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Opening Doors in London

British Museum Rotunda

Imagine a house you’ve lived in for years. You can navigate to the bathroom in the middle of the night without turning on a light or stubbing your toe. You know those spots of scuffed paint or the peeling wallpaper you keep meaning to fix. You are familiar with every step, every floorboard creak, every quirk of architecture or design.

Now imagine waking up in this house and discovering a door you had never seen before. You open it and it leads to an entirely new wing of the property you weren’t aware even existed.

This was, in essence, what happened to me during a recent trip to the British Museum. MrElaineous and I had some time to kill before seeing the new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and a visit to the museum—recently ranked number 4 in the world by Trip Advisor—is always inspiring.

Yet this time we did something a little different. Rather than visit familiar favourites like the Rosetta Stone or Elgin Marbles (or just scoff down cake in the Members’ Room), we decided to venture a little further afield. After seeing Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s fantastic series Africa’s Great Civilizations earlier this year, we chose to start in the Africa gallery, which, I am ashamed to say, I had never visited previously.  However, its collection of 16th-century Benin Bronzes was incredible to see first-hand, even if the way the pieces ended up in the British Museum—via warfare and colonialism—is less than laudable.

From there we jumped even further back in time, to a collection of Mesopotamian artefacts held in the very top level of the museum. From cuneiform tablets that echo the story of Noah’s flood to one of the world’s oldest board games, this collection brought back memories of my internship in the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

In the early 20th century, Sir Leonard Woolley led a joint British Museum/UPenn expedition to the Middle East. The team excavated the site of Ur in Mesopotamia, finding the tombs of royalty and incredible artefacts that showed the richness and complexity of Sumerian culture. After the expedition, half of the material went to the British Museum, while the other half ended up at UPenn’s museum in Philadelphia. Having written my undergraduate dissertation about the latter, it was nice to see the second part of the collection. From Mesopotamia we then travelled to Mexico. This is a small gallery, but the incredible turquoise mosaics alone are worth visiting the museum for.

Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

And then I discovered a secret that the British Museum had been keeping from me all these years.

Even if I hadn’t visited the other galleries before, I was aware of their existence. But this was completely new, and I am still trying to figure out how I have never stumbled across it during my wanderings: books, statues, and collections of artefacts and fossils from around the world filled one beautiful hall. I was in love. Indeed, I was ready to move in.

I learned this was the Enlightenment Gallery. Originally known as the King’s Library, it was constructed in the early 19th century to house George III’s collection of over 60,000 books (hence the name), and it was restored in the early 21st century for the British Museum’s 250th anniversary. It provides a glimpse of how collections were once assembled as Enlightenment thinking and curiosity about the natural world, ancient people, and contemporary civilisations swept across Europe in the 18th and early 19th century. This was a time when Western cultures were trying to make sense of the world and their place in it, and it opened the door to the development of archaeology, geology, palaeontology, and a whole host of other –logies.

For me, seeing something so completely unexpected in a familiar setting turned my own world a little askew. What else was the British Museum hiding?!  I didn’t have a chance to find out on this visit because it was soon time to make our way to the Gielgud Theatre for the next (and final) stop on the itinerary.

Company, Gielgud Theatre, London

Last year my birthday present from MrElaineous was a trip to London to see Stephen Sondheim’s Follies with the incomparable Imelda Staunton. While at that performance we learned that a new production of Company would be launched in 2018 and the main character of Bobby would become Bobbie. Having previously seen a stunning gender-swapped production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, we were intrigued. Finding out that Patti Lupone would be in it meant that getting tickets became imperative. Her rendition of “Ladies who Lunch” brings the audience to its feet in the Sondheim birthday concert, and she is simply musical theatre royalty—full stop.

So MrElaineous kept an eye out for tickets and pounced on them as soon as they were available. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this meant that he pounced on the very first night of the previews: this would be the first time the cast was performing the show in front of an audience. The buzz as we entered the theatre was incredible. Like us, these were the Sondheim fans: people who booked well in advance, and knew and loved his work—they hadn’t picked up a last-minute ticket in Leicester Square at random.

