Another London gem – The Globe Theatre

As the actors withdrew, they left the wooden stage strewn with roses. They bowed and bade farewell not only to an adoring audience but also to a run of almost four months of All’s Well that Ends Well. Night fell on Shakespeare’s open-air theatre, and I was spellbound.

Sunday couldn’t come quickly enough. We’d booked to go and see the last performance of this Shakespeare comedy at The Globe Theatre on the South Bank in London. We met up with our friends at a great Turkish restaurant next to the Thames River, and enjoyed a relaxing late afternoon meal before wandering down the South Bank – under a beautiful summer sky – ahead of our planned feast of Shakespeare.

According to their website, The Globe Theatre is a faithful reconstruction of the open-air playhouse, first built in 1599, where Shakespeare worked and for which he wrote many of his great plays. It is an outstanding and totally special venue. The courtyard of the theatre complex is paved with stones that bear the names of benefactors to the beloved project of American actor, Sam Wanamaker, whose dream resulted in this amazing theatre project overlooking St Paul’s. He caught the vision to recreate Shakespeare’s theatre, on his first visit to the UK in 1949; he died in 1993 and the theatre was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1997. His life’s work breathed life into this modern-day shrine to Shakespeare.

I love that The Globe Theatre describes itself as being “designed with the 21stcentury in mind. An additional exit, illuminated signage [health and safety is king in the UK], fire retardant materials [Shakespeare’s own theatre burnt down in two hours during a 1613 production of Henry VIII, when some stage cladding caught alight], and some modern backstage machinery are all concessions to our times. The reconstruction is as faithful to the original as modern scholarship and traditional craftsmanship can make it, but for the time being this Globe is – and is likely to remain – neither more nor less than the ‘best guess’ at Shakespeare’s theatre.”

A borrowed view of The Globe Theatre to show another perspective - we were seated on the top level (king-lear-at-the-globe-theatre-ii)

The season runs annually from April to October, and features productions of Shakespeare’s work, and the work of his contemporaries and modern writers. We were four of the 350,000 audience members annually who experience the ‘wooden O’. We sat in the gallery, while many stand “as a groundling” in the yard, just as they would have done 400 years ago.

The actors meet the audience before the play begins (our own image)

The tickets for the standing area – where peasants would have stood centuries ago – cost a fiver and, honestly, if I’d been 20 years younger, I would have done that. However, we’re not 20 years younger, and nor are our friends, so we all sat in the relative comfort of the gallery on wooden seats with the luxurious addition of hired cushions. I felt sorry for that poor dear old lady who stood in the bard’s mosh pit and clutched on the corner of the wooden stage for, what seemed, dear life. She also appeared to droop lower and lower as the play went on.

Getting up close and personal before the play begins (our own image)

Before the play began, the actors came on to the stage, singing, and we were welcomed to the theatre. The play was set in France, so one actor engaged us in a lesson in basic French: “les telephones portables?” he ventured and, with wildly flailing arms, shouted, “Non! Les cameras videos et les cameras flashy-flashy ou non flashy-flashy? ABSOlument pas! Parapluies? [here he mimed an umbrella opening up] PAS du tout!” He closed his lesson with, “D’accord?” before apologising to anyone in the audience who might actually be French-speaking. And then the play began.

House rules in French - n'est-ce pas? (our own image)

It was a delightful play and the actors were fabulous. They took us on a typically fast-paced romp through mistaken identity, cowardice, lust, war, greed, miracle cures, covetousness and that rarest of elements: true love.  Each character carved his place in the creation of the tale, and they took us along for the hilarious ride.

As dusk fell over the open-air theatre, and pigeons landed on the stage roof, the play grew ever more complicated (ingewikkeld, as you would say in Afrikaans). Inevitably, all the knots were loosened, true identities revealed and each character predictably came face to face with himself. And, as the play drew to a close, all was indeed well that ended well.

