#17 An evening with Aurangzeb and Henry VIII

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I went to see a play at the National Theatre last evening. Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DARA, named after the rightful heir to Shahjehan ( of the great Mughal dynasty ) from whom was snatched the Peacock Throne by an … Continue reading

#15 Hashtag Activism : Text, Context, Subtext

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Charlie Hebdo and the Paris Attacks – everything that can be passionately, intelligently, funnily, fanatically SAID, WRITTEN and ILLUSTRATED about this has long been done. Several times over, in many languages, on all media platforms. Yet, NO ONE I’ve read … Continue reading

#14 being “happy” : Pharrell Williams, IPC and other theories…

“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hats off to Pharrell Williams! No, really.

What poets, painters, philosophers, psychoanalysts and their ilk have spend several wasted lifetimes trying to decipher, Pharrell did in precisely 4.08 mins, in a way that the world stopped and took notice, then plunged headlong into the jive, totally ‘getting it’ when he likens ‘happiness’ to a room without a roof.

Genius.

It’s that time of year when happiness figures prominently in our list of wishes, being the underlying theme to virtually anything we catagorize as a ‘resolution’ and nail to our masts. Makes you wonder if there are others like Pharrell who’ve cracked it, this deeply mysterious state of being where Life is a sun-dappled beach and we’ve worked out EXACTLY how to keep the dark clouds away. Forever.

So what is happiness – a journey ? an elusive destination ? the light at the end of the tunnel which enables us to haul ourselves over burning coal, believing that a bottomless pool of bliss lies just there, over on the other side ? Are there countries and cultures that make it slightly easier for us to be happy ? If yes, what’s the quid pro quo for it?

Like crime rate, religious fervour and political leanings, is happiness something that can be classified and quantified, then dressed in graphs and pie charts. Can it be ascribed to ‘theories’ that make it decidedly easier to understand and pursue..? Does it help if you’re a man / woman, black or white?

I got thinking about this whole ‘country, culture and happiness ‘ thing at the last Parents’ Meet just before Christmas. This time, a small note had been sent out by the school which mentioned something about “IPC” or the International Primary Curriculum which the British government was already in the process of rolling out across all State Schools in the UK. The teachers seemed hot and bothered, keen to discuss the matter and garner reactions from home.

Turns out, the Government has noticed, for some time now, a stark difference in the way Primary School kids are taught here, vis a vis Asia. They figured that pushing kids harder at the Primary level, like Asians do, invariably leads to a better grounding, thus greatly improved results in Secondary School – a belief fuelled by comparison.

Asian Kids In Secondary School Vs British Kids In Secondary School, ON AVERAGE.

It’s also no secret that Grammar Schools here have a staggeringly high percentage of non-whites who sail through stringent entrance exams each year. A Grammar School being that happy ‘truce’ for Secondary Education where nothing else counts but merit – wedged between posh Private Schools ( charging anything from £3000 to £10,000+ per term ) and totally free State Schools where ‘catchment’ is the only consideration.

Hmmmm, there must be SOMETHING about the way these Asian kids are taught, specially back in their own countries. Let’s imbibe a few bits from their model and see where it takes us – that’s essentially what the government here is saying.

And BEHOLD the reaction!

My 7 years old’s teacher, an Asian herself, sat us down with a big smirk and announced – “Parents, it’s all-change from here! Your child will now be doing a lot of the Year 4 stuff in Year 3, which means learning their Times Tables faster, up to a higher number, more reading, harder spellings, comprehension…” she seemed delighted.

And, frankly, so was I.

My kids go to a school that’s been rated by OFSTED ( the ones who monitor standards in education every few years ) as “Outstanding” and yet they get far too little “homework” for my liking. My 10 year old, in his penultimate year of Primary School, is assigned homework ONCE A WEEK ; a mix of tasks in Numeracy and Literacy that take no more than an few hours of his time. Officially, just TWO HOURS of homework IN A WEEK, for a TEN YEAR OLD! To anyone from India, that’s sacrilege.

