Sunday, 27 February 2011


     This William Finn musical is an odd choice for the Donmar Warehouse which has successfully revived Sondheim musicals like PASSION and other serious works like PARADE. Why haven't they produced the brilliant Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas work THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA? It is criminal that that fine work has not been seen in London. THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is a piece of fluff that is about a third too long for its material. Since few over here have any sense of Putnam County and the show's principal jokes don't really make a lot of comic sense on this side of the pond (the Korean girl who is sick of being the best, the child of a hippy commune, the daughter of gay dads), everything becomes cartoony. And everything about the production is overblown for the intimate space. The show is over-amplified -- far too loud -- and the cast works far too hard. One watches the sweat run down their faces as they force the thin material that might be more droll if underplayed a bit. The songs are occasionally clever, but forgettable. The best thing about the production was the design which converted the space into a replica of an American school gym. The usually Donmar audience benches were replaced downstairs by folding chairs and the banners and school paraphernalia continued in the circle. But why all the smoke? Was the school on fire? I enjoyed the show for the first hour. Unfortunately it went on for another forty minutes.
     Both this production and COMPANY at the Southwark pipe the band in from an enclosed space. What's the point of having a live band if none of the sound of the band is live? One might as well do the show with a recording of the accompaniment. I know this practice goes back at least as far as CATS, but I go to the theatre for some semblance of live sound, particularly in a small space like the Donmar where amplification is unnecessary.
      The big question is why the Donmar thought doing this very thin show was a good idea for them.
THE TWENTY-FIFTH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Donmar Warehouse. February 25, 2011.


       As part of its International Playwrights series, the Royal Court is offering this play by Colombian playwright Pedro Miguel Rozo that was developed at one of the Royal Court's summer workshops for playwrights from around the world.
        An unnamed Colombian village is in a state of social transition. Its citizens are proud of the new shopping mall that has turned them into greedy consumers. We see the effects of the new urban capitalism on one dysfunctional family. Don Jose once was a farmer but now lives in the town.  The farm isn't providing any income (Jose obviously hasn't heard of the most notorious Colombian cash crop) and Jose, his wife and younger son are basically being supported by Sergio, his older son, the successful manager of the new mall. Well, actually Sergio is not his son. Jose's wife was pregnant with him when she and Jose married. Jose both claimed him but emotionally rejected him. Twenty-two year old Carlos, the favored younger son, is a basket case -- a gay bipolar fantasist. In the bizarre gender logic of the play, these sons are the symbols of the new capitalism. One a material success but ignoring his own wife and supporting but resenting his parents; the other a homosexual and a bit of a prostitute to boot. The mother who tries to hold this family together gets all her life lessons from movies she watches on television. The central figure in the community seems to be the psychiatrist who tries to get the citizens into long term therapy so he can by a big SUV.  
     The narrative turns on a "did he, didn't he" situation. Don Jose has been accused of having sex with the young son of a woman who works on his land. The scandal rocks his family. His sons begin to believe he abused them as well. In a strange Oedipal gesture Sergio pays for the lawyer the woman uses to sue his father. The boy's mother, a former prostitute, is using the accusation to blackmail Jose and his family. Jose's wife tries to hold her exploding family together.
     OUR PRIVATE LIFE is correctly billed as a black comedy. The plot is soap opera (Rozo writes television dramas in his native country) but with a comic twist until the creepy final scene in which we find out the truth. The play is always interesting, sometimes clever, particularly in the scenes with the psychiatrist, but at times its sexual politics are odd. At the end, homophobia seems to be satirized, but at other times, the play seems homophobic. The father's pedophilia seems to be related to the rural culture before modernization and the mall. He loves pre-pubescent boys but finds homosexuality disgusting. Actually the real byproducts of capitalism are a dissolution of traditional social structures and a rise in paranoia. The psychiatrist says "paranoia is all the rage here. We're making progress every day, we're leaving the dark of the parochial church behind and we're moving into the bright lights of the city and science  .  .  ." The strongest paranoia is about pedophilia.
     Lyndsey Turner's production of Simon Scardifield's colloquial translation is sometimes a bit uncertain in tone. I found the play funnier than the production made it and actors seemed to be playing in different styles and tones. Colin Morgan as Carlos, Ishia Bennison as the mother and Adrian Schiller as the greedy psychiatrist are superb at finding the dark humor in their roles. Morgan, particularly, gives a terrific, manic performance. Eugene O'Hare is fine as the older son. I thought Anthony O'Donnell miscast. I couldn't imagine this paunchy little man as the former rural patriarch. He was creepy from the beginning so the final scene in which he nastiness and pedophilia are revealed wasn't the surprise it should have been. The director and cast should have been forced to watch lots of Bunuel from his Mexican period and early Almodovar before they began rehearsals.
     Colin Morgan is a teen hearthrob over here because of his starring role in the tv show MERLIN, so a third of the audience at the Saturday matinee I attended were teenage girls, some of them Muslim girls wearing headscarves. I couldn't help wondering what they thought of this raunchy play with its talk of anal penetration. Would an American actor in his position play such a role? One of the funniest moments in the play is when at Christmas dinner Sergio divulges that Carlos has been "taking it up the ass" from his boss at the restaurant where he has a menial position. Carlos replies, "They don't pay me enough  .   .   . And if it's any consolation it's Edgar who's in love with me not the other way round. That makes me less gay." Prostitution and homophobia -- the new Colombia. 
 OUR PRIVATE LIFE. Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs Theatre. February 26, 2011.      

