On Wednesday, July 3rd, some friends and I decided to see a matinee of the West End production of Les Misérables. The West End is considered London’s Broadway theatre district. According to the website, Official London Theatre, “From the opening of the first West End venue in Drury Lane in 1663, locals and visitors to the burgeoning capital flocked in their droves to the West End to be entertained and enthralled by the various shows on offer.” The website also says that it is the largest theatre district in the world. One great thing about the West End is that tickets for West End shows generally cost much less than tickets to Broadway shows do. Just walking around the West End, with all its excitement and people, is an exceptional experience.
Les Misérables is currently playing in Queen’s Theatre. The beautiful theatre’s architecture harkens back to the turn of the century. According to its website, the theatre was built in 1907 and was state of the art, at its time. In the Playbill it is stated that Queen’s Theatre was the first theatre to close due to World War II bombing attacks. However, the theatre reopened in 1959, and the website says that it was updated in an Edwardian style, which was clearly evident.
Les Misérables opened at London’s Barbican Theatre in 1985, according to the official Les Misérables website. The Playbill also states that the show was not originally a hit with critics; however, the show became a hit with audiences and transferred to the West End later that year. The playbill states that in 2004, the show transferred from the Palace Theatre to Queen’s Theatre. Upon seeing the enormous poster for the show that wraps around the front of the building, it is not difficult to imagine that the show has been playing in Queen’s Theatre for almost a decade.
The musical Les Misérables is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name about people’s struggles to live their lives in 19th century France. We did not have the best seats for the show, but we could see everything well. The set had a revolving floor, and set pieces were moved in and out. The way the show was staged was incredible. It was a true lesson on how so many diverse settings could be presented in a theatre. The actors all had tremendous voices, especially the actor who played Jean Valjean, Gerónimo Rauch; I was blown away by the range of his voice and its clarity. I had only seen on video the anniversary special of Les Misérables, which was staged as an opera, and the movie version of the show, before my experience with seeing the West End production. I realized that if you have only seen the movie, you are missing out on a lot by not seeing the live theatrical show. I am so glad I had the opportunity to see Les Misérables in the city in which it began.
On Sunday, June 30th, we attended St. Paul’s Cathedral. According to St. Paul’s website, “The present Cathedral, the masterpiece of Britain’s most famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, is at least the fourth to have stood on the site. It was built between 1675 and 1710, after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and services began in 1697.” The cathedral was quite beautiful on the inside and the outside and a string orchestra played music while the choir sang. The service was very inclusive of all faiths. Everyone who was baptized could take communion. The Anglican service included a lot of getting up and sitting down, but when to stand and when to sit was clearly marked in the program. The communion was different than any communion I had taken before because we drank straight out of the cup instead of dipping our wafer into the wine. It was a new kind of church-going experience for me, but I enjoyed participating in the service.
After church, I went with friends to Hyde Park. We walked through the park for a bit, and then stopped at Speaker’s Corner. According to the Speaker’s Corner Trust website, the tradition of men and women declaring their views in this space of the park comes from the Victorian era when protesters spoke out against rights for working people being suppressed, against the wishes of park authorities. In 1872, the website says, Parliament granted the park the right to let people meet and speak at Speaker’s Corner. And they are still meeting today. There were several speakers there on Sunday, most notably a man who seemed to be giving a lecture on the history of religion that turned into a lecture on evolution. I am not sure whether any of the people that Sunday had any strong points to make, but listening to people speak their minds about different topics in such a forum was certainly interesting.
On Saturday, June 29th, our group took a tour of parliament. Parliament is housed in Westminster Palace. Our tour guide told us that the palace was used as a living space for royalty until Henry VIII. We entered through Westminster Hall, which is an original part of the palace that has been in existence since the middle ages. Unfortunately, fire and bomb damage has left little of the original Westminster Palace. After a fire in 1834, “Only Westminster Hall, the Undercroft Chapel, the Cloisters and Chapter House of St Stephen’s and the Jewel Tower survived” (www.parliment.uk). The House of Commons was destroyed by bomb damage during World War II. As www.parliment.uk states, “The incendiary bombs which fell on the nights of 10 and 11 May 1941 caused the greatest damage to the Palace. The Commons Chamber was hit by bombs and the roof of Westminster Hall was set on fire. The fire service said that it would be impossible to save both, so it was decided to concentrate on saving the Hall.” Now all parts of the palace are beautifully rebuilt. The House of Lords, in which the members are appointed, is incredibly ornate, with actual gold adorning the walls because members of the House of Lords were once all aristocracy who achieved their position by inheriting it. The seats in the House of Lords are red because that is the color of royalty, whereas the seats in the House of Commons are green. The House of Commons, in which the members are elected, is much less ornate, but nonetheless impressive. It is interesting to see how small the buildings are. There are not even enough seats in either the House of Lords or House of Commons to accommodate the members of the houses. Westminster Palace is beautiful, but the microphones hanging from the ceilings in the houses of Parliament reminded me that this is the building of a modern government and not just an architectural marvel.
