Four hooves and white coat
Galloping through the trees
Riding in Richmond Park
Four hooves and white coat
Galloping through the trees
Riding in Richmond Park
HAPPY CHRISTMAS !
NOW THAT THE GRAND FINALE of Brexit is nail-bitingly close, maybe our thoughts will turn to patriotism as it is hoped by many, but certainly not all, that Britannia will once again rule the waves, or, at least, the fish that surround our ‘sceptred isle’. Some hope, if you ask me!
Yesterday, the 16th of December 2020, we joined our friends on a walk from their home in Richmond to Kew Gardens. On the way, we walked along a quiet back street, Kew Foot Road, and passed a former, now disused, hospital, ‘The Royal Hospital’, which opened in 1868 (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/royalrichmond.html) and closed recently. In its last reincarnation, it served as a psychiatric day hospital and a mental health resource centre. A plaque on one of its buildings facing Kew Foot Road commemorates that James Thomson (1700-1748) lived and died here. Observant readers will note that his residence in this location antedates the establishment of the former hospital. The hospital was opened as ‘The Richmond Infirmary’ in the pre-existing Rosedale House on Kew Foot Road. According to James Thorne in “Handbook to the Environs of London” published in 1876, this was the building in which Thomson lived.
Thorne wrote of Rosedale House:
“The present house is a large brick house of three floors, – a centre with a small portico reached by a flight of steps, and two irregular wings. The house Thomson occupied was a mere cottage of two rooms on the ground floor, which now, united by an arch, form a sort of entrance hall… It has since suffered many changes, and is by now (1876) the Richmond Infirmary. The garden has suffered as much as the house. Thomson was fond of his garden, added largely to it, and spent as much time in improving it as his indolent temperament allowed.”
Thomson’s cottage became incorporated into the building that served as the first part of what was to become the Royal Hospital.
One room was where Thomson died on the 22nd of August 1748. The other room was where he wrote his last published poem, “The Castle of Indolence” (text available at : http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?textsid=34286) during the last year of his life. This poem, written in Spencerian stanzas, had a great influence on the poetry written by Byron, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. This kind of stanza, employed by Edmund Spencer (1552-1599) in his poem “Faerie Queen”, consists of nine lines, eight of which are iambic pentameters and the remaining an iambic hexameter, with the ABABBCBCC rhyming scheme (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spenserian_stanza).
Thomson was, as you might begin to realise, a poet. Born in Scotland, and educated at The College Edinburgh, he was planning to become a Presbyterian cleric. At Edinburgh, he joined the Grotesque Club, a literary group. He made friends with a fellow member, the Scottish poet and dramatist David Mallett (c1705-1765) and followed him to London in early 1725. Thomson had a busy life in London, tutoring, teaching in a school, and writing.
In 1740, Thomson collaborated with Mallett on the masque “Alfred”, which was first performed that year at Cliveden, the country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), father of King George III. Five years later, the British composer Thomas Arne (1710-1778) modified their work to create an oratorio and then a few years later an opera. The finale of this work by Arne uses Thomson’s words in the now well-known patriotic song “Rule Britannia”.
Thomson wrote the words to “Rule Britannia” whilst living at Rosedale in Kew Foot Road. He moved to the area from his room above the Lancaster Coffee House at Lancaster Court in London’s Strand in 1836, but not immediately to Rosedale. It was in 1839 that he moved along the road to Rosedale (www.richmond.gov.uk/james_thomson).
In August 1748, Thomson took a boat trip from Hammersmith to Kew. During that excursion, he caught a chill. The great Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) describes Thomson’s this excursion in his “Lives of the English Poets” as follows (http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/BiographyRecord.php?action=GET&bioid=33843):
“The last piece that he lived to publish was The Castle of Indolence, which was many years under his hand, but was at last finished with great accuracy. The first canto opens a scene of lazy luxury, that fills the imagination.
He was now at ease, but was not long to enjoy it; for, by taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put an end to his life.”