Of course, these kids could do more! At this age, their minds are like sponge, soaking up anything and everything they are exposed to. They could be pushed a lot harder and be motivated ( threatened with punishment? ) to get into a discipline of doing ‘homework’ every single day as we’ve all done, all our lives ! More so, as there are no ‘exams’ of any sort in Primary School, barring two SATs –  in Year 2 and Year 6. Those too, mainly to gauge the aptitude of the student and put them in some sort of League Table for the sake of statistics.

Ms Raza in Year 3 seemed jolly pleased that her class would now have to pull up their socks and I could see why.

Then I made my way to Year 5 and suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

Ms Ogden seemed more upset than annoyed, to be honest. I naturally assumed that she didn’t particularly take to the idea of more planning and paperwork these changes would bring for the teachers, adding to their weekly woes.

Then she began to speak,

“Parents / Carers…it’s almost Christmas but I have bad news, she began. It is with deep regret that I tell you this – we are going for a concentrated push towards achieving a higher level in Year 5 , “IPC” or something like that, they’re calling it, she sneered.

WHY the need for it, I don’t understand, she continued in the same vein…after all, these are just 10 year olds, still only KIDS…they NEED Art and Music and PE and everything else that will now be slightly compromised, in the name of this, this…. “IPC”…Primary School is where they should draw and sing and paint and play as they learn…SO important for them to do all these things NOW, before “life” takes over.

What’s the point of pressing for better grades if it turns them into robots and takes away the joy of learning? Each one of them is different, each one unique…NOW is the time to let them blossom, allow them to seek out their interests…THIS is the time to learn social skills that will last them a lifetime, learn to be kind and caring, to work as a team, to eat properly, say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’, to swim and ride and do handstands and cartwheels and roundoffs, to use their imagination, play instruments, make models, read and be read to……frankly, I DON”T see the point of all these changes that will do little besides make them stressed and frustrated at SUCH A YOUNG AGE…it’s incredibly sad, I know, but it’s got to be done…I am so so sorry. I shall try to still keep it as fun as possible, so they don’t start hating their last few years here.” she finished, visibly upset.

I sat there speechless.

What does one say to that ?

Clearly, it’s a “culture” thing to some extent, isn’t it, all this business of “marks ( grades ) and results” NOT BEING the ‘be all and end all’ of “education”. It is a concept alien to me. Sure, we had Music and Art and PE and School Trips and Concerts, we had loads of fun, like children elsewhere in the world but we were NEVER allowed to forget that it was ALL about getting the highest “marks” and “coming first in class” – everything else was secondary, even in Primary School. The ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ got sorted right at the onset, a hierarchy very hard to break out of as the school years progressed – perhaps a life-lesson learnt much too soon ( as I look back now ) …

“HAPPINESS COMES FIRST” is scribbled in bold letters outside Nursery at my kids’ school in Barnet. We walk past it everyday, paying little heed to what it implies.

I think I’m beginning to understand it a little better,  though I’m still not sure what the IDEAL Primary School Curriculum might be.How do you even compare the two systems or decide what’s best in the long run, what makes us ‘happiest’ in the end. Not wealthiest or most famous / successful but happiest ?

And then again, as Mrs Patmore remarked in Downton Abbey, “Sympathy butters no parsnips”. I guess the same could be said for happiness 🙂 Sometimes, we need to be pushed to our limits ( whether or not in Primary School – the jury’s out on that ! ) to discover what we’re truly capable of. The pursuit of excellence is happiness too.

Again, the age-old quest for the H word….

Ending this post with a brilliant piece by Hilary Mantel on grief, rather her rereading of A Grief Observed by C S Lewis, the complete antithesis to what we seek everyday.

Perhaps it is by observing grief that we can learn to appreciate, truly appreciate and be grateful for our blessings. Perhaps it is the easiest way to be happy. To be reminded of the things that could’ve easily gone wrong but haven’t. Yet.

Wishing you, my dear reader, luck and happiness, however you may chose to define it, for 2015! Here’s to dreams, sunshine and a steaming hot cappuccino – always a good place to start looking for ‘happiness’

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/27/hilary-mantel-rereading-cs-lewis-a-grief-observed

#13 HIGHGATE : a stroll through 400 years of history..

