Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bunking off to York for the Day

Saturday, 4 August

It's a small country, and high speed rail lines will take you pretty far in a reasonable length of time. Writing about British theatre a few weeks ago reminded me of a recent advert announcing York would be producing its Medieval Mystery Play cycle again this summer. York is only two hours, non-stop, on the East Coast Line.

I booked seats on the 9 a.m. train out of Kings Cross, and we were on our way. When I came up with the plan to spend the day in York, I had not known today would be Golden Britain Day at the Olympics. It's hard to believe when I booked the tickets a few weeks ago, a thought had passed through my mind that we might be well sick of London and the Olympics by this weekend and looking forward to a good day away! Instead we had a tinge of regret at leaving the excitement of Olympic London.

Nevertheless, the journey was a reminder of the depth and popularity of performance in this country both in athletics and on stage. The train was packed with young adults on their way to Edinburgh, our train's final destination, for the Edinburgh Fringe's first weekend. Many carried bulging suitcases suggesting they would be there for the month, part of the huge roster of productions which serve as the cultural incubator for future talent. Every young performer (and middle-aged hopeful) "takes their show to the Fringe." The statistics are phenomenal. According to a press report, this year there are 2,695 shows with 23,000 performers, and that number doesn't include the uncounted Free Fringe events, nor the official Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the Edinburgh Book Festival, and the Royal Military Tattoo events that carry on simultaneously. Edinburgh is the place to be in August, and I admit we have never been. Too crowded; too complicated; just too lazy.

Our day in York was delightful. There was enough time to stop into the York Museum, to have lunch in a garden café, to pop into the Minster, then head to the Abbey Gardens for the Mystery Play matinée, and back to the train station for a quick pint of excellent vanilla-damson stout, before boarding our train back to London.

The choir screen at York Minster with the Kings of England

The West Window

The Mystery Play has been a summer theatre staple in York since 1951 when the Cycle was revived as part of the Festival of Britain's northern England programme. The performances were held on a stage set up in the city park where the ruins of York's medieval St Mary's Benedictine Abbey formed the backdrop. Since 1988, the plays have been performed in the city's Royal Theatre or outdoors using hand carts that move around the city, as the medieval plays were performed, and as we saw them done in 2006. This year, as part of the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of King John granting York a City Charter in 1212, the performance was moved back to the Abbey Gardens with a new script which joins most of the individual tales into a coherent drama of good versus evil.
The ruins of St Mary's Abbey built in the late 13th c;
closed and demolished in c. 1539

The Garden of Eden, Stanley Spencer style
The production was superb with professional leads and 1000 community volunteers for the chorus, the stock characters, and the many crowd scenes. Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Ben, played God/Jesus brilliantly; a popular TV-soap villain played the Devil, as an urbane snake-in-the-grass. The production design's vision was inspired by the paintings of Stanley Spencer, one of our favourite British artists. A true eccentric who saw Britain as an apocalyptic Garden, much in the manner of William Blake's poetry.
For Spencer, the Last Judgement would take place in his hometown of Cookham in Berkshire.
The Resurrection Cookham is in the Tate Britain's collection
The costumes were recreations of the clothes worn by Spencer's villagers in his paintings done between the 1920s and the 1950s. The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham has a website with links to most of his work. He was deeply affected by his experiences as a medic in Macedonia during the First World War, before he served in the trenches. His most famous work is the Burghclere Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, with a cycle of wall painting sometimes compared to Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua. His other masterworks are the Glasgow Shipyards painted as an official war artist during the Second World War.

I have very few photos of the production because they requested that no photos be taken during the performance, and I had only taken one before I saw the notice. In the theatre erected for the production, the seating has cover, but the stage does not. During the afternoon, the weather was variable moving from rain, to sun, to clouds, to very hot sun, to an apocalyptic thunder and rainstorm — which began during the Gethsemane betrayal! — that flooded the stage, and shut down the play when the electrical equipment stopped functioning. The soaking wet performers returned after the Deluge, to finish the end of the story.  Lots of photo ops were promised for the end, but the soaked players, many wearing plastic ponchos did not make much of a picture. However, the York team have provided a trailer that doesn't miss much.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Our Last View of the Olympic Park (For Now)

Friday, 3 August

Our last set of tickets from the random ticket lottery were for Diving this afternoon, giving us one more chance to visit the Olympic Park. Today was a big day for the Olympic organisers. The main stadium which holds 80,000 people has been closed since the Opening Ceremony, until today, when the Athletics events began. Until today, the transportation, the security, and the hospitality has functioned like a dream. The big question has been whether the transport and facilities could accommodate an additional 80,000 visitors. And the answer is yes.