An actor stepped forward and reminded us that as the play ended, the King was again a beggar and all the actors had resumed their own identities. He thanked us for our patronage, and with that the actors began their closing routine. They stepped forward in time to the live music, they whirled and they twirled in dancing delight, they screamed and they laughed and they stamped and they clapped. The audience watched in adoring, reflected enchantment and soon, as the actors disappeared behind the scenery, it was just the roses that remained on the wooden stage.

I’d heard that The Globe was amazing. I had no idea just how special it would be. I’m hooked and I can’t wait to experience another evening enjoying the bard’s art there. Our red box has a few more tickets in it and London – once again – has revealed another jewel in its formidable crown. What a privilege.

Sunshine signing off for today!

An audience with Miss Chatelaine

It must be about 20 years ago that I first saw this floppy-fringed Canadian singer. I didn’t really like her look and paid little attention. Until I heard her sing. Miss Chatelaine blew my mind, not to mention my assumptions. Seeing her perform that song live last night felt like a musical dream for me.

Just a smile,  just a smile, hold me captive for a while
I can’t explain why I’ve become Miss Chatelaine
Every time your eyes meet mine,
Clouds of qualm burst into sunshine

kd lang live at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday’s date stared out at me from our calendar for a few months, our tickets stared out at me from their shelf in our cabinet, and I grew more and more excited as the day neared. Yesterday was a beautiful warm and sunshiney day in London; temperatures hovered around 26 degrees for most of the day. After work I walked along the edge of the Thames from my London Bridge office towards the South Bank, where I’d arranged to meet my husband at the Nelson Mandela bust. It seemed fitting.

Much of London was out enjoying the sun and the summer construction of a “beach” along the South Bank. Street dancers performed, families strolled along licking ice lollies, pubs overflowed with chirpy office workers, benches and patches of grass were filled with cheery people enjoying the welcome London sunshine. In lengthening shadows and royal blue sunshine, the balmy evening was simply sublime.

Because we booked early for last night’s show, we managed to get great seats in the fifth row from the stage. Little Miss Higgins and Floyd Taylor opened the show with infectiously bouncy old time country music, inspired by her rural home in the Great Northern Plains of Western Canada. After a short interval, kd lang and the Siss Boom Bang Band took the stage and wove musical magic around us for the next hour and a half.

Opening with I Confess from her recently-released and beautifully crafted Sing it Loud album, she moved on to The Water’s Edge before sending the audience into raptures with her crazy-fabulous arrangement of Miss Chatelaine. Mixing old and new songs, she sang and she danced and with every word, she reached out from her soul to an adoring audience.

When she shouted, “London!” we screamed and we whooped and we whistled, before her rousing delivery of Sing it Loud, her album’s title song and anthem to being who you are. She then began a set of spiritual songs starting, as she said, “at the top and working my way down”. She tore through Talking Head’s Heaven before moving on to probably the most sincere and emotional offering of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah I have ever heard. She brought me to tears and all of us spontaneously to our feet. After a poignant A Sleep with No Dreaming, she ended the set by giving her guitar pick to a little girl in the front row. Much applause followed and then kd said, “What? She wants my guitar too? Right. Everyone wants Josephine; she’s that kinda gal.”

She then introduced us to the immensely talented band from lead guitarist, to bass player, drummer, keyboard/piano wizard and then ended with the man who “changed my life”. She met Joe Pisapia at the Ryman Auditorium at the Grand Ole Opry and what we experienced last night is what resulted from “that union”. I’d heard her talk before about the name of the band – Siss Boom Bang is what happens when they play together. They sizzle and they just work. Beautifully.

A clearly well-loved woman, kd batted audience chirps away with grace and gentle wit. One audience member shouted out a whole bunch of song titles. This seemed to confuse ms lang, who said, “So many titles, so few mine.”

