Sometimes there is more to a holiday than sunbathing and sipping a Sex on the Beach. Occasionally one feels the need to take in a little culture of a place; from visiting ancient shrines to dancing with the locals, there is a sense of self-betterment that permeates activities like this, leaving behind a somewhat more pleasurable sensation than a hangover. For me there is no better way to experience a foreign culture than through watching some theatre. This is where you get to see what it is that makes the locals tick – what is loved, valued, and deemed relevant and interesting enough to put on stage. The best theatre comes from all kinds of places, from backyard stages to gigantic productions, but there are still many places I want to visit. So for any other theatre buffs looking for a cultural getaway, I’ve put together a little list of the best theatre places to go to catch a show.
Now I couldn’t write about the best theatre cities in the world without mentioning my hometown. I know it wouldn’t really be a holiday for me, but for all of you for whom London is not the norm, then it is one of the best places to come for world-class theatre. Theatreland in the West-End does exactly what it says on the tin, and everywhere you look here you will see theatres galore, showing all sorts of big time shows. From Les Mis to Wicked, Chekhov to Rattigan, here you will find something to suit every taste.
An excellent tip for those who visit on a whim: most theatres offer day seats – if the show is sold out, queue up at the theatre in the morning to get front row seats at a fraction of the price. Shakespeare’s Globe is the perfect place to absorb the bard’s works, whilst for something a little more edgy head to London’s great fringe venues for some hot-off-the-press new writing. The Royal Court, the Southwark Playhouse, and the Tricycle are great for this – a little further out, but well worth the trip.
Broadway is the American equivalent of London’s Theatreland. Here you will find all the biggest productions, plus many a celebrity strutting their stuff on the stages. But along with the opportunity to see the stars up close and personal, comes a significant blow to the purse strings. Tickets for shows on Broadway can be very pricey, with top seats hitting the $300 mark, but if you shop around and book in advance it is possible to find tickets for a lot cheaper.
To guarantee a more affordable night then head Off-Broadway (though confusingly this doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the Broadway district) to New York’s smaller theatre venues. Here there are shows to suit all tastes, and if you look carefully you can find a real corker before it transfers to somewhere bigger. Insider tip: head to the TKTS booth on 48th street at Times Square to buy discounted unsold tickets on the day of the show. See here for more on holidays to New York.
Rather a less exotic location than some of the others listed here, but it has to be said that for a theatre buff, there is nowhere better to be in August than in Edinburgh. For three and a half weeks every year this beautiful city comes to life with over 2,000 amateur and professional theatre companies performing in shows for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. From church halls to pop-up corrugated iron huts, here everywhere is a stage, and you are guaranteed to find something to your taste. Wander down the Royal Mile and you will be treated to street performances galore, along with the customary flyers that are thrust at you by costumed actors keen for an audience.
With so much on offer here it is inevitable that some shows are much more polished than others – wait for the reviews if you want to save your time and sanity. If you are on a budget, however, it is well worth visiting during the first week of August and seeing a show without the reassurance of a good review, as most of the tickets during the previews are half price.
Theatre is to Athens like tea is to England; it was practically invented there. From Sophocles to Euripides, Aristophane to Aeschylus, Ancient Greece was pretty much the founding father of formal theatre. Nowadays Athens has lost none of its enthusiasm for the performing arts, and though theatre attendance in Greece is no longer a societal obligation as it once was, it is still celebrated. Visit the city between June and September during the annual Hellenic Festival and you will be in for a real treat. In the summer months thespians flock to Athens, where performances take place in theatres, hillsides, and ancient sites – including the breathtaking ancient amphitheatre of Epidaurus.
Head to the 4,000-seater Lycabettus amphitheatre for fantastic views and performances from big names (past performers include Massive Attack, Bob Dylan and B.B. King), or visit the transformed rock quarry at Petroupoli for some excellent amateur and professional theatre. The August Moon Festival is also not to be missed. On the night of the full moon in August, Athens’ ancient sites – including the Acropolis and Roman Agora – play host to opera, dance and classical music performances under the moonlight.
Theatre in Japan is a whole different ball game. Forget hushed crowds and consciously quiet sipping of wine, here theatre is more like a football match – audiences heckle, rustle food packets, and happily call out to the actors onstage. But this doesn’t mean that theatre isn’t respected. Theatre in Japan has a deep history in the culture of the country, and today in Tokyo you can see the influences both in the traditional performances that frequent the larger theatres, and in the new and upcoming works that spring up on the fringe. To truly understand where Japanese theatre culture stems from, visit the National Noh Theatre and see the ritualistic mask shows that date back to the 14th century.
Kabuki is perhaps the most exciting form of traditional theatre in Japan, where the focus is almost entirely on the actors (the casts are always all-male; women are played by “onnagata”, actors who specialise in female roles), who speak in beautiful heightened elocution and sport glorious costumes and make-up. From 2013 onwards head to newly renovated Kabuki-za theatre for the best of this. For something a little more modern than the smaller venues are the way to go. Amidst the gorgeous winding streets and cafes of the Shimokitazawa district you will find numerous small theatres attracting large crowds. With tickets at a mere ¥2,000 to ¥3,000 (around £20-£25) this place is a must-see.