Hope (and Ian McKellen) Lured Me to Britain. Was It Worth the Risk?

LONDON — I didn’t really see the heckler, however I can inform you what I heard from down the block: a person’s voice via what gave the impression of a megaphone, jeering on the crowd lined up outdoors the Gillian Lynne Theater for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella.”

This West Finish heckler was ridiculing us for 2 issues, one petty — that we might spend cash on tickets to such a present — the opposite toxic.

Take a look at you in your masks, he mentioned. What a bunch of fools.

Ready on the sidewalk for my pal Ken — who was desperate to see “Cinderella” due to the divided critiques, whereas I used to be curious as a result of Emerald Fennell (“Promising Younger Lady”) wrote the guide — I used to be already double masked. I had landed at Heathrow solely that morning and began my weeklong theater binge with a matinee of Nick Payne’s “Constellations.”

I felt responsible about the entire thing, actually — about being out of the country. However I’d had my two doses of the Moderna vaccine, I used to be a maniac about masks, and my world had gotten worryingly small within the pandemic. Months earlier than, after I’d wanted even the thinnest thread of hope that we might make our method via this mess, I’d purchased tickets to see Ian McKellen play Hamlet. I didn’t need to quit that hope.

Although “Constellations” turned out to be disappointingly surface-skimming — with no chemistry between the celebs, Chris O’Dowd and Anna Maxwell Martin, and thus too little humor and no heartbreak — it nonetheless felt like a miracle to step off a airplane and some hours later be a part of that packed viewers. (As a result of I used to be totally vaccinated in america, I didn’t need to quarantine.) Apart from the various masked faces in attendance, and the well being questionnaire we needed to reply within the 48 hours earlier than the present to get our tickets by e-mail, it felt very very similar to outdated instances.

However at “Cinderella” that night, I sat beside a barefaced tween, and two different unmasked kids have been subsequent to her. All of them appeared too younger to be vaccinated. And, surprisingly, given Lloyd Webber’s public insistence that pandemic theater can and should be finished safely, there was no vaccination or testing requirement for the viewers. Loads of folks have been unmasked, together with those that eliminated their masks to eat or drink.

The musical itself, although? It was a messy, overstuffed pleasure, a Cinderella narrative so radically refashioned that we anti-princess feminist sorts lastly, improbably, establish together with her. Not by the way, each solo that she sings is destined to be rapturously carried out down the ages on highschool phases.

And when, in the course of the ball, the auditorium bodily transforms in order that we’re sitting within the spherical, with the revolving stage a lot nearer to us that the scene out of the blue feels intimate, it’s a fully enchanting little bit of theatrical magic — the type you must be there to expertise.

The morning after, I headed to a Covid testing web site. I’d been examined in New York two days earlier than I flew right here (a requirement scheduled to vanish for totally vaccinated vacationers on Oct. 4, when laws loosen), however folks totally vaccinated in america additionally should get a take a look at within the first couple of days after arriving. I went right into a stall, swabbed the again of my throat (gag) and my nostrils (sneeze), then put the pattern in a drop field.

I had extra reveals to see: first Kae Tempest’s “Paradise,” a remodeling of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” with an all-female forged on the Nationwide Theater. It was a matinee, they usually have been filming it; I noticed six cameras, together with one which traveled slowly up and down a curved monitor in entrance of the stage.

I wasn’t positive I wanted to see one other telling of this story in regards to the long-abandoned warrior along with his festering wound, and Tempest’s script alone wouldn’t have persuaded me. However I did get to witness the enthralling Lesley Sharp, whose sinuous portrayal of the blustering Philoctetes had a crackling vitality.

That evening’s present was Tom Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning “Leopoldstadt,” an intricate household saga impressed by the historical past of his personal Jewish Czech household, a few of whom fled the Nazis — as he, his mother and father and his brother have been capable of do when Stoppard was a toddler — and lots of of whom have been murdered by them.

It was the third large-cast manufacturing I’d seen in two days, and the primary to ask for proof of vaccination. This theater, too, was crowded, however behind my double masks it was straightforward to lose myself within the sheer Stoppardness of the play: the characters’ bristling intellectualism and the bourgeois ease that ebbs away, then vanishes fully when the Nazis present up.

My pal Ken and I went for an alfresco drink afterward, a stone’s throw from a few stage doorways. It was heartening to see actors popping out of them, simply because it had been candy, on my stroll to the theater, to spy little children in ice-blue attire on their strategy to “Frozen.” The liveliness felt so welcome, so vital.

