See me previous European adventures: East Germany, 1988, Berlin, 1996, and Prague, 1992.
The drama department at my high school organized a trip every year to London and Stratford-upon-Avon to, of course, watch a few plays and tour the Bard's hometown. I went on the trip fall of my senior year, along with several good friends from my drama class and the various plays I had worked either on stage or behind it. I don't remember much beyond Stratford itself, although I know we spent an evening and night in London when we first arrived in England, toured Warwick castle, and spent a day in London before leaving for home. Nearly all of my memories of that trip are of Shakespeare's town.
And it was a very lovely town. Big enough for good shopping and many excellent bed and breakfasts, but small enough that you never felt crowded or tiny. It was a town in which I would have loved to live. It had such a great feel to it. It also had three theaters, which certainly didn't hurt matters. One day I'll have to make a return trip. Hopefully the Drew Monster won't think Shakespeare is dull.
I had never been to London before, and I remember being a bit disappointed that we had arrived so late in the evening and that I was too tired from the bus ride and Channel crossing to appreciate the city or the play we saw that night. I'm never going to recall the name of the play we saw. It might've been something about the French Revolution, but I really can't say for sure. I think most of us slept through the thing. We stayed at the English equivalent of the YMCA or something that night, and I don't remember much about that either.
We all but descended on Stratford the next day, a whole bus of high school students scrambling about along one street in Stratford, trying to figure out who went in what B&B and who was rooming with who. It's possible there was more organization than I'm remembering, but it was a bit confused. That night we saw The Taming of the Shrew in the biggest of the three theaters (I'm sure I knew the name of this place at one point). It was a wonderful version with a few odd bits of modernization thrown in (someone impersonated Elvis at one point and Kate was carried off to her honeymoon in a Volkswagen Beetle). Our seats were far enough from the stage that I couldn't connect to the performance as much as I would've liked, but it was fun all the same. Afterwards, some friends and I got all fannish and took pictures of the house that Kate disappeared into when she was done signing autographs. The house was right across the street from the theater, talk about a nice commute.
The second day, we did all of the usual touristy touring of famous Bard locations, but the biggest even of that day of the trip was the play we saw that night. We saw Faust in The Swan, a very close and cozy theater where even the worst seats are pretty much right up against the stage. Our drama teacher had talked a bit about this version of the Goethe story, and I think we were all pretty excited to see what was the fuss. Also, of the four plays we saw on this trip, I think this was the one with the biggest names. Not that I remember those names, or that I even really knew them at the time. Still, I remember it being billed as the spotlight play of our trip.
Little did we know what we were in for.
The play started out well enough, though I didn't know the story very well and felt a bit lost. This did not help when they started in with the nudity. At first it was a demoness-type, and that seemed appropriate. Then it was poor Gretchen, and, from what I remember of the story, that seemed appropriate too, though I did start to squirm. But when Faust himself got totally nekkid and did this standing spread-eagle thing, I spent the rest of the play examining my watch and shoes and cursing the intimacy of The Swan. Nothing against the actor playing Faust, but I just felt uncomfortable watching him after that scene, especially because I knew he wasn't circumcised. Seems a bizarre thing to know about a stranger as they perform a play.
I think there might have been some parental flak about that play.
The third play that we saw in Stratford was once again in the large theater. It was Richard III. We had nearly the worst seats in the house. Mine was particularly bad as the woman sitting next to me kept falling asleep and drifting over into my seat. Also, this was a very traditional performance of the play, and the colors were all very drab, and everyone was so far away that they turned into white and gray and brown blurs.
Aside from the RSC plays, there are three incidents that stand out in my memory from this trip.
I'll get the bad one out of the way first. In the nine years that I lived in Germany and traveled all over western Europe, I was never once treated in any ill fashion for being an American. Except for once in a fish-and-chips hole-in-the-wall place in Stratford-upon-Avon. Now, I traveled as smart as I could, always trying to speak the language if I knew it, acknowledge and participate in the customs when appropriate, modify my clothing and behavior so as not to bring unwanted attention to myself, interact with nationals in as respectful and courteous a manner as possible, etc. In this food joint, however, I was with two others from our group, and I think one of them was wearing her letter jacket (stupid, stupid, stupid; why not just slap a sticker that says "AMERICAN TOURIST" on your forehead and be done with it?). Still, we weren't goofing off or being loud or anything rude. I ordered my meal, saw that the lady behind the counter was putting salt and vinegar on the other orders before mine (they were locals), and asked for the same. She shoved my little container of food at me and said, "Do it yourself."
The second little vignette is just that: little. My upstairs neighbor and best buddy, Matt, was on this trip, and we managed to set some time aside to share dinner in a pub in Stratford. Just the two of us. No chaperones tapping their watches, no hordes of fellow travelers yukking it up all around us. I think we also imbibed in a local brew. In addition to it being great food with great company, the meal further solidified that comfortable feeling the town exuded, which I sorely needed after my fish-and-chips experience. It was wonderful to eat while traveling and not feel distinct and separate, to instead feel like a regular. I wish I had been able to do more of that sort of thing during my trips in Europe.
The third and final Drama Trip moment that I will never forget happened in London. It was a foggy night, and me and my intrepid friends were crossing a bridge to join up with the rest of the group. As we started out on the bridge, someone looked up and saw a small, silver, flickering object. That someone got all of our attention, and we all studied the thing as we walked. At first we were just curious, wondering what the hell it was. Then fatigue and general high school giddiness clicked in. We decided it was a UFO. We managed to convince ourselves enough of this possibility that we even took pictures and tried to figure out how one went about reporting an alien sighting. We reached the other side of the bridge at this point--and that's when we saw some lone soul flying a kite. A small, silver, flickering kite.
Next week: Since I'm thinking England and plays, I'll share the story of my trip to London in 1996, just after I graduated