The Old Man and The Play
“We’re going to be neighbors,” a white haired man said to me in the balcony of the Old Vic Theatre. He took off his tweed coat and draped it on the back of his chair next to mine.
I smiled politely and nodded at him as he lowered himself into his folding seat.
“Have you been here before?” he asked in a way that did not sound like a cheesy pick-up line.
“No. Sadly. This is my first time.”
“Are you American?”
I laughed, as I had been asked this nearly every day since I’d moved to London six months prior.
“No, I’m Canadian.” I replied, restraining myself from my usual ‘make them guess’ response. Several times people answered Australian or South African then finally ending in an “Oh! Canada!” as they had forgotten that my home country even existed.
“Are you a student?”
“Yeah. I’m here getting a Masters at Goldsmiths.” I enjoyed saying that I was a MA student every chance I got. As I’d only applied to my program to get my best friend, who’d been encouraging me to go back to school for years, off my back. I was utterly shocked when I was accepted and knew I had to jump at the chance.
“Oh!” He said with the reverence of people who knew about the school. “Are you going to be the next Damien Hirst?” A graduate of Goldsmiths who is famous for putting dead animals formaldehyde and being the highest paid living artist ever.
“Hardly. I’m a writer.”
“Good.” He smiled. “I can’t stand that crap.”
Our conversation lead into literature and then a narrative critique of the plays we’d seen that season.
“Madame De Sade was so terrible even Judy Dench couldn’t save that play.”
“I agree completely,” he replied just as the house lights dimmed hushing our neighborly banter.
We were seeing Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. A romantic tragedy where a King accuses his pregnant Queen of adultery and puts her on trial, locks her away, then orders the death of the baby. Watching Shakespeare in London had become one of my favorite joys, as I watched masterful actors show me how famous speeches ought to be performed putting my former classmates attempts, when I was starry-eyed drama school kid, to shame.
My jaw was agape as I watched Rebecca Hall utter the famous, “Sir, spare your threats” monologue. Ok, perhaps it’s only famous to young actresses who use this speech much too often in auditions; as it is one of the few powerful female speeches Shakespeare has to offer in his male dominated cannon.
Rebecca Hall and the King- another famous actor not referenced in my story
At the intermission, David, as I later knew my neighbor, insisted on buying me a drink. I had a white wine while he ordered an orange juice. As he was an Englishman I had assumed he was going to have a pint, then I felt a little twinge of shame for drinking alone in the afternoon. But David never gave me a glance of judgement.
Over the course of the break, we swapped stories that brought us to the theatre today. I had received an e-mail from some student organization I was a part of where the first 20 people to reply got complimentary tickets. I was the fifth.
“I see a show every day” he said reaching into his jacket pocket producing a multiple paged spreadsheet listing dates, times, shows and theatres he had bought tickets for everyday for the next year and a half.
“See, tomorrow I’m seeing Waiting for Godot then Friday there’s a concert at the Barbican. Saturday is busy – a matinee at The Royal Court and back to the Barbican for a Japanese play.”
“Wow.” Was all I could say then the bell rang prompting us to return to our seats.
As I watched the play turn from Kings and Queens to the countryside and into a comedy focusing on a trickster character played by Ethan Hawke, my mind churned over how David was able to see so many shows, and why? Was he rich? Was he a retried actor who had ins at every theatre in town? And how was it Ethan Hawke was able to steal the show from these fine British actors? Well done crush of my 14-year-old self.
After the King, Queen and their daughter were happily reunited when a statue comes to life (true story) and the houselights came up I was about to recite my ‘nice to meet you’ speech to David when he asked if he could take me out to dinner. So I went along for a free meal, instead of getting my 14-year-old self an autograph of the moody man from Reality Bites.
David took me to the National Theatre’s dinning room and as he’d earlier told me, he knew everyone there. This confirmed David’s story about being a frequent patron of the theatre. Then over a dinner of vegetarian lasagna and mixed greens, he told me his life story.
He grew up in London was divorced, had four children, two grandchildren, and he’d worked a mundane office job until he was 65.
“I didn’t discover the theatre until I retired. My daughter took me to a show, right here in the National Theatre. From that moment I vowed that I would see as much of it as I could before I die, which I reckon will be in five years.”
“Five years?” I raised my eyebrows.
Yes, I’ve always had a feeling that I would die at 75.”
David rambled on and on about the shows he’d seen, how he spent his days and how he had a crush on this twenty-year-old Polish girl who worked at the Barbican. I wanted to ask what it was he got from theatre and why had he chosen to spend his final years in the dark of a audience listening to other’s stories instead of making his own, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
While David ordered strawberries with whipped cream for dessert I found myself resentful that David hadn’t yet asked me anything about my life. Why had I decided to move to London, what I thought about it and how was I coping with how lonely it can be? At the very least, I thought, he should ask me what my novel is about.
“Well, I should get going. I’m seeing Jude Law in Hamlet tonight. Busy day- two Shakespeares!” He said standing up and putting on his tweed jacket.
I thanked him for dinner and his generosity. I even offered to pay for my share again, despite having only five pounds in my wallet.
“No! No!” He insisted. “It was my pleasure. It’s always nice to have a dining partner.”
As we walked out to the South Bank, looking at the London Eye and the Thames river, I debated giving him my phone number or email address incase he ever wanted a theatre companion but held back wondering where that would lead. Besides he made it quite clear that he was interested in this Polish girl at the Barbican.
“Here’s where we part,” I said when we reached the Royal Festival Hall. “Thanks again. It was nice to meet you.”
David tipped his hat, “Good night. Sally.”
As I took the tube back to my cold derelict flat to crawl under my five layers of bedding and an electric blanket I thought about spending the rest of my life seeing theatre, wondering if I had an age I thought I might die at and how David at least could have gotten my name right. But who was I to complain? I was in London seeing free theatre, eating free dinners and I had another story to tell.
Note: This is a memoir in the sense it’s a true story but facts might have been muddled due to memory loss or creative license.