West End alive with wonder

Hare Krishnas are a small taste of what West End has to offer.

On the outside, the young man would appear to be a simple, yet eccentric Londoner, wearing grey shorts and an old dress jacket. However, when he strips down into just tight, bright pink boxers, which leave nothing to the imagination, the surrounding tourists pause to watch him. What really sets this man apart from other Londoners is that he also juggles machetes as well as chainsaws.
“This is what I do for a living,” said Mark Rothman, a British street performer. “And I may very well one day cut off one of my own limbs in my show.”
With 15 years of experience in street performance, Rothman is just one of the many entertaining attractions visiting tourists can discover in London’s theater district, the West End.
“I liked the show but I felt like he really only had two good tricks,” said Kate Terrell, an audience member. “But he knew how to keep our attention.”
Day after day, tourists are treated to these spectacles, but West End has more to offer even to the most die-hard theater lover or just the average play patron, with grand musical spectacles or small art house productions.
Rothman himself performs in Covent Garden, where entertainers, restaurants and boutiques make up this unique district of London. Covent Garden, originally known as Convent Garden, became culturally significant for the location of its produce market, according to London tour guide Diane Burstein.
“This site was made famous in the opening of the play ‘Pygmalion’ and also the modern adaptation ‘My Fair Lady’ when Professor Higgins came across Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in this very market,” said Burstein.
Classical music plays inside the market’s courtyard and there are magicians and living statues scattered about the district as seen in this brief video clip.

Outside of Covent Garden lies the rest of West End, where many of London’s theaters have existed for well over a century and are connected intricately into London’s history. The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, for example, was the first theater to be built in the West End. King Charles II was an avid lover of the theater and brought back the art form by licensing new acting companies.
“King Charles II was also responsible for bringing women into acting,” said Burstein. “He was something of a womanizer and wanted to see women on stage.”
Before the theaters of the Restoration of England, boys and men filled in the roles of women on stage. One of the earliest female actresses Nell Gwyn became one of Charles’ mistresses, according to Burstein.
The audiences of old English theater according to Burstein, were as significant as the theatrical productions themselves.
Theater was not a simple pastime amongst the British and should they dislike the performance; the audience would jeer and boo the performers, many times throwing rotten fruit at the actors as well as becoming rowdy and violent. Watching thieves being beaten was also considered to be a good form of entertainment. According to Burstein, conflict between the upper class and bourgeois escalated. When the original Covent Garden was rebuilt after burning down in 1808, there were fewer lower class seats, and ticket prices overall increased.
“This led to the lower class protesting the shows, yelling ‘Bring back the old prices! Bring back the old prices!’ said Burstein. “These protests would become known as the OP riots or the Old Prices riots.”
While rowdy audience members are not something to be afraid of anymore, West End has an air of the macabre and supernatural.
“Theater folk are some of the most superstitious you will find,” said Burstein. Many of the old theaters claim to have their own personal ghost of actors past who were murdered inside the theater or outside of it. For instance, outside of the Adelphi Theatre stage door was where the actor William Terriss was stabbed to death by a fellow member of his own company, Richard Archer Prince.
Prince, who was mentally deranged, was a struggling actor and Terriss helped him find work the best to his ability, but it could not make up for lack of talent. The two exchanged harsh words during a performance and when Terriss was exiting through the stage door to go home, Prince came up behind him and stabbed him in the back before fleeing down the street.
To this day, people say the ghost of Terriss haunts the Adelphi theater where he was murdered, but others have claimed to have seen him in or around the Covent Garden tube station.
These are just some of the plethora of tidbits one will be able to find within the West End, whether the interest lies in history, ghosts or plain entertainment.
“All those tidbits when you think about it add up to a vast amount of our theater culture today,” said James Winter, assistant professor of acting at Southeastern Louisiana University. “So much of what is part of modern theater today came out of the old West End theater scene.”

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