Sunday, January 27, 2015 – Saturday, January 2, 2016

The word “matinee”, French by origin, today in English means a dramatical or musical performance in a theatre or cinema which takes place in the afternoon. It derives from the 19th century French word matinée, literally “morning”—a time of day when activities and events are held.

“Matinée” is also the name of a little cafe in Budapest from where I now write this brief journal about my foray into the London.

The establishment just a stone’s throw away from the famous Andrássy avenue is a tiny two-storey building with about six tables. Sitting on the corner of a side street next to a florist, Matinée is unimposing and secretive; walking into its wooden-framed glass door is crossing the threshold into European hipsterdom, a place filled with black jeans, beards, tattoos, a Japanese “lucky cat”, and, of course, good coffee.

You wouldn’t find this coffeehouse in your Lonely Planet guidebook to the Hungarian capital, but if ever there was a handbook of hipster hideouts in Budapest, Matinée would be top of the list, along with other places such as “Konyha” and “We Love Coffee”—both near Budapest’s Deák Ferenc ter.

But speaking of matinees (the performance, not the cafe), I would summarise my entire week-long trip to the English capital by describing an afternoon spent watching a play in London’s West End.

London, to me, is a safer Johannesburg, a city filled with multiculturalism, and where people are generally kind and get on with their own business. Oh, and where everyone walks and drives on the left (except the tourists from the European mainland, of course).

The 986-seat Gielgud Theatre, on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Rupert Street, was the setting for my first theatre experience in London, with the gilded, century-old interior serving as the perfect backdrop for city’s much adored thespian culture.

Together with my friend Margaux, from Aix-en-Provence, France, and now studying in London, we had planned to watch Kenneth Branagh’s modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”, starring none other than the living legend Dame Judi Dench (after whom I shall name my daughter—Dench, not Judi).

As fate would have it, we were unable to find (affordable) seats for the matinee at Garrick Theatre on New Year’s Eve and instead went strolling through the West End and the area immediately surrounding Leicester Square.

And, as fate would have it, we came across Gielgud Theatre, where sky-blue banners promoting a quite interesting play caught my eye. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” was on, and we immediately went to ask for seats.

Incredibly, we found tickets for the matinee at 2pm for £15 each—in a box seat overlooking the stage. We could not believe our luck, and I still cannot believe our luck.

My first encounter with the story of “Curious Incident” happened last year while I was still in Taiwan. I remember wandering through the Eslite bookshop in Banqiao and coming across the thin, red book, which was then recommended to me by my good friend Evelyn, who had had the pleasure of reading it in Chinese a few years back.

The book, written by Mark Haddon and published in 2003, was the first of three marvellous books I read which were told from the perspective of its child protagonist, the other two being “Room” and “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend”.

While, I suppose, written for a younger audience, the novel is really a quite splendid eye-opener for adults into the world of children suffering from Asperger Syndrome, and a sort of handbook into the simple, yet complex ways the brain of an autism sufferer works.

“Curious Incident” is the diary of a young boy with Asperger’s named Christopher, who lives in the south-western English town of Swindon, and who happens to be a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes—for the meticulous way in which he observes detail. His life, which functions on rules and routines, is turned upside-down when he looks out his bedroom window one night and finds the neighbour’s dog, Wellington, dead, having been speared with a garden fork.

What follows is an astounding tale of bravery and discovery, but also an insight into a seemingly challenging life—for both child and parent—which we as “normal” folk could not even begin to imagine.

Books such as these help lend important perspective. In the case of “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend”, told from the perspective of Buda, the made-up friend of another young boy suffering from autism, they also help bring us back to our childhood, to a time when we could not possibly formulate the words to describe the gain and loss of friendship—imaginary or otherwise.

The stage adaptation of Haddon’s novel at Gielgud Theatre was second-to-none. Watching it in the theatre, which was itself half classic in decoration and half modern with a 21st century stage setup, only added to the pleasure of applauding the talented thespians.

The three-hour matinee, watched in the box under the royal box seat, flew by and left me wanting more by the time we exited the theatre. I clapped and cheered for the actors, the directors, the production designers, all of whom helped bring the book to life in the spectacular theatre piece.

But while in the warmth of the theatre, I realised that a new order of comparison appeared: instead of “the book was better than the movie”, how about “the play was better than the book—and the movie”.

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Arsenal Tube Station—mind the gap.

All that’s left now is to return to the great cultural melting pot that is London and watch a few more plays. Perhaps “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, on the banks of the Thames.

Naturally, as anyone who knows me would attest, my journey to London was also part of a decade-long pilgrimage to see the mighty Arsenal, whom I have been so passionately supporting since the turn of the century, ever since I accidentally caught a glimpse of the red and white kit on the telly, when the Gunners were playing at their old stadium, Highbury.

Unable to watch a live match, I compensated myself with a trip to the Emirates, the Arsenal’s £128 million “new” home since 2006, where, for just a few minutes, I cast my eyes on the statues of the legends of old, immortalised in bronze around the stadium.

My next trip to the English capital must surely involve a game at the Emirates—this I promise my future self.

I am thankful for the pastries, for the cheese and wine offered by Margaux at her lavish Roehampton abode (the student residence); I was pleased by the clear skies along The Mall, the freshly cut grass at St. James’ Park, and the occasional days of sunshine in an otherwise perpetually rainy city.

Lastly, I am also eternally grateful to have found a Dilbert desk calendar for 2016—essential. JSF.

A small gallery of my visit can be found here.

 

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