Thomson was buried in St Mary Magdalene, Richmond, near the font.
I had no idea when we set out for our walk that I would walk past the former home of the creator of the patriotic song, “Rule Britannia” on our way to Kew Gardens, which we entered via the Lion Gate and enjoyed greatly. Each time I visit these fine botanical gardens, my enjoyment of this place increases.
BETWEEN OUR FRIENDS’ house in Richmond and Richmond Bridge, which crosses the River Thames, is but a short walk, taking not more than five minutes at a leisurely pace. Yet, during this brief walk that I took yesterday, on the day that my mother would have been one hundred years old, I spotted three old things that were new to me.
The first thing I noticed for the first time is a small single-storeyed building on Church Terrace close to the Wakefield Road bus station. What attracted me to it was a stone plaque set within its stuccoed façade that stated:
“The Bethlehem Chapel built in the year 1797.”
It is still in regular use. I picked up an information leaflet from a plastic container next to its locked door, and this provided me with some information about the place, whose façade looks original but has otherwise been substantially updated. The interior of this non-Conformist place of worship appears to be similar to what it was when it was first built but considerably restored and modernised a bit (see images of the interior on the video: https://youtu.be/kIYuxaMyZsA).
John Chapman, market gardener of Petersham, where currently the fashionable, upmarket Petersham Nursery flourishes, built the chapel for an independent Calvinist congregation. It was opened by William Huntingdon (1745-1813), a widely known self-educated Calvinist preacher, who began life as a ‘coal heaver’ (https://chestofbooks.com/reference/A-Library-Of-Wonders-And-Curiosities/William-Huntingdon.html). Because of this, the chapel, which is the oldest independent Free Church in the West of London, is also known as the ‘Huntingdon Chapel’. By Free Church, the leaflet explains:
“We do not belong to any denomination. We are an Independent Free Church, which means that we are not affiliated to any organised body like the Church of England, Methodists or Baptists etc.”
More can be discovered about the congregation and its beliefs on the chapel’s informative website (http://bethlehem-chapel.org/index.html).
Between the chapel and the bridge, there is an Odeon cinema with a wonderful art deco façade. This was designed by the architects Julian Leathart (1891-1967) and W F Granger and was opened in 1930. It was originally named the ‘Richmond Kinema’, but this was changed to the ‘Premier Cinema’ on the 29th of June 1940:
“… to enable the removal of the Richmond name on the cinema, in case German parachutists landed nearby.” (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/6260)
In May 1944, the cinema’s name was changed to the ‘Odeon’. Before it was converted to a triple screen cinema in 1972, its huge auditorium was able to accommodate 1553 seated viewers.
Crossing the main road in front of the cinema, we descend Bridge Street towards Richmond Bridge, but before stepping onto the bridge, we turn left and enter Bridge House Gardens. This open space was the site of the now demolished Bridge House, which was the sometime home of a Jewish family:
“Moses Medina (nephew of Solomon Medina and three times treasurer of Bevis Marks) lived at Bridge House from the 1720s to 1734, having lived previously at Moses Hart’s old house. Abraham Levy lived there from 1737-1753. Levy was a wealthy merchant of Houndsditch.” (www.richmondsociety.org.uk/bridge-house-gardens/).
Solomon Medina (c1650-1730) followed the future William III to England and became “…the leading Jew of his day” according to Albert Hyamson in his “History of The Jews in England” (publ. in 1928), a book I found in the second-hand department of Blossom Book House in Bangalore. Medina became the great army bread contractor in the wars that followed his arrival in England. He was knighted for his services, thus becoming the first professing Jew to receive that honour. His reputation was called into question because it was alleged that he had bribed John Churchill (1650-1722), the First Duke of Marlborough (see “Marlborough” by Richard Holmes, publ. 2008). Moses, his nephew, was a rabbi at the Bevis Marks synagogue in London and thrice its treasurer and also involved in his uncle’s bread contracting, supplying this food to Marlborough’s forces in Flanders (https://forumnews.wordpress.com/about/bank-of-england-nominees/).