Thursday, 24 February 2011


         Lillian Hellman wrote THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, her first play, in 1934, a time when there was local censorship of any play that depicted homosexuality. In New York City, the theatre could literally be padlocked if the police and courts decreed that a play presented this taboo topic. Hellman managed to write a good, sensational melodrama that flirted with the subject, but at the same time avoided it. The setting is a small private girls' school in New England run by two young women in their early thirties. One of the students, a budding psychopath, tells her powerful grandmother that the women are a lesbian couple. The women, who are innocent of the charge, try to fight the malicious accusation in court and lose (we never see the trial). At the end, one of the women confesses to the other that she was in love with her, then goes into the next room and shoots herself (where did she get the gun?). Hellman was very cagey with this then volatile subject. There are accusations of homosexuality, but no homosexual action. There is a confession of homosexual attraction followed by suicide (pre-liberation, most confessed homosexual characters killed themselves). Of course, in 2011, homosexuality is hardly a sensational subject and the overreaction seems silly. Half a century ago when I was in high school we knew two of our teachers were a lesbian couple and we sniggered about it but there was no scandal. In 1952 Hellman directed a revival of THE CHILDREN'S HOUR as an allegory of the anti-communist witch hunts being carried out in Washington. The girl's lie and her grandmother's unfair destruction of the two teachers became images of martyrs to the House Un-American Affairs Committee and Joe McCarthy's madness (Lillian Hellman's most famous hour was her speech before the House Un-American Activities Committee) . This was a year before Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE in which another girl with psychopathological tendencies destroys the good people of Salem, Massachusetts.
      What does THE CHILDREN'S HOUR mean in 2011? It's an intermittently good melodrama, but far from a great play. The two leading characters aren't well drawn. The girl is unbelievably awful like the little girl in THE BAD SEED. One expects her head to rotate 360 degrees and her to spew projectile vomit like the girl in THE EXORCIST. Who would believe the little monster? The fiance of the non-lesbian teacher is cardboard. Actually the only interestingly drawn character is the dotty aunt of one of the teachers, an out of work actress who unwittingly (wits aren't her strong suit) sets the problem in motion. This production came about because some star actresses were available and a play in the public domain (no royalty fee) had to be found for them. It is filling the theatre because of its starry cast.
     Keira Knighley and Elizabeth Moss play the two teachers accused of a lesbian affair. Moss, of MAD MEN fame, has the better part (she gets the big pre-suicide confession) and is convincing in communicating Martha's jeaousy of her friend's fiance and her guilt at feeling that jealousy, her fury at the accusation, her painful confession and her silent acceptance that she cannot continue to live. Knightley uses the same two facial expressions we know from her films. Her character's big scene is her renunciation of her fiance and perhaps of a normal life when she realizes that he believes she and Martha were lovers. Knightley played it in a generalized way. I noticed that the audience was a bit restless during this scene. She wasn't grabbing them, though she was getting great support from Tobias Menzies who manged to flesh out his cardboard character. Menzies has to work on his American accent -- he sounded like Tony Soprano -- but he made Joe more than a plot device. Since he was more convincingly heartbroken than Knightley, he dominated his final scene. Ellen Burstyn wasn't imperious enough as the wealthy, powerful grandmother. She seemed too nice. I didn't believe she would call all the parents and make them take their girls out of the school. I have a feeling Burstyn built her character totally on what kind of person she thought would believe that monstrous little girl. The best performances came from Moss, Menzies and Carol Kane as the dotty, slightly alcoholic unemployed actress, Martha's aunt whom she hires out of kindness. Kane manages to make a real person out of a caricature. Little Bryony Hannah is delightfully creepy as the little monster. Ian Rickson directed effectively. I didn't care for Mark Thompson's massive design that made each scene look like it took place in a warehouse.
     THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is not a play that cries out to be revived in the centenary year of Terence Rattigan and Tennessee Williams, two playwrights who could turn the stuff of melodrama into rich character studies. Hellman's play was never more than sensationalist melodrama. This production gave its audience a chance to see big stars on stage. That is what they paid West End prices for. I would have liked this fine cast to be used in a new play, but that would have cost the producers more money than they were willing to spend for a short run.
      At a time when many British actors have mastered credible American accents, I was surprised that a fine actor like Tobias Menzies and even Ms. Knightley were having such problems sounding convincingly American, particularly when they were sharing the stage with American actresses.
       A few people in the audience gave the cast a standing ovation. I had the feeling that they were Americans who now have reduced the standing ovation to meaninglessness by giving everything standing ovations. I have been trying to understand why the standing ovation has become obligatory in the United States. Is it a way of forcing the actors to acknowledge the standing audience members who are now performing for the cast? Does it stem from the fact that one has paid a lot of money to be there and wants to show that it was worth the investment? Is it just being nice -- "we've given a standing ovation to everything else so it would be rude not to stand for this one"? I hope the standing ovation remains highly selective in London. There was one for FRANKENSTEIN at the National, but that truly was an event, a brilliant production with a magnificent performance from Jonny Lee Miller.  
      I know I have made this point before, but at West End prices, one should expect to go into a theare that isn't a dump. My seat in the front row of the dress circle was barely attached to the floor. I looked around and could see bits of the ceiling and proscenium gone and a theatre that looks like it hadn't been painted or reupholstered since it opened in 1881. Each ticket has a £1 Theatre Restoration charge. Where does that money go? At a top price of £60 (almost $100), one can expect a theatre in a decent state of repair.
THE CHILDREN'S HOUR. Comedy Theatre. February 23, 2011.                                      

