Sunday, 10 August 2008

"All the world's a stage"

“And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”

Ah yes the Bard’s words indeed. So rushing through childhood into middle age, if “life begins at 40” what happens a decade later?

Well if you’re a play it would seem, not only do you have some sort of cultural backbone, but it also means perhaps you can go on a world party.

And such is the case with the 50th anniversary production of West Side Story, currently in mid run at London’s Sadler’s Wells.

It’s a pretty weird feeling watching something that was first performed over half a century ago with the creeping realisation that in a very real sense it’s still bang up-to-date.

But that’s a sensation hard to get away from at the 50th anniversary production of West Side Story, currently in mid run at London’s Sadler’s Wells.

It has all the potential on paper at least, to be spectacularly dated. After all it’s a modernised version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the 1950s in New York’s Lower East Side. Hardly the stuff of the 21st century.

But in a very real sense that’s exactly what it is.

Yes it’s American – very much so. Yes it’s a musical, from which some more “discerning” theatregoers might conclude it’s not really highbrow enough. And yes it’s full of songs to which probably many of us could in our finest Karaoke moments do a pretty fair caterwauling injustice.

But all that said, it also tells a universal story that of course still resonates today and is as frighteningly bang up to date in the saddest of ways.

Violence, street gangs, recent immigrants fighting territorial battles, and deprived inner city suburbs are after all not confined to New York in the 1950s. And the same old problems still exist in cities around the world.

But one thing couldn’t have escaped the attention of the London audience, and that was how much the plot revolves around two tragic incidents; a shooting at the end of the second act, and more poignantly perhaps for a British audience, a knifing in a gang battle between the Jets and the Sharks in the first.

That will surely have struck a nerve among a public, which has become all too used to reading or hearing reports of a spate of senseless stabbings in the capital and around the country over the past year.

Romance of course is as integral a part of the plot as violence, and just as in Shakespeare’s “original” there’s no happy ending.

Much has been written over the years about Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. They are and remain simply a joy.

What perhaps sets this musical aside from others though is the choreography, which is simultaneously classical and modern, pushing bodies to perform over two-and-a-half hours a series of moves that shouldn’t be humanely possible – but clearly, somehow are.

West Side Story is well into the European leg of its world tour and after stops in Vienna, Paris, Zurich, Leipzig, and Baden Baden, it’s now playing to packed houses at London’s Sadler’s Wells until the end of this month. Extra matinee performances have recently been added, but the chances are all the tickets have already been gobbled up. Still, if you’re visiting London and have the right contacts, you might be lucky.

If not, fear not as it’s then scheduled to go on tour around Britain, playing in half a dozen or so towns and cities, ending up in the northeast of England in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in February 2009.

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