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“…and THAT, by the way, is Jude Law’s house” remarked our guide wearily, fully expecting the sudden burst of madness that followed – long sighs, loud gasps and lots of click-click-click-flash-selfie-selfie-selfie ( you get the picture, right? )

We were almost an hour into a guided walk through Highgate Village, North London’s best kept secret, when he made this declaration for the benefit of a dozen people in our group of ‘walkers’ who were more likely to be impressed by Jude Law than Samuel Coleridge ( yes, me included! )

A charming man with greying sideburns, our guide Richard ( or Richard III, as he liked to call himself since there are no less than SIX  ‘Richards’ presently employed with the London Walks Company!  ) took us on a ramble through a neighbourhood not entirely unknown to me. I live barely a few stops from it, further north in Barnet, and I’ve passed Highgate several times on my way into town but I was warned that there were interesting stories lurking around the corner from me which I knew NOTHING about!

“1.45 PM in the ticket hall of Highgate Tube Station” said the brochure and around twenty of us braved a bitter, cold afternoon and showed up for, what turned out to be,  an extraordinary walk through the history of London. Leading up a steep hill along Jackson’s Lane, Richard marched us to a spot, well hidden from the main thoroughfare, which provided a panoramic view of London stretching ahead, down below from where we were perched.

It was the prefect vantage point from where to begin a journey into 400 years of history!

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It was a miserable day so we couldn’t see much of the iconic skyline ( the  familiar silhouettes of St Paul’s Cathedral, The Tate, The Gherkin, The Shard…) but on a clear day, it was possible to see up to a distance of about 50 miles, all the way to the South Downs, we were reliably informed. Turns out, the main city of London along the Thames lies in a dip ( in the shallow curve of a spoon, as it were ) , as seen clearly from North London, specially Highgate which forms a part of the North Hills.

Hundreds of years ago, when people burned log fires to keep their houses warm, palls of thick smoke would rise up from every chimney in London. Being cold and damp all year ’round, the heavy clouds overhead pressed down on this blanket of chimney-smoke and gave rise to the infamous smog – a soot-infested cover of smoke+fog so vile that it made you sick and so thick that you couldn’t see your own hand in front of you.

This is when those who could afford to escape the City, came away to the northern fringes, to Highgate and Hampstead – hill-stations affording them clean, fresh air and magnificient views. The added romance of Hampstead Heath, 800 acres of green space boasting natural springs, ponds and wild, untamed, rugged beauty cradling some of the highest points in London  ( much of it preserved to this day ) drew the artistic set to its bosom, away from the financial heart of the city down below.

The name ‘Highgate’ harks back to the time when the Bishop of London extracted a fee from those who wished to cross his land. The toll ‘gate’ nearby stands testimony.

The Highgate Society exists to this day to maintain the ‘character’ of the landscape. Most buildings in the area are Listed by English Heritage depending on how old they are  ( from pre 1600 to Post World War II ) – in other words,  you can’t carry out any major structural changes, no matter how rich or famous you are!

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http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/listing/listed-buildings/

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Next to it, the Highgate Scientific and Literary Institution  ( pic above ) housed in that somewhat dull white building from 1839,  is known to be the first public library in this country.

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Pond Square in the heart of Highgate Village ( picture above ) no longer has a pond in the middle. Standing there now, it’s a little hard to imagine what a ‘celebrity hub’ it once was and continues to be. Every few metres there are houses with plaques on them, announcing their illustrious heritage – here lived Charles Dickens, Samuel Coleridge, JB Priestley, John Betjeman ….the ‘Village’ is heaving with names that shaped the world.

Richard III makes dramatic gestures every time he pauses before a “celebrity” home and feeds us nuggets of history and gossip. Margaret Rutherford ( Miss Marple ) Robert Donat  ( Goodbye, Mr Chips ) Ray Davis ( the Kinks ), Yehudi Menuhin,  Jonathan Price ( now best known as a Bond Baddie from Tomorrow Never Dies ) Terry Gilliam  ( Monty Python ) Victoria Wood, Jude Law…. Highgate Village was quite the hunting ground for all the 80s popstars too – Sting, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Boy George have all been locals here.

