Though I was in London 16 days, I feel as though I barely scratched the surface of it.
That’s in part because of the role I was there to play in Christian’s life, but mostly it’s because you have to live in London as Christian did to begin to grasp the magnitude of it and the way it draws people to itself.
I think Christian found the best metaphor to describe London.
He said that to him, it’s like a choral reef.
The more I thought about that image, the truer I found it to be. Choral reefs take ages to grow and to find an equilibrium. They are vast and varied, offering shelter to multiple living layers that learn to live in balance with each other and even to offer protection to each other.
London is an ancient city built layer upon layer, attracting life from the vast ocean of human populations. Life within it is multicoloured, stratified, fluid and fragile, and circulates through its Tube network.
Its most colourful spots are its gathering places, like Portobello Road, Borough Market, and all of its theatres and pubs.
Thank you Christian for showing me YOUR London. xoxoxoxo
(Images: Coral Reef and Portobello Road, London, UK)
“Act well your part; there all the honour lies.” ― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
The best and most avid travellers plan meticulously, spending hours online doing the research that pays off once their destination is reached. I know many people like this, and I understand that built into it is the pleasure of anticipation.
I needed none of this. The prospect of meeting up with Christian in England kept me going for months leading up to September. He was to be my guide; all I had to do was follow along.
You can’t visit London with a drama school graduate without immersing yourself in its theatre culture. And you shouldn’t. Because New York City notwithstanding, London is the greatest theatre city in the world, with hundreds of theatres operating year-round.
To a Montrealer, that seems fantastic, even unbelievable, because it’s tough going for most theatre companies in the city, and next to impossible to live from full-time work on the stage.
I’m no expert, but I’ve learned a lot trailing in Christian’s wake, including the fact that the word play means what it ought to: enjoyment, entertainment, amusement, pleasure.
Londoners know this. They understand their cultural history, and in true Shakespearian tradition expect to be engaged—directly— by what’s unfolding on stage. Few subscribe to the notion of the theatre as two separate spaces: one for the players and one for the audience. Instead, English audiences react more like participants in the event. They also expect to be able to do this with a drink in one hand and a snack in the other. They shuffle, rustle ice cream wrappers, and generally make themselves at home.
For example, in The Play That Goes Wrong, there is no fourth wall. Instead, the characters occasionally speak directly to the audience, and circulate in the house throughout.
All of which is fantastic, and was a revelation for me.
During my two weeks with Christian, I saw eight theatrical productions: four at LAMDA’s Linbury Studio Theatre, and four in theatres throughout London. Christian also took me to The Electric Cinema, on Portobello Road: like dying and going to movie heaven.
The stage is a magic circle, and I have a lot of catching up to do.
September 23rd Facebook post:
The Electric Cinema, Portobello Road. I mean: come on! It comes with leather armchairs, foot rests, cashmere blankets, individual side tables, and a restaurant-bar at the back. It’s almost reason enough to fly to London. xoxoxo Oh! And the movie was Everest.
September 25th Facebook post:
Christian and I finished this sunny day by heading to Westminster to see The Oresteia.
When we were advised that it was a 3 1/2 hour show with small strictly controlled breaks, our resolve didn’t waver: such are the reviews of this fabulous adaptation of the Aeschylus trilogy (yes! 3 plays presented in one evening’s performance), that nothing was going to put us off.
It was bloody brilliant! Robert Icke’s daring adaptation had me hanging onto every word.
September 27th, 2015: Day 15, The End.
Christian took us to see The Mousetrap, the longest running show in the world. Period. How cool is that?!
We were in the nosebleed section, in wooden board-seats that seemed designed for people with no legs (translation: in old theatres like St-Martin’s, the less affluent were short and able to put up with a lot of discomfort in exchange for the pleasure of seeing live theatre).
Still, we could hear every whisper and see every face.
There is a code of silence which every audience member must respect, so I can reveal NOTHING about the dénouement, except to say that I had it figured out at the interval.
Facebook post: Day 16. Last Day in London
Today’s great thrill was once again made possible by Christian who took me to the Globe Theatreto see Shakespeare’s Richard II.
