Saturday, January 18, 2014

All the World's a Stage

The church of St. Mary Abbot's, around the corner from my house, has a bellringers' guild. I know this because their website says so, and I know that because I spent many a long hour last December Googlestalking Kensington instead of writing papers.

So Thursday night, I set out to find them. 

As you'll remember, I've spent quite a bit of time in St. Mary Abbot's, but finding the bell-ringers was a new experience entirely. Instead of the brightly lit chapel entrance, I headed around the building to a back gate to a narrow and creepy alley with a tombstone in it. The photo below I took on Friday morning, when there was light; the incident I describe occurred after dark, in the rain. 

Heading through this narrow alley, I found a dark and ominous, but unlocked and open, door. This led into a spiral staircase of such steep and constricted dimensions that I was fairly sure I was going to die. But up and up and around and around I went, with the bells reverberating above me. I was fairly certain I was going to get to the top of the tower and step out into the Middle Ages, which led to additional concerns that I was seriously underdressed. 

Instead of the Middle Ages, I found myself in a carpeted tower room full of people and covered in plaques. Ten of the people were standing in a circle, each with a thick rope in his or her hands, pulling and releasing in careful sequences. All of them were off in another world, staring unseeing straight ahead or standing with their eyes closed, grabbing the rope by touch.

I, having read up on bell-ringing protocol, sat my butt down on the nearest bench and didn't move or speak until the bells were silenced and the ropes were still. Then the zen-like atmosphere broke up, and the bell-ringers smiled and laughed again, and gossiped with one another, and got a cup of tea, and asked me if I was a ringer and if I wanted to learn. I answered no to the first and yes to the second, and soon I was getting three-minute lessons on the history of English bell ringing in between sets. The whole evening felt very much like a cross between a Zivio folk dance rehearsal and a Salt Lake Scots pipe band performance. I guess that volunteer community groups specializing in obscure arts are pretty much the same wherever you go.

When ringing practice was over, I was invited to go 'round the pub. I accepted, and one of the ringers kindly bought me a lemonade amongst everyone else's beers. So that's three goals settled in one evening: seeing bell-ringing, going 'round the pub, and having someone buy me a drink. I was exceedingly pleased with myself. Someone offered to buy me another, but I declined, pleading an early morning. 

And what had I to do in the morning, you ask?

Well, Friday is Walking Around London Day.

We started this particular walk at Tower Bridge, which you'll remember from last week. Here's another picture of it anyway, in case you don't know what it looks like yet. 

Walking along it, I discovered that there are apartments or offices or something inside the towers. There were lights on. Further investigation is called for. 

We walked over the bridge and along the south bank of the river, seeing many lovely and interesting things, including Southwark Cathedral, which is very pretty. It's also smack across the river from St. Paul's cathedral, so it's kind of like that one spot in Salt Lake with the two stake centers right next to one another. Because boundaries are weird sometimes.

What I found interesting, and a little hysterically funny, was that in this precious real estate, smack in the Thames river, pure solid tourist gold, was a semi-enclosed mall, and in the middle of this semi-enclosed mall was a large pit of sand.

Is it an art installation? A spa treatment of some kind? An archeological activity center?

Nope. Know what it is? It's a pétanque court.

A pétanque court.

A game that, by its very nature, is made to be played on any old dirt road or random spot of grass you can conveniently find, has its own custom-built pitch in the middle of the London with a million-dollar view of the Thames. The world is very strange.

I also stumbled across Sir Francis Drake's ship, the Golden Hind.

There it is. It didn't do anything interesting, like steal stuff from the Spanish, while I was wandering past, though. 
The ultimate goal of all this walking was this week's glorious tourist adventure: the theater. The Theater.

Yep. That Theater. 

Our guide was one of the most delightful storytellers I've ever heard. She recounted tales of the Globe, both then and now, with perfect deadpan and a steady rhythm of additions and pauses that never let my attention wander for a moment. I learned a ton, including that the Globe is the first London building constructed with a thatch roof since 1666, that it's acceptable to lean on the edge of the stage and try to trip the performers, and that at the theater's opening, an actress playing Elizabeth I rode through the groundling yard on a white horse to salute Elizabeth II, seated in the royal box, and to be saluted by her. The Queen and the Player Queen, the Then and the Now. Where does today meet yesterday?

In a box that's bigger on the inside, of course.
Waiting for a player to trip. 
I also learned that recently the Globe did a whirlwind series of the Complete Plays, each one done by a theater group from a different country . . . in that country's native language. A Midsummer Night's Dream in Korean, by a Korean team, played to a houseful of English Londoners without translation. Troilus and Cressida in Maori, played by Maori actors and dancers, in a precolonial cultural context. Julius Caesar returning to the roots of its roots, played in Italian. The delicious irony of The Merchant of Venice by an Israeli company in Hebrew. Venus and Adonis in a mix of five different South African languages.

The box office contained a series of photographs from the plays, as well as some of the sonnets translated into the represented languages. This one's for my dear friend Pania Matthews.

Stay tuned for Saturday, when, in classic Shakespeare style, the plot thickens.

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