And these are only the names kindly estate agents would openly divulge!

There is a plaque to Dickens on a house where he lived at the age of 20, still unblemished by fame. Rumour has it that Dickens only ever stayed there for two weeks. In fact, he’s believed to have put his bags down in that house while he actually LIVED in the pub next door! Curiously, the plaque doesn’t mention that.

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There’s also a house which is considered the largest private residence in all of London, with the exception of the Royal residences ( Pic below, boarded up, to the right of the glorious sunset )  It once belonged to a Soap Magnate who made his fortune with the very humble SUNLIGHT soap ( we in India, know the brand too! ). His wife moved in High Society and often had the Queen and Princess Margaret over at her Highgate residence for pool parties and a round of tennis.

Today, that house is rumoured to be owned by a Russian oligarch, undergoing a serious face-life as we walked past it. We’re told he’s planning a basement, a sub-basement and a sub-sub-basement for his fleet of wheels, a swimming pool, private theatre and personal gym..!

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Knowing very little about the history and architecture of England as I do, it’s fascinating to see Richard point to buildings and go “..Gothic, Gothic Revival….Edwardian, Georgian, Late Victorian, mock Tudor, Grim 1960s etc ) Even if he’s doing it merely to show off  ( to me and the Japanese girls in the group, the only non-Europeans  )  it’s impressive!

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An Alms House ( picture above ) for the ‘desirable poor’ who went about their chores uncomplainingly. There’s not enough room to swing a cat yet families of up to 10 lived in each of those rooms and were considered blessed. The ‘undesirable poor’ were frogmarched to the ‘Workhouse’ as described by Dickens in Oliver.

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There are grim reminders too ( above ) of the times when Londoners were slapped with a crippling ‘Window Tax’ – anyone with more than nine windows had to pay, as a result; many windows were boarded up ( bricked off ) for good.

Since then, sunshine in London has been at a premium!

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A block of flats down the road from Pond Square, HIGHPOINT ( above )  is also a much-desired Highgate address, designed by Russian-born Berthold Lubetkin. It looks dated now and rather compact yet a flat in there is on the market for over a million pounds. Built in the 1930s, it was very modern for its time, with an Open Plan and a rooftop garden, it also has a heated-outdoor-swimming pool, tennis courts and jaw-dropping views ’round the back.

Fortunately for Londoners, a brilliant annual event, Open House,  gives us the opportunity to poke our noses where they don’t belong. Each year, several private spaces ( houses, mansions, libraries and offices of historic importance and interest ) open their doors to the public in September. Richard seriously recommends a look at the skyline bathed in summer twilight, from one of the top floor windows of HIGHPOINT. “1.2 million for THAT would be a steal”, he muses.

http://www.openhouselondon.org.uk/

Throughout this walk across present-day Highgate, we are made aware of how closely and lovingly it has guarded and preserved its glorious past, its inextricable links to history. A haven for millionaires today, strewn with “cottages” with extensive grounds and all the comforts money can buy but it’s all behind closed doors, shrouded in ‘period’ minimalism, veiled under sedate exteriors that haven’t changed for centuries!

Another interesting feature of the area is the Cemetery ( divided into East and West by a long, sinister road ). It’s a veritable Who’s Who, too vast to explore on our walk. I came back later for a quick stroll past a few famous names.

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The sun went behind an angry blob of grey clouds and it suddenly turned suitably eerie to be walking past the dead. Karl Marx commanded an impressive presence ( below )

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George Eliot lay carelessly among sculptors, thinkers, writers, bespoke shoemakers, firemen, painters, philosophers, lawyers, rock stars, designers and archaeologists, engineers, Naval Commanders, even the Chiropodist to Abraham Lincoln ( what??)

And then there was Douglas Adams –  his fans and ‘hitchhikers’ have laid down their pens to salute his writing. Clever and moving!

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The Dickens Family Plot was over on the other side of the road, in the West Cemetery, amidst a similar list of renowned names. Waterlow Park ( below )  bordering the Cemetery,  set the scene beautifully for a spot of quiet soul-searching, yards away from the famous dead.

