WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY DIVYA SEHGAL
The annual Dramatics Competition in my school in Bangalore was an important event. There were “audition” announcements made months before D Day, friends from different “houses” became sworn enemies and there were a gazillion committees created to divide tasks – executive, props, costumes, etc. I loved the buzz. I was nearly always in the props committee, if not part of the audience – stage fright and the fear of public speaking never let me audition for a role. But I graduated school with a huge love and respect for theatre.
Flash forward 10+ years, and I’m sitting in the Young Vic Theatre and watching Rory Kinnear play Joseph K., the protagonist of Kafka’s timeless The Trial. I love the quiet and understated vibe of Off West End theatres, where more “serious” plays are staged, where famous actors like Kevin Spacey, Kristen Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumberbatch keep returning to reprise classic literary characters.
This, to me, is the heart and soul of London theatre. Raw and real. Where (for the most part) the sets don’t overshadow the characters and the story but complement every aspect of the production. I remember watching Ibsen’s The Dolls House, and being mesmerised by the sets – a revolving house that showed all the rooms at appropriate acts and settings. By the same token, Chekhov’s Three Sisters had no appeal for me – its bare stage and flawed modern adaptation where suddenly the sisters broke into a trance just didn’t seem to do justice to one of the greatest playwrights and his work.
I love the quiet and understated vibe of Off West End theatres, where more “serious” plays are staged, where famous actors like Kevin Spacey, Kristen Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumberbatch keep returning to reprise classic literary characters.
There’s something otherworldly about watching TV and film actors perform on stage. I expected little from Gillian Anderson (of The X-Files fame) when I sat down to watch Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, especially as I’d studied the play in college. Needless to say, her perfect portrayal of one of most flawed characters in literary history blew me away. On the other hand there was Kristen Scott Thomas, the darling of English and French art films, who reprised the role of Electra, Sophocles’s tragic heroine. She was brilliant in her acting but let down by a flawed adaptation.
Don’t get me wrong– I enjoy the big lights, the grandeur and extravaganza of the West End plays. Some of my own unforgettable memories have been of watching Matilda and The Curious Incident of Dog in the Night Time, where the sets come alive and you’re whisked away to another universe. But if there ever was a choice to watch Wicked or an original play about Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, which was staged at The National Theatre, the latter would (and did) win hands down.
As an English Literature student I’ve studied a few more Shakespeare plays than normal. To watch them at The Globe, the birthplace of London theatre, was overwhelming. It’s built in the shape of a globe and reminded me of The Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore, which is shaped like a violin. It’s a place I associate with the likes of Hello Dolly and The Fiddler on the Roof, my first experiences with commercial theatre.
Whether you’re a literature student or not or a longtime resident of London or just visiting, take a chance on the intimate storytelling that the Off West End theatre has to offer. You’ll find one at every nook and corner, dotted all over the city, buzzing with stories untold and retold, again and again.
The National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX
Young Vic Theatre, 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ
You can find a detailed theatre list and schedule here.