What followed was The Perfect Word, Habit of Mind, Reminiscing (what an adorable love song), Sorrow Nevermore (where kd ditched Josephine to play the banjo) and ended with a powerful rendition of Constant Craving. The audience went ballistic and she and the band left the stage. We wouldn’t let her go, so she returned sans shoes and jacket for the beautiful Inglewood, before her final and delightfully frenetic Sugar Buzz.

We still didn’t want her to go. And nor did she. She and the band returned for a third and final encore. She gathered her band closely around her on the stage to perform a song “for all the businessmen here tonight”. A fun and bouncy Pay Dirt  was followed by the achingly delicate Hungry Bird.

kd lang and the Siss Boom Bang Band then left the stage. They left us screaming for more but knowing we’d just experienced an evening of musical genius. I loved it. k daddy – you have the voice of an angel and I’m a fan. A big fan.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Songs from the soul

A New Viewpoint

So until I have the chance to write a decent post about this new chapter in my life, I’d like to show you the view I had as I feasted on my lunchtime sandwich next to the River Thames today. I do love London.

St Paul's Cathedral, with a glimpse of the London Millennium Footbridge in the foreground, a steel suspension bridge across the River Thames

Sunshine signing off for today!

London In Perspective

I adore this city that I currently call home.  It is huge, terrifying, impersonal, beastly, cold, heaving and aloof. And I do battle with it for all the same reasons. But heck, London does historical and iconical (is there such a word?) in ways that take my breath away. Walk with me.

Feeling the way I did over the weekend, we decided to continue our “exploring London” adventure: St James’ Park was next on our list.  A ten minute tube ride took us into Westminster, and as we emerged from the tube station, we stared into the face of London. We see this face often, usually from the other (south) side of the Thames, but it was so exciting to feel so close to the beating heart of this compelling city.

This is what we saw first:

The London Eye on the South Bank of the River Thames

The London Eye, now known as the EDF Energy London Eye (can you cope?), opened in March 2000 as a “metaphor for the end of the 20th century and time turning into the new millennium”.  It was designed by husband and wife architect team, David Marks and Julia Barfield, and took seven years to build. About 3.5 million visitors pay (around £18 per adult, £10 per child) to go up in the Eye each year, and it is said that from the 135 metre height of its revolution, you can see up to 40 kilometres in all directions. We went up it in July 2000, and it was pretty awesome, even from the safety of the bench in the middle of the pod (I have a thing about heights!).

And looking the other way, this is what we saw:

Big Ben, at the north end of the Palace of Westminster

Big Ben is the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world, with each dial being just less than 50 square metres.  There is a special light above the clock faces that, when illuminated, lets the public know that parliament is in session. The clock ticked for the first time in May 1859 and has rarely stopped. I was interested to hear in the media recently that Big Ben was losing time; it might conceivably have lost one second. I wonder how many people used that fact for being late for a meeting?

We walked down Birdcage Walk, and found ourselves in St James’ Park. We saw a few glimpses of spring, with some cherry blossom trees showing a hint of bloom. The London wildlife enjoyed the attention of Park visitors, and many posed obligingly for the camera (animals, that is, not visitors):

Our first view of St James' Park
Pelicans enjoying the attention
A local celebrity: Black Swan had its London premiere recently
This guy is used to the paparazzi
This guy was a show-off. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Pffffft.

This was another reminder that we were in London:

Signs of the times

At the far end of the Park, we caught a glimpse of an amazing crib: Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace: the official London residence of the British monarch

When the Queen is in residence, the Royal Standard flies on the flagpole on top of the Palace, otherwise the Union Flag flies in its place. The raising and lowering of the correct flag is the job of a flag serjeant. I’m not sure you can see in the photo, but the Union Flag is flapping the breeze; I think that’s why we weren’t invited for tea.

So, back towards the River, passing this en route:

Got to love London

We bought ourselves some sandwiches and sat on a bench next to the River, with this view, to have some lunch:

The view from our bench

We had fun after lunch taking photos of each other with the London Eye in the background. If we got the angle and the zoom just right, the London Eye looked like a perfect halo around our saintly heads. We giggled like children as we took the photos, and kept grabbing the camera from each other to try something new.