Bridge House was demolished in 1930 to create the present area of parkland. Well, I did not know about the Medina connection with Richmond when we visited the Bridge House Gardens. What attracted my attention as soon as I set foot in the small park was the bust of a man looking across a flight of steps and out towards the river below it.
The bust depicts a man wearing a heavily decorated military uniform with tasselled epaulettes. It is a representation of General Bernado O Higgins (Bernado O’Higgins Riquelme), who was born in Chile in 1778 and died in Peru in 1842. Bernado was an illegitimate son of Ambrosio O’ Higgins (c1720-1801), who was born in Sligo (Ireland) then became a Spanish officer. He became Governor of Chile and later Viceroy of Peru. Bernado’s claim to fame is that he was a Chilean independence leader who freed Chile from Spanish rule after the Chilean War of Independence (1812-1826). He is rightfully regarded as a great national hero in the country he helped ‘liberate’. But, what, you might be wondering, is his connection with Richmond?
O Higgins studied in Richmond from 1795 to 1798 and while doing so, lived in Clarence House, which is at 2 The Vineyard, Richmond. Whilst in Richmond, he studied history, law, the arts, and music (https://www.davidcpearson.co.uk/blog.cfm?blogID=632) and met Francisco de Miranda, who was active amongst a London based group of Latin Americans, who opposed the Spanish crown and its rule of colonies in South America. The bust was inaugurated in 1998 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the departure of O’ Higgins from Richmond. Our friends told us that once a year, a delegation of Chileans arrives by boat at Bridge House Park to celebrate joyously in front of the bust of their national hero. As they arrive, another boatload of people arrives to join the celebration: members of the administration of the Borough of Richmond.
No far from the memorial to the great O’ Higgins, there is another remarkable sight close to the river: a tree with a small notice by its roots. To me, it did not look exceptional, but the notice explains that this example of Platanus x hispanica (aka ‘London plane’):
“… is the Richmond Riverside Plane, the tallest of its kind in the capital, and is a great tree of London.” First discovered in the 17th century, this hybrid of American sycamore and Oriental plane, was planted a great deal in the 18th century. The plane growing near to the bust of O’ Higgins has a record-breaking height. What I cannot discover is the date on which the notice was placed. So, being the sceptic that I am, I wonder if any other plane trees in London have exceeded the height of this one since the notice was installed.
All of what I have described can be seen in less than ten minutes, but as I hope I have demonstrated, a great deal of history is encapsulated in that tiny part of Richmond.
LAUDERDALE IS A NAME, which until a few days ago I used to associate solely with Highgate in north London. Lauderdale House sits on Highgate Hill close to Waterlow Park. What you see of it today is a highly restored 18th century building that dates to 1760. Prior to that date, a finer looking timber framed house built in 1582 stood on the site. Built for the goldsmith Richard Martin (died 1617), who was Mayor of London in 1589, it was one of the finest country houses in Highgate. The present version, although acceptable aesthetically, is unremarkable. In 1645, the house became the property of John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale (1616-1682), a Scot.
Originally a supporter of Oliver Cromwell’s regime, he later became a supporter of King Charles II in 1660 soon before his restoration to the throne. During the reign of Charles II, Lauderdale held several of the highest offices in the land including Secretary of State and Lord High Commissioner. He was also involved in the Company of Royal Adventurers of England trading with Africa (founded 1663), which dealt much in slaves and gold.
Lauderdale was first married to Lady Anne Home (1612-1671), a Scottish aristocrat. A year after Anne died, Lauderdale married Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart (1626-1698), who had been an active and important supporter of Charles II during and after his exile. Evelyn Pritchard in her book “Ham House and its owners through five centuries 1610-2006” reports that it was rumoured that she had been having an affair with Lauderdale while she was still married to her first husband, Sir Lionel Tollemache (1624-1669). Lauderdale’s second marriage brings us across London from Highgate to the River Thames at Ham near Richmond.