You’re standing in an OPEN AIR theatre that is a replica of a circular venue of late 16th century England.
You have a ticket that gives you the status of “groundling”: the cheapest seat in the house, but, unlike St-Martin’s theatre where you were wedged into a cheap, tiny seat, this ticket is for standing only, but standing right next to the stage; so close that you can reach out and touch the actors if you so choose. So close that you feel that you are part of the performance.
It is an astonishing experience.
The Globe is a huge success. The audience was made up of people of ALL ages. From the first sounds made by the horn players, the audience hushed…and then became spellbound.
I return home tomorrow having seen 8 live theatrical productions, and feeling almost as lucky as Christian, who has lived in this fantastic city for a year.
Now, it’s time for us to go home.
“The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.”
I remembered the tune straight off, and the first couple of lines, but I had to look the rest up.
They proved to be absolutely true:
Portobello road, Portobello road Street where the riches of ages are stowed. Anything and everything a chap can unload Is sold off the barrow in Portobello road. You’ll find what you want in the Portobello road …
Christian actually took me to Portobello Road twice: once on a week day, on a kind of reconnaissance mission (and a night out at The Electric Diner that I’ll never forget), and then again on a Saturday afternoon, when it transforms itself into a legendary street bazaar that stretches as far as the eye can see, over the heads of hundreds and hundreds of happy, jabbering visitors, shoppers and gawkers.
September 27th Facebook post:
Christian took me once again to Portobello Road, a place that is the best of London in its energy, its openness, it’s eccentricity, and most especially in the way that Londoners and visitors from around the world intermingle there with ferocious energy and spirit.
We shopped with success! We tried to take in every sight and sound and smell (as well as a few tastes). We felt part of something great!
In fact, Christian steered me through the roiling multicolored human river as though from the prow of a ship. I don’t remember ever feeling as delighted and safe in a crowd.
Montrealers are lucky, I think, to live in a vibrant and diverse city that hasn’t yet grown so much that it has lost its equilibrium. Living in my home town, even on its busiest days, always feels manageable (except maybe if you’re sitting in a traffic jam and/or trying to cross a bridge!) .
A friend who sold her cottage here and moved to Toronto many years ago commented not long after: “More isn’t always better”.
In the crush of life in many modern cities, these words often ring true. But not in London. At least I never felt it. Not at fantastic Borough Market at lunchtime; not at Harrods on a busy shopping day; not in the West End on a Saturday night (though crowds flowed like a river through the streets); and not even on Portobello Road during Saturday’s open street market.
What I felt was an incomparable energy and exhilaration.
September 21st Facebook post about Harrods:
WELL! We went to Harrods this afternoon! The Posh Palace!
Not being aware of the photographic etiquette in the place, I immediately whipped out my camera in the jewelry section, which didn’t go over very well with the firm (but polite) security guard. (I did, however, manage to get shots of the Egyptian Room and of the DeBeers boutique: I’m still seeing spots)
The rules at Harrods are: you can photograph any of the merchandise but cannot take photos of entire rooms (you could be casing the joint, I guess). From then on, I asked permission.
Christian and I were only truly happy for those few minutes when we were purchasing three Harrods donuts and giant slices of chocolate fudge cake and Russian honey cake. We will test the cakes this evening.
Otherwise, well…poshness really isn’t our thing, and neither is bling.
On the day we were to visit Borough Market, and maybe to prepare me for the bustle that would soon follow, Christian first took me to a sanctuary in the heart of London: St-Dunstan’s in the East.
September 25th Facebook post:
“ (…) We went to the Thames this afternoon, and Christian started our day in the urban oasis of St-Dunstan’s in the East, a medieval Catholic church that survived everything but the bombing of London in WW II. Rather than rebuild, the city transformed its ruins into a beautiful enclosed garden in which to sit, read, eat, chat or ponder.
It was a stunnning way to begin my day in the heart of London.”
