Monday, 2 November 2009

London Theater - October 2009

After months of consistently excellent theater, the fall offers a more mixed bag.
Last week I saw three productions at the National Theatre.
I have never been a great fan of David Hare's plays. I always feel that I am watching a rough draft of a work he didn't bother to revise and that characters are often no more than mouthpieces for his opinions as in the recent GETHSEMANE. What he can do well is create absorbing docudramas. I have fond memories of STUFF HAPPENS, his presentation for events leading up to the Iraq war. THE POWER OF YES is another absorbing docudrama chronicling the events and leading figures of the current financial crisis. At the center is a writer trying to figure out how bankers got us into this mess. Hare had edited the material he gathered into a fascinating work. Angus McDonald's direction is just right -- fast moving and physically lively and the ensemble cast is excellent.
Tadeusz Slobodzianek's OUR CLASS takes the form of a docudrama as it presents through first person narration and short scenes, the events leading up to and the aftermath of the horrible massacre of 1600 Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne. We begin in 1926 in an elementary school with ten students, half Jewish and half Gentile who seem at first to be a cohesive group. It doesn't take long for the rifts to develop as the Jews are blamed for the Soviet occupation and anti-Semitism grows even more virulent as Nazi occupiers drive out the Soviets. But the Nazis didn't have to tell the townspeople to slaughter their Jews. The recounting of beatings, rapes and massacre is truly horrific. However, that's only the first half of the three and a quarter hour play. The second half traces the lives of the surviving eight Poles (two were killed in the massacre) from the massacre to their deaths decades later. The ringleaders go on to key positions in local government and the Church. Others either live with the secret or get out. The Cottesloe has been transformed into a theater-in-the round (actually rectangle) for this production. On a bare stage ten fine actors bring these people to life. It's not an easy play to sit through -- it is relentless and uncompromising -- but it is also totally absorbing.
Then there is Katie Mitchell's production of Ferdinand Bruckner's 1920s German play, THE PAINS OF YOUTH (terse adaptation by Martin Crimp). I keep swearing to stop going to Katie Mitchell productions. She's the darling of critics over here, but she often takes alienation too far for my taste. Often in her productions the stage is too dark to see actors' faces or she has them running too and fro on stage for no reason. Recently she has gone through a "Let's Make a Video" phase in which you see a group of good actors run around doing video setups of scenes which you watch simultaneously on a screen. It was interesting the first time. This production is more traditional, except for the many unnecessary interrruptions by black suited, bespectacled actors acting as stage hands. If a character is supposed to light a cigarette, the lights change and one of these men in black enters, puts the cigarette in the character's mouth and lights it. The man in black exits, the lights return to normal and the scene progresses. Alienation! At the end of scenes, the black-suited people (actually the actors who have to change from their characters' costumes into these black outfits when required, which is often) return with large plastic bags to collect props. Yes, it is distracting, but given the tedium of the play itself, it is welcome relief. The play depicts the lives of a group of medical students. One critic called it a study in anomie. I have to be less kind and say it is a tedious play about empty, boring people-- one of those plays when I am tempted to scream, "Who cares."
I loved Andrew Bovell's WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, which was at the Almeida this past summer and will soon open in New York. Right now there is a fine revival on the West End of his 1996 play, SPEAKING IN TONGUES, now in a limited run at the Duke of York's. In it four characters play nine people and scenes between two sets of characters often overlap. Bovell is often almost musical in his love of counterpoint. He loves to disrupt our linear sense of time. He also loves repetition of images. SPEAKING IN TONGUES centers on two married couples and the people with whom they have adulterous liaisons. It's a lovely meditation on love, need, loneliness and nameless fears. It shows how one can kill through willful inaction. The cast is brilliant.
Britain may be in a bad recession, but the theaters are filled. Go figure! The National has its usually elderly audience, but there was a mostly young audience filling the Duke of York's for the Andrew Bovell play.
More soon on this week's theatergoing.

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