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February 29, 2024

Ricarda Hill ’24

Study abroad is the perfect time to discover something new about yourself and I did just that when I fell head over heels in love with London’s theatre scene. My newfound interest took me by surprise as I have never been a theatre kid growing up and had not really seen a professional musical theatre production before. Some of the most profound and fulfilling experiences I had in London ended up happening in theatres, sometimes leaning on a velvet railing at the back of the dress circle (instead of “stalls, in the very back!”), squinting over a ledge from a restricted view seat to catch a glimpse of the action, or sat front row in complete admiration of the actors and dodging the saliva sprays as they deliver their lines with gusto. 

Although I was not enrolled in the theatre class while on the Oberlin-in-London program (not knowing I was interested in theatre, I opted for London history instead, which was also super fun and interesting!), the program was generous enough to take us to three productions as an entire group. Two of the shows connected to our joint History of Medicine class and the third was an introduction to a seasonal British staple. These outings served as nice introductions to the London theatre scene and encouraged me to seek out shows to watch on my own and with friends. 

I was grateful to have had the opportunity to attend two plays, Dr. Semmelweis and Hamnet, each offering a unique lens into the human condition and historical narratives. Dr. Semmelweis was an exploration of the life and work of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician whose pioneering efforts in the mid-19th century aimed to understand and mitigate the spread of disease in maternity wards. The play delved into the challenges Semmelweis faced as he sought to introduce basic hygiene practices in medical settings, which ultimately saved countless lives. The narrative unfolded with a mix of drama and historical context, underscoring the resistance to change in the face of prevailing medical beliefs. It was my second time seeing a theatre production in London (we had already gone to see Macbeth at the Globe, would recommend), and I ended up captivated in pretty good dress circle seats. I know that not everyone was the biggest fan of the dance choreography, but I thought it was nice to see different art forms (dance, string quartet, acting) on stage together. They all blended together nicely for me, and I enjoyed the addition of the music and dance, despite not being a full musical. The portrayal of Semmelweis's dedication to evidence-based medicine and the tragic irony of his life left a lasting impression. I was excited to see Mark Rylance since I had watched a few films of his over the summer without knowing that I would be seeing him live in London. What was interesting was actor Mark Rylance’s own hesitation to trust modern science and medicine; after the play, we looked it up and found that he has some anti-vaccination views, and I wondered how he reconciled his own views and the efforts of his character. 

This was one of my earlier late night adventures out on the town, and it was fun to see how the city changed between night and day. Since we all lived together, we navigated to the theatre in small groups, which was helpful as we were trying out new routes and modes of public transport. This proved to be a valuable experience for my future theatre adventures, though perhaps I internalized some of the reminders from our professors, as I would often show up to theatres a good half hour before the show started; it took me a while to realize that I knew the timing and route well enough to not have to leave hours beforehand. 

Although generally less inclined towards plays, I found myself immersed in Hamnet, a play that skillfully wove together the threads of historical fiction and family drama. Centered around the life of William Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, the play navigated the complexities of grief, creativity, and the human condition. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out who Will was, but I was clued in by the second act. The narrative beautifully blended Shakespearean language with modern phrases, creating a rich tapestry of emotions and connections. The exploration of the symbiotic relationship between art and personal experience, as well as the haunting echoes of loss, resonated deeply. The play's multidimensional characters and the exploration of the creative process added layers of complexity to the legacy of one of history's greatest playwrights. It’s definitely interesting to explore since so little has been known about what inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet, a name that is basically the same as his recently deceased son’s. It was also interesting that the play focused on his wife at a time when women had fewer opportunities to make a name for themselves outside of the household and definitely made me interested to read the critically acclaimed book that the play is based on. Hamnet was shown at the Garrick Theatre, a pretty straight shot down Charing Cross from Tottenham Court Road close to where we lived, which I especially enjoyed walking at night. You can take both the bus and tube to get there, although the walk was only around 20 minutes or so. I ended up passing through this area quite often to get into Soho and Covent Garden for evening shows, and it was nice to see familiar faces on the posters as I made my journey to see new shows.

Both plays, though distinct in their themes and settings, shared a common thread in their exploration of human resilience, the pursuit of truth, and the impact of individuals on the course of history. Dr. Semmelweis and Hamnet left me with a sense of awe for the transformative power of storytelling and the ability of theater to illuminate the human experience across time and cultures. I definitely think that these two performances clued me into the London theatre scene. Since I wasn’t in the theatre class, it took slightly longer for me to learn about it and I appreciate that the entire class got the opportunity to watch these plays together and reflect on them in class since they both fit in really well with our curriculum. As I reflect on these performances, I am reminded of the enduring capacity of art to engage, provoke thought, and offer a profound understanding of our shared humanity.

Lastly, the program took our entire class to a pantomime (panto) performance in our second-to-last week just before the holidays. Pantomime is traditionally a musical theatre comedy show that is meant to be family-friendly. We took the train to see Aladdin at the nearby Hackney Empire. It was a very interesting experience that proved to be extremely entertaining as well! The plot was largely faithful to that of the movie Aladdin with some twists, such as the setting being in Hackney, a borough of London. The show was similar to a jukebox musical, taking well-known pop songs and changing some of the lyrics for comic relief and to reflect the plot of the panto performance. There was also audience participation, mostly just call-and-response, though one individual was invited to flex on stage. I think there were definitely some surprises for all of us, particularly when the show seemed to be doing a balancing act of remaining family-friendly entertainment and also catering to healthy contingent of alcohol-sipping adults. Everyone was really well-behaved and seemed to be having a good time though, which helped make me feel more relaxed and focused on the performance rather than the cultural nuances that I may not have been picking up on. It was also an interesting experience knowing that a lot of actors, those starting out early in their careers and people in between projects, end up performing in pantos during the holiday season, so I’ll be keeping my eye out for any of the names on the program in future productions. If you are in the UK over the holidays, I would recommend buying tickets to a panto since it is such a unique aspect of British culture and is really good fun in the end. You never know what rising stars you may be seeing! 

In conclusion, London has an amazing theatre scene, so if you ever find yourself there, please take yourself to a performance (if only for me - I will want to hear all about it!). Even if you’re not convinced that you would be a fan, I would encourage you to still give it a go because you never know. I saw a bunch of different performances during my time there, and I’d be happy to share more (in fact, it may be hard to make me shut up once I get started). Some of the highlights include buying standing tickets to see Macbeth at the Globe Theatre, learning I could sleep standing up at the Royal Opera House, watching THE Kenneth Branagh perform in King Lear, and traversing Shaftesbury Avenue on a nightly basis to see my favorite shows. The nature of theatre happening every night and rarely being documented has made me extremely nostalgic for London and my life there. I am not sure I would have discovered this interest of mine in one of the best places for theatre without the coaxing and encouragement from the study abroad program. I am incredibly grateful to supporters of the Oberlin-in-London program, the Fall 2024 cohort, our professors, and FSU staff for creating such an amazing experience that will truly stay with me for the rest of my life. 

*A reference to a chapter title from one of our London history books. 

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