Tag Archives: Harrod’s

Julius Caesar and me

JULIUS CAESAR AND ME

In my last blog post (“Marlon, Tony, and Cyd,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2022/10/26/marlon-tony-and-cyd/), I noted Marlon Brando’s performance in the 1954 film version of Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar, a film that had a tremendous impact on a very young version of me.  As I recall, I saw it with classmates at my junior high school, which declared a special day at the movies for some reason.  I always wanted to see it performed live.

Years later, that finally happened.

In May 1972, my husband Marv and I took our long-delayed honeymoon. We’d married one year earlier in LA, but we weren’t able to take off more than a weekend (spent in beautiful Santa Barbara) until we arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1971.  We found life in AA somewhat restricting, and we began to ponder trips outside of Michigan and my hometown of Chicago. 

Our first foray took us to the tropical paradise of Nassau on a bargain charter trip from the U. of M. that we thoroughly relished.  But we hungered for more.  We soon aimed at the fabled cities of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, and decided to visit them in our upcoming three-week vacation/honeymoon.

We landed in our first city, London, in early May.  We reveled in the British history and literature that leaped out at us:  Touring Charles Dickens’s home; making the essential trip to the Tower of London; viewing the paintings at the National Gallery…. 

We were also theater buffs, and we made sure to get tickets for plays on the London stage.  I remember our first night in London.  Even though we sat in the first row of the theater where Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing appeared, Marv had such vicious jet lag that he fell asleep and missed The Whole Thing. We loved the musical version of Canterbury Tales (which never seemed to be offered in any US city we ever lived in) and we roared at Robert Morley’s antics in his hilarious comedy in the West End. 

But one thing was missing.  We weren’t able to get tickets at any theater offering the plays of William Shakespeare. Whatever may have been playing was sold out or otherwise unavailable.

We racked our brains trying to solve this problem.  Suddenly an idea popped into mine.  We’d briefly shopped in the famed Harrod’s department store, mostly to see the place, and I thought I’d seen an advert for its travel service.  So we made our way back to Harrod’s and, sure enough, we discovered that its travel service offered a bus tour that encompassed an overnight stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and included two tickets to the Shakespeare play being performed on the date we’d arrive.  Voila! 

We immediately signed up for the tour, which also would make brief stops in a few other places:  Oxford, Blenheim Palace, and a town called Leamington Spa.  The only hitch was that we had to cancel the rest of our stay in our Sloane Square hotel and scramble to find another spot when we returned to London.  But Shakespeare was worth it.

Early the next morning we took off on our bus tour.  We discovered that our tour included theater tickets for a performance of Julius CaesarDestiny?

Soon we arrived at our first stop:  Oxford and its world-recognized university.  After viewing the university from our bus, we briefly walked around the campus.  I recall strolling around Christ Church College and noting its elegant architecture. 

Whenever I watch “Inspector Morse” on PBS, the crime drama starring John Thaw as Oxford police detective Morse, I’m always reminded of our brief stop at Oxford. The prizewinning series was produced from 1987 to 2000 and occasionally still pops up on PBS-TV channels.  The setting for each episode is invariably Oxford and nearby locations. 

Christ Church College has even more recently loomed into public view. Decades after our visit, Christ Church College has become famous because a number of campus locations were used as settings in the Harry Potter films.

Next we headed for our most desired stop:  Stratford-upon-Avon.  We found ourselves booked at the city’s White Swan Inn.  This historic inn, first used as an inn as far back as 1560, struck us immediately as a classic example of Tudor architecture, with a half-timbered exterior typical of that era.  When we checked in, we discovered that its framework of wooden beams extended into our bedroom, creating a memorable place to lay our heads during our stay in Stratford.

At the hotel’s restaurant, we shared dinner with our fellow tour-mates.  One other American couple shared our last name, and we chatted happily with them and others.  But we hardly noticed the food because we were eagerly anticipating our evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, an eight-minute walk away.

Excitedly, we arrived at the theater and took our seats, located not far behind the first row.  The other Alexanders were seated a couple of rows behind us.  The program listed the cast and included only one semi-familiar name.  Corin Redgrave, presumably the son of notable British actor Michael Redgrave (and notable British actress Rachel Kempson) and brother of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, would play the part of Octavius Caesar.

The play began!  Marv and I knew the plot well, having seen the 1954 film more than once.  We certainly had no problem watching the violent murder of Julius Caesar by Brutus and the others.  But during that scene, we could hear cries of anguish coming from the other Alexanders.  At intermission, they exited, loudly declaring how unhappy they were.

I was astonished by their reaction to a brilliant performance of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays.  What exactly did they expect?  Much of Shakespeare is loaded with acts of violence and death.  Were they expecting one of the comedies?  If so, I was torn between feeling sorry for them and laughing at their foolishness. They’d probably been excited about seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, and they’d shelled out some of their pricey tourist budget to be there.  But they were apparently not very knowledgeable about the Bard or they’d have had an inkling of what could be on the stage that night.

