London itself was turned into a huge site-specific street theatre installation on Friday, with centuries of tradition and spectacle that attend a Royal Wedding being distilled into a television-age occasion where the best views, of course, were to be had not being there but by attending it at home.
That’s what I duly did, and London looked resplendent; so did the hordes of Londoners who thronged the streets to be part of a piece of history. And even if a global television audience was able to be part of it, too, the occasion demanded a live audience to provide the sense of atmosphere and urgency. And its why live theatre will never die: as much as digital 3D TV and live relays of theatre events into cinemas around the world bring theatre to a much bigger potential audience than ever before, it still demands a live component to not only complete the picture but to make sense of it at all.
But if the word wedding acquired a sense of majesty and importance by having “Royal” prefix it, other places I visited over the weekend also had royal connections; and though I didn’t get to the Royal Court or the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on my travels, those extremes prove how the word “royal” plays an inescapable part in British theatrical life.
My own Royal Wedding weekend began instead at the tiny Above the Stag pub theatre in Victoria, which has cleverly forged, under artistic director Peter Bull, a distinctive identity as a home of gay theatre; and came with double royal connections on Thursday evening. Not only did I drive right past the Goring Hotel, where Kate and the Middleton family were staying the night before the wedding, en route there, but also Cleveland Street, the new musical I was seeing at the Above the Stag, revolved around the possibility that one of the clients of the Victorian male brothel it is set in may have been Prince Eddy - no, not Edward Windsor, but Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor.
Meanwhile, Queen Victoria’s own magnificent monument to her own Prince Albert, the Royal Albert Hall, was where I found myself on Sunday night, seeing Kerry Ellis storm the place with a live concert version of Anthems, her album collaboration with Queen’s Brian May, who was on hand on Sunday to help provide the wailing guitar accompaniment that its orchestration is based around.
That provided one cult factor; Ellis, who began her career as an Eliza Doolittle understudy (no, nothing to do with Frances Ruffelle’s daughter but rather to Martine McCutcheon in the now infamous National Theatre production of My Fair Lady where the understudies did more performances than the star did), got her first solo break when she starred in the original West End cast of We Will Rock You. And watching this small but fierce and fiery performer, I suddenly realised that she is this generation’s Elaine Paige, with a similarly soaring, scorching voice — a comparison amplified by the fact that Paige also did a solo album of Queen material early on.
But Ellis also has another cult factor: Wicked, though she didn’t originate the role of Elphaba here in London but took over from original Broadway star Idina Menzel. She’s our local green goddess of song, and even if there are contemporary musical theatre actresses I prefer — for example, Audra McDonald and Kelli O’Hara on Broadway, Emma Williams, Caroline Sheen and Scarlett Strallen over here — I can’t deny the power and following she clearly has.
And then last night the long weekend ended with a crash landing courtesy of another company with a royal prefix: the Royal Shakespeare Company, having delighted us last week with an official return to their overhauled Stratford home, brought me back to earth with a bump with the premiere run of Rona Munro’s Little Eagles, a new play about the early days of the Soviet space race against the US, being staged as part of the RSC’s season of world premieres at London’s newly resurgent Hampstead Theatre.
But actually Little Eagles felt more like a throwback to the pre-Edward Hall Hampstead Theatre, where over-ambitious, under-realised plays were de rigeur. New plays have long been an achilles heel of the RSC, where the striving for Shakespearean resonance and relevance has taken them down such ghastly blind-alleys as The God’s Weep (seen as part of the last RSC Hampstead season), which was a contemporary riff on King Lear.
Little Eagles is no less dense and equally earthbound, despite its potentially fascinating subject of space exploration, feebly represented here by some jumping around on bungee ropes. Where’s Julie Taymor when you need her to give flight to something?
And finally, talking of Taymor and flight, a little e-mail popped into my inbox yesterday, personally signed by Michael Cohl and Jeremiah J Harris, the lead producers of Spider-man - Turn off the Dark. It reads, “Thank you for being among the first people to experience Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark on Broadway. Your excitement and enthusiasm have been an invaluable part of our process. Starting May 12, you can see the exciting changes that your feedback has helped to inspire. There’s new music, new scenes, and a new story, but don’t worry- we’ve kept the most exciting and spectacular elements. We’d like to invite you to come see the new, re-imagined Spider-Man with this exclusive ticket offer and free gift, detailed below.”
It duly offered me a 35% discount on side stalls and balcony seats, plus a “free, limited edition poster…. available exclusively to fans who have seen both the original and new versions of the show.” I only wonder how many they are thinking of printing….