West End Story
And if you want to see a play, there's no better place than London. The West End, aka "Theatreland," has the greatest concentration of performing-arts venues in the world—according to a display at the Theatre Museum, an oddly unimposing branch of the V&A that occupies prime real estate in Covent Garden. Within one mile of the museum, you can find at least 60 venues with a capacity of more than 50,000 seats per night—and even the crummiest cafes seem to advertise special pre-show menus.
Of course, it's not just that theater is plentiful. There's something in the smoggy air that makes acting seem more compelling, writing more insightful, and the playgoing options positively endless. In an attempt to learn why Brits do it better, I spent a week in London this April taking in seven shows, listening to radio plays, and, one sun-dappled Saturday morning, trekking through the capital being accosted by sonnet-spouting strangers.
Sunday is a day of rest at most London venues, but the play I was most curious to see had a performance my first day in town. My Name Is Rachel Corrie is a one-woman show, drawn by actor Alan Rickman and Guardian editor Katharine Viner from the writings of a 23-year-old American who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza in April 2003. The play became a flashpoint in the U.S. theatrical community this spring when the New York Theatre Workshop postponed—effectively canceling—a planned production. (For more on that controversy, see the exhaustive coverage on The Playgoer blog.) It says a lot about the British theater's appetite for political and controversial subject matter that a show that was too hot for a nonprofit off-Broadway company to handle is running in a West End house owned by the largest theater chain in the city.
Until seeing My Name Is …, I'd dismissed the real Rachel Corrie as a naive kid who got mixed up in something she didn't really understand. The play convinced me I'd done her a disservice. The young woman who emerges in Californian actress Megan Dodds' almost painfully vulnerable portrayal is politically conscious in the best sense—aware of her privilege, conscious of her limitations, but unable to ignore the suffering of others. Perhaps it's because the text is drawn from unpolished writing in journals and e-mails that Corrie's openness seems so endearing. Early in the show, she makes the kind of declaration an audience member (or a parent) least wants to hear from a youthful character: "I decided to be an artist and a writer and I didn't give a shit if I was mediocre, and I didn't give a shit if I starved to death." When only a few minutes later she casually conjures a beautiful image—connecting the struggle of a salmon to reach its spawning grounds to her commitment to minimize trivia and consumerism in her own life—we're reassured that she's anything but mediocre.
Corrie's natural eloquence, combined with a very simple staging, makes this a very personal story about one American rather than a political play about the Middle East. (In the end, she spent less than two months in the region.) My Name Is Rachel Corrie may seem an unlikely exemplar of British theater, but it makes sense to me that it has succeeded there. Corrie was a diarist, not a polemicist, and her writing is persuasive because it's clear, not because it's clever. That's how it is with British actors—they're seldom gorgeous, but they're often utterly convincing.
It's great that British audiences are seeing how self-aware and questioning young Americans can be, but the play needs to be seen in the States, where audiences will surely feel closer to Corrie. Fortunately, a production is set for Seattle in March 2007, and Rickman, who is also the show's director, has been hinting that he will announce a New York engagement very soon. (That brings me to the most delicious collateral benefit of a theater trip to London: There are few phrases that go further to establishing an American's cultural credentials than, "I saw it in London." In Rachel Corrie's honor, I vow to feel a little less self-satisfied the next time I deliver that line.)
After the show, I took an evening stroll along the Victoria Embankment and Whitehall, through gardens and promenades dotted with memorials to fallen soldiers and statues of wartime and colonial heroes. Eventually, I wandered into Horse Guards Parade, where, hours after the Changing of the Guard, tourists were planting themselves next to ceremonially attired soldiers and posing for photographs. Here was more live theater: The guardsmen have their script (no speaking, no moving), their costumes (high black boots, plumed helmets), and their props (martial-arts-movie swords). And—like theater—there's the possibility that an unexpected interaction with the audience could bring something new to the usual routine. For some reason, the guardsmen's rigid performance reminded me that when actors lose their concentration on stage—usually to give in to giggles—they call it "corpsing." Even with members of the audience constantly joining them on stage, it's hard to imagine these performers cracking up.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.