I'm so glad we visited yesterday when the Park was crowded, but an extra 80,000 does make a difference. For example, we didn't try to buy food or beverages, but the queues to enter the souvenir shops were very long indeed! Bob will have to secure a T-shirt another way.

Water Polo Stadium to the left; Aquatics to the right

The weather remained sunny and warm, and we took the opportunity to wander along the river walks lined with wildflower meadows.

A bridge covered sheathed with reflective panels

Gloriana, the Queen's Row Barge that led the Thames Jubilee Parade
and carried the Olympic Flame down the Thames 

The Aquatics Centre. The wings on each end provide seating for the Games.
They will be removed leaving the curved roof pool area in the middle
to be used as a community swim facility.

Arriving at the Aquatic Center, we presented our Diving tickets, chosen by us (cheap) and allocated by the lottery, knowing full well our seats might require an oxygen infusion after we climbed up to the top of the top of the top of the stadium's seating wings. And then the nice man said, "Would you like some better seats where you don't have to climb stairs?" And he led us to the front row at the side of the Diving Pool at the board end! We were sitting behind the judges' backs!
This is what the front row looks like!

The event was the Women's 3-Metre Springboard Preliminary with 30 divers doing five dives each in order to whittle the field to 18 divers for tomorrow's semi-final.

These amazing seats gave us an opportunity to see behind the scenes of scoring and televising events.

Canadian diver Jennifer Abel who came in 4th today being interviewed by
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Jennifer won the Bronze Medal
in the 3-metre synchronised diving earlier this week. 

Chinese star diver Wu Minxia being interviewed by Chinese  TV .
She placed first today, and won the Gold in the 3-metre synchronised diving.
We were certainly sad to leave the Olympic Park, but next year the park will reopen as Queen Elizabeth Park with sports facilities available to the public and open space use. The athletes' accommodation tower blocks will be refitted with kitchens, reconfigured as flats, and sold off. Other housing blocks are already under construction. The huge Westfield Mall is in place. A huge transportation hub has been built connecting Underground, Overground, Docklands Light Rail, national rail lines, and even an International Eurostar station. If Stratford's regeneration is as successful as other recent efforts in London — Canary Wharf and Kings Cross for example — then the neighbourhood will become a major urban hub of Northeast London. In a perfect world, these projects would serve residents across the income spectrum, but that is always the rub in a world that is not perfect.

### Diving Update, Semifinal Results, Saturday, 4 August: Wu Minxia held onto 1st place, and Jennifer Abel remained in 4th place.
*** Diving Update, Final Results, Sunday, 5 August: Gold for Wu Minxia; Silver for He Zi of China; Bronze for Laura Sanchez Soto of Mexico

Our First View of the Olympic Park

Thursday, 2 August

Today was the day of our first visit to the Olympic Park with tickets for Handball this evening. Susan and Cato entered in the early afternoon, followed by a set of ecstatic Facebook messages from Susan, so when Bob and I entered later in the afternoon, I was primed and pumped. And wow, it is overwhelming. So overwhelming I forgot to take photos. When I took stock of what I had on my camera, most of the photos were of fields of wildflowers (spectacular) and of one building (the Velodrome). Oh well, I have one more chance tomorrow. The park is huge. It sweeps around in curves, and suddenly you look back and realise how far away from the entrance you are. The River Lea winds through the site with walkways verged by wildflower meadows.

Scenic walkways, wildflower gardens,
and the Olympic Stadium in the distant left.

Wildflower meadows were chosen as a Green Olympic measure.
The months of soaking rain have made them a spectacular choice.

The Velodrome in the back, and the little egg in front is a bandshell for entertainment

The Basketball Stadium
The world's largest McDonalds. Griping in the press led us to believe it was the only food venue available.
In fact there was a very good food kiosk area where we had an excellent dinner of
stir fried prawns served at a very reasonable price.
Nevertheless the only beer available is Heineken. Sigh. 