Elizabeth Murray was the first born of the four daughters of William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart (c 1600-1655) and his wife Catharine (née Bruce). Being the eldest, Elizabeth inherited her father’s title and the home he owned at Ham, Ham House. Her father, William, acquired Ham House in 1626. During the Civil War, Elizabeth Dysart maintained good relations with both Oliver Cromwell and the exiled King Charles II and thus preserved her ownership of Ham House, where she and Tollemache produced eleven children.
The house that William took over had been built between 1608 and 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour (1560-1620), a naval captain who had fought the Spanish at sea in the late 16th century. He had been awarded his knighthood at sea in 1597. The basic structure of Ham House, an ‘H plan’ typical of the Jacobean style, has survived although over the years newer parts have been added to it particularly at the rear. Seen from the front, Ham House has retained its original attractive Jacobean appearance. The rear of the house (the south facing garden side) has lost two of the original arms of the ‘H’ because the space between them was filled with an extension created by the Lauderdales in the 1670s. Thus, the north (front) façade is Jacobean, the southern one is in the later baroque style with sash windows, which make it look much newer than it is actually.
Because of the restrictions caused by the covid19 pandemic we were only allowed to view the ground floor rooms. However, this was sufficient to see what a splendidly decorated and furnished place the Lauderdales created. Every room we saw from the grand Great Hall and the fine carved wooden staircase to the smallest closets is a wonder to behold. A couple of rooms had beautiful ceilings with paintings, one by the German Franz Cleyn (c1582-1658) born in Rostock (Germany) and died in London, and another by the Italian Antonio Verrio (c1636-1707), born in Lecce (Italy) and died at Hampton Court.
Ham House has wonderful gardens, which we explored briefly before walking back to Richmond via the water meadows that flank the Thames. For me, the highlight of the grounds of Ham House was the geometrically perfect, formal garden to the east of the house. This was originally ‘the Cherry Garden’ where cherries are known to have been grown in 1653, when it was leased to one Samuel Purnell. The National Trust website (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house-and-garden/features/the-garden-at-ham-house) informs us that:
“… the garden re-creates what historically ‘might have been’, following work in the 1970s to reinstate 17th century character previously lost.”
A statue of Bacchus, the only original piece of garden sculpture to have survived at Ham, stands in the heart of this perfectly manicured example of man’s influence on nature.
The National Trust received Ham House from Sir Lyonel Tollemache (born 1931) and his son Cecil Lyonel Newcomen Tollemache in 1948. The 9th Earl of Dysart (1859-1935), a descendant of William Murray, inherited Ham House in 1884 but died childless in 1935. The Dysart title passed on to his niece Wynefrede (1889-1973) whilst Ham House was passed on to his second cousin Sir Lyonel.
We left Ham House, thoroughly intrigued, and satisfied by what we had seen and hope to return a few more times. From now on, when the name ‘Lauderdale, springs to mind, I will not automatically think of my old ‘stomping ground’, Highgate, but also Ham will spring to mind. There is a local north London newspaper “The Ham and High” that covers what happens in Hampstead and neighbouring Highgate. Now. that paper’s name has assumed a new meaning for me having learned of Lauderdale’s connection with both Ham and HIGHgate.
DID THE YOUNG BERTRAND RUSSELL ever rush up King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park and enjoy the famous view of St Pauls Cathedral ten miles away? We might never know the answer to this, but there is a good chance that he did (on days with clear sky) because this small hillock (184 feet above sea level) that might once have been a Neolithic burial ground is only about 330 yards from Pembroke Lodge. This Georgian mansion in Richmond Park was built in the mid-18th century. In between 1788 and 1796, it was extended according to plans by the famous architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837). In 1847, Queen Victoria granted the lodge to her then prime minister, John Russell (1792-1878).