We walked back across the River, and had one last glimpse of this before we caught a bus home from Waterloo:

View from the Golden Jubilee Bridge over the River Thames

Ah, this day was good for my soul. It reminded me of why we chose to come here, and the awesome and scary adventure that is London. Perspective is a fine thing.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

I’ve never really thought of a red London bus as a chariot. But that’s exactly what we travelled in yesterday. Our bus driver told us so. Well, actually, he sang it so.

Travelling back from Greenwich to our home yesterday, our bus driver sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the top of his lungs, with all his heart and to the joy, horror and entertainment of his travelling charges. The cynical commuters wondered if he was p***ed drunk, some didn’t notice, some smiled coyly and two people alighted earlier than planned. The self-confessed “drunken bum” next to my niece and me was endlessly entertained. The proud owner of approximately two teeth, he chattered constantly and laughed like a drain. If he could stand up, he’d have been a stand-up. But his seated banter broadened our smiles all the way home, and the driver’s singing warmed my heart.

“He’s quite religious, I think. He’s trying to save you. Not me; I’m just a drunken bum. But he thinks he can save you. I don’t think he can, but that’s what he’s trying to do.”

Just another day in our joy-filled Christmas season. Here’s a short journey through our past week.

As we were due to leave London on Christmas Eve, we had to amend our tradition and see our Christmas movie a few days earlier. Burlesque proved to be a fun, lively and heart-warming introduction to the season – it totally fit the bill.

On Thursday evening, we went to the South Bank to visit the German market that appears next to the London Eye every Christmas. This is what we saw:

London Eye and the German Market at the South Bank, Christmas 2010
Stalls at the South Bank, Christmas 2010
Colourful carousel at the South Bank, Christmas 2010

It was VERY cold and we soon sought shelter and warmth within the hushed walls of the National Theatre, where a ragtime pianist was preparing for a free concert. We sat and listened to him for a while, before getting a call from a friend who was on her way to the Christmas Spectacular at the O2 Arena. She had a few spare tickets and invited us to join her.

What an amazing show – if we hadn’t been in the Christmas spirit already, that would have blasted us into it faster than the speed of light. What a special concert: an audience of 20,000, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Choral Society, the Capital Voices and four, world-class soloists who took us through Christmas song after Christmas song, some of which we were invited to sing along to. The last audience-included number was a rousing version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, complete with actions for each gift! Then the four singers ended the show with a medley of Christmas songs, punctuated with fireworks, exploding glitter balls and a shower of “snow”. What a special and unexpected Christmas gift the show turned out to be.

We left for south London on Christmas Eve to spend Christmas Day with dear friends from our university days. If we couldn’t be with our family, spending the day with wonderful friends that we’ve known pretty much forever was an excellent substitute. We ate well, laughed plenty, toasted our absent family and friends and listened to the Queen’s speech on television. We played games, did hideously badly at an Oxford-devised pub quiz and reminisced up a storm. What more could we ask for? A bit of snow, perhaps? Although we had no fresh snow, everything was covered in white and it felt for all the world that we had our first white Christmas. Close enough to make me happy.

So, in this build up to the end of 2010, may I wish you all much joy, beautiful relationships, happy work, fulfilling spiritual journeys, and may you dream, find or fulfil your dreams in 2011. I feel completely out of touch with my blogging buddies and the cyber world that I inhabit most week days. Please forgive me for not visiting blogs or commenting on all your posts; know that I love you all, my special readers and friends, and I will, like Arnie, be back.

Thank you, Mr Bus Driver, for keeping my Christmas joy alive yesterday with your delight-filled noise and for carrying us home in style. Keep singing and may your musical dreams find their chance to break out of that dreary uniform; you never know who may be listening.

Sunshine signing off for today.

Stop with me a while, enjoy Italy in London

I love it when we have friends staying with us. I realised this past weekend that we’ve had more people stay with us in London than anywhere else we’ve lived. London’s like that.