After this, I couldn’t have been more receptive to the hustle and bustle of Borough Market, where the action unfolds mostly outdoors, sheltered by an old overpass. Borough Market is about the commingling of the tastes and smells of regions, nations and their cultures. It’s about the pleasures of a human hive.
It was fantastic!
(Photos of Borough Market taken on September 25th 2015 by me)
With Christian’s year at LAMDA having drawn to a close, London opened up to us both, because now he could give me a proper introduction to the city that he’d been living in for a whole year.
Not the touristy London that one approaches with a checklist of monuments, historical sites and choice selfie backgrounds to capture on a smart phone, but Christian’s London, a far more personal, excentric, joyful, human, culturally rich, fluid, kinetic, spontaneous, complex and slightly cheaper (!!) city: one meant to be experienced.
Thanks to a hyper-efficient transit system that comes close to bending spacetime, every district of London feels within easy reach. With Christian, I also discovered that each destination is just an excuse for a long and lovely walk.
I also realized that London’s rain shuts on and off like a deranged sprinkler system, so if, for instance, your destination is the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, then you’re best to jump on the first day that promises three consecutive hours of dry weather.
First September 21st Facebook post:
Even the old stone outer wall at Kew Gardens is beautiful. If only we could all remain so solid as we age…
After tea with scones and clotted cream, we went directly to the Treetop Walkway, which swayed and shivered underfoot.
Second Facebook post:
If given the time though, I would have written an ode to the trees, because they were my favourites at Kew Gardens.
I saw strangely bent trees and a carbuncled ash, beautiful towering cedars that seemed to have stepped out of three-dimensional paintings. And then, there was the Lucombe Oak.
In Quebec (and other parts of Canada), most of the old oaks were cut down and used up.
When I found Kew Gardens’ giant oak, I just ran to it. I’d never seen anything like the gnarled, twisted, arthritic, jagged and beautiful old giant.
So many of the trees would feel right at home in Tolkien’s deep woods, in the company of Ents.
I think Christian and I are experiencing the after effects of yesterday’s wonderful graduation.
What I’m feeling is empathy. What he’s feeling is, I think, the impact of the first wave of finality, of the slow, inevitable dismantling of everything he built here and also the cumulative fatigue of a year lived flat out.
So we had a slow morning. But since then, we took a stroll to Fulham and stopped at the Love Walk (isn’t that a sweet name for a café?). I had the Full English Breakfast and Christian had the American Breakfast.
Soon, we’ll head off to the West End to see The Play that Goes Wrong!!
Final Facebook post:
A day that began on shaky legs ended with laughter and joy and THEATRE !! Christian took me to see The Play that Goes Wrong, at the Duchess, in the West End, and I was reminded yet again (!) how miraculous live performance really is, and how comedy elevates the spirit.
But we also detoured earlier to the Primrose Bakeryand afterwards, to the Angus Steakhouse (slightly posher than it sounds, but kind of obsessed with red and black motifs), where, in a fit of pique caused by the decor, Christian chose pork ribs and I chose a lamb shank.
Wednesday, September 16th, 2015
Early morning Facebook post:
I'm lying here on the couch while Christian, over in his twin bed, tries to sleep a little longer. Last evening's opening performance of Romeo and Juliet was a success and there were smiles on everyone's faces.
The hours really flew by.
Two more performances to go. Today’s is a matinée. Tonight we plan to see the second group do Julius Caesar.
The show must go on!
Night, Facebook post:
Day Five's end.
I saw the matinée of Romeo and Juliet which was a success!
Tight and entertaining.
Then, at 7:30 in the evening, Christian and I returned to see an all female cast perform Julius Caesar, which I hadn’t read or seen before.
It was a bloodbath, of course.
We even got slightly splashed.
Bravo to all of the actors! Well Done!
Thursday, September 17th 2015
Morning Facebook post:
Day 6 in London.
This is a day that puts me in mind of the two audition trips Christian and I took together (to New York and Toronto, in early 2014), because those two 48-hour trips were about managing energy and time, and staying relaxed and focused, just like today.
Christian has two tutorials (feedback sessions) to attend (one down, one to go), and then a final performance (call at 18:00 London time) with opening curtain at 19:30.
