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The Bard and Boards

February 21, 1988|ALLAN WENDT | Wendt is a Sacramento free-lance writer. and

LONDON — It's nearly 424 years since Shakespeare was born, and London finally has a proper museum to celebrate his plays as well as the work of other English playwrights, actors, directors and designers.

Last year, on April 23, the generally accepted date of Shakespeare's birth, the Theatre Museum, a branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum, opened in Covent Garden.

The museum is in the heart of the old theater district, an area that long has been the haunt of playwrights, poets, actors and artists, and around the corner from the Royal Opera House and Drury Lane Theatre Royal.

Even today, the market within Covent Garden, for all its upscale shops and restaurants, has a raffish air. Out-of-work actors and itinerant musicians offer impromptu entertainments in the market or under the portico of St. Paul's, "the actor's church," while dozens of flea-market operators compete for stall space every day to hawk their wares.

A gilded, 10-foot "Angel," the "Spirit of Gaiety," brought here from the old Gaiety Theatre in London's Aldwych area, greets visitors at the entrance.

Rococo Box Office

Admission tickets can be bought from a rococo box office that formerly stood in the Duke of York's Theatre. Even the restrooms are different--lined with specially designed tiles illustrating Shakespeare's plays. You can buy copies in the gift shop.

The Theatre Museum at first glance inside seems small and unimpressive. But once you walk down the long ramp to the lower level (unlike many other public places in England, the museum is totally accessible to the handicapped), the galleries seem to open in all directions.

To your left, at the bottom of the ramp, a corridor leads to the main gallery, through a revolving door.

But before you get there, you might want to pause at the Beard Room, which houses a reference collection. Large sliding frames, clearly marked, slide out from the wall with samples of old posters, programs, tickets and other memorabilia.

But the main gallery, which curls around the Gielgud Gallery (named for actor Sir John Gielgud) leads to the costume collection, where most visitors spend their time.

It is dim--deliberately so, to protect these ancient artifacts from fading.

Something for Everyone

The main gallery is arranged historically, beginning with the earliest theater in England and ending with a jumpsuit worn by Mick Jagger. Between are exhibits that appeal to everyone--from the scholarly to scandalous, from the serious to the silly.

The earliest period is perhaps the least interesting because books, drawings and theater models do little to invoke the past. But by the 18th Century of English actors David Garrick, Sarah Siddons and Colley Cibber, the artifacts multiply, and peering through the glass is like peering into an earlier time.

Costumes and props predominate: the apron worn by Lavinia Fenton playing Polly Peachum in the first production of "The Beggar's Opera" in 1824, the boots and gloves of Siddons, the cane of Garrick, and the fans behind which assignations were whispered, onstage and off. Even the pots of paint strewn on the dressing tables, waiting for actor Charles Kean to stride in and apply King Lear's wrinkles.

Not only the legitimate theater is included, but the old Vauxhall pleasure gardens, the circus, pantomime, opera and musical comedy, even rock 'n' roll.

And the odd, unexpected exhibits hang in the mind: Consider a silver crust, 10 inches high, made in the shape of the famous 19th-Century clown, Joseph Grimaldi.

Salt and pepper in his pantaloons, a glass bottle for salad dressing at his chest, and teaspoons sticking out of his baggy pockets. Or a whole case of fake jewelry created for the stage--rings as big as pigeon eggs, Lady Macbeth's necklace, large and heavy.

Costume Gallery

Students of costume will be interested in the main gallery, as well as the Irving gallery, where full-size mannequins are grouped on a raised platform, dressed in costumes worn by famous actors and actresses. The lighting is better here, and you can walk around the exhibit, checking the costumes from all angles.

Later you may want to stop in at a tiny theater intended for various kinds of lectures and presentations. Last summer there was a 20-minute slide show, with commentary, about the birth of a stage production, from the choosing of a cast to dress rehearsal to opening night. Shows are presented half a dozen times a day.

A small cafe on the ground floor is open to the street and can be entered without visiting the museum. But if you want to buy wine or beer you must show your museum admission ticket. The food is mainly sandwiches and salads, with a few hot dishes. The decor is whimsical.

You are sitting on an imaginary stage, looking out at a theater audience painted in trompe l'oeil on the walls. Part of the decoration consists of painted, scenic flats seen from the rear--wooden framework and bare canvas stenciled with the name of the play, act and scene.

Service is prompt, prices are reasonable and the cafe provides a proper way to end your visit: Yourself, stage center.

Museum hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

For further information about England, contact British Tourist Authority, 350 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles 90071.

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