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Towards the end of our walk, we came to another very English institution – the Pub! And Highgate has one which is hard to beat in terms of ‘feel’ and ‘character’ –  The Flask ( so called because people in the old days would come up here and fill their flasks from the nearby springs, a source of clean, pure, healing, mineral water ) Haunted, revered, seeped in history since 1663, the Flask was the watering hole for the English Romantics – Keats, Byron, Shelley who often came here to meet a friend living across the road from the pub, Samuel Coleridge.

Coleridge who spent over 20 years in Highgate, up until his death, was often seen roaming the streets in search of dealers who would sell him opium. Dangerously addicted, he would even urge the boys of Highgate School ( ’round the corner from the Flask and his home ) to leave vials of opium for him in their school grounds, hidden among bushes, in return for sums of money and other inappropriate favours. High as a kite by day, he would sit by a burning candle, deep into the night and churn out literary masterpieces. There’s a shrine to Coleridge in the local St Michael’s Church, a few meters away.

As our guide charmingly put it ; “When you read ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ you sometimes wonder – WHAT is this guy on ??  Well, the answer is  – OPIUM !”

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Coming back to The Flask, Dick Turpin, the highway robber, was also known to hide in the stables here, away from the authorities when they came looking. Painter William Hogarth was a customer, so was Karl Marx. The hauntings at this pub involve a Spanish barmaid who hanged herself in the wine cellar over unrequited love and a man in Cavalier uniform who is sometimes seen striding across the main bar, then disappearing into a pillar.

Locals believe that you have to consume at least THREE pints of stout before you can actually see either of them!

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The much sought-after Highgate School ( below ) once the preserve of wealthy, aristocratic boys only, is now co-ed yet just as exclusive. It owns extensive riding grounds, rugby and cricket fields across vast swathes of Highgate, straddling two London Boroughs – Camden and Haringay. The borderline separating the two ( formerly separating two Parishes, not Boroughs ) is marked halfway down the middle of The Gatehouse Pub, across the school gates.

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As we end our walk at the Flask and unwind over a pint, Richard sums up Highgate with the words, “well, if you wanted to make money – as a doctor, lawyer, trader, civil servant….you lived in the City. if you wanted a life of notoriety and debauchery or wanted to live ‘dangerously’  chasing literary pursuits of high artistic merit, as well as mingling with free thinkers, socialists, mistresses to royalty and highway con-men…you came away to Highgate!”

Pointing to the house right in front of us, where Coleridge and JB Priestley both once lived ( not together, I add! ) Richard casually muttered, “it’s now the home of Kate Moss”. And left us in stunned silence to refill his glass at the bar.

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The sighs and gasps and “click, click, flash, flash, selfie, selfie” began all over again…

MY favourite story from the afternoon?

John Betjeman, when a student at Highgate Junior School, was taught by a ceratin T S Eliot ( known as the American Headmaster ) He once plucked the courage to scribble a few lines of poetry and took it up to Eliot, who dismissed it as “terrible” and urged him not to pursue poetry anymore.

Sir John Betjeman grew up to be one of the MOST LOVED Poet Laureates of the UK from 1972 until his death.

Moral Of The Story ;  Sometimes, you’ve just gotta do what your heart says!

 

#12 and the OSCAR goes to….

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“…And the Aaaskr ( Oscar, to the rest of us ) goes to….

Perhaps the most famous refrain from any Award Ceremony on the planet.

But it’s not March yet.

There are other, smaller but no less coveted, longed-for, celebrity-studded awards AND ceremonies, specially when it comes to recognizing outstanding work in theatrics. The BIG ONE on the British calendar – the LONDON EVENING STANDARD THEATRE AWARDS happened last Sunday, with the Who’s Who and Who’s That? of Theatre coming together for a night of pretty frocks, sharp suits, funny, witty speeches and endless champagne.

Theatre has always been the poor cousin to Film in the Money & Fame stakes , yet it is where many crave recognition,  from both – the public and their peers. It’s relatively easy to ‘perform’ with the aid of technology – blue screens, body-doubles, 44 retakes, if needed, in addition to being tapped on the head by a magic wand in Post Production which can ‘fix’ virtually anything.

