Hope (and Ian McKellen) drew me to Britain. Was it worth the risk?

LONDON – Didn’t really see the rowdy, but I can tell you what I heard from down the block: a man’s voice through what sounded like a megaphone, mocking the crowd lined up outside the Gillian Lynne Theater for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella”. “

This rowdy West End was making fun of us for two things, one petty – that we would spend money on tickets to such a show – the other toxic.

Look at yourself in your masks, he said. What a bunch of idiots.

While waiting on the sidewalk for my friend Ken – who was eager to see “Cinderella” because of the mixed reviews, while I was curious because Emerald Fennell (“Young Promising Woman”) wrote the book – I was already double masked. I had only landed at Heathrow that morning and started my weeklong theatrical frenzy with a morning of “Constellations” by Nick Payne.

I felt guilty about it all, really – for being in another country. But I had had my two doses of Moderna vaccine, I was a mask freak, and my world had grown worryingly small during the pandemic. Months before, when I had needed even the smallest thread of hope so that we could work our way through this mess, I had bought tickets to see Ian McKellen play Hamlet. I didn’t want to give up that hope.

Although “Constellations” turned out to be disappointing – with no chemistry between the stars, Chris O’Dowd and Anna Maxwell Martin, and therefore too little humor and no heartbreak – it still felt like a miracle to get off a plane and a few hours later, join this crowded audience. (Because I was fully vaccinated in the US, I didn’t have to quarantine.) Other than the many masked faces present, and the health questionnaire we had to answer within 48 hours before the show for getting our tickets by email was a lot like the good old days.

But at “Cinderella” that night, I sat next to a bare-faced preteen, and two other unmasked children were next to her. All seemed too young to be vaccinated. And, surprisingly, given Lloyd Webber’s public insistence that pandemic theater can and should be done safely, there was no requirement for vaccination or testing for the public. Many people have been exposed, including those who took off their masks to eat or drink.

The musical itself, however? It was a messy, drunken pleasure, a Cinderella tale so radically rethought that we anti-princess feminists ultimately, improbably, identify with her. It’s no coincidence that every solo she sings is meant to be performed with rapture through the ages on high school stages.

And when, during the ball, the auditorium physically transforms so we’re sitting in a circle, with the stage rotating so much closer to us that the stage suddenly feels intimate, it’s absolutely enchanting bit of theatrical magic – the genre that you have. be there to experience.

The next morning, I headed to a Covid testing site. I had been tested in New York two days before my flight here (a requirement to end for fully vaccinated travelers on October 4, when regulations are relaxed), but people who are fully vaccinated in the United States must also be tested within the first few days of arrival. I walked into a stall, swab the back of my throat (gag) and nostrils (sneeze), then put the sample in a drop box.

I had other shows to see: first “Paradise” by Kae Tempest, a cover of “Philoctète” by Sophocles with an all-female cast at the National Theater. It was a morning, and they were filming it; I spotted six cameras, including one that slowly traveled a curved track in front of the stage.

I wasn’t sure I needed to see another retelling in this story about the long-abandoned warrior with his festering wound, and the Tempest script alone wouldn’t have convinced me. But I was able to witness the enthralling Lesley Sharp, whose sinuous portrayal of the swagger Philoctetes had a crackling energy.

That evening’s show was Olivier Award-winning Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” a complex family saga inspired by the story of his own Czech Jewish family, some of whom fled the Nazis – like him, his parents and his brother were able to do this when Stoppard was a toddler – and many of them were murdered by them.

It was the third mass-market production I had seen in two days, and the first to request proof of vaccination. This theater was also crowded, but behind my double mask, it was easy to lose myself in the immobility of the play: the intellectualism bristling with the characters and the bourgeois ease which vanished, then vanished completely when the Nazis disembark.

My friend Ken and I then went for a drink in the open air, a few steps from a few stage doors. It was heartwarming to see actors come out of them, just as it had been sweet, on my walk in the theater, to spy on little children in ice blue dresses on their way to “Frozen.” The liveliness was so welcome, so necessary.

