A Long Weekend of Theatre – London and Stratford-Upon-Avon

After a few months of very heavy travel, it looks like I’m actually at home for a couple of weeks – at least until my trip to Toronto in July. I don’t mind being at home at the moment – it has been a lot of travel – and I decided to make the most of it by doing some local sigh seeing.

Thursday, I had booked myself a ticket to see George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, at the Old Vic Theatre. The Old Vic is a London theatre icon – there’s been a theatre there since the early 1800’s, and some of the most famous actors in the history of theatre have been members of the theatre. Think Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Judi Dench, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins. Kevin Spacey is the current Artistic Director. For the Canadian connection, “Honest” Ed Mirvish bought the theatre in the early 80s and did the restoration to its current form. 

The theatre itself is a beautiful, classic theatre, with three levels of seating and excellent acoustics. I was third row center, and felt like you were on the stage. For those unfamiliar, , with three levels of seating and excellent acoustics. I was third row center, and felt like you were on the stage. For those unfamiliar, Pygmalion is the base for the musical My Fair Lady – minus the happy ending. I think tits the better version, and Shaw was apparently horrified at the changes made to the ending for My Fair Lady.

The production was outstanding – the actors were absolutely amazing and just carried and engaged the audience through the whole production. The beauty of Shaw is in the brilliance of his writing, the use of language, and this play is a stunning example of it. Mostly a comedy, it has its dark moments, and, as mentioned, it ends on a bit of a down note. All around, it was an amazing evening. 

Given that the theatre is about six blocks from my house, it certainly took me long enough to get in to see a play. I’ve seen a lot of theatre in my life, but what I’ve consistently discovered in my time in the UK is that they just know how to do a better job of it here. I’ve seen some great performances in Toronto, or in Stratford (Ontario) or at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but theatre in the UK always seems to take it to another level. 

On Saturday, I went up to Stratford-Upon-Avon for the weekend, again with the primary reason to see a play. This was my second trip to Stratford, having been the in 2001 on my first trip to the UK. On that trip, I saw Twelfth Night, and was awed by the performance, the theatre and the whole experience. This time ended up a bit different.

We took the train from central London to Stratford – an easy 2-hour trip, which deposits you right at the outskirts of town, but still easy walking distance. After dropping bags off at the B&B, we spent the early afternoon wandering around the town center. The town itself really hadn’t changed since I was there last time, but did I ever get a shock when we went to the theatre to pick up the tickets! More on that later.

Old pub on the Stratford-Upon-Avon high street.

Old pub on the Stratford-Upon-Avon high street.

The first stop was to wander over to Holy Trinity Church, and see Shakespeare’s grave. For whatever reason, the last time I was here I did not see either his grave or the Birthplace. I’m not sure why, and it is very odd to me. Holy Trinity is beautiful – huge stained glass windows showing various Bible stories, intricate wood and stone carvings throughout, and the most amazing organ I have ever seen. It is beautifully carved, with the carvings and the organ pipes all intermixed together. The grave site itself – with its curse engraved on the stones – is pretty cool. The graveyard around the church is filled with ancient tombstones – many of them worn smooth, and gave me lots of ideas for pictures, assuming Sunday had better weather.

Holy Trinity Church - "Shakespeare's Church"

After the church we went to pick up our tickets, and I came to understand why I had such a hard time ordering them in the first place. It seems that the main theatres are being rebuilt, and they are doing performances out of a temporary theatre until 2010. So instead of two theatres, there’s only the one. So there are lots of people wanting tickets, but only half the space. It explained a lot actually. 

After picking up the tickets, we wandered around town a little more. Stopped in at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, and did the tour of the exhibit and the actual house. Interestingly enough, it has been a “tourist attraction” since the 1800s. I missed it last time I was here, so it was worth seeing. The exhibit was good; lots of facts I already new, but well presented. The house was interesting to see, and seemed to be authentically restored (like I’d know any different…).

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare's Birthplace

After that we headed back to the B&B and changed for the play. The Courtyard Theatre is a temporary structure while the main theatres are being renovated. While a temporary structure, it’s still a pretty good venue. They’ve built it as a “thrust: stage, meaning that part of the stage extends out into the audience. It’s a bit different, and they used it well to get some audience engagement in the play – a couple of people found themselves part of the play. It was fun. 

The performance itself was just average really. I have never seen Merchant of Venice, but most people know the story. The cast was OK – nothing wrong, but no one really blew me away. The actor that played Shylock was probably the only exceptional cast member. It was a good performance, and I enjoyed the evening thoroughly.

Sunday, the weather was a bit better. While the rain from Saturday had gone away, and the sun had come out, it was ridiculously windy. Still, it was better than rain. We spent the morning wandering around the village, and I had a chance to take some pictures. We wandered up the river for a while, and also spent an hour or so in the Butterfly Farm. Yes, it’s pretty much what you’re thinking – a tropical greenhouse where they raise butterflies. They also had some small habitats with scorpions, spiders and insects. It was pretty cool.

Gravestones in the churchyard

Gravestones in the churchyard

The River Avon and Holy Trinity 

Too soon, early afternoon (and our 2:00 train) came around. We had lunch in a very cool pub on the High Street, in one of the original half timber buildings on the main street. Great atmosphere, the beer was excellent and the food was good as well. All around, it was an excellent weekend!