Jan 142009

Passing through immigration at Heathrow got a little tense. The agent was querying me on my reason for being in England. The truth was that I, anglophilic lawyer that I am, was there to meet and network with as many of my UK peers as I could, and was really excited about it. Was that business or pleasure? I don’t know!

But then I told her I was also in town to see the RSC production of Hamlet, and after the obligatory conversation raving about David Tennant I was allowed into the country.

Ever since my Stephen Fry-induced spur of the moment Christmas trip in 2007 (helpful immigration tip #2: mention his name fondly at the border, and they will also let you in) I’ve become a full-blown anglophile. But not just in the normal, cultural ways — in a way that completely overlaps with my new lawyerly profession. If it involves England and law, I am like moth to flame. I buy books, attend symposia, follow its news, follow its policy, meet its professionals… I basically just spent a week in London taking meetings with UK lawyers, and it was the best vacation ever.

And David Tennant really was as good as advertised. A notably physical actor, thankfully his back seems to have recovered sufficiently that he was able to return to the production, although I had pretty much decided that I would see the play anyway even if his understudy, Edward Bennett, was still covering the lead role. From all accounts Bennett did an admirable job, but he basically had to play David Tennant playing Hamlet. The production seemed largely staged around Tennant’s particular interpretation of the role.

Having Tennant in the production, however, meant that tickets were incredibly rare and precious. The production had been sold out for weeks, but the mornings of the shows they always released a few more. I was perfectly happy to queue up for them, but the problem was it seemed like it might take more than one attempt, and that made it hard to plan my evenings in advance. But no matter: jetlagged or not, I decided to try for the following morning, just so I could check it off the list.

And nearly completely screwed it up, by not arriving on line until 9:20, by which time there was a sizeable queue already. And yet it worked. I got my ticket and then that night it was off to see the show, just like I’d planned since the summer. For back then it was still being put on at Stratford, and as I plotted my trip home from Germany I desperately tried, and failed, to time it so that I’d be able to swing up there and catch it. So, at last, now I was finally able to scratch that itch. Universe, be on notice: when I say I’m going to do something, I usually do.

Naturally, though, when what I want to do involves meeting other people it will depend on their schedules too, so my list of UK lawyers yet to meet is therefore lengthy (and growing), as unfortunately we couldn’t get all the schedules to dovetail. But otherwise I’m flattered and grateful by the interest and flexibility of those who were able to take the time to meet me. As I alluded above, doing so is all part of my plan for professional development, but I found it personally rewarding as well.
Of course, it wasn’t just new friends I met with but old ones as well, including a supremely helpful one who lent me his old cell phone and hooked me up with a prepaid SIM. I’m not sure how I could have managed the week and all those appointments without it. It was a smart phone, too, and probably had way more power than I needed. Not only could I now phone and text, but with the WiFi I could pop into any McDonalds to see my email and Twitters. It was a fantastic lifeline and definitely appealed to my geekier nature.

And yet it was of no help whatsoever in getting Hamlet tickets. After seeing the show on Wednesday I realized once was simply not going to be enough. I needed a second viewing, ideally on the closing night. Although I thought the performance had been excellent, because David Tennant has been out with a back injury for all of December while the rest of the cast had continued without him, I thought there was a difference in the energy levels, what with him being on a final week sprint and everyone else finishing up their marathon. On closing night it seemed they might better converge.

But could there have been a more popular show? Wednesday night was largely limited to people already in London who could swing by earlier for tickets and then later for the show, but for Saturday’s performance people could pack up and trek across the country to camp out for tickets starting the night before. Which they did. So even though this time I arrived two hours earlier than last (though still later than I had intended), I was even further back on line than I had been on Wednesday. And this time they had even fewer seats to release, because the line stopped moving well short of the 65th position I was occupying. A dismayed cry rose from the crowd when we found that they had sold out. Yet there was still another chance: at English theaters it’s possible to return one’s tickets to be resold, and so many of us chose to spend the day camped out on the front hall of the theater waiting and hoping that one might be returned for us.

