I went to the last performance of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ at the Old Vic. When I entered the theatre clouds of frankincense wafted over me. What an evocative scent, one that will always remind me of trying to find calm in a turbulent time. I burned frankincense candles in Egypt when all was going wrong there during my fieldwork, and its clouds billow through remembered church services of my childhood.
The set was of towering wooden columns, ornate and beautiful. The play opened with the cast in capes and masks. Oh, the masks! So full of expression, in many ways more than a real face, despite their fixity.
A friend and I were there to see her cousin in the play; as it was the last performance we were all able to have drinks afterwards giving me the chance to ask a Burning Question about a plot point. He sat with the grime of his craft still dusting his fingers. (I’m not being rude, there’s a bit of the play where he gets covered in dust and some of it was still there.) Funnily enough he corroborated the view of my friend who wrote his PhD thesis on the very same play, who I’d messaged during the interval with my Burning Question for enlightening commentary. Turns out ‘I really don’t know’ is sometimes the best answer you’re going to get. (But said so beautifully on both counts.)
After I time I left the glittering bar and walked myself home. I’d promised not to walk home alone in the night, but I was not afraid. The night wasn’t cold, there were plenty of people about, and there is a special sort of charm in London at night. I am not the first to wander alone there. Past the Royal Festival Hall, across the Jubilee bridge, up past Trafalgar Square, cutting up St Martin’s Lane–and if I had not walked that way, I would not have seen the man in pinstripe suit and bowler hat standing in front of the Duke of York’s theatre as if waiting for something. Past the nightclubs with music and heat pouring out their front doors, past the people sitting in their evening frippery on stoops and sidewalks. Past the hulking forms of sculptures in the darkness. Past tears, and fights, and raucous singing. The thread of life in the play, the passion in it, carried on for me as I rambled in the night back to my own little eyrie.