Honey, I’m home

“Sleep no more!” is a line Macbeth yells in the scene directly following the brutal killing of King Duncan that he and his wife spearheaded. It is also reflective of how I felt during my long day of travel back to the states on January 24. 

No matter what I did, I couldn’t fall asleep. I drank (a lot of) wine. I pulled my hood over my eyes and sat in the darkness. I played instrumental playlists on Spotify. But I was on London time, and it was mid-afternoon.

My Midwest homecoming was one I was dreading. Heaping piles of snow, brutally low temperatures, and chilling wind speeds. How about, no thanks. Turn this plane right around and drop me off in London. For good. 

When we got home it was 7:30 p.m. in Iowa. 1:30 a.m. in London. We started our day of travel with a two hour bus ride to Heathrow at 6:30 a.m. That was the last time I had successfully slept. I forced myself to stay up a little later than I wanted to—an effort to curb jet lag, which didn’t really work—but once my head hit the pillow at 9 p.m., I was out for the night, snuggling under my heated blanket as the wind slammed itself against my frail window panes.

London exceeded my wildest expectations. I saw so much theatre that I practically filled my nine hour plane ride home with musical number after musical number from my favorite performances. At the beginning of the trip I was very worried about making friends, but I left with a group of people that I feel close to—both through memories and in friendship. 

I want to recount some of my favorite parts of the trip for you, because what fun is traveling if you don’t have the desire to share your stories with others after? Also, I’m a storyteller. So strap in.

Piccadilly Circus, the theatre capital of London. Described to us on the first day as, “The Times Square of the UK.”

Traveling

London is a pretty easy city to get around in. I highly recommend it if you are a first time abroad traveler, like I was. It helps that everything is in the same language, and that you can get everywhere you need to go via The Underground—that way you don’t have to freak out about zooming down the highway on the wrong side of the road. Plus, The Underground is fun. You see quite a bit of antics on the subway—performers, like Ilana intermittently on Broad City—and overhear humorous conversations.

We walked everywhere, which was ideal because it kept us fit and we got to experience the beautiful cityscape from multiple locations. We didn’t miss out on anything because we walked right by it. Everyday I was reaching 20,000 steps—a vast difference from the 5,000 I total when I’m on campus. The weather was in the high 20s and low 30s, so we were walking at a brisk pace most days, eager to find our destination and warm up inside it.

Theatre

It was FANTASTIC. I saw seven performances over my two-week stay in London. Four of the performances were included on the class itinerary, and the other three were seen on my own dime. As a class we saw Antony and Cleopatra, Pinter (a collection of three short plays), Macbeth, and Timon of Athens. 

Antony and Cleopatra was quite the spectacle. We saw it performed in the Olivier theatre at The National. The biggest joy was seeing Ralph Fiennes as Antony—previously the United Kingdom’s most notorious villain, He Who Must Not Be Named—and he was brilliant. The performance was three hours long, but such a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare, someone I have come to know very well after taking this class.

Spot the difference? Hint: it’s a nose!

Pinter was three short plays, totaling about an hour and a half of performance, all based around the topic of Absurdity. Finding the meaning in a play centered around Absurdity is really hard, and I had a tough time accepting that I wasn’t going to get answers. When free time is on my side again I want to read more of Pinter’s plays, because I really enjoyed the story arcs in each. The three we saw were: The Room, Victoria Station, and Family Voices. The young actor in Family Voices blew us all away; he gave one of the best performances I have ever seen.

We saw Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which was a cool experience already, but wait—it gets better! The performance was fully candlelit, and we saw it in the Sam Wanamaker theatre, who was a Drake alum. Shakespeare moved this theatre across the Thames back in his day and it sat only a few feet away from where today’s theatre sits. Prior to the performance we participated in an acting workshop at The Globe. We acted out three scenes from Macbeth in partners, and then some of my classmates performed their take on the scene for the rest of us. While I was definitely intimidated to be in the room stumbling over lines and flailing my arms while surrounded by a bunch of theatre majors, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of the trip.

Candlelit performance of Macbeth—a breathtaking performance of a literally breath taking show.

Timon of Athens was eh. The actress playing Timon carried the whole show, performing demanding monologues and delivering her humorous lines straight to the audience. The rest of the show was alright, but the costuming was a bit out of place, the acting was not up to par with the previous performances. Still a treat.

On my own I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is a show that debuted in the UK, came to the states, and has returned home. The story follows a teenage boy with Autism (although that is never explicitly stated) as he sets out to solve the mystery of the dead neighbor’s dog he stumbles upon. Along the way the audience sees vignettes of the boy interacting with his therapist/counselor, and his family, which is very fractured. I thought this performance was magical. It was very technologically advanced and the lead actor put on a stunning performance. This was the first play I saw in London and I was excited to fully engage in everything theatre after seeing it.