Early the next evening, striding along the south bank of the Thames towards the National, I zigzagged through crowds of people of all ages having fun casually. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that in movies, characters who run through picturesque crowd scenes are often involved in a frolic gone awry. What, even though I didn’t know it yet, I was.

I arrived at the National 45 minutes early for Winsome Pinnock’s “Rockets and Blue Lights” because it was my assigned arrival time – postponed for pandemic safety. I had already purchased my program and a copy of the script when I sat in a room off the lobby, checked my emails, and took a few stunned moments to figure out what I had read. In big bold letters, my Covid test result said “positive”.

I fled on foot, doubly masked, back to my hotel, where I had to isolate myself for the next 10 days. One of the first things I did was email all the ticket offices to let them know what show I had seen and where I was sitting.

Before and after my test, and throughout my isolation, I felt perfectly fine. But what about the girl unmasked next to me in “Cinderella”? What about the people around me at other shows? My friend Ken has been tested and is doing well. But how good has my double masking been?

Theater is a form of social art involving social risks. I calculated them before traveling and decided they were worth it. But of course I had no idea I would be the threat in the room.

On the last page of the “Constellations” program is an advertisement for an airline aimed at enticing theater-goers to cross the Atlantic again. “Everyone’s a stage,” reads under a close-up photograph of road signs – the intersection of Broadway and West 42nd Street – and above a shot of a theater interior that has distinctly British air.

In other words: Go. You know you want it.

I had wanted. I’m not sure following that impulse was the right thing to do. Not yet.

AND THEN I WAS FILMED. At the end of the 10 days, I went to a nice, music-loving doctor by coincidence (he thought “Six” might turn out to be too British for Broadway), who examined me, declared me cured, and wrote a letter to this effect so that I would be allowed to re-enter the United States.

But it would have been heartbreaking and unnecessary to come home without getting what I came for. So I stayed to pack seven more shows in four more days, starting with McKellen’s Hale and Haunted Hamlet, a compelling rendition in a frustrating, rambling production.

I saw a morning of the long ghost story “The Woman in Black”, which I hoped would have new energy after closing (it didn’t), and, at the Menier Chocolate Factory tonight there, Rebecca Taichman’s superb production of Paula Vogel’s magnificent “Indécent”, which both destroyed me and left me elated. (Like many theaters, the Chocolaterie has a lenient Covid exchange policy.)

I returned to the National to see Pinnock’s “Rockets and Blue Lights”, which I had read in isolation, and which, in Miranda Cromwell’s direction, takes tender, wonderfully theatrical care for black bodies as he tells a brutal tale of British history and the legacy of slavery. .

Then director Ola Ince blew me away – first at Royal Court with her excellent production of “Is God Is” by Aleshea Harris, and the next afternoon at Shakespeare’s Globe with the best “Romeo and Juliet” that I have ever seen: alive, love-struck and full of laughter, but with a postmodern awareness of the socio-political resonances of the play, and millions of miles away from romanticizing its suicides. The dead at the end are horribly sad.

My last show was Bess Wohl’s weird, funny and formidable new play “Camp Siegfried” at the Old Vic, the theater whose live productions at the start of the pandemic have supported so many of us from so far away. It was moving to see this beautiful space, deeply empty in front of the camera, being filled with an audience.

But at that and in almost every production I’ve seen, there were heaps – sometimes a majority – of naked people in the crowd, who felt reckless and delusional, as if the pandemic was a thing of the past. (I would have thought that an audience could at least come together to try not to kill Ian McKellen with Covid, but apparently not.) If I hadn’t had the virus, I would have freaked out completely. The New York theaters, much more stringent on masks and vaccinations, feel much safer.

And even. The other afternoon I walked to the foot of Westminster Bridge to visit the statue of Mary Seacole, the Anglo-Jamaican nurse I had never heard of until two years ago, when Jackie Sibblies Drury’s beautifully kaleidoscopic piece “Marys Seacole” debuted. at the Lincoln Center Theater. My mind started to pound as I thought of the upcoming production of Donmar Warehouse in the spring: how fascinating it would be to watch it with a UK audience, how much I want to do it.

I love London, I love to see the theater here. I just wonder when I will feel good to come back.

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