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Brett Foster

London Letters, 6

Particularly fetching.

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Dear Alan,

Yesterday I read your latest London letter (and last one, alas), and I enjoyed it a great deal. I also knew you would have some wonderfully detailed examples of London's historical layering, which we've been discussing for the past few letters.

I'm still thinking about your opening example—what a succession of sites in a single place. The Great Northern & City Railway, its power station, Gainsborough Studios with Hitchcock haunting the sets of B-Movies (!), a single season of Almeida Shakespeare in that same, now terminal space (ephemerality as the heart of theater), and now, in a great climax of history and gentrification … luxury flats. Time comes round. And likewise in your other example: how that "village London" exhibit in Trafalgar Square, turning much of the square into turf again, inadvertently actualized (is this the right word?) the name of the church overlooking it, St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. To think of that name being bestowed, and it meant literally! Time comes round. By the way, those Evensong hymns by Cowper and Newman managed to stir in me what our beloved Stuart author Thomas Browne calls an "elevation," even in my low-energy state at that point.

Well, that Measure for Measure production I caught with Mark may have been ephemeral too, but by bringing it up, you give me the pleasure of briefly remembering that night. First of all, what a great theater. I've heard you sing Islington's praises generally, and so I was excited when Mark and I took a nice stroll to the Almeida there. It was also fun before the show to hear him commend the theater itself for this and that, all said with a director's eye and the accompanying sense of possibilities the space afforded. Measure for Measure is a comedy, at least technically speaking, although it's better to use that handy phrase "problem comedy," which has been applied to this and a few other plays for awhile now. They were all written around the time that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet. He had recently lost his father, and was just entering those haunted, magnificent few years in which he would write his greatest tragedies—besides Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Thus this play is no romantic comedy of lads and lasses, or anything tonally like the high comedies completed just previously—As You Like It, Twelfth Night. Each of those plays features a poignant undersong, like minor notes placed amid the shiny, happy comic strains. "Youth's a stuff will not endure," and so forth. Yet in terms of outlook, and weariness, they are worlds away from Measure for Measure, which arguably marks Shakespeare's Blue Period. We should also take note of a change in literary taste since the days of the comedies of the 1590s and even these final few high comedies. Satire was now all the rage, to the point that a Bishop's Ban was decreed against such hostile, scabrous works in 1599, as if the very sharpness of their language might cut through England's social fabric.

No, instead of cakes and ale, Measure for Measure offers nothing less than an examination of the human moral predicament, if "predicament" were strong enough a word. The play makes us confront this brutal fact: we poison ourselves despite ourselves. All of us. It is the human way. And those who seem most upright are very likely the most egregiously dissembling. Seen this way, the lieutenant Angelo appears as the play's central figure, and in due time we see him transform from a Puritan to a satyr, tormented by his lust for Isabella and willing to use the powers entrusted to him to be "satisfied." None of the characters is particularly likeable. Isabella is chaste, certainly, but possesses none of the enlivening spirit of, say, Rosalind from As You Like It. And the Duke—what is the Duke's deal? He seems mystifying, and not entirely trustworthy, from beginning to end. I really hadn't lived with this remarkable, troubling play for a couple of years, and this production at the Almeida Theatre gave me fresh eyes and ears for it.

Mark and I began our Islington adventure at the Angel Tube stop, and it seems fitting to end this tiny recollection back there, as my friend and I descended on the station's steep escalator, still discussing the show we'd just seen. Or better yet, I shall end with some grander send-up of that urban wonder that is the London Underground, and the design wonder that is its iconic rail map. So check out this "Transit Map of the World's Transit Systems" from Frank Jacobs' Strange Maps (you've featured an image from this curious book on your blog, I think) or, even more apropos, given that a Measure for Measure performance was our occasion to travel to the Almeida in the first place, a Shakespeare-themed Tube map: two great UK exports that look great together.

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