John Russell had a son, John Russell (Viscount Amberley), who was born in 1842. He died in 1876, four years after his son, Bertrand Arthur William Russell, was born (in Monmouthshire, Wales). Bertrand’s mother died in 1874. Bertrand and his brother were placed in the care of their grandparents, who were living at Pembroke Lodge. Had Bertrand’s parents lived longer, they would have been pleased to have learnt that their son was awarded a scholarship to study mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge in 1890.
Bertrand Russell was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, but I am not qualified to describe his contributions to that field. In his autobiographical book “Unended Quest”, the famous Karl Popper (1902-1994) wrote of Russell that he was:
“… perhaps the greatest philosopher since Kant.”
That was praise indeed.
When I visit places for the first time, they often ignite new interests. Pembroke Lodge was no exception, and visiting it sparked my interest in its former inhabitant Bertrand Russell. It appears that he was interested in a huge range of things. One of these, which also interests me, was the Indian freedom struggle that culminated in the country becoming independent in August 1947. Wikipedia reveals:
“During the 1930s, Russell became a close friend and collaborator of V. K. Krishna Menon, then President of the India League, the foremost lobby in the United Kingdom for Indian self-rule Russell was Chair of the India League from 1932-1939.”
Krishna Menon (1896-1974), born in Telicherry (now in Kerala, India) came to study at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’) in 1925, then at University College London. He became a keen promoter of the idea of independence for his native land. He was founder and president of the India League from 1928 to 1947. The League was Britain’s foremost and most influential organisation fighting against the continuation of British imperialism. During the 1930s, Bertrand Russell was one of its its leading supporters and its Chairman for a while.
In 1932, the League decided to send a delegation to India to investigate conditions there. The group, which included Menon, spent 83 days travelling the length and breadth of the country, interviewing people, Indians and Britishers, in all walks of life. After the delegation returned to the UK, they prepared a damning report, “Condition of India”, which was banned by the Government of India but published in England in 1932. Its cover was designed by the artist Eric Gill (1882-1940) and Bertrand Russell wrote its preface. Bertrand Russell began the preface with the following words
“… TO obtain a true picture of the present state of affairs in India is as important as it is difficult. Many English people content themselves with the remark that India does not interest them. If India were independent, they would perhaps be justified in this attitude, but so long as the British insist upon governing India, they have no right to ignore what is done in their name by the Government which they have elected. There has been no lack of interest in the misdeeds of the Nazis in Germany; they have been fully reported in the Press, and have been commented on with self-righteous indignation. Few people in England realise that misdeeds quite as serious are being perpetrated by the British in India. Large numbers of men and women, including many of the highest idealism, have been imprisoned under horrible conditions, often without any charge having been made against them and without any hope of being brought to trial…”
Later in the same piece Russell wrote:
“In India, the peasants are powerless against the landlords and the Government combined, so that no economic lesson is learned from their hardships, and they are expected to ‘Starve quietly without making a fuss’. Only people with political power have a right to make a fuss ; this is one of the great lessons of history, and, lest history should not sufficiently impress the Indians, we are teaching it by the lathi and the gaol. Our ruling classes have lost their former skill, and I fear the ultimate result of their folly In India must be disaster. For in India, also, if the new regime is ushered in by bloodshed the result will not be so good as if it came peacefully. Statesmanship is dead in the post-war world, and India, like other countries, suffers in consequence.”
Like the philosopher Richard Congreve (1818-1899) many years earlier (in 1857), Russell was clearly convinced that the British should leave India. By 1938, Russell, who had dedicated a substantial part of his political activity to matters regarding the future of India, began to concentrate more on philosophy and academia. In the late 1950s, he re-entered political activity, becoming one of the founder members of CND, which opposed the atomic bomb and other nuclear weaponry.