Early the subsequent night, striding briskly alongside the south financial institution of the Thames towards the Nationwide, I zigzagged via throngs of individuals of all ages having informal enjoyable. It occurred to me, not for the primary time, that in films the characters racing via picturesque crowd scenes are sometimes concerned in a caper gone improper. Which, although I didn’t realize it but, I used to be.

I acquired to the Nationwide 45 minutes early for Winsome Pinnock’s “Rockets and Blue Lights” as a result of that was my assigned arrival time — staggered for pandemic security. I’d already purchased my program and a duplicate of the script after I sat down in a room off the foyer, checked my e-mail and took just a few shocked moments to fathom what I learn. In large, daring letters, my Covid take a look at consequence mentioned “Constructive.”

I fled on foot, double masked, straight again to my lodge, the place I must isolate for the subsequent 10 days. One of many first issues I did was e-mail all of the field places of work to inform them which efficiency I’d seen and the place I had been sitting.

Earlier than and after my take a look at, and all through my isolation, I felt fully properly. However what in regards to the unmasked woman subsequent to me at “Cinderella”? What in regards to the folks round me at different reveals? My pal Ken acquired examined and is ok. However how a lot good did my double masking do?

Theater is a social artwork kind involving social dangers. I calculated them earlier than I traveled and determined they have been price it. However after all I didn’t notice I might be the menace within the room.

On the final web page of the “Constellations” program is an airline advert aiming to entice theater lovers to cross the Atlantic once more. “All of the world’s a stage,” it reads beneath a close-up {photograph} of road indicators — the intersection of Broadway and West forty second Road — and above a shot of a theater inside that appears distinctly British.

In different phrases: Come on. You already know you need to.

I had needed to. I’m simply undecided following that impulse was the proper factor to do. Not but.

AND THEN I WAS SPRUNG. On the finish of the ten days, I went to a sort, coincidentally musical-loving physician (he thought “Six” may show too British for Broadway), who examined me, declared me recovered and wrote a letter to that impact so I might be allowed to fly again to america.

However it might have been heartbreaking, and wasteful, to go house with out getting what I got here for. So I stayed to pack seven extra reveals into 4 extra days, beginning with McKellen’s hale and haunted Hamlet, a riveting interpretation in a frustratingly disjointed manufacturing.

I noticed a matinee of the long-running ghost story “The Lady in Black,” which I’d hoped would have recent vitality post-shutdown (it didn’t), and, on the Menier Chocolate Manufacturing unit that evening, Rebecca Taichman’s excellent manufacturing of Paula Vogel’s beautiful “Indecent,” which each wrecked me and left me exhilarated. (Like many theaters, the Chocolate Manufacturing unit has a lenient Covid trade coverage.)

I returned to the Nationwide to see Pinnock’s “Rockets and Blue Lights,” which I had learn in isolation, and which in Miranda Cromwell’s staging takes tender and splendidly theatrical care of Black our bodies because it tells a brutal story of Britain’s historical past and legacy of slavery.

Then the director Ola Ince wowed me — first on the Royal Court docket together with her glorious manufacturing of Aleshea Harris’s “Is God Is,” and the subsequent afternoon at Shakespeare’s Globe with the perfect “Romeo and Juliet” I’ve ever seen: energetic, love-struck and filled with laughter, however with a postmodern consciousness of the play’s sociopolitical resonances, and one million miles from romanticizing its suicides. The deaths on the finish are horribly unhappy.

My final present was Bess Wohl’s odd, humorous, terrifically forged new play “Camp Siegfried” on the Previous Vic, the theater whose early-pandemic, livestreamed productions sustained so many people from so distant. It was shifting to see that stunning area, cavernously empty on digicam, refill with an viewers.

However at that and almost each manufacturing I noticed, there have been hundreds — typically a majority — of barefaced folks within the crowd, which felt reckless and delusional, as if the pandemic have been a factor of the previous. (I’d have thought an viewers might at the very least unite in the reason for making an attempt to not kill Ian McKellen with Covid, however apparently not.) If I hadn’t simply had the virus, it might have freaked me out fully. New York theaters, vastly extra rigorous about masks and vaccinations, really feel a lot safer.

And but. The opposite afternoon, I walked to the foot of Westminster Bridge to go to the statue of Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican nurse I’d by no means heard of till two years in the past, when Jackie Sibblies Drury’s magnificently kaleidoscopic play “Marys Seacole” made its debut at Lincoln Middle Theater. My thoughts began whirring with ideas of the Donmar Warehouse manufacturing developing within the spring: how fascinating it might be to look at it with a British viewers, how badly I need to try this.

I really like London, love seeing theater right here. I simply marvel when it’ll really feel OK to return again.

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