But, I have to admit, I was only familiar with Company from a 2011 concert version with Neil Patrick Harris. It is very good, with some outstanding performances, but the show originally opened on Broadway in 1970—and it showed. While it was revolutionary at the time, dealing with more mature themes that got it dubbed “musical theatre for adults”, it is now approaching the half-century mark and, as you might imagine, some of it is a bit dated: the language (does anyone still use an answering service?) and the attitudes around gender felt a bit stifling. It was definitely time for Company to have the opportunity to shine through a contemporary lens.

On the night, director Marianne Elliot provided a brief introduction, asking for mercy if anything didn’t quite go according to plan. Then we were off on a roller coaster ride that, for sheer enjoyment, is in close competition with the only other musical we saw on the West End this year, a little show called Hamilton.

The new version keeps the plot intact: a single person with a fear of commitment, in this case 35-year-old Bobbie, and her well-meaning-but often-intrusive friends muse about life, marriage, and the pursuit of happiness in New York. Never has co-dependency been so funny.

Besides Bobbie’s gender change (and the ensuing switch of her paramours from female to male), the production also cleverly swaps the lines of one of the couples, converting a housewife into a businesswoman and her husband into a stay-at-home dad. The heteronormative focus of the original is also softened as Paul and Amy become Paul and Jaime. Beyond the characters, mobile phones and computers make an appearance, and it’s amazing how a little change like this can help modernise a performance.

Designer Bunny Christie’s staging was likewise minimal and modern, with most scenes taking place within large boxes that called to mind a dollhouse; the feeling was of Bobbie being constantly on display. Doors seemed to constantly open and close between them, echoing Bobbie’s knack of closing down relationships and the connections that form and dissolve between her and the men she dates. From a practical perspective, this also allowed sets to be changed without slowing down the action, and the audience (let alone the always-active cast) rarely had a chance to catch its breath. Props are also used to great effect: I’ll certainly never look at birthday balloons the same way again. Combined, the staging and props serve to underscore the fantasy nature of the show: we seem to be in Bobbie’s head, viewing her life through a fun-house mirror of memory and imagination.

It was clear that the entire cast put their hearts and souls into bringing Marianne Elliot’s vision to life. Standouts include Rosalie Craig as Bobbie, who carries the whole show on her shoulders but makes it look effortless. George Blagden and the entire company turn “Another Hundred People” into a love song to New York, connections made, and connections lost. “Getting married today”, sung at an impossibly breakneck speed by Jonathan Bailey, had the audience howling with laughter, yet both he and Rosalie Craig managed to silence an entire theatre as the scene takes a heart-breaking turn—all without changing any of the original lines.

And, it should go without saying, that Patti Lupone was born to play Joanne.

Company Previews, 26 September 2018

I think one of the reasons the British admire Sondheim so much is that he shares the cultural love of words. You can see the fondness for a good pun in business names—Curl up and Dye (hairdresser), Reckless Engineer (pub near a railway station), Yak Yeti Yak (Nepalese restaurant)—and there is a reason Shakespeare remains popular over 400 years after his death. In a similar way, Sondheim manages to sketch a character’s mindset in just a few picturesque lines:

So take back the cake
Burn the shoes, and boil the rice

Throughout all of his shows, Sondheim likes to look beneath the surface: What happens after the fairy tale ending? What sacrifice is made for art? What’s really in those pies? Those expecting a pleasant, unthinking rom-com based on the tagline that has popped up on posters around London—What do you want to get married for?—will be sadly disappointed.  Sondheim lifts the hood on marriage and friendship, showing both in an honest, if not necessarily flattering, light.

So go ahead, open that door. Take the time to look at the familiar again with fresh eyes—it might just surprise, delight, and enthrall you.

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy