Pride & Prejudice (sort of)
Pride & Prejudice (sort of) in London (courtesy: production)

Years ago when I was interviewing Bette Midler for the cover of Vanity Fair, we were sitting around her living room at her home in an area of Los Angeles known as Beverly Hills Adjacent, which is bordered by Bel-Air and the Santa Monica Mountains. She was joking about her ‘adjacency’ status, which led us to talk about our love of other cities as well as how my own life was—and continues to be—celebrity adjacent. I combined both those topics by telling her about visiting London for the first time when I was barely in my 20s to visit my friend, the artist David Hockney, who took me to Glyndebourne with a fun group of his other friends to see the sets he’d done for a production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

Glyndebourne is situated on a country estate about 60 miles outside London in East Sussex and is known for its afternoon opera performances, its picnics on its grounds during its long intermissions, and the formal wear worn by its audiences in both circumstances. I will never forget that afternoon not only for the brilliance of David’s set but also for being a part of, well, “David’s set.” Just as seared into my memory is the sight of all those tuxedoed gentleman and fancy-dress ladies lolling about the grounds eating their picnics with their silver cutlery as they cut their eyes toward David and his friends, especially me, the very young American who tackily did not own a tuxedo. I was more than a one-off in such a crowd. I was both an outcast and yet—because I was there with David—an insider.

That dichotomy that day in Glyndebourne would come to define my life. It is the dichotomy that defines, in fact, the kind of celebrity-adjacent journalism for which I became known years later and led me not only to Bette Midler’s living room but to this very sentence in this column as I write about it. The outsider-insider balance is one that all journalists have to navigate to keep their professional equilibrium. And yet I don’t really think of myself as a journalist. I’m too lazy for that. It takes more gumption than I have to be a serious journalist. I am a writer unintimidated by fame. I can carry on a conversation. I know narrative. I can conjure a column.  

Back all those years ago now during that day with David and our other friends, I just felt—another dichotomy—unseen once seen as not belonging. David sensed my discomfort in the midst of such mannered lolling about and whispered my way, “You’re with me. We’re expected to be outré. We’re the artists.” Midler, who is not as outré privately as she is when being her performative self onstage,  talked that other long-ago day in her Beverly Hills Adjacent living room of another city and another artist when she told me about her visit to the Musée Picasso in Paris and how it got her in touch with her own production ethic, as she termed it. 

“It’s an odd place that Picasso museum,” she said. “On one hand it’s full of Picassos, and on the other hand it’s kind of a mess. It’s haphazard and dirty. I’ll never forget it. You would think that his shrine would be totally pristine, because he was one of the greats. He was legendary. But the one thing I took away from my visit to that museum was that this guy jumped out of bed in the morning and had to make things. He was obliged to; he was compelled to. In a way, I have a little bit of that, though not to the degree that he had it. But I feel I have to create. I have to dig in the earth.  I have to make something grow. I have to bake something. I have to write something. I have to sing something. I have to put something out. It’s not a need to prove anything. It’s just my way of life.”

I have come to understand that way of life more deeply here in London this trip as I have witnessed so much culture and come to appreciate even more the artists who create it on its many levels.  One of the biggest surprises of this trip is Pride & Prejudice (sort of), which has just extended its run at the Criterion Theatre  on Piccadilly Circus because of the raves it’s gotten. I attended with trepidation because I am not its target audience which, I presume, is really hip and really literate young women—sort of like Grazia readers, come to think of it. Written by Isobel McArthur (after Jane Austen) it is a romp through the book of the same name retold by a household’s female servants during the Georgian Era who play all the roles. I could imagine McArthur and her fellow cast mates—led by director Simon Harvey—getting up each morning to work on this adaptation with a sense of fun, an unflagging artistic focus, and the needed work ethic it took to get it here to the Criterion and keep their energy up during each week’s performance schedule. The show manages to be raucously funny while never playing down to its audience even as it’s taking the piss out of snobs and those who long to snag one for themselves. The whole cast is a delight. It originated in Scotland and the The Glasgow Herald called it “profoundly joyous.” It certainly is. In fact, its hardworking actresses reminded me of the equally hardworking performers down The Strand from them who are just as joyous in Six playing at the Vaudeville Theatre. Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six was another surprise for me, as it is a reframing of the historical tale of the wives of Henry VIII into a brash and brassy concert format. It’s the Spice Girls if they had gone to Cambridge. I’m not sure why I was surprised I loved it so much. It’s becoming a phenomenon with productions now on Broadway—where it is a hit—and in Chicago. I can see how it could play forever in Las Vegas—and this is the first time I’ve ever wanted my saying something would be a hit in Vegas to be construed as a big compliment.  

La traviata, The Royal Opera ©2021 ROH. Photograph by Tristram Kenton
La traviata, The Royal Opera ©2021 ROH. Photograph by Tristram Kenton

It takes a special kind of discipline and work ethic to sing opera and dance ballet, and two of the other surprises of this trip have been Lisette Oropesa’s Violetta in La Traviata on its opening night this fall season at The Royal Opera and Reece Clarke who made his debut as Albrecht opposite Natalia Osipova on the opening night for the Royal Ballet’s Giselle. Oropesa’s glorious soprano seems to have an inner life all its own (a second soul?) as she summons it in the  coloratura singing in the first act to give her technique a heart and which she then summons in the second act to break our own. I wouldn’t say this about many opera singers, but she has moments of real brilliance as an actress within the heightened context of her art form. And not to be too glib, but this Louisiana native’s own form has slimmed down considerably since her early diva days when she has said she weighed 210 pounds. She credits this with her devotion now to veganism.  Oropesa was a winner of the 2005 Met Opera National Council Auditions and joined the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program when, she says, people at The Met sat her down and pointedly told her to lose weight. Now she is not only a glorious singer and brilliant actress, but also possesses the kind of glamour and beauty one associates with a movie star. 

“I get paid to use my body, and I don’t do well with not feeling well, like having my vocal cords swell because I’m eating dairy,” Oropesa told Vegan Lifestyle Magazine. “I went vegan to get my diet to where it was the healthiest that it could be. Then I developed taste for real food in a way that I hadn’t before. I had an awakening about food, and now my diet keeps me happy and level.”

Scottish ballet dancer Reece Clarke—who gets paid to use his body artistically also—cut the most dashing of figures as Albrecht in the Royal Ballet’s Giselle. I knew Natalia Osipova would be magnificent in the title role—she rather owns it at this point—but I was deeply impressed with Clarke. I don’t want to be accused of being sexist by only focusing on Oropesa’s body, so I’ll comment on Clarke’s as well. Yes, he has a fairytale prince’s handsomeness—he wielded his innate regality at one point to protect Giselle without drawing a weapon—but their is a real-world movie star sexiness he also possesses. (Just ask his girlfriend, fellow Royal Ballet dancer Fumi Kaneko.). He is one of the tallest dancers in the company and his long legs were magnificent to behold in the famously, fiendishly difficult series of entrechat six required of the role—and which more specifically require one to summon strength from one’s core to get them done with the grace that comes from having the work ethic to have such grace at the ready. From Six to entrechat six—that is quite an artistic arc and why I love London so much. 

I also love London for the Tate Modern.I saw its Sophie Taeuber-Arp show during the first days of my trip here, a show that has traveled now to New York and is opening on November 21 at the Museum of Modern Art.When I was walking through the show here at the Tate Modern and seeing the many ways Taeuber-Arp woke up each morning to engage with her work though so many different disciplines, I thought about what Bette Midler said to me about Picasso’s work ethic as an artist and his compulsion to create—which matches my own compulsion to acknowledge art and witness it and celebrate it in an artful way myself.

This is from MoMA’s website: “This exhibition traces Taeuber-Arp’s careers trajectory: from applied arts teacher, participant in the Dada movement, and maker of textiles and objects; to designer of murals, stained glass windows, furniture, interiors, and buildings; to painter-sculptor, magazine editor, and early champion of geometric abstraction. For Taeuber-Arp, abstraction was always connected to an everyday lived reality in which objects were to be used and manipulated, spaces to be moved about in, and artworks to be looked at and experienced…. Her fluid movement between genres, disciplines, and creative roles makes her especially relevant for contemporary artists, while her work proposes a more open-ended and inclusive way of thinking about the history of modern art.”

CABARET. Eddie Redmayne 'The Emcee'. Photo Marc Brenner
CABARET. Eddie Redmayne ‘The Emcee’. Photo Marc Brenner

Finally, I went the other night to the first preview of the new production of the John Kander/Fred Ebb musical Cabaret that is opening on the West End in December. It stars Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee and Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles. It has been directed by Rebecca Frecknall, who took to the stage before that first preview started and asked us in the audience not to post photos from our evening there on social media nor to write about it. 

“What happens in the Kit Kat Club stays in the Kit Kat Club,” she said, referencing the cabaret where Cabaret takes place during the rise of Nazism in Berlin around 1930. Although I paid for my own ticket, I’ll honor her request—to a point. I will say this: what struck me is not only how hard those late-stage Weimar Germany cabaret performers and prostitutes and landladies and writers worked for the few German marks available to them but also how hard this cast and its creative team had been working to get to that first night of previews. I was moved by how emotional the cast was at the curtain call for putting in all that work and getting to that moment when the audience rose en mass to give them an ovation. Buckley was viscerally joyful at that curtain call. Redmayne was tearful. During the “Two Ladies” number earlier in the evening, Redmayne doffs his shirt and welcomes more than two ladies—and it even appears more than two genders—into the musical number with him in a kind of orgiastic splendor conceived by Frecknall and the show’s choreographer, Julia Cheng. It looks as if the work Redmayne put into doing this role—which takes a lot of physical as well as artistic and vocal stamina—involved some time in the gym. He’s added some abs to his smooth lithe rather androgynous frame. The production has released photos of him as the Emcee signaling his curdled clown-like take on the role and the costuming that accompanies it so I think it is safe for me to say it is as if Emmitt Kelly had read Mein Kampf and studied clowning during the day with Hugo Ball, the founder of the Dada art movement, while during the night performing at Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire for an audience that included Ball’s wife Emily Hennings along with Sophie Taeuber-Arp and her husband Jean.

Cabaret—a musical about the outré within any society, artists and writers and queers, told through the rise of Nazism and its deadly othering of Jews within Germany—is based on Goodbye to Berlin, the 1939 novel by Christopher Isherwood who woke up each day himself and went to work at his typewriter. I have always admired not only the work itself, but his ability to produce so much of it.  His advice? “One should never write down or up to people, but out of yourself.” I have been getting up each day here in London and setting out to acknowledge culture and write about it—not up to you or down to you, but out of myself. It is my second soul. It is my core.