Sunday, 1 August 2010


Thanks in part to the Duke in London Drama Program, I have been in theatres almost nightly for the last six weeks, so long separate entries for everything would take another six weeks.
ROAD TO MECCA by Athol Fugard. This was our first trip to the highly respected Arcola Theatre in an unlikely neighborhood in Northeast London. Fugard's play is a remembrance of an eccentric older woman who, after her husband died, learned to express herself by turning her front lawn into a display of wild, eccentric sculpture. Her minister friend represents the dismayed conservative community. Her young friend wants her to be courageous. The play is slow but rewarding and Linda Bassett gives a superb performance as the older woman who is sometimes frightened, sometimes defiant.

Marianne Elliott's production of Thomas Middleton's Jacobean tragedy, WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN at the National - Olivier is an engrossing modern dress version of this tragicomedy. Elliott gets around the problem of the multiple deaths at the end by turning the carnage into a kind of ballet, thus avoiding the giggles these scenes sometimes provoke. Harriet Walter was the centerpiece of a strong cast.

Roy Williams's SUCKER PUNCH at the Royal Court is a well written saga of young Black boxers in the early 1980s. The production -- direction, scenery (the theatre really looked like an old boxing ring) and acting -- made a solid play seem even better.

Caryl Churchill's LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE was revived at the Arcola in a near perfect production. The staging used the space extremely effectively and the six actors playing various men and women was strong. Using the religious conflicts of the mid seventeenth century, the play celebrates those who find god within and strive to form Utopian communities. Very 60s, but still timely.

HAIR with the cast of the Broadway revival was a mixed blessing. The songs were well sung, but the sound system turned all words into mush, so the cast could have been singing Polish for all we could tell. It always was a meretricious show, trying to shock a Broadway audience with dirty words, nudity (here so dark they shouldn't have bothered) and pot smoking. Silly, but well performed.

OVer the summer, we got lessons in how to do Shakespeare and how not to do Shakespeare. In the first category were two productions at the Globe, Mark Rosenblatt's effective production of the flawed late history, HENRY VIII, and Dominic Dromgoole's earthy, dynamic production of HENRY IV, PART I. In both cases, the directors made the most of the space at the Globe and actors delivered Shakespeare's language as if they knew exactly what they were saying and in character. Both productions had a great deal of energy, but the energy was directed to the point of the lines, the character objectives and the other actors onstage. Some people don't find going to the Globe a pleasant experience. It certainly isn't comfortable and there are distractions, but the level of performance there is very high. Dromgoole is attracting really good actors who love working there. Roger Allam's Falstaff was both rogue and knight I liked Jamie Parker's youthful Hal and the brilliant idea of an equally young, callow Hotspur (Sam Crane). I would have lived if I had never seen another HENRY IV, but this was a vibrant production. For two lessons in how not to do Shakespeare, we had the Sam Mendes Bridge Project at the Old Vic. Last year the Bridge Project had a starry company with fine performances from Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall, Sinead Cusack and Richard Easton and poor performances from Josh Hamilton (true amateur night) and Ethan Hawke (who didn't seem to notice that there were other people onstage). This year we had a company that was mediocre at best and piss poor at worst. THE TEMPEST, performed as if it were the most depressing work ever written, put everyone in a state of despondency. Had there been an interval, most of the audience would have crawled to the exits never to return. Stephen Dillane performed Prospero as if it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. The AS YOU LIKE IT was marginally better, but Juliet Rylance as Rosalind was all undirected energy as if she never thought about what she was saying. Others showed the same small bag of actor tricks in both plays. Mendes has announced that he is taking a year off from the Bridge Project. He seems to have lost his touch in casting and in direction.

Mark Rylance has made a career of self indulgent acting. He doesn't have much raw material to work with: a boyish face that seems usually to show surprise, a high unexpressive voice, and a love for taking pauses in the middle of lines or sentences for no reason. He is one of my least favorite actors, though audiences and critics like him. On occasion, when his limited talent meets the right part, as in Jez Butterworth's JERUSALEM last year, he can be effective. Rylance is a shamess actor who will, like a naughty boy, do anything on stage to get a reaction from the audience, so is best at low comedy. The leading character in JERUSALEM is a middle-aged naught boy, so everything worked, particularly since he was surrounded by good actors. This year, Rylance is chewing up the scenery in a very slight work, LA BETE, which has a limited run in London before moving to Broadway. It's a nothing of a piece about the rivalry of two playwrights in seventeenth century France. The play is written in blank verse which is sometimes clever in a hollow sort of way. Shortly after the beginning of this two hour intermissionless play, Rylance's character, who can't stop talking, has a thirty minute solo speech. Rylance brought out every trick in the book including eating, belching, farting, sitting on the toilet and then wiping himself with pages from a nearby book. After this act, there was no where for the play to go. Poor David Hyde Pierce, a far better comic actor than Rylance, could just stand there. Director Matthew Warchus didn't seem interested in anything but letting Rylance loose on his thirty minutes of schtick. Unfortunately there are other characters and 90 minutes more of tedium. Joanna Lumley appeared about half an hour before the end and acting grand as her character required. Last time around, LA BETE flopped on Broadway, but audiences have gotten worse and may just love it this time around.