I’m mostly in a holding pattern…Being there seems the most meaningful way for me to live out this day.
Facebook post at day's end:It's done! Final performances are now over. Bravo! Brava! All of your hard
work was pure pleasure for the lucky ones in the audience.
"All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages (...)"
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII
When I left Montreal, it was with one overriding purpose: to be there for Christian’s final performances at LAMDA and for his graduation ceremony.
I went alone, but I was carrying with me the best wishes, the break-a-legs, the excited anticipation and the love of a great many.
For the first part of the day, I was on my own again, in a kind of maternal limbo. But Ifigured that what worked the day before would probably work again, so I set out for South Kensington, this time to visit the Museum of Natural History, which is across the street from the V&A.
I’m so happy that I did. The MNH is a wonder.
And a temple of scientific tradition and most especially, a shrine to Darwin and to his legacy, where I found everything I expected including, of course, the fossils of giant dinosaurs.
But what I knew nothing about, and almost missed (it needs to be advertised much more vigorously!) was Cocoon, the monumental new scientific research center/curated biological archive: a dazzling, giant ovoid structure and exhibit.
I was so moved by the beauty of Cocoon. And by its optimism. And because of the magic of cell phones, I was able to share it all with Simon, another of my sons who is a biology professor at a college in Montreal, with whom I messaged my way through it all.
And then it was evening. I made my way to LAMDA’s Linbury Studio on Talgarth Road, to see the D’s production of Romeo and Juliet (the D’s are the students enrolled in the Masters in Classical Acting program), and especially, of course, to see Christian play Tybalt.
I’ve developed such a love for theatre, living alongside Christian. He has taught me so much…
About the alchemy of performance and the generation of an energy so electric and immediate that it makes everyone’s heart race;
About the beauty of text and its embodiment;
About fearlessness and abandonment;
About the discipline and hard work required to create the illusion of effortlessness;
About risk taking and creative collaboration.
About the universality and timelessness of the dramatic arts.
“I’ll have grounds More relative than this—the play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”
As he left this morning, Christian said “Well, here’s to my stage debut in London” (half of his class opened last night in Julius Caesar, while Romeo and Juliet opens today), grabbed his bag and went out.
After everything that he’s lived this year at LAMDA and on his own in this small, spartan room (which I presently share with him) in this huge and glorious city, it seemed like such a quiet and unexceptional thing to say.
No ferocious “trac” (as we call stage fright in French Quebec), no problems sleeping…just the outcome of a year living removed from everything that came before.
Christian had a full day of dress rehearsal at LAMDA, so off I went to the Victoria and Albert museum on my own, with my Oyster pass, like a big girl.
The Tube is the great vascular system of London and a daunting prospect for a Montrealer.
Look at it this way:
Population of Greater London (2014)= 8.5 million
Population of greater Montreal (2014) =3.8 million
Their respective subway systems, the Tube and the Metro=
After navigating the Tube, getting lost on Montreal’s Metro would be embarrassing!
Fortunately, the journey from North Kensington to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington is just a few stops, and I did just fine, in spite of the fact that my inner gyroscope was thrown off for days.
You see, in my native Montreal which is built at the foot of a small mountain, going North means going uphill, and going south means heading downhill to the Saint-Lawrence river. London, having been built layer upon layer over millenia, is hilly in ways that messed with my inner programming and I often found myself not being sure which way the needle was pointing on my internal compass. It’s crazy how disorienting this kind of brain programming is.
And so, every now and then, I felt a bit forlorn. Until I reached my destination that is. On this day, it was the V&A; a great place to begin my exploration. There’s something about the scale and spatial proportions of museums that really matters, and in this regard, the V&A is just right.
It’s gorgeous, fantastically preserved, never overwhelming, cramped or crammed tight, and beautifully lit. It made such a difference to me.
On the afternoon that I was there, it rained off and on–a familiar pattern in London–and then the sun emerged and offered pretty window pictures like these, in the café at the V&A.
First of all, we slept till 9:30!!!!! (which explains my broad smile in this photo)
To you, that’s nothing.