I lost further respect for our fellow theater-goers when I overheard a woman (with a pronounced British accent) mutter, “Corin Redgrave.  Isn’t she Vanessa’s sister?”  Marv and I were both aware of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, two women who’d already played prominent film roles.  So even though we weren’t entirely sure who Corin Redgrave was, we could easily tell from the program that he played a male role, and he would therefore be Vanessa’s brother, not another sister.  We Americans seemed to know a lot more about the British theater than the locals did.

Although we didn’t recognize the names of any of the other actors at the time, I’ve been able to find (on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website) the names of the members of the cast that night.  I discovered that we saw a number of outstanding British actors who later achieved great fame. They included Patrick Stewart (as Cassius), John Wood (as Brutus), Richard Johnson (as Mark Antony), Margaret Tyzack (as Portia), and Tim Pigott-Smith.  Further, the director that night was the much acclaimed Trevor Nunn.  No wonder we were thrilled to witness this extraordinary performance.

Marv and I stayed till the very end and reveled in the brilliant performances of these talented actors.  We’d happily achieved our goal of seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and we’d seen a spectacular new version of Julius Caesar to boot.  Back at the White Swan Inn, we celebrated our thanks-to-Harrod’s coup with a romp in our very feathery English bed, Marv first showing off his manly strength by hanging from one of the overhead wooden beams.

By the way, the White Swan Inn has been renovated and still exists as a hostelry in Stratford, now dubbed the White Swan Hotel.

En route back to London, we made two more stops.  First, we visited historic Bleinheim Palace, where we toured the glorious interior.  The palace has been in the Churchill family since the 1770s (its history is fascinating), and Winston Churchill, who was born and often lived there, is buried just outside the palace grounds.  His grave is accessible to anyone. (You don’t need to visit Blenheim Palace first.)  Five years earlier, I briefly witnessed some of Churchill’s state funeral (the last state funeral before Queen Elizabeth II’s in September 2022) on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of Wyeth Hall during my first year as a student at Harvard Law School.  I was doing my laundry in an adjacent room and, when I glanced at the TV, I was suitably impressed by the pageantry on display in London in January 1965.

The tour’s final stop was a charming tea shop in a town called Leamington Spa. As our group gathered for tea, we learned the history of Leamington Spa, a beautiful but largely unknown town not far from our earlier stops.  (On a trip to countryside England with a friend in 2012, my friend and I met someone working in the Somerset area who confided that she was moving to take a new job in…Leamington Spa!  So, forty years after my visit to its tea shop, I surprisingly heard mention of it again.)

Marv and I returned to Stratford-upon-Avon with our daughters in 1995, in the middle of a jam-packed trip to the U.K. and France [please see “Down and Hot in Paris and London,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2014/11/%5D.  We stayed in nearby Cheltenham, visited other towns in the Cotswolds, and toured some sites in Stratford.  But we weren’t able to see a Shakespeare play together (I think the theatre was closed just then). 

So the time Marv and I were able to spend in Stratford in 1972, and our chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company give a spectacular performance of Julius Caesar, gleam even more as a glittering memory, still burning brightly.

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell) Part III

PART III

During the summer of 1995, my family and I traveled to France and the U.K. during a record-setting heat wave in Northern Europe. In Parts I and II of this post, I’ve described some of the challenges of our overheated stay in Paris and elsewhere in France.

After ten days in France, we departed for England on a posh air-conditioned ferry from Cherbourg, hoping to find cooler climes on the scepter’d isle. But the moment we disembarked in Portsmouth, our hearts sank. If anything, the air felt warmer and even more humid.

Our taxi driver dropped us and our bags unceremoniously at the train station (I don’t think he liked my remarks about the Royal Family). With no baggage carts anywhere, we dragged our bags to the ancient lift. We waited and waited and, finally fearing that we’d miss our train, we abandoned the idea of taking the lift and schlepped our bags up the flight of stairs to the track-level (it took two trips for each of us). At least the train itself was high-speed and air-conditioned.

At Waterloo Station we climbed into a black London cab and sped on our way to Gower Street in Bloomsbury. Our room was much like that in Paris–one large room with the same assortment of beds, and an enormous screenless window that was sure to be a beacon for the mosquitoes then plaguing London. (I actually read about them in The Times.)

But mosquitoes were not on our minds as we set out to see London on foot that afternoon. We’d sat for five hours on the ferry and another hour and a half on the train. We were raring to go, weren’t we?

The heat assaulted us as we walked hopefully up Gower Street toward Covent Garden and points east. Herb and I wanted Meredith and Leslie to see the Temple, home of their favorite TV lawyer, Horace Rumpole (of PBS’s Rumpole of the Bailey), and we set out in that direction, stopping at Covent Garden and other sites en route. But even at the Temple, on the Thames River embankment, the air felt like a heavy blanket.