We had a friend staying with us over the weekend and planned a full weekend for him. While not everything went according to plan, it was just how it was meant to be. Life’s like that.

Our plan for Friday night was to go to one of our favourite restaurants next to Tower Bridge. It is right next to London’s City Hall, a modern and interesting-looking building that was added to London’s skyline in 2002.

London's City Hall designed by architect, Norman Foster

So our destination was London Bridge. We stood at the bus stop where the buses all head off in the same general direction. We discovered (actually we knew, but weren’t thinking) that the bus we jumped on gave London Bridge a wide berth. We decided to stay on board and travel to Waterloo and walk back along the South Bank to our final destination. The walk took us about an hour.

We walked the route I described in my blog post last week – Come and walk along the South Bank with me – but without the buskers, the book market and daylight. It was dark and cold, but still a wonderful walk, always with so much to see and soak in. The view of St Paul’s on the far side of the river, lit brightly against a dark, autumn sky, is always breathtaking. We walked past the working replica of the Golden Hinde, the small flagship that unbelievably took Sir Francis Drake around the world in 1577. We walked through, past, alongside and underneath amazing culture and history – I always wonder what the walls have seen and what they could tell us.

When we saw Tower Bridge in the distance, and the Tower of London on the far side of the river, we knew we were nearly there. We got a table upstairs at our favourite Italian restaurant, with the brightly lit Tower Bridge as the backdrop to our meal.

The view from the restaurant

Our delightful young Italian waiter, two months new to London and here to learn English, smiled awkwardly at us as he tried to make sense of our strange accents. English must be bad enough to understand. Saffa English? Heaven help the boy.

We ordered our meals from the menu bursting with Italian delights. Our friend wanted to impress the waiter, so he squeezed in a “Paolo Nutini” with his order, just to sound Italian. That was really funny!

Saturday morning and we headed east to Bethnal Green, to our favourite breakfast spot: ePellicci. Not only is the restaurant itself Grade II listed for its wooden art-deco interior, but it is an experience I would recommend to anyone visiting London. A true East End caff, ePellicci combines the wonderful, witty banter of the East End with the food, hospitality and kind community-mindedness that is typically Italian.

The best caff in London

The restaurant was started in around 1900 by the Pellicci family when they moved to London from Tuscany, and has been run by the family ever since. Mamma works in the kitchen (she is the daughter-in-law of the original couple and was sadly widowed two years ago; a framed photograph of her late husband hangs proudly on the wall), and her son, daughter and nephew run the show, with help of a few young waiters.

It is a tiny restaurant and I would imagine, at capacity (at which it operates constantly) seats about 35 people. The first time we went there, we walked in and were greeted warmly by the daughter who said to me, “Are you stoppin’, young lady?” I was sold.

They fill chairs, not tables, so you will always be seated with other people. The breakfast is a jolly good, greasy, fry-up for a fiver and if you leave anything on your plate, the staff feels bad because you could have substituted what you didn’t like for something else. They don’t want you to lose out – I loved that. Service is good and personal, they introduce people to each other, they have regulars who eat there daily or weekly, and plenty of people who travel from afar to experience Cockney Italian hospitality at its finest. On Saturday they showed us their photo album, which is filled with photos of celebrities – local and international – who have eaten there.

On our first visit, Nevio Jnr insisted on giving us – “guv, and the young lady” – a taste of the bread pudding his mamma made. He wrapped two slices of it in tinfoil for us, told us it was a taste of heaven and asked us to let him know, next time, what we thought of it. Generosity, community-mindedness, good service, personal touch and good, old-fashioned, tasty nosh – I thought you didn’t get any of that, anywhere, any more. ePellicci gives it to you in spades.

I’ll save the rest of our weekend for another post. I wanted you to enjoy a little Italian with us. Music and markets for another day.

Sunshine signing off for today.