To Christian, it isn’t frequent enough.
To me, it’s A MIRACLE!!!!!!!
(this is where you would insert Handel’s Hallelujah chorus)
We’re off to Hammersmith for a good part of the day, starting with breakfast, and including shops and the Library where Christian found solace and comfort (and WIFI !) during his first weeks here.
Love you all! xo
Mid day in Hammersmith:
My first breakfast in London was French! We had crêpes at La Petite Bretagne (Christian had apple cinnamon, I had Belle Hélène), followed by a walk along the Thames Path with its riverfront pubs and houseboat islands.
It was my first glimpse of the Thames. Not the touristy Thames, but the one that wraps itself around everyday life, and upon which people live, work, and depend.
Exiting Hammersmith, I was guided by The Ark: not Noah’s, but instead one belonging to General Electric (Real Estate).
This strange and beautiful building had an astonishing effect upon me: it whooshed me back home with thoughts of my former students at G.E. Lighting, in Lachine, Québec. I wondered if maybe some of them knew of The Ark, and if so, what they thought of this unconventional and iconic building that sits within sight of LAMDA, which is, incongruously, a global beacon of the dramatic arts.
Such strange bedfellows along Talgarth Road (which is just the A4 in disguise).
An afternoon walk in West Brompton Cemetery:
With jet lag still tugging at my energy, and Christian hoping to conserve his for the demands of the week’s worth of performances of Shakespeare that lay just ahead, we ended our day in the deep green quiet of West Brompton Cemetery where I watched the magpies and felt the weight of generations.
Until now, all I knew of this place was that during his year in London, Christian found quietude here (I found it too), and that it appeared in a long scene in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
Stained and lopsided, the monuments we sat among spoke of love and loss, but also of their growing irrelevance in a culture rushing into the future.
On Saint-Patrick’s Day, 2014, the phone rang at our house. It was Rodney Cottier, the Head of the Drama School at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (or LAMDA) on the line.
LAMDA is one of the finest drama schools in the world and a month earlier, my youngest son Christian had auditioned in Toronto for LAMDA’s Masters in Classical Acting program. Rodney’s call was to inform Christian that he had been accepted.
It isn’t always possible to know which of the choices, or which of the curves thrown at us, or which of the harrowing experiences, or successes, or events, or chance encounters will be seminal in our life, and I think that’s a good thing.
But on that day, Christian knew. We all knew…that his life had just jumped its tracks, that its course had been indelibly altered, that he was going to live an adventure the likes of which he had only daydreamed about.
And so began the saga of Christian’s year in London.
That story is his to tell.
Mine is about how the story ends. It ends with success and immense shared joy. It also ends with a trip to London, which I began on September 11th, because it was unimaginable that I should miss seeing my son on stage performing Shakespeare in the greatest theatrical city in the world; and that he be left to graduate alone, and to pack up and move back to Montreal alone.
I arrived at Heathrow on September 12th. What followed were 15 extraordinary days during which a lifetime of hopes and what-ifs and imaginings about the land of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Fry and BBC drama were measured against the reality of Great Britain’s capital, and found to be totally up to snuff.
What I also realized during my time across the pond is that while Christian was at LAMDA, his father, brothers and I were in London with him for a part of every day: with every Skype and Facetime session, with every Facebook post and Message, every story, every experience he shared with us, every problem, every fever or cough.
This is the way we love each other. Our London was discovered vicariously, but it had its own reality.
Here begins my LONDON JOURNAL. Bon voyage!
September 11th, 2015
Facebook post from the airport:
Okay! I made it through airport security and here I am at gate 59.
A year ago, I had just walked Christian to his security check point.
There was such strong emotion on that day; such an acute feeling of separation, anticipation and apprehension…in us both! Finally, Christian disappeared behind the wall of security and what was left was the most painful happiness I have ever known.
Now, I go to see who he has become and what he has accomplished in London, at LAMDA which, for me, still feels more like fiction than fact.
“The truth is life is full of joy and full of great sorrow, but you can’t have one without the other. “
Andre Dubus III