A centuries-old Inn of Court, the Temple was in the midst of an ambitious renovation project. Forced to pick our way through the construction equipment and loose building materials strewn in our path, we found the Temple a massive disappointment, hardly worth the long walk in the sun. We crawled back to our hotel, stopping only for a high-carb spaghetti dinner before we collapsed in our beds on Gower Street.

The next day, we resolved to see as much of London as we could despite the oppressive heat. (That day turned out to be the hottest day of London’s summer–93 degrees.) We decided to take a city bus that meandered from Gower Street to Kensington. I’d be an unofficial tour-bus guide, telling our daughters about the sights of London with which Herb and I were already familiar. The bus was hot, and its seat cushions covered with itchy upholstery, but we’d set out fairly early so we didn’t yet mind terribly much.

The bus cut a wide swath through many of the city’s most interesting sights, and I proceeded to act as tour guide till we disembarked near Kensington Gardens, where we began walking back towards Piccadilly Square.

Things got sticky right away. As we passed Royal Albert Hall, we grabbed ice cream bars from a sidewalk vendor and kept going, in the shade wherever possible. Soon we hit the Knightsbridge shopping area and headed for Harrod’s. The massive department store was packed with people, and no wonder. It was air-conditioned. Hordes of women were lined up to use the restrooms. The “luxury ladies’ room” cost one pound per “lady” (then about $1.70) so we spent five minutes searching for one that didn’t cost anything. (It turned out to be adjacent to the book section, where huge stacks of signed copies of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography languished on a table.) We toured the impressive Food Hall and whizzed through some other departments, leaving without buying anything but grateful to have cooled off while we were there.

Across the street, at the non-air-conditioned Scotch House, we were nearly the only customers insane enough to even contemplate woolens on a 90-plus-degree-day. Meredith was hoping to get a warm woolen cap for winter, but surrounded by heaps of wooly wear for sale, we couldn’t find exactly what she wanted.

We kept walking past Knightsbridge towards Piccadilly. The grass in beautiful St. James’s Park was dry and brown, not the lush green lawn Herb and I had seen on previous trips. We stopped to rest on a shady park bench for a while, stunned to encounter Londoners who were deliberately sunning themselves. Some had even stretched out on portable lawn chairs, supplied by the park, in the sunniest spots available. Were they crazy, or what?

We forced ourselves to walk a few blocks more, heading for lunch at the Fountain Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason. En route, we peered into the elegant Ritz Hotel lobby. It was eerily deserted, no one lined up for “high tea” at the Palm Court tearoom. The uniformed doormen, wearing long heavy wool overcoats, looked absolutely miserable.

When we finally staggered into Fortnum & Mason and read the prices on the menu, we nearly swooned, but too hot and exhausted to go anywhere else, we decided to stay. We couldn’t face going elsewhere without some rest and sustenance, so we paid top dollar for skimpy salads and F&M’s famous milkshakes. At least the apricot milkshakes were worth it–almost.

After our overpriced lunch, we pushed on to Leicester Square and the half-price theatre-ticket booth. Scanning the board, we narrowed our choice down to a few offerings, then selected “Hot Mikado.” No, we hadn’t gone completely bonkers. The show was one of London’s musical hits that season. Plus, we all loved the original “Mikado,” and the idea of seeing a jazzed-up version in an air-conditioned theatre had great appeal. And so, after more sightseeing and freshening up at our hotel, we walked to the theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, looking forward to an evening of air-conditioned comfort.

Shock! No air-conditioning! We pinched each other in disbelief. Back home, we’d never heard of a theatre without air-conditioning. Even the humblest movie theatre showing third-run flicks had some sort of air-conditioning. But not this swank theatre! A couple of fans moved the air around a bit, but they couldn’t keep us from sweating through “Hot Mikado.” We loved the show but pitied the performers, whose sweat ran dripping down their faces. After the opening scene, the male chorus even took off their colorful jackets and sang and danced in their shirtsleeves. I didn’t blame them one bit.

The next night we made our way to the Aldwych Theatre to see Tom Stoppard’s latest hit, “Indian Ink.” Again, we were dismayed to discover that this prestigious theatre, showcasing brilliant stars of the London stage, was stifling. The same itchy upholstery found on London buses covered the theatre seats. As the lead in “Indian Ink”–a poet who travels to India in the 1920s–talked about a poem she was writing called “Heat,” I squirmed in my seat, trying to escape the bristly fabric. I was wearing shorts that night–we hadn’t had time to change before arriving at the theatre. Although I’d never imagined that I’d go to a London theatre in shorts, I regretted wearing them only because the itchy seats attacked my bare thighs more ferociously that way.