Speaking of bad acting -- Rupert Everett has always struck me as a curiously uncommitted actor, even back when he made his sensational debut in ANOTHER COUNTRY. I have seen him in various theatrical productions over the years and he always seemed not to want to be bothered exerting himself or pretending to be anyone but Rupert Everett. Yet he has had a career of sorts. A gay student asked me if I agreed with Everett that he has had trouble getting parts because he is gay. I responded that this may be partly true, but he also didn't get parts because he isn't a very good actor. So down at lovely Chichester they cast him as Henry Higgins in a pretty dire revival of Shaw's PYGMALION performed in an ugly, garish set. Everett wasn't as mumbly as he often is, but he kept stumbling over lines, something I have never seen a professional actor under seventy do. The Eliza Doolittle, an actress with the unlikely name of Honeysuckle Weeks, was too old and unintelligible both as the cockney Eliza and the proper-spoken Eliza. The supporting cast acted rings around the two leads.
A few weeks later, we went back to Chichester to see a revival of 42ND STREET, that amalgam of wonderful Dubin-Warren songs from those thirties Warner Brothers musicals with a plot that is sort of a condensation of the usual plots, such as they were, of those enterprises. This production was as excellent as the PYGMALION was poor. The thrust stage didn't allow the scenic spectacle of the original production, but the great cast and excellent choreography made up for that. And what a band! I love those songs and I wasn't disappointed.

This summer we had two productions of German plays from the first half of the nineteenth century. Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar has directed great productions of two of Schiller masterpieces in recent years (another is coming in 2011). This year, Grandage's former assistant, Jamie Lloyd has directed Kleist's THE PRINCE OF HOMBURG in an adaptation by Dennis Kelly. I say adaptation rather then translation because Kelly has changed Kleist's ambiguous ending for a clear gunshot. This seems more consistent with the character of the Elector (Iam McDairmid) who sentences the Prince to death for disobeying his orders, but the fascination of Kleist's plays for a modern audience is in the odd, dreamy, sonnambulistic prince. He's something like Schiller's Don Carlos -- impetuous, romantic, idealistic -- as the Elector is something like Schiller's harsh King Philip. Kleist wasn't as good at writing women as men, so the female characters are two-dimensional, but the two leading male characters are fascinating. McDairmid gives the elector a sense of humor as well as rigidity. Charlie Cox turns the Prince into a 19th century Hamlet. It's a superb performance. Cox doesn't have a lot of stage credit, but shows that he's born to play these big romantic parts. Jamie Lloyd has drected a clean, well-paced production. I have had mixed feeling about some of his productions recently. He doesn't seem to do much work with actors, leaving them to their own devices which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. His Mad Maxish SALOME was overwrought with Con O'Neill so chewing up the scenery that the play should have been retitled Herod, particularly since the actress playing Salome did nothing with her part. Soprano Angela Denoke playing the title character in Strauss's operatic version of Wilde's play at the Royal Opera acted rings around her. Lloyd seems to have really worked with the actors in the Kleist production. Meanwhile at the National, Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar directed a cut version of Buchner's DANTON'S DEATH. I have always found this play tediously talky for the stage -- a play meant to be read, not seen. Grandage's production tried to give the play some physical energy -- lots of extras walking around the upper level and heads being chopped off at the end, but it isn't a very physical play. Toby Stephens as Danton did Toby Stephens, snarling many of his lines and offering picturesque poses. Elliot Levy as Robespierre was more intersting, but he's a more intersting character than the loquacious Danton.

Also on the Olivier stage -- WELCOME TO THEBES by Moira Buffini. This is an odd piece. On one hand, it's sort of about contemporary Liberia, a country ruled by women after years of brutal bloodshed under a male regime. But Buffini chooses to present Liberia as classical Thebes with Theseus (Obama?), Eurydice (the president of Liberia), Antigone, etc. I don't know what audiences who don't know their classical mythology make of all of it, but it is a lively, well written play. Richard Eyre has provided an excellent production that captures the audience (almost literally) from the first moments.

Back at the Royal Court, a play by a seventeen-year-old, Anya Reiss, entitled SPUR OF THE MOMENT. This is a raw, funny domestic drama. What happens in a middle-class household when a teenage girl falls madly in love with a twenty-something boarder (the father has lost his job and enough of his money that the family needs a lodger to make ends meet). It is not surprising that Reiss can write a teenage girl who is all raging hormones, overwhelming new emotions and the ruthlessness of youth. It is amazing that the feuding, unhappy parents, trying to make something of a broken marriage, are equally convincing. And the object of the girl's lust is convincingly feckless. The play has been given a fine staging in the small upstairs theatre. It was almost embarrassing to watch. Nichola Hytner was sitting in front of us -- is he looking at Anya Reiss for a play at the National?