Later that day, we attended the London Pride Parade. It was a chance for the LGBT community to celebrate what they have achieved and fight for what they have not. According to the Pride in London website, half a million people took part in this year’s parade. According to the BBC website, a bill was proposed to legalize same sex marriage and is still being considered, and this issue was clearly visible at the parade, as several marchers dressed as brides and grooms. We saw many different groups of people marching in the parade, from religious groups of different faiths to individual people who just wanted to march and show support. It was wonderful to see so many people out supporting this event, rather than detracting from it.
Wednesday, the 26th was the first day of classes. After class, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. According to their website, the museum was established in 1852 to educate and inspire artists and manufacturers. I was blown away by the chandelier by artist Dale Chihuly that hangs in the main entrance to the museum. The website says Chihuly created the piece made of blue and green blown glass in 2001 in his studio in Seattle, Washington. It was truly an amazing site to behold.
I was only at the museum for about an hour and was still quite jet-lagged, so going back is a must. However, I did go on an introductory tour of the museum and was astonished at the size of it. What stood out from the tour to me the most was the Raphael Cartoons. Our tour guide told us they are designs for the tapestries, depicting different scenes from the Bible, made to hang in the Sistine Chapel. It was interesting to look at them and realize that the designs are the reverse of the tapestry images.
Thursday, the 27th was the day the Modern Drama class, which I am taking, was to see our first required play, Children of the Sun by Russian playwright Maxim Gorky. As a theatre major and aspiring actress, I was looking forward to seeing my first play in London. The play was presented by the National Theatre. According to their website, the company began in 1953 and has produced over 700 plays. The company used the Old Vic Theatre until the Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre building was built in 1976. The complex of the theatre is quite large and consists of three venues. And there is also a bookstore there completely dedicated to scripts and books on acting and design for the theatre. I have not even scratched the surface of exploring the theatre and am already overwhelmed at its size and beauty.
The version of the Children of the Sun we saw was a brand new version by Andrew Upton, originally produced by the National Theatre. The play centers on Protasov, a Russian scientist living at the turn of the century. He and the people in his life experience struggles within themselves and with each other within the walls of Protasov’s estate. However, they cannot keep the world outside, on the verge of revolution, from invading their lives.
Upon walking into the house of the theatre, I found it looked just as most theatres do. However, once the wall, used in place of a curtain, went up, I was astonished at the set. I had never seen anything like it in a theatre. The attention to detail was amazing. The lighting was incredibly realistic-looking. It could have been a movie set. The play itself was wonderful and I was greatly impressed by the acting. I was not disappointed by my first London play or anything else in London, for that matter.
On Monday, June 24th, I left the airport in Raleigh, N.C. to go to London, England with most of the other members of the study abroad group from Meredith College. The group arrived in London on the 25th. After taking the tube, London’s underground railway system, to High Street Kensington, we walked around the neighborhood we are staying in, Kensington. I have been to London once when I was about ten years old, however, my family and I were coming back from Paris and only spent two days in the U.K. It was interesting how much it was as I remembered it. The mix of Gothic and new architecture was all strangely familiar.
After our walk, we settled into Heythrop College, where we are staying. Heythrop is a small college of religion and philosophy that is part of the University of London. I did not think that there could be a smaller college campus than Meredith’s, but Heythrop could probably fit inside Meredith several times over. It is very scenic and is quite a lovely place to stay.
We then took the Big Bus Tour and saw sites such as the London Eye and Big Ben, the latter of which our tour-guide told us is actually the name of the cracked bell inside the clock tower. Once we were finished with the tour, we took a boat tour and saw some of the sites and scenery from a boat on the Thames. It was a good start to the trip because it gave us a chance to see the city and get a feel for the different areas and sites before we actually explore them.