But can you cut it on your own in a dark room, oozing wit and charm, love and lust, humour and pathos, as envisaged by someone else ( the playwright / author / poet ) – getting the lines and the emotions spot on, show after show, in a room full of strangers who’ve paid good money to come and see you. Can you do it ?

I’ll tell you who can.

GILLIAN ANDERSON !!

She took home the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress for playing Blanche DuBois in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, the Tennessee Williams classic, self-admittedly her best performance ever which I was lucky to witness.

I got the impression that playing Blanche is to an actress, what playing Hamlet is probably to an actor. There’s prestige, there’s tremendous (  illustrious  )  history,  layers and layers of emotion,  reams of dialogue and attempts to embrace a story that has stood the test of time. And a burning desire to make it your own.

Few can master that.

Even though she’s lived in London for many years now, Gillian was obviously drafted in to lend Hollywood glamour to this play, drawing from her 20 years in Film and TV, most notably as Agent Dana Scully in the X-FILES ( the very embodiment of a  “Thinking Man’s Crumpet” )

Prior to its short, much anticipated run this summer, A STREETCAR… had already made history by becoming the fastest selling show EVER at the Young Vic. It was also filmed and broadcast to more than 2000 cinema screens worldwide. “Electrifying” was a word being used a LOT in describing this production.

Naturally, I was curious.

Gillian was following in the footsteps of a long, distinguished line of women. The Guardian did a little tribute in pictures to remind us of the famous names who’d gone before her.

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/gallery/2014/jul/16/gillian-anderson-streetcar-named-desire-young-vic-in-pictures

Anderson’s interpretation of Blanche was a personal and artistic benchmark – overstrung, fragile but profoundly sympathetic – in a radical production by Australian director Benedict Andrews who plucked the story out of its original home – a decrepit, disreputable corner of 1940s New Orleans and hauled it up to the present.

The set was nothing but a slow-revolving square, an intimate audience huddled all around it.

A few columns and beams ( a mere suggestion of “walls” ) enclosing a free-standing sink,  door,  bathtub,  dressing table,  bed,  some chairs and a stairway,  dotted haphazardly within that square and flimsy net curtains separating bedroom from bathroom, interior from exterior, perception from reality –  IKEA minimalism at its best!

Here’s what director Benedict Andrews said about his unique vision for the play.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f01dcf00-06b3-11e4-ba32-00144feab7de.html#axzz37k9gRX60

The set design was sheer genius!  Adding an extra dimension to the narrative,  playing mind-games with the audience while constantly altering their perspective in more ways than one.

In course of the 3 and a half hours, the actors rarely ever leave the stage. All the action – change of scenery, change of costume, the pacing of dialogue, screams, laughter, tears, tantrums, breaking glass, slamming doors, copious consumption of alcohol,  conversations fraught with danger and sexual frisson – we see it ALL –  right there, before us in all-encompassing 360 degrees and nowhere to hide. It’s uncomfortable viewing.

Often, you get the feeling that you shouldn’t really be there, watching and listening in on the characters going about their lives, hurtling towards certain disaster.
Slowly, Tennessee Williams peels one layer after another with admirable finesse, taking you closer and closer to the real Blanche DuBois – a booze-worn beauty and disgraced schoolmistress whose haughty charm while seeking sanctuary in her sister’s claustrophobic apartment is a red rag to her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley.

A lot in the story is implied. And Gillian Anderson speaks louder with her silence than anyone else I know. She elevates Ms. DuBois to dizzying heights with her stellar performance of a woman beaten, broken but unwilling to let go. I can’t remember a time in the theatre, or elsewhere, when I’ve gone from laughter to tears in under 30 seconds…when I’ve loathed and loved a character so much, all at once.

The fabulous Miss Anderson nailed it for me.

The London Stage is no stranger to Hollywood glamour and I’ve seen my fair share of stars in the last 13 years, patiently queued up at the Stagedoor for autographs on my Programme, eaten soggy tubs of Haagen Dazs during Interval…and done all the rest of it.

But Gillian Anderson turned an awesome performance into an unforgettable experience for me.

It doesn’t happen everyday.

http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/a-streetcar-named-desire