and loses her job. This was one of my favorite plays that I’ve seen so far because it made me feel catharsis for the first time. In my high school English class, I’ve always known what catharsis was because it was “a feeling of relief from strong emotions.” But how could you describe a feeling unless you’ve truly felt it yourself? The production successfully built up tension and suspension up until the climax of the play where (*SPOILERS) she kills herself. As typical as it sounds, the play’s atmosphere felt tense. My stomach was tight, my legs were shaking, and my heart was pounding. All this tension broke at the moment she stabbed herself and let out an agonizing scream. “Holy crap, did that just happen?” I said as I was left distraught at the scene.
Watching plays at Shakespeare’s Globe was one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. The house itself was built after the original Elizabethan theatre that burned down. The building company tried to replicate the Elizabethan theatre as close as possible to the original by using the same materials and measurements (Elizabethan measurements) but, made it applicable to a modern audience. The inside consists of a yard where the audience would stand (called groundlings) and on the edge would be the stands where the affluent customers could pay and sit. Because the groundlings are so close to the stage, (we were literally leaning against it) there was a lot of audience interaction.
One of my favorite plays that I saw was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play has existed for about 500 years and has been performed countless times and is read by students all across the western world. It’s hard to make something 500 years old seem new, yet the Globe seems to have done just that. Emma Rice, the artistic director of the Globe, has probably seen the show a thousand times and decided to spice things up. She changed Helena (a girl) to Helenus (a guy) to make the weird love quadrilateral that Shakespeare had into a weird gay love quadrilateral for the modern day audience. It made things funny because Helenus is essentially Hermia’s gay best friend. One of my favorite moments in the play was when Helenus snapped his fingers and said, “giiirrrrlllll, let’s get it on!” And both of them randomly dance to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” I also appreciate that the production has an ethnically diverse team. Hermia, Helenus, Oberon, and Theseus were played by people of Indian descent and Demetrius was played by a Black actor. The production had a band that played Indian style music. There was an Indian woman that lead the band with her sitar and I saw a Sikh man on the drums. The music just added to the kooky, comedic feel that Shakespeare originally intended without the Elizabethan feel. Another cool thing that the production did was that the four lovers were dressed as the modern, everyday Londoner while the supernatural entities were dressed in typical Elizabethan clothing. Another cool part was that the play started out with workers from Shakespeare’s Globe saying the rules like “no drinking, no smoking, blah, blah, blah,” and assigning other members roles as a security guard and trash person and the workers just stood within the audience. As the play went on, when they were about to introduce the guild that performs Pyramus and Thisbe, all the workers, like the security guard and the trash person, were like “Psych! I was acting along.” I just went “OH Shoot! Inception! Actors acting as Globe workers acting as actors!” My mind was blown.
This was my experience with theatre in London. This experience has truly brought to life what theatre was originally intended to do: to entertain an audience. Theatre is not only a script that you read in an English class, but it is also meant to be pure entertainment with a message. I do wish that America would have the same appreciation that the English do about theatre because that would help students appreciate literature. There’s no way you can teach students about catharsis unless they truly undergo that process themselves. Theatre should also be expressed as entertainment and not just a script.
Thank you for reading this post and I hope you enjoyed it.