Letter from London

Despite strenuous efforts by Berlin, Paris and even Prague, London has not stopped enjoying the biggest boom of all European cities in a generation. For more than a decade now, it has been the undeniable multicultural capital of Europe. And with the 2012 Olympics in mind, London is increasingly looking to the future rather than the past. The transformation of the city’s true emblem, the Thames, the river of gold, of death and of trade, is particularly evident in its long-overlooked South Bank, which is now the site of a cultural complex in concrete – known to many as London’s Art Bunker – including the National Theater Company. With some 20 new productions each year on its three stages – the Olivier, Lyttelton and Cottesloe – the National, with its 150 actors, gave 1,000 performances to over 600,000 people last season. Being myself the vice president of the directors’ board at the National Theater of Northern Greece in Thessaloniki, I am apt to be impressed by such numbers. We should refrain from making comparisons. But as everything converges in this age of globalization, let’s examine something that we have in common, Thessalonians and the National Theatre, London, Cottesloe: It is St Paul. Written by Howard Brenton, who in his play «Paul» shows how Christianity was in danger of dwindling away without Paul’s presence, and directed in a modern-dress production by Howard Davies, this play offers a captivatingly secular account of the Resurrection and of Christianity’s most legendary religious conversion. If one had read the heaven-so-blasphemous account on Paul in Gore Vidal’s «Live from Golgotha,» one would now feel relieved as Brenton acknowledges Paul to be a moral genius. Yes, the very same Paul who some 2,000 years ago corresponded with the Thessalonians. This production, which runs until February 4, attracts great crowds on the South Bank. Elsewhere at the National, at the Lyttelton to be exact, a 130-year-old neglected classic, Henrik Ibsen’s «Pillar of the Community» is steadily selling out. I had to see it standing for the duration of nearly three hours, fortunately for only 5 British pounds. No seats were available last Thursday. Written by the Norwegian poet and dramatist in 1877, this early critique on community, morals and capitalism has been remodeled by the author Samuel Adamson and is directed by Marianne Eliot, with much too obviously dismantling conclusions at the end of the play – at least for my taste. Considering the success of this play in London, I am convinced that we are soon going to see Ibsen’s «Pillar of the Community» at some Athens theater. Greek producers «shop» regularly in the British capital for successful plays. This year there is no doubt as to who is at the top of the heap of British Theater: the producer. After five years at the top of «The Stage’s» guide to the most influential people in the theater, Andrew Lloyd Webber has finally been toppled. The new winner this year is David Ian, who offered his rendition of the successful musical «The Producers» and who runs more than 20 theaters in Britain. Last year’s first, the composer (Lord) Andrew Lloyd Webber, is now No. 3. All the same, his «Woman in White» is doing good business in the West End and America, and his «Phantom of the Opera» has just become the longest-running show on Broadway. Although in its third year, I saw the $6.8 million production «The Woman in White» only last week. The play is based on a Victorian best seller full of thrills, with the most ultra-sophisticated animated projections on three semicircular screens. «It’s frenetic, it’s the first show ever to give me motion sickness,» one theater critic enthused. Indeed, William Dudley’s animated scenery changes and circles around the large Marquis stage at a nonstop, dizzying pace – a thrilling experience. Being a fan of his lush operatic style in previous musicals (from the «Sound of Music» to «Sunset Boulevard»), I marveled at A.L. Webber’s transformation in a sparse, almost minimalist and deliberately discomfiting style. London is a capital that really does attract the biggest talents from across the country and around the world, plus tens of thousands of Greek students; or that young singer Athena Andreadis from Thessaloniki, who «plays a contemporary fusion of Greek contemporary and English songs, mixed with jazz, traditional and world music,» and will make her debut in London in two weeks’ time. Woody Allen, who used New York as the inspiration and location for 25 of his 38 films, turned his back on the Big Apple and shot his latest film «Match Point» entirely in London. The reason? «It was really because the financing was raised in London,» the filmmaker admitted. London’s strength is blending the new with the old. Sometimes also the authentic with the fake. Just a small taste of this with a Greek finger in the story. In a recent article on Der Spiegel’s website, the title posed a question: «A scandal of Rubenesque proportions – Is ‘Samson and Delilah’ a fake?» In a «Letter from Antwerp» back in February 18, 2002, I posed myself the same question in this very column: Is Rubens’s magic a hoax? As the big Rubens exhibition (subtitled «A Master in the Making») is nearing its end (January 15) at the National Gallery, a challenge to one of his most celebrated paintings is heating up. It all started 14 years ago when Greek painter and scholar Efrosini Doxiadi (author of «The Mysterious Fayum Portraits»), along with London artists Steven Harvey and Sian Hopkinson, submitted a written analysis to the National Gallery challenging the authorship of the «Samson and Delilah» painting. All those years there were heated discussions on the authenticity of this painting which now has a prominent position in the current exhibition. In a market where fake works of art are effortlessly passed off as the real thing, the layman – me – can only trust his instinct. And my instinct led me to think it is a fake. Now gut feelings may not necessarily go hand in hand with expertise, a certain awareness is always involved. However, if someone is stupid enough to think they’ve bought a genuine – for a bargain – there’s not much anyone can do about it. Anyway, as a returning visitor, London is a great place to be, especially during the sales.

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