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Let me admit, first off, that I like theatre but I’m not a big fan of musicals. Some people may not see how it is possible to say that one likes theatre that does not include the singing and dancing kind. It certainly restricts the theatrical offerings, probably knocking out about ninety per cent of the plays on offer in London and New York.

Despite my extended bout with the flu bug, I have not been entirely comatose during our stay here. We were fortunate to have arrived in time for the London Mime Festival, which encompasses a diverse range of theatrical expression, from pantomime and circus-oriented acts to brilliant expressions of visual imagination. It is worth braving the wintry weather of January to sample the work of artists from all over Europe.

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I had purchased tickets to a reprise of a play at the National Theatre while a friend was visiting, but our friend was under the weather and my wife had came down with the flu before passing it on to me. “Port” was a wonderful play, covering thirteen years in the lives of two troubled siblings, whose mother abandons them to flee her abusive husband and the bleak prospects of life in Stockport, a city in the Midlands. The text and performances were excellent and the scene changes seemed magical, one of the perks of having the National Theatre at one’s disposal.

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Our next theatrical night out was another reprise, this time the 25th anniversary staging of “Our Country’s Good,” based on the true story of the production by convicts in New South Wales of George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer.” Timerlake Wertenbaker’s play, based on the Thomas Keneally book, was a hit when it first came out and continues to be widely performed.

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This particular production is stunning, from the arrival of the convicts in Australia to the opening night of the play. You are THERE, grappling with the emotional fireworks triggered by prisoners and officers who are psychically and sometimes physically shackled together, playing out their designated roles in this strange and hostile land. The staging of the play represents an escape from their roles as prisoners but it is threatening to their guards.

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We first came across the work of Robert Lepage when we were living in Montreal. “Les Aiguilles et l’opium” (Needles and Opium) melds an experience from his own life (a failed love affair) with the entangled love lives and drug addictions of French surrealist author Jean Cocteau and American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Lepage played all three characters with captivating visual theatrics, including his suspension between 2 propellers, simulating a flight between Paris and New York. It was a brilliant piece of theatre. That hooked us. Two years ago we saw another production of his here in London– the Blue Dragon.

You can see a clip of it here–http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=o0E_Y5eXRKc

In the Blue Dragon, the theatrical invention was there, but the text was less interesting than Needles and Opium. That alone could not have prepared us for “Playing Cards 1: Spades,” a truly dreadful play. The Boy Wonder theatrical alchemist who has succeeded on a global scale in theatre and opera has somehow failed to distinguish gold from garbage. None of the characters is real enough to make us care about his fate, and the elaborate staging in the round reminded me of a hokey circus or a video game. The play is set in Las Vegas, which says it all.

My visits to London’s Art Museums have been similarly hit and miss. I have been to four photographic exhibits and a half dozen other art shows. My last show, at the Tate Modern, was a retrospective of Lichtenstein. I came to the conclusion after wading through room after room that it was too bad he was so successful so early in his career. He never needed to explore much beyond Benday dots. The last room in the exhibit held a small selection of paintings that were done at the very beginning and end of his career, before and after his phenomenal success. Oil on canvas, brush strokes, vibrant and alive.

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The Manet show at the Royal Academy is the one I would consider unmissable. It is the first major exhibition of this work in the UK, the first to focus on his practice as a portrait painter. “His elegant awkwardness of style, absolute honesty of vision, and persistent inovation and risk-taking established Edouard Manet the father of modern art.” This show was five years in the making and well worth all all the effort. For that alone, I am grateful to be in London.

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A Canadian friend had encouraged us to get tickets for the current production of “Hamlet” at the National Theatre as soon as we got to London, since she had seen the production at a movie theater in Canada. One of the National Theatre’s major success stories is to do broadcasts of their plays around the world. “King Lear” is coming up this week and we will probably see it at the Odeon cinema, since tickets have been impossible to obtain for the stage play. The Hamlet we saw was staged in modern dress, and Rory Kinnear was absolutely mesmerizing. The set design and the machinations of Claudius seemed to point at Putin’s Russia, and the first three acts flew by. The scene changes were ‘brilliant,’ as the British like to say. The last two acts seemed to drag, however, and the ending? Well, I won’t carp, but in my opinion, Shakespeare has done a lot better.

What is Hamlet’s problem? Aside from the fact that his uncle has murdered his father and married his mother? How could someone bungle revenge so thoroughly that absolutely everyone dies? My take on it is that “Hamlet” represents an extreme case of “seasonal affective disorder.” It gets dark up here far too early and stays that way far too long. We are presently at latitude 51 degrees 30 minutes, a bit north of most of the Canadian population, and Denmark is north of here. When we arrived in London at the beginning of January, daylight was disappearing around 3:30 in the afternoon! Does that sound healthy? If you are anything like me, it can send you around the bend.

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O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew;
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

We are talking about someone with serious issues. Get thee to a therapist, Prince! Get some exercise. Get a light box!

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Fortunately, the International Mime Festival hits London at this time of year, bringing a little laughter and light to various venues around the City. It took me awhile to realize that the word “mime” is interpreted loosely. It is really a Fringe festival, and the offerings range from circus to cinematic. We saw a Russian absurdist take on the idea of “hero” that combined elements of Kafka with technical wizardry disguised as magic; a bizarre, hilarious, manic American parody of Office as Apocalypse, with taxidermy taking center stage; an Italian/Icelandic pair of clowns from Denmark exploring, what else, end of life issues; and a French acrobat/juggling duo of “gardeners,” with the front page of a newspaper taking on a memorable role in a bit of cover up.

The month of January ended, as it always does, with my birthday. On this particular occasion we were favored with a visit from Katherine, a French friend who came bearing gifts– champagne, chocolate, pate, a selection of fine cheeses.  My wife invested in a wonderful cake and we celebrated the year’s end with an Italian colleague and his charming wife. Not too shabby, as my friend Bob used to say.

I’m counting backwards now. Sixty-five promises to be a very good year.  Peter Pan never did grow up, so who says you have to grow old?

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