Incidentally, after India became independent, Russell’s former collaborator in Indian affairs, Krishna Menon, then India’s High Commissioner to the UK, and others including Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten founded the India Club in 1951. In the mid-1950s, its premises shifted to 145 The Strand, near the LSE and India House, where it still stands today. Its shabby looking second floor restaurant preserves its original 1950s look and houses a portrait of Krishna Menon. It has a nice old-fashioned bar on the floor below. A few years ago, before the India Club got a licence to serve alcohol in its restaurant, alcohol could only be served to members of the Club. The only requirement for joining it was to pay an annual subscription of 50 pence.
Returning Pembroke Lodge, we enjoyed hot drinks with our friends in its tranquil garden. It was then that one of our friends pointed out its links with the great philosopher, who spent his childhood there (from 1876 to 1894). After returning home, I looked up Bertrand Russell on the Internet and that is when I found that he had a connection with the history of India. It is wonderful that someone brought up in such fine surroundings as Pembroke Lodge should have felt moved to fight for the people of India, very few of whom would have enjoyed such a luxurious childhood as Russell did.
RICHMOND-UPON-THAMES WAS NOT a place that I would have associated with refugees until we went for a walk with some friends along the Thames footpath on the right bank of the river. We started at Richmond Bridge and headed towards Twickenham. Richmond Bridge is a handsome stone structure built by 1777. It was the eighth bridge to be built across the Thames and is now the oldest surviving bridge crossing the river.
A leafy footpath runs alongside the river in which pleasure boats and waterfowl can be seen. Soon we arrived at a carved stone monument, a twisted polygonal structure on which words have been carved in three languages: English, French, and Flemish. The base of the elegant but simple monument has the words “The Belgian Village on the Thames” and above them, the dates “1914-18”. Nearby, there are a couple of information panels describing the history of a Belgian settlement on the river between Richmond and Twickenham during WW1. A Belgian village? You might well wonder; I did.
On the 7th of October 1914, Charles Pelabon, a French engineer who had been working in Belgium arrived in Britain with some of his workers. By the start of 1915, he had set up a munition factory in a disused roller-skating rink in East Twickenham. The factory soon employed as many as 6000 workers, mostly recruited from the vast numbers of Belgian refugees who had fled their country after war had broken out. This led to the establishment of a sizeable Belgian community, with shops and Belgian schooling, between Twickenham and Richmond. Sadly, almost all physical traces of the community have disappeared. Where the factory once stood is now covered by blocks of privately owned apartments. Standing next to the elegantly designed monument, it is hard to imagine that this almost rustic stretch of the river was a hive of industrial activity and filled with people speaking in French and Flemish.
Currently, our government is holding out the offer of homes in the UK for up to many residents of Hong Kong. I wonder whether we will see the establishment of ‘Hong Kong Village(s)’ to accommodate ‘refugees’ from a part of China that is undergoing potentially serious changes to its hitherto special status.
Further along our walk, we reached the park surrounding Marble Hill House. This neat looking Palladian villa set back from the river was constructed between 1724 and 1729 and designed by the architect Roger Morris (1695 -1749). It was built for Henrietta Howard (1689-1767), who had been the mistress of the then future King George II. When she ceased to be the mistress of King George II, Henrietta bought land beside the river and built Marble Hill House, using the substantial financial settlement she received from the King.
Crossing a small lane, one leaves the grounds of Marble Hill and enters the smaller grounds of Orleans House, or, at least what, remains of it. The house was a fine Palladian villa built for the politician and diplomat James Johnston (1635-1737) in 1710 to the designs of the architect John James (c1673-1746). In 1720, an octagonal room in the baroque style, designed by James Gibbs, was added. This was used to entertain George II’s Queen Consort, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1683-1737). She regarded Johnston with ‘great favour’.
