“All the world’s a stage,” William Shakespeare penned in his comedy As You Like It. On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, if all the world isn’t a stage, a good part of London certainly is.
From the black-and-white Elizabethan splendor of Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theater to the historic Rose Theater to the acclaimed National Theater, which once counted Sir Laurence Olivier as its artistic director, London’s theater scene is arguably the world’s most vibrant.
It all began in 1587 with the establishment of The Rose on the South Bank of the Thames, an area rife with gambling dens, brothels and low-brow forms of entertainment including bear and bull baiting. The Rose raised the bar, becoming Shakespeare’s first home until he and his company moved to the nearby Globe.
It took 376 years before the dominant South Bank playhouse, The National Theater, opened farther west. Described by Prince Charles architecturally as “a nuclear power plant on the Thames,” the National has nonetheless become one of the world’s most influential theaters, offering 30 productions a year, from Greek and Shakespearean tragedies to modern classics and contemporary works.
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Visitors can enjoy not only the dramatic offerings, but a brush with theatrical history during backstage tours at each of the three venues.
Covent Garden and the West End
While London’s 240 theaters can be found on both banks of the Thames, the greatest concentration is grouped in the West End, in the area surrounding Covent Garden.
Get acquainted with Covent Garden on a walking tour (one of the best is with Blue Badge guide Sophie Campbell; book her at firstname.lastname@example.org). Through information gleaned on the walk, you’ll learn that this area is nothing if not theatrical.
Fred Astaire and his sister Adele once danced on the roof of the Savoy Hotel as a publicity stunt, and just a few doors away, in that most British of dining emporiums, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, waiters bring patrons chessboards if they wish to play while they dine — an homage to its former life as a chess club.
You’ll see St. Paul’s Church, dubbed the actor’s church, where plaques honor luminaries Vivien Leigh, Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward, and where the ashes of 19th-century thespian Ellen Terry are kept in a biscuit tin.
You’ll see the Garrick Club, a private members club named after Shakespearean actor David Garrick, whose founders in 1831 wrote into the club rules that “it was better that 10 unobjectionable men be excluded than one terrible bore be admitted.”
If you can’t get to Covent Garden’s magnificent Royal Opera House for a performance, you can hear fledgling opera stars perform arias on the piazza, and if you’re here on a Saturday, you can greet the Pearly Kings and Queens in their elaborate finery, studded head to toe with mother-of-pearl buttons.
Although Covent Garden had a peaceful beginning in the 12th century as the convent garden of Benedictine nuns, things got a bit bawdier over the centuries. It was a fruit, vegetable and flower market in the 17th century when an orange seller, Nell Gwynne, was plucked from obscurity to become first an actress at the nearby Drury Lane Theater and then mistress of King Charles II.
Neither was the area a stranger to what can only be described as theatrical murders. The Adelphi Theater, now the venue for the dazzling musical Kinky Boots, was a 19th-century murder scene. Actor William Terriss, aka Breezy Bill, known for swashbuckling stage roles, was stabbed to death in 1897 by a jealous colleague outside the stage door.
Another high-profile murder had occurred outside the Royal Opera House a century earlier, when British singer Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich (best known for being the first to slap a piece of meat between two slices of bread) was shot by a deranged admirer as she left a performance.
Not all stories ended tragically. One, in fact, is downright hilarious. Adelina Patti, a 19th-century Spanish bel canto soprano and the highest-earning star in the world, came to perform at the Royal Opera House. As it was the custom at that time to wear one’s own clothing rather than a costume, Patti — who would have given Madonna a run for her money in the diva department — wore a gown encrusted with 3,600 diamonds.
Worried about protecting the star and her dress, Opera House staff brought in two Bow Street police officers and installed them in the male chorus to keep an eye on the diva and her dress.
The epicenter of Covent Garden and the West End is, of course, the theaters. From glitzy musicals (Matilda, based on Roald Dahl’s book, at the Cambridge Theater in Seven Dials, and Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury) to avant garde dramas (Jean Genet’s The Maids) to gut-bustingly hilarious farces (The Play That Goes Wrong), London theater has something for everyone.
Dining and staying in Covent Garden
As befits such a dramatic part of London, Covent Garden and its environs have some pretty dramatic hotels and restaurants. At One Aldwych Hotel, depending on where your room is, you might have a view of the marquees at the Lyceum, where The Lion King has delighted audiences for 17 years, or the Novello, home to the equally popular Mamma Mia.
One Aldwych is within walking distance of 15 West End theaters, but the best show might be the continuous parade of smartly dressed patrons who pack the stunning first-floor Lobby Bar from mid-morning to the wee hours. A London bar with more buzz would be hard to find (Onealdwych.com.)
St. Martins Lane Hotel is a boutique gem also in the heart of the theater district. The sleek lobby is a sophisticated reinterpretation of Philippe Starck’s original design, which means lots of quirky touches.
Grasp the outstretched silver hand on a door and it opens to reveal the Blind Spot, the hotel’s innovative cocktail bar. A split-level space off the lobby appears to be a library, but turns out to be Asia de Cuba restaurant, whose menu offers a feast of Latin-Asian fusion dishes. (Morganshotelgroup.com.)
As for other dining opportunities, you won’t lack for them. If you’ve been to Balthazar and Joe Allen’s in New York, you’ll appreciate their London counterparts. Balthazar, just off Covent Garden’s central piazza, is a great breakfast spot, while Joe Allen’s is patronized by film, television and stage stars.
If you’re looking for a good spot for a pre-theater dinner, opt for Kopapa in Seven Dials, the Amphitheatre restaurant at the Royal Opera House, the Ivy Market Grill on Covent Garden’s piazza, and Café Murano, showcasing the talents of Michelin Star recipient Angela Hartnett, formerly of the Connaught Hotel.
J. Sheekey also offers a pre-theater menu, but you might want to save this one for an evening when you have plenty of time to linger. Specializing in sophisticated fish dishes, it is the epitome of elegant dining. The cold lobster with mayonnaise, served with a chilled white wine, is culinary heaven.
Don’t be in a hurry either at Spring, an absolutely gorgeous space that occupies one wing of Somerset House on the Strand. The restaurant is aptly named; even in winter you’ll feel like you’re in a spring garden, with its all-white décor and huge windows. Skye Gyngell, a transplanted Australian who won a Michelin Star at her popular Petersham Nurseries, brings the same magic to Spring.
No one in London was ever more theatrical than Oscar Wilde, and he found a spot as flamboyant as he was in Café Royal, which became a sort of club house for Wilde and his cronies.
Visitors can enjoy afternoon tea in the gilded splendor of the Oscar Wilde Bar, or opt for a more modern experience with dinner in the Ten Room and drinks in the Green Bar where signature cocktails are made from botanicals, celebrating London’s history of using various botanicals in gin production.
It’s a perfectly theatrical ending to a perfectly theatrical trip.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.