Come and walk along the South Bank with me

There is nothing quite like a walk along the South Bank on a lazy afternoon. After watching the buskers and street artists at work, take a few moments to browse through the books at the outdoor book market. Round it off with a free concert at the National Theatre, and you have another reason to love London.

We’ve spent a few afternoons, usually with visitors to London, wandering along the South Bank, a walkway next to the Thames. We have watched jugglers and street dancers, street artists and musicians, statue artists (or whatever they are called) and a London bobby in a tutu. It is so vibrant along there. There is true talent on show and some talent just along for the ride, and it is all wonderful entertainment.

A bobby in a tutu. I think he's off duty.
A street dancer in action

Recently we stood and watched a busker blowing giant soap bubbles into the air. They were massive bubbles, boasting rainbow reflections as they floated into the air before being stabbed to death by pimply adolescents. We noticed a family standing across the way from us and soon became transfixed by their little, curly-haired, blue-eyed toddler in a buggy. He was so excited by the bubbles; his legs went rigid, then he screamed and laughed and kicked his legs in a frenzy. It was so sweet to witness pure, unadulterated joy and excitement. A precious moment.

The soap bubble blower

You cannot walk along the South Bank without stopping to check out the book market. It nestles under Waterloo Bridge and I understand is the only established second-hand/antique/vintage book market in southern England. It stays open till 7pm daily and is well worth a good browse; I saw some old Billy Bunter books there, something I haven’t seen since my childhood. Many of the traders are book specialists who can help you if you are looking for something in particular.

A book market with a river view

The South Bank is lined with restaurants and culturally populated with theatres and galleries: the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the National Theatre, BFI Southbank, Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern. The London Eye is also there; a relatively recent addition to London’s skyline.

The London Eye on the South Bank

The National Theatre quite regularly hosts free concerts in the foyer, and we have been privileged to see some up-and-coming and established artists performing there. One Sunday, after a long walk over a number of the London bridges (material for another day), we stopped at the National Theatre and were lucky enough to see a young singer/songwriter, Callaghan,  performing in the foyer. Her musical idol is Shawn Mullins, so you can imagine that her style is acoustic country, folk music.

Callaghan plays guitar and piano, and shifted between the two as she shared her wares of beautiful, lyrical songs of joy, triumph, love and longing. She chats between songs and is refreshingly open and honest, self-effacing even. We went to a second, free concert of hers there just before Christmas last year, and walked along the frozen South Bank, decorated with a brightly-lit German market, to get there. Beautiful, magical, colourful Christmas on the South Bank.

We went to a third concert of Callaghan’s in July. It was a farewell concert of sorts, as she and her husband were about to leave for the USA, for her to fulfil her dream of making an album with Shawn Mullins. As we speak, she is touring with him in the US; check out the tour, you might want to go if you’re nearby.

Her farewell concert was at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, central London. Described as the oldest live music venue in London, the club opened in 1942 as a jazz club. During World War II it saw the likes of Glen Miller perform there and, because it is situated in a basement, it was promoted as a bomb shelter of sorts. You could listen to great jazz music while the bombs rained down all around London. “Forget the Doodle bug – come and Jitterbug” was its payoff line in those days.

Callaghan performed her set of beautiful songs, shared her story of coming to London and trying to make it in the music business while working as an admin assistant in an accounting firm. Moving to the USA was to be her plunge, full-time, into the business, and she was thrilled and excited. And she was beside herself to have Shawn Mullins agree to produce her album.

She was accompanied in a couple of songs by the most outrageously talented jazz pianist, Joe Thompson. A pianist, artist and arranger, he is the musical director at London’s The Ivy Club. I am out of words to describe his talent. I was mesmerised.

I feel so privileged to witness the birth, the breath and the expression of talent in this city. Artists clamour to perform here, to ‘make it’ here and to launch their careers here. Some never want to leave. I cherish the opportunity I have to watch and listen, to whistle and scream, and always to walk alongside the river.

Sunshine signing off for today.