Our sporting event was a Men's Handball Preliminary. Like Beach Volleyball, a sport I have no familiarity with. Susan pointed out it was much like basketball with a football goal and lots of physical pushing and grabbing. The first match was Denmark and Serbia, with lots and lots of Danish support in the seats. Denmark won narrowly, but the game wasn't very exciting. The second match between Sweden and Iceland was much more interesting. They were both very fast and aggressive, with the lead passing back and forth regularly. Iceland clocked up a few extra points near the end of the game, but Sweden came roaring back, and nearly tied it up, but Iceland was still ahead by one point when the clock ran out.

A beautiful breezy evening greeted us as we left the Park at 11 pm.

Yes, that is a full moon adding an extra light in the sky
The BBC still at work in their media centre

The BBC interview/commentary studio. Can you see the Olympic Flame on the screen to the left.
There is a controversy over leaving the Torch inside the Stadium so only visitors with tickets to
Stadium events can see the legendary Flower Petal Torch.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bouncy Stonehenge Comes to Hampstead!

Wednesday, 1 August

There has to be a day to do laundry, keep up with the dishwashing, evaluate the food stocks, and even make supper. But this is the Cultural Olympics, so today the fun came to Hampstead Heath.

Click the link for more information

Our First Olympic Event

Tuesday, 31 July

The long awaited day! And the weather report is dire. Rain. Heavy rain predicted for much of the day.

More than a full year after the arcane lottery for tickets that involved paying for tickets before you were told what tickets you were buying. And since the payment could only be made with a VISA card, sponsor of the Olympics, meaning a debit rather than a credit card in this part of the world. So the trick was to  keep an appropriate balance in your current account to cover the unknown payment which would be debited without warning. When £64 was debited we knew we had 4 tickets for events at the senior citizen £16 price. A month later the e-mail message arrived saying, yes we had 2 tickets for Beach Volleyball and 2 tickets for Diving.

The tickets arrived in large cardboard envelopes by special delivery-signature required postal service. Along with our tickets were instructions to anticipate dire transport and security problems necessitating arriving at least two hours before the start time. Well our start time was 9 a.m., and Horse Guards is usually a pretty quick bus ride from Hampstead. After our pleasantly easy weekend travel through London, we decided to ignore the warnings. Our tickets gave us seats for two men's matches followed by two women's matches, and we thought four hours of Beach Volleyball might be one hour too many, so we decided to skip the first match, take the bus, and hope for the best. Well whatever fairy dust magic the organisers have managed to sprinkle over the city, we arrived and had passed through "airport style" security in less than an hour.
The Mall entrance to Horse Guards Parade.
Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Monument is at the far end.
The stadium erected for Beach Volleyball in the Parade Ground
behind the Horse Guards Headquarters
We still decided to skip the 9:00 match to have coffee and see what else was on the site.
Mega Beach Volleyballers

A sand sculptor sculpting a model of the Horse Guards Parade.

A completed sculpture of a Horse Guard

We added Beach Volleyball to our ticket preference list because we were intrigued by reports the event would be held at the Horse Guards Parade which does not in any way resemble a beach in Santa Monica. Santa Monica might have the Pacific Ocean, but Santa Monica doesn't have Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, or the London Eye.

And it didn't rain either. In fact at 10:10, according to Big Ben directly ahead of me in our high rise seats, the sun even came out for a minute or two, and the Beach Bunny dancers came out to do a Sun Dance!

And Mayor Boris Johnson dropped by to tell a political joke that Gordon Brown approved the £9.5 billion for the Olympics because he was looking forward to watching Beach Volleyball from the back windows at Downing Street. And to tell an Olympic joke that as the host country we are graciously allowing our guests to take the gold medals.
Mayor Boris Johnson with his blond head of hair . . .

. . .  and on the big screen
The matches were very good too. One of the Brazil players in the men's match is rated number one in the world, I think the announcer said. The Brazilians easily put the Swiss men away in two sets. The Spanish and Argentine women were more closely matched, but Spain took the match with two sets. The Brazilian and German women were fiercely competitive, going to the third set, after a second set that stretched to many extra points. Brazil did win in the end.

We were efficiently and briskly moved out of the venue to allow the afternoon ticket holders to enter. The food kiosks and Olympic merchandise kiosks were shut to discourage any stragglers.

Then it was back to nearly empty Trafalgar Square for the bus ride home.

Our next tickets are for the Olympic Park in Stratford so I expect the crowd and security warnings may be worth heeding.