Letter from London

Good theater – or, in my case, the wish to see my good friend Owen, an Irishman involved in the high-tech business – is not the only reason to enjoy London. The city has also made dramatic moves to transform itself into a more ecologically sustainable, pedestrian-friendly place. It has been doing more and more to reorient its streets toward people, and away from cars. In fact, the 1,577-square-kilometer metropolis has gained 3,000 hectares of green space over the last 10 years: «That’s 22 Hyde Parks,» says the winner of the mayoral elections, Boris Johnson, 43, whose full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a genuine product of the British upper class. Voters in England and Wales have punished British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, giving the Labour Party their worst local election showing in 40 years. No doubt the Labour Party is in a mess, and will stay in one whether or not it wins any by-elections in the next two years. These most recent polls were a major blow for the party and do not bode well for Labour’s chances in the next general election, due in 2010 at the latest. However, as for myself, I went to London to be entertained, that is, to see plays. «I don’t go a lot to the theater you know, yet we Londoners have been thoroughly entertained by Ken Livingston, our former mayor, a great markets guru with quite a few odd scandals under his belt. On the other side, we had his pranking TV-ready opponent, Boris Johnson – a lot of excellent jokes,» said my friend Owen from Limerick. «We had, you know, many free performances from that comedy duo. They kept appearing as two top eccentrics competing for the London mayor’s office.» During a widely publicized debate between the two candidates at Reuters headquarters in the city’s Canary Wharf district, Johnson countered his rival by saying that he is the only serious candidate with »years of private sector business experience» stemming from his time as the editor in chief of the conservative Spectator magazine. Livingstone poked back, saying, «Running the Spectator was a relatively easy and undemanding job – after the difficult decision about where to go to lunch with the staff.» «Not that easy,» the Conservative replied. «I showed leadership!» At that the hall erupted with laughter. The wisecracking in «Avenue Q» at the Noel Coward Theater – music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx – produced a great deal of laughter as well. I went to see it because I was intrigued by the assertion that it was «a musical for people who don’t like musicals.» It was a show that brought together puppets, that is the Muppets, and real actors. Silly as its sounds, I enjoyed it. Judging by the quality of the performances, I consider that the highest theatrical excellence in the world has been attained by London. And the British continue to produce some of the greatest actors as well. One could easily include the two main mayoral candidates among them. In some 100 theaters across the city of London, plays, musicals and «fringe» events are being staged non-stop. Now, 2008 might well be the year that the musical began to encroach further into London’s West End, possibly on an inexorable journey that will eventually leave London, like Broadway, awash with musicals and very short on straight plays. Yet not all the musicals are doing well. The most expensive production in West End history, «The Lord of the Rings,» costing something like an estimated 15 million pounds sterling, announced its imminent closure, after «only» a year. It has played to audiences of 446,000. Tourists interested in «catching a few shows» are generally better acquainted with London’s West End (also known as Theaterland) which boasts approximately 50 theaters and is genuinely buzzing at the moment. However, it is in the South Bank and the Royal National Theater on the South Bank of the Thames where one can see real art in action. The National comprises three theaters in one building (the Olivier, the Lyttelton and the more spartan studio theater Cottesloe) which showcase a wide range of British and international works. The National Theater continues to go from strength to strength under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, although this year there is something of an emphasis on co-productions. The current program did not intrigue me to see anything there. More interesting is the Royal Court Theater on Sloane Square which is noted for its contributions to modern theater. There I saw «Bliss» by French Canadian Olivier Choiniere, translated by accomplished playwright Caryl Churchill, whose plays have been presented in Athens as well. Set in a Wal-Mart in Canada, «Bliss» – Felicite – is a play where fantasy merges with gruesome reality, as the details of singer Celine Dion’s miscarriage segues into a description of the fate of one of her fans, who is dying of cancer. Another modern play at the same theater was «The City» by Martin Crimp, directed by Katie Mitchell, one of the most intriguing British directors. The story? Three characters try to make sense of a surreal and disrupted world. No doubt Greek audiences are going to see both plays very soon. This is because Greek theater types have a genuine obsession with all things British, and put their theatrical faith in England. Most plays on Athens stages come after they made a name here. Yet good theater is not the only reason to enjoy London. As mentioned before, the city has also made dramatic moves to transform itself into a more ecologically sustainable, pedestrian-friendly place. It has been doing more and more to reorient its streets toward people and away from cars. The last mayor, Ken Livingstone, did a remarkable job introducing a congestion charge for cars and promoting public mass transit. But the newly elected mayor, Boris Johnson, also said that he will maintain his promises to encourage Londoners to walk and cycle more, lobby for the long-term projects that London needs, including the Oxford Street Tram, and to reorder city lights to get traffic moving more smoothly. Now thinking of Athens’s theater-loving mayor, Nikitas Kaklamanis, the question that arises is: Has our mayor really taken the appropriate measures that lead as inevitably as retribution in Greek tragedy to a catharsis in Athens’s traffic chaos? The answer is a resounding no.