Between 1813 and 1815, Johnston’s house was home to another royal visitor, a refugee from France, Louis Philippe I (1773 -1850), the Duc d’Orléans. Soon after the execution of his father in 1893, he left France. Later, he returned to France where he reigned as King Louis-Philippe I, the last king of France, between 1830 and the year of revolutions all over Europe, 1848. A print by the French artist Pingret shows the King and Queen Victoria visiting Louis Philippe’s former home at Orleans House some years after his coronation. It was the first time that a British and French monarch had been together on British soil for 500 years (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryofthe…/…/NrKCqDE8Q-arYJHipxLXDQ). Although most of the house was demolished in 1926, the octagonal room was saved. I noticed a fragment of masonry in the grounds close to the remains of the house. It bears a crest on which there are two fleur-de-lys symbols. In the 21st century, a new arts centre, including an art gallery, was built that incorporates the octagonal room, which has been restored to its former glory.
Further along the river near a disused ferry landing stage, we came across the home of yet another refugee, the composer and conductor (Sir) Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991). Born in Warsaw, Panufnik, a leading light in the Polish classical music community, ‘defected’ to the West in 1954 having become uncomfortable with the politically dominated cultural environment in Poland. He settled in Britain, becoming a British citizen in 1961. After marrying Camilla Jessel in late 1963, the couple bought the house near Twickenham that overlooks the Thames and now bears a light blue circular commemorative plaque with a red Polish eagle on it.
We returned to Richmond Bridge following the riverside path. We watched a plucky little dog rush into the water only to make a hasty retreat when swans hissed at him. Despite the birds’ unwelcoming threats, he dashed into the water several more times. We arrived back at Richmond Bridge after having enjoyed a pleasant stroll and seeing three places that have provided people from Europe with ‘a place of greater safety’, these being the words used by Hilary Mantel as the title of one of her novels.
In the past, I preferred watching films (‘movies’) to attending live drama at the theatre. Now, my preferences have reversed. In live theatre there is an interraction between the actors on stage and the audience. Good actors engage the audience psychologically and almost physically. And, I suspect that the actors are also engaged by the audience – its attentiveness, its reactions (facial and otherwise), and other signs of the audience’s feelings provoked by their actions. So great is that interaction between performers and the audience that often I leave the theatre at the end of a performance feeling physically exhausted. Even with superb cinema productions, I never feel as gripped by the performance as I do whilst watching live theatre.
Having stated the above, I am now going to be a bit critical. I have watched many live performances of drama on stage, much of which was excellent. However, I have noticed that in some plays, the first (opening) act is often very weak compared with what follows later. On several occasions, I have walked out of the theatre because a play’s first act or first half has been unpromising. This is sad because now I know that many plays improve as they progress.
I cannot understand why so many plays have weak opening scenes. If I were reading a book and the first 10 or 20% of its pages did not capture my attention, I would abandon the idea of reading it through to its end. Why do so many people remain in the theatre when the opening act is unpromising? Is it because they have paid so much for the tickets? Or, is it because they, like me, have realised that most plays take time to build up to an engaging/enjoyable momentum?
Recently, I saw a play “Amsterdam” by Mayur Arad Yasur at the Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond (SW London). From its first moment, neither the actors nor the play were able to engage me. The same seemed to be the case for several other members of the audience, who walked across the stage and out of the auditorium within a few minutes of the play’s beginning.
Mercifully, about half way through the performance, which did nothing to make me forget the discomfort caused by my seat – it did the opposite, there was a technical hitch. The performance was paused, and some member of the theatre staff mumbled something, which I imagine was to notify us of the hitch. After almost 10 minutes during which no further information was given to the by now restive audience, I decided to follow the actors backstage to find out what was going on. Only then, did someone come out on to the stage to give some information. As what we had already seen of the play had been so unbearable and there seemed to be no sign that the performance would be resumed in the near future, we walked out. Had the play been more enjoyable or in some way worthwhile, we would have waited for it to continue.
Well, you cannot win every time. For each disaster such as “Amsterdam”, we have have seen plenty of highly satisfactory plays.
People seated staring
players, viewers, united