If, like me, you love the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, here is a question I can guarantee you’ve never asked.
Never once — as you’ve circumnavigated the blue whale or gawped at those marvelous Teddy Roosevelt-style dioramas in the mammal halls or admired the T-Rex’s jagged 6-inch gnashers — have you paused in deep thought and mused to yourself: “Gee. I wonder if the guys who pay for all this stuff are Democrats or Republicans?”
The reason you’ve never had this thought is because you’re not stupid. Or at least, not that stupid.
You understand — because it’s so obvious that even one of the stuffed primates in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals could grasp this basic point — that the collections in the American Museum of Natural History have nothing whatsoever to do with politics. They have to do with science, which is something completely different.
For my 49th birthday treat, I went to see Shakespeare in Love at the Noël Coward theatre in London. Expensive but worth it: spry, funny, uplifting and moving but also, for all the surface froth, quite a deep meditation on the creative process and the enduring power of art.
What everyone secretly loves best about it, though, I suspect, is the way it so shamelessly flatters their intelligence. We’re all aware that Shakespeare wrote a sonnet that begins ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’; that Marlowe was stabbed to death in a pub brawl; that Malvolio wears yellow stockings and cross garters. This is basic, middlebrow general knowledge. But the way the show plays with these details and weaves them into the plot without bashing you on the head or over-explaining has the pleasing effect of making you feel like you’re in on a private joke which only an exclusive few get.
The performances in the new stage version are a delight, especially David Oakes’s languid Kit Marlowe and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s adorable Viola De Lesseps. But the thing that really makes this production sing is the live incidental music (as was also the case with two of the other excellent productions I’ve loved recently: War Horse and the RSC Richard II). Nothing quite beats a nice bit of crumhorn or viol or plainsong or rustic balladry to get you in the right period mood.
Don’t worry, though. This isn’t an audition for Lloyd Evans’s job. I’d absolutely bloody hate to be a theatre critic, not least because I remember from my time as a showbiz correspondent in the early 1990s that perhaps eight in every ten productions you have to see are dross. Rather, I wanted to muse a little on the career choices I’ve made and on the regrets that now haunt me as a result. Fellow nearly-fiftysomethings — and post-fiftysomethings — will I’m sure understand where I’m coming from. Time is running out and the options are closing by the day.