Letter from London

It’s making headlines on Moscow Road in Bayswater: The muggers are back. Like any other metropolis, London has its share of criminals. Some years ago, it used to be plain Rolex muggers. Thieves whose stock in trade was to grapple a fancy watch or item of jewelry off the wrist of someone wealthy enough to afford the ostentation. Not anymore. At least not since fake Rolexes have been offered by Chinese street vendors for 30 euros in Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki. Early on Friday morning, a thief tried to climb into my hotel room through the window – the Bayswater Inn in Princes Square, behind the Aghia Sophia Cathedral. Sure enough, visitors are the prey in all the tourist areas, from Buckingham Palace, which in the early 1990s decided to open 19 of its 661 royal rooms to the public, or the British Museum, which is the result of Britons plundering not only their own empire, or around Big Ben and the neo-Gothic towers of the Tower Bridge. Luckily I survived unscathed, and was able to proceed to see some shows and exhibitions. After all, that was the main reason I usually «cross the Channel.» Once again, «It was the best of times, it was the worst of times» are words that ring as true, as in the 1850s when Charles Dickens wrote them when Britain was using its new technology to rule the waves and a third of the world – including Cyprus. The economic crisis has long reached the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Last Friday amid one of the worst pre-Christmas shopping seasons in decades, flagship West End stores threw open their doors at 7 a.m. in a bid to kick-start the Christmas shopping rush. More than 35 shops slashed prices until 9.30 a.m. and offered free gifts and breakfast for early-bird customers. Anything for a desperately needed boost. But that’s not true for everyone though. The British theater scene is always booming, partly thanks to gifted directors who dare to commit to new talent – and to tourists. The likes of Joseph Fiennes, Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh star at nominally sold-out shows where you can – almost certainly – get in on a Monday night. It cost me some 50 euros to go to the National Theater, Olivier, to see one of the currently most famed productions in London: Sophocles’ «Oedipus» adapted by Frank McGuiness and directed by Jonathan Kent, who over the years has formed a formidable collaboration with actor and film star Ralph Fiennes, with such productions as «Hamlet» and «Coriolanus.» Now this grisly ending «Oedipus,» dominated by men in modern suits and performed at an operatic pitch, is a production that succeeds because it shows Oedipus not as the gods’ puppet but «as a man whose suffering is related to his character flaws, which is a classic definition of tragedy,» according to Michael Billington, a drama critic with The Guardian. However, personally I tend to agree with Susannah Clapp who found – also in The Guardian – Fiennes’s Oedipus «loud, impressive yet empty… Mouth gaping like a Messerschmitt head… He speaks very, very slowly.» There are, no doubt, many ways of looking at Sophocles’ hero. You can either see him as a victim, dependent on fate or an cautionary seeker after truth. And Clapp continues: «Yet neither his (Fiennes’s) carved face nor his tight voice suggest he is discovering the truth about himself. City-suited from the beginning, blood-spattered at the end, he moves from sneering power to exclusion. It’s an external not an internal journey: To watch it is like seeing a banker realize the contours of his world have changed. Not so much the Oedipus complex as the Oedipus simple.» Oh, true, how true! The National Theater is actually three theaters in the South Bank complex that also houses the National Film Theater, the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Festival Hall. Complete with bookshops, restaurants and art galleries, one could spend an entire week there. Also at the National Theater’s Cottesloe Theater is David Hare’s new play «Gethsemane» about political fundraising, idealism and hypocrisy. Habitually most Greeks visiting London dislike one-set dramas. They prefer stargazing. The West End is the place for them, effectively designed for and aimed at tourists. And tourists prefer musicals. There are always several big stage musicals that seem to be «now and forever» to quote the advertising of one of them. There are many that suit the description: «Grease» «The Lion King,» «Les Miserables» – even «Mamma Mia!» – that have been running for many years. Some promising shows to look for (because of the director or cast) this side of Christmas include «Wig Out!» which just opened at the Royal Court Theater, Neil LaBute’s latest, «In a Dark Dark House,» at the Almeida Theater, or «Wicked» at the Apollo Victoria. For the most part London is also famous for its museums and exhibitions. «About Byzantium 330-1453» at the Royal Academy of Arts, comprising some 300 objects, is no doubt a must-see. Yet my personal choice for the meager three days I had to spend was «The Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70» at the Victoria and Albert Museum, through January 11, 2009. It so happened that I lived in Berlin in the decades after the Second World War when there was an intense rivalry between the world’s two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the USA. It was the time when the rival architectural visions in East and West Berlin were very intense. It was my youth and I would have gone to London barefoot just to see this major exhibition, which includes space suits from a Sputnik and an Apollo mission to films by Stanley Kubrick, paintings by Robert Rauschenberg and Gerhard Richter, fashion by Paco Rabanne, architecture by Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller and Archigram, and vehicles including a Messerschmitt microcar. All dear old memories – at least for me.