So that’s what I did with my Saturday in London: lie about on the floor of the Novello Theater. It was great! About two dozen of us were left from the morning, and we got to know each other pretty well, taking turns guarding our spaces so people could run out for food and such. At one point someone from the box office even came out and offered us chocolate. Plus, it turned out that my spending the day there was consistent with my master plan: the woman next to me was a government barrister…

We had been warned by the box office that there might not be any returns at all, or if there were any they probably wouldn’t come in until after four. Yet there were a few that dripped in hourly, always to great applause, and we became very ritualistic about it, noting that every time someone stepped out for a coffee or toilet run it seemed to induce more tickets to appear. Slowly then we worked through the line until about four, when all of a sudden the theater found a whole bunch of seats to sell us. And in that flurry, I got mine. I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t closer — there’s something so intimate, so human, about the production (e.g., David Tennant performed about two thirds of it in bare feet), and I wanted to sit somewhere that I could really see the humans involved — but at least I was in the building, and the seat could have been worse. Plus, now that it was all settled I had just enough time to run back to my hotel to shower and change, at which point it was back to meet some of my fellow line-waiters for a drink before the show.

I liked the hotel I stayed at, and was glad I had “splurged” to stay in one, rather than the hostels of trips past. With an Internet rate (and the lower exchange rate) it ended up costing about the same anyway but was much more comfortable. And had free WiFi! Sure, there were some issues with the hot water. And the heat… But all were resolved eventually by a friendly staff, and the location was great — extremely easy access to both the Circle Line and the Central Line, the latter of which whisked me back to Holborn, where I seemed to have spent much of my time this trip (it’s where the lawyers are…).
From Holborn it was an easy walk down to the theater, where I settled in for the final night’s performance. It was good to see it twice. Hamlet is an immensely long, immensely dense play, and even though I’d read it before it had never really come off the page for me. Now that I’ve seen it played out it is much more accessible, and seeing it twice made sure that there was much more that I caught.

But while most people spend an evening out at the theater, for me it was a 16+ hour event… and after the curtain dropped it was out to the stage door to mingle the throngs and celebrate our good ticket-acquisition fortune with my fellow line-waiters. It was, however, a little awkward waiting by the stage door. First of all, while this kind of thing happens all the time in the US, apparently it is very rare in England. All the fuss was due entirely to the immense celebrity of David Tennant, who has the misfortune of being one of the most popular Dr. Who’s ever, good looking, intelligent, and vastly more talented than his enormous and hysterical fame would suggest. There was concern before he took the Hamlet role this summer that it would be a disaster, as giggly girls would scream and swoon through the production. But that fear was misplaced, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crowd be that silent for that long than at the shows I attended. Indeed, his appearance in Shakespeare has had the effect of opening it up to audiences who might never have considered experiencing it. And while, yeah, some of his nuttier devotees were camped out overnight in front of the Novello Theater, I found everyone on line to be an intelligent admirer of his work and capable of deep, meaningful conversation about the Shakespearean drama.

That said, here we all were by the stage door. On Wednesday I had stood there as well, somewhat reflexively as if unsure what else to do with myself. Ok, I *was* unsure what to do with myself. Did I want David Tennant’s autograph? I’m a * lawyer*, for pete’s sake, not a 13 year old… I felt like a dork. But then Oliver Ford Davies came out. He had played Polonius, and immediately I had recognized his voice. In fact, as he came out to patiently sign autographs for all the awaiting fans (DT fans, who are we kidding…) I found myself jumping to the front to get one.

“I’ve seen a lot of your TV work,” I said, thinking about Kavanagh QC and Inspector Morse and such and hoping it would flatter him. “But I’m an American, so it’s tricky.”

“Ah,” he said. “Masterpiece Theater!”

“Yes,” I acknowledged. “I watch a lot of PBS.”

And with that I was exonerated, because you cannot be deemed a dork for getting an autograph from someone you recognize from Masterpiece Theater. OK, you can be, but in a way I can totally live with.

 Posted by at 9:13 am

  2 Responses to “To see, or not to see, Hamlet twice”

  1. I was one of his nuttier devotees who camped out all night on Friday. I’m glad you enjoyed the production so much. I myself feel privileged to have seen it.

  2. Congratulations for earning your ticket ;-) Yes, we were very lucky, and he really is very good.

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