I won the front row lottery ticket to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a musical that is making its debut in the UK. It’s about a 16-year-old boy with aspirations of being a drag queen. The story takes place between his home life and his school life, where he is forced to confront and struggle with his decision in both settings. Being front row, I experienced a theatre performance like I never have before. I could have reached up and hugged the actor playing Jamie—I was that close to him. I focused on everyone’s facial expressions and smaller, more subtle movements that could be easily missed if I were sitting further back. I loved a lot of the songs in this musical and it spread the message of acceptance, which we need more of in the U.S.

My last, and favorite, solo performance was Company. When this musical comedy first hit Broadway in 1970 it was about a 35-year-old male, Bobby, who is unmarried and his best friends (his company!) are five married couples. The storyline follows Bobby as he contemplates whether or not he should get married, and weights the ups (there aren’t many) and the downs of marriage. The revival we saw in London featured a female lead, Bobbie, played by Rosalie Craig, and the ensemble cast featured a gay couple and two interracial couples. I found the changes much more relatable, all the casting was phenomenal—Patti LuPone, of course, being a standout. Seeing Company was a last minute choice, but has to be one of my favorite memories of the trip. It was also the only time I had a prolonged discussion with a British couple, which I very much enjoyed.

My view from the balcony.

Tourism

In addition to all the plays, we made sure to get around to all the iconic London hot spots. On our first day we went full historical tourist and visited the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. We spent the afternoon marveling over the Crown Jewels, learning about forms of torture in the torture chamber (where Anne Boleyn was beheaded), and taking photos of the armory in the White Castle. Later, we walked on the uppermost level of the Tower Bridge and across a glass floor with the Thames rushing underneath us.

The group in front of the Tower of London—once the tallest building in the city, and Henry VIII’s stomping grounds.

We visited all the museums, which was fitting for a history course but also filled me with immense joy because I’m such a museum nerd. The Tate Museum of Modern Art was my favorite stop, and the rest of the list includes The National Portrait Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the British Museum. We were taken on five backstage theatre tours; we saw professional ballet dancers practicing on our Royal Operahouse Tour, and we stood center stage on the Queen’s theatre, who was putting on one of my all-time favorite musicals, Les Mis.

We also visited Westminster Abbey, which, surprisingly enough, ended up being one of my favorite tours on the whole trip, followed by an hour and a half long run down of Parliament, which was fascinating because the UK was up in arms over Brexit while we were visiting. Buckingham Palace was a stop early on in our trip, but I unfortunately didn’t get to meet the lady of the hour. I still took my opportunity to yell, “YAAAASS QUEEN,” by the palace gates. On our trip to Stratford upon Avon we stopped at Hampton Court Palace, which is where Henry VIII stayed with his many wives (also scenes from The Favourite were filmed here!). While we were out in the back gardens, the sun decided to peek out for one of the few times during our stay. The grass was green (in mid-January) and the fountains were sparkling. Pure beauty.

Westminster Abbey was one of the most beautiful stops on the trips. One of my most reflective days of the trip.

The markets and pop up street fairs were my favorite parts of London. Borough Market and Camden Market were frequented a number of times, and also cleaned my pockets of cash on more than one occasion. A few of us spent a day thrifting in Shoreditch, and although I didn’t buy anything (budget reasons alone, because everything was cute) it was so fun to bounce in and out of vintage stores just like the locals. Here’s a tip: if you are traveling to London, pack all the cheetah you own. I saw at least 10+ people in some form of cheetah every day, my favorite cheetah sister appearing suddenly before us at Abbey Road like a cheetah angel, wearing cheetah from head to toe—she even had on high heeled cheetah boots. GIRL.

On our off days groups of us went on a boat tour of the Thames and visited Abbey Road. I specifically packed double denim so I could be the George Harrison of my group. I wanted to drink beer, experience all the theatre I could, and explore the hidden gems of London, but my one must have of the trip was walking across Abbey Road, so thanks to the group who made that happen. 

It happened.

Time

I know this is cliché, but I really did have the time of my life. I wish I had a little more time in London, another week or so, because it has so much to offer and we only scratched the surface. I value any experience that pushes me out of my comfort zone, and traveling is definitely that. While I’m up for the adventure and pretty easy going, I also struggle with independence and lack any directional understanding whatsoever. For those reasons, I was worried traveling abroad may not be for me. Thankfully, I have found myself only craving it more since I’ve returned to the states. There really is something so romantic and eye opening about visiting other cultures, but doing so in a respectful and thoughtful manner.

I look forward to the future, when I can do it again.