As a super relaxing pre-Fringe holiday I decided to take a flying visit to the capital for some pretty incredible theatre. It’s been a long time in the making but I managed to bag two of the hottest West End tickets for my stagey Saturday with legendary musical Hamilton and legendary actor Ian McKellen taking on Shakespeare’s epic tragedy King Lear. You wouldn’t think it from hit new musical and Shakespearean tragedy but weirdly these two actually have a wee bit in common; both are historical stories about kings falling from power, both have three badass sisters at the centre, both include many characters whose aim in life is to rise in the ranks of power. Although I will say that the viewing of these two shows was completely different!
This trip was planned ages ago but because I was unsure what my work commitments would be around that it became a one day plan – getting up at 5am is never fun, especially with the length of day ahead! We flew down to London and once we got there, headed to Kensington Palace (one of the places we had yet to visit). There are a few exhibitions of the palace’s rooms and one about Queen Victoria but the highlight was an exhibition to the fashion and career of Princess Diana. All in all Kensington is quite underwhelming versus other palaces I’ve visited (first world problems, I know) so I’m not sure how much I would recommend it – maybe if you were heading out that way anyway but definitely not a must-see I’m afraid. We grabbed brunch as Aster in Victoria before our first show of the day…
Hamilton is incredible. I already knew that was going to be the case because the true genius and speciality of Hamilton is in its incredibly witty and detailed soundtrack (which I have obviously listened to many many times). Lin Manuel Miranda really did create something special and the more you listen to it, the more you notice each and every one of the jokes, facts and references he manages to fit into one show. The pace of that and the outstanding cleverness truly is what makes this such a good show. But as I said, I already knew all that. So what did I learn from seeing the stage production with real life people? The absolute highlight for me is Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. (Side bar – what a name!) The way he directs movement is so slick, fresh and exciting, which definitely makes up for the relatively empty staging giving us something dynamic and thrilling to look at throughout the show. The choreography is obviously very hip hop to match the music of the show but it has the poise, dignity and cleanliness of ballet along with influences of jazz and tap. I can’t think of enough words to gush over the choreography so all I have to say is Blankenbuehler – you’re my hero! Whilst I’m on the creative team, I also want to give a shout out to Howell Binkley’s lighting design (another great name) it was so stunning, timely and really enhanced the gravitas of the show.
And now the cast: I think the ensemble are spectacular (obviously because of that choreo) but as an overall the quality of performers is very very strong. My one disappointment was Burr, I was not a fan of the tone of his voice much of the time, especially his singing voice which I just found to be lacking a smoothness I longed for. As a result I was pretty underwhelmed by Wait For It which is one of my absolute favourite songs – but that is my only downfall in this production. My highlights were King George (Michael Jibson absolutely kills it, comic timing is en pointe), the sultry Christine Allado as Maria, Angelica (we had the wonderful understudy Miriam-Teak Lee and damn her voice is unreal plus she serves the sass that we all deserve) and Rachelle Ann Go gave me all the feels with her Eliza. I think Eliza is such a great character because she kind of starts off as a supporting love interest but by the end she’s the one who tells his story, of all the characters, she’s is the one that I sympathise the most for throughout the show, a whole lotta Eliza love. I also loved Hamilton (Jamael Westman), Herculus Mulligan (Tarinn Callender) and George Washington (Obioma Ugoala) all with such stunning voices. My song highlights were You’ll Be Back, Satisfied, Yorktown, It’s Quiet Uptown and the finale.
I came into this experience already loving the show because of Miranda’s incredible writing but actually seeing the show on stage was so nice after having listened to it so many times and imagining what might be happening. I finally understand some elements that were difficult to picture or details that aren’t recorded on the soundtrack, like what happens to Laurens for example. One thing I did wonder in Act 2 is where the heck did Peggy go?(Look forward to hearing the answer this Fringe NUDS 😉 ) I really love how they staged Hurricane and then again for the slow motion bullet in The World Was Wide Enough, it was so freaking cool.
Hamilton is obviously going down history but the reason for that I think, out with the deserved hype, is that it manages to handle such huge themes like legacy whilst still hitting you with all types of goosebumps because it’s so human. It is epic and personal and that is so rare. Goes without seeing but you should definitely go and see it.
King Lear is a play that I’ve always wanted to see onstage, it’s one of Shakespeare’s tragedies that I studied for my Adv English dissertation, so I wanted to reward the hours of analysing the power struggles by seeing it physically in front of me, not just written down. Doesn’t hurt that the production I did go to see featured the living legend that is Sir Ian McKellen, who I’m sure we can all agree is one of the greatest living actors of our generation. I feel so lucky to have witnessed his talents in person. All the press that is coming out right now about his performance is so true, he is bloody brilliant.
King Lear is a hefty piece of work, running at over 3 hours with Shakespearean language, it may seem like something a bit inaccessible and let’s be real, kinda boring. But the direction and energy of the cast really keeps the text alive and keeps the audience engaged (even despite the mentally hot auditorium). With a vague setting and no specific time period we see the classic’s words applied to some quite modern personalities. Not exactly relatable because they are fighting over the power of a country and murdering one another, but certainly increases the relevance to now. Dramatists across the world continue to show just how relevant and timeless Shakespeare’s words are. Certainly the line “the younger rises when the old doth fall” seems particularly poignant in today’s political landscape.
I was particularly impressed by the feverish and almost childish portrayal of Kirsty Bushell’s Regan and thought James Corrigan’s Edmund was so cunning, takes us on his plight almost like a protagonist in the beginning until we turn on him as we see how far the promise of power shifts him. I was grateful for Lloyd Hutchison’s Fool which provided a lightness and in this setting totally not what I was expecting but felt more like your current day geeky friend. Luke Thompson and Danny Webb play a fantastic double act as Edgar and Gloucester in act two as they lean on one another and the balance of madness flips as Edgar sees his father getting weaker. Ian McKellen was an outstanding Lear and his transformation from noble statesman to a worn out old man defeated by his daughter’s rejection and the madness of ageing, it was actually heartbreaking. McKellen truly deserves his status as a stage legend.