I made it a whole 85 days without seeing any Shakespeare. Quite the achievement when I’ve seen 86 shows in that time, all in what has to be the most Shakespeare-centric city in the world. I used to joke that watching Shakespeare in London was unavoidable. Even if you don’t go to theatre. It’s everywhere. If you wanted, I’m fairly certain you could watch a live Shakespeare performance every single day of the year (except, possibly, Christmas Day) and never have to cross the M25.
Actually, if anyone wants to give it a go, that sounds like a great blog, and I will fully support your endeavour…
Anyway, yes. Shakespeare. 85 days free. That’s one hell of a run in this environment.
I did once manage a year of not seeing any Shakespeare (I’m not a newcomer to the year-long theatre-challenge), but when you are intent on visiting every theatre in London, and at least one of those theatres is dedicated to the work of that most over-produced of playwrights, well… I was going to have to get my Shakespeare on eventually.
Step forward Alexandra Palace, which, for a very short time, contained the newest theatre in London. They are currently playing host to Headlong’s Richard III, which everyone and their dog has been raving about.
Once that decision was made, it was only a matter of selecting the right person to go with.
“I’ve already thought of a blog title,” I told Allison as we waited to get our bags checked and enter the theatre-foyer. We’d already had a good wander around the vast cathedral that is the East Court. A monumental space with curved glass ceilings and massive stone pillars that makes you truly understand why this palace is called a palace.
“Oh yeah?” she replies, demonstrating the kind of polite interest that only a true friend can pull out in the face of being told about a blog post title.
“Pal Al at the Al Pal,” I say, feeling very pleased with myself. “Or perhaps My Pal Al…?”
“My Pally Ally!” she crows back.
“Shit, that’s better than mine.” I mean, it is, isn’t it? And she got there in five seconds flat. I’d been crafting mine the whole way over. And while I’m not saying that I invited her just because her name is Allison, the fact that her name is Allison and she lives within stumbling distance of the Ally Pally was a thought that had crossed my mind.
At this point she pulls a tissue from her pocket and blows her nose delicately.
Ah yes. I’d forgotten to mention that. Allison is sick. With a proper nasty bug. And I’d dragged her out of her bed, on a freezing, dark night, to watch Shakespeare with me, because her name has great punning potential.
Never let it be said that I’m not a truly terrifying friend.
“Order you drinks for the interval at the bar, ladies,” advises someone as we step through the doors. “They’ll be a massive queue, I guarantee it.”
“Do we want drinks?” I ask Allison. But she’s ill, and I’m not fussed, so we head inside.
“It’s nice that they have a proper foyer. Theatres in London never have proper foyers,” says Allison. “There’s nowhere for everyone to go in an interval.”
This is so true. Outside of places like the Barbican, there really aren’t many foyers in London theatres. No ones that can fit more than four people and their drinks at the same time.
Through the next set of doors and we are plunged into theatre-lighting. That is to say: it’s dark.
“You’re over there on the left,” says the ticket checker, and we head off to the left.
A few more steps and the modern sleekness, the shiny newness of it all, suddenly stops.
Here the walls are bare not because they have never been painted, but because they have been painted so long ago the colour has long since sloughed off.
“Please keep this area clear,” reads a sign. We do as it says and move on down the corridor. But we don’t get very far.
If Wilton’s is the mother of decayed theatrical elegance, then the theatre at Alexandra Palace is the grande dame. Wooden slats peak through the holes in the ornate ceiling, while bare brick walls compete for attention with the carved mouldings.
Strategically placed lights highlight what remains of the plasterwork and send the features of the twin cat faces, gazing out from either side of the old doors into gargoyle grotesqueness.
“Hmm,” says the ticket checker. Our third ticket checker of the evening. “Well, you’re in row N, which is right here,” he says, indicating the row. “But you’re way down the other side.”
We all look at row N. It’s a very long row. And there’s some sort of sound desk in the middle.
“Shall we go back round?” I suggest?
“Yeah… that’s probably easiest.”
We go back out into the foyer and start again, this time going in the right direction, which is the right direction to take.
“For such a big venue, there’s not a lot of signage,” I tentatively suggest. Where other theatres might post a sign with some sort of indication of the seat numbers that can be accessed through each door, the Ally Pally posts people.
“Row N, just over here,” says our fourth ticket checker as we make our second attempt at entering the auditorium.
The seats are wide and covered with a peach coloured velvet which feels like moleskin. You know my feelings about velvet. With seating this new, I almost manage to convince myself that giving them a quick pet isn't all that creepy and disgusting. There probably isn't even chewing gum stuck to the bottom yet.
"Are those mirrors," I ask, eventually managing to stop stroking the chair I was sitting in and start paying attention to the set.
"I think so," Allison croaks. She really doesn't sound good.
This play better be bloody excellent or she's never going to forgive me.
Turns out they were mirrors. Six of them. Pointed into gothic arches and used as doors and windows through the performance. There's an article about Shakespeare and his use of mirrors in the programme (£4) which is well worth a read.
There's also lots of stuff about the history of the Ally Pally and its restoration, which is all rather fascinating, but doesn't answer the one question that I had about this place.
"What sort of work did they have here?" I asked during the interval, twisting around in my seat as I attempted to take a photo that would capture the sheer enormousness of the space. "Like music hall? Or plays? Surely not plays. It's way too big. Maybe opera?"
"Operetta probably," says Allison, demonstrating once again that even in the grips of the most nasty of colds she can still outthink me. Operetta does seem the most logical thing for the Ally Pally of old. Those fun-loving Victorians must have gone mad for a bit of Gilby and Sully in this room.
Thankfully with the benefits of modern technology, we could enjoy a proper play without the actors having to scream their lines at inappropriate moments.
"You know, I've never been much of a fan of Richard III, but I really fucking loved that," I said as the applause faded. We sat back in our seats as the audience began to file out. "I don't think I've ever seen it played that that. Actors usually amp up the evil, but he was pure cheeky chappy. I liked it."
I really did. The Richard III ravers have all been going on about the physicality of Tom Mothersdale's performance, and yes... that's great. He moves those long legs of his like a dancer, propping his elbow against his knee and pushing down his full bodyweight as he leans in to whisper his plans to us. But its the whispering, not the leaning that does it for me. With a side-eye lifted straight from Fleabag we are let into the secrets of a very naughty schoolboy. This is Just William grown up and gone to the bad.
"If I go to Ally Pally station, can I get a train to Highbury and Islington?" I ask as we eventually heave our way out of the plush seats and head for the exit. I'd walked from Highgate to get there. It was a nice walk. Google Maps had sent me through some woodland which I always enjoy. I grew up with a wood on my doorstep, and I've always felt at home in them. The woods is a great place to go when you feel down. No one can hear you cry in the woods. But as the sky got darker, and the shadowers denser, I did question Google's thought-process in sending a woman walking through the woods... After all, no one can hear you cry in the woods.
Allison stuffs her tissue away. "I'll take you to the bus," she says, walking me out to the correct stop and rattling out instructions on how I need to get home.
Honestly, I really don't deserve my pally ally.