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


     It is 1996 and Nathan Abramowitz, the central character of Jason Sherman's READING HEBRON, is obsessed with Baruch Goldstein's murder of twenty-nine Moslem's who were praying in the Temple of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Goldstein, a doctor who refused to treat Arabs, walked in to the temple armed with automatic weapons and shot down as many people as he could before he was killed by Arab men who had been praying.  What does this event say about Israel, about Judaism, about Nathan Abromowitz himself? Nathan's search for answers is juxtaposed against scenes depicting the official Israeli investigation that decided that Goldstein's murders were the act of an individual who wasn't even really an Israeli (Goldstein was an American who had emigrated to Israel, but weren't many Israelis also such emigrants?). How could one say this was an individual act when Israeli soldiers are ordered never to shoot settlers, only Arabs? The Israelis we see and hearing the play see Palestinian Arabs as inferiors and potential killers. Some sang in praise of Goldstein. Many Israelis believe God gave Palestine to the Jews, so the Arabs have no right on Jewish land.
     Nathan Abramowitz is an odd character. His own life is a mess. He has lost his wife, is indifferent to his sons, and turns down a full-time job. He is not a believer in Judaism. His search for an understanding of the Hebron massacre leads him down an intellectual rabit hole. Sherman's play is called READING HEBRON because reading about the massacre and the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes Nathan's life. Authors come to life -- Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Hanan Ashrawi and others become as real to him as the people in his life. Sherman's play attempts and mostly succeeds at doing what novels tend to do better than drama -- give us the internal life of a character as well as external experience. Its one hundred minutes are challenging and stimulating. There are no simple answers to Nathan's questions, so the play is also open-ended though critical of Israeli attitudes and policy toward the Palestinians. It is as timely now as when it was written in 1996. For those of us in England, it is a fascinating corollary to the television miniseries, THE PROMISE that is now being shown. THE PROMISE is a British-European-Israeli co-production shot in Israel that in its last episode depicted the horrors of Hebron where Jewish settlers viciously harass and bully Palestinians while Israeli soldiers stand by and watch. Clearly the policy is to do anything to drive Arabs out of what the Jewish settlers see as only theirs (I doubt that THE PROMISE will be shown in the US).
     The wonderful Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond is to be congratulated for producing this play. The Orange Tree is a 150 seat theatre-in-the-round, so productions there are simple and definitely in your face. The five member ensemble was excellent. David Antrobus captures Nathan's obsession and his personal weakness. The other four actors play all the other characters. As usual, veteran director Sam Waters has captured the tone and rhythm of the piece. READING HEBRON is a difficult play: you can't let your attention flag for an instant. Clearly Sherman has read his Tom Stoppard. Stoppard, however, seldom has taken on crucial current events. One of the great joys of being a theatergoer in England is seeing a variety of plays that make us think about and question our world -- which is what theatre should do. There's enough mindless entertainment on television and in our movie theatres.
READING HEBRON by Jason Sherman. Orange Tree Theatre. February 22, 2011.   

Sunday, 20 February 2011


      Emlyn Williams wrote a series of hit plays from the early 1930s into the 1950s (NIGHT MUST FALL and THE CORN IS GREEN among others). He also wrote two memoirs of his life up until 1935 in which he candidly chronicled his homosexual romances. Although he married in 1935, he continued to have sex with men. His 1950 play ACCOLADE, like Terence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA (based on the suicide of a male lover), turned what is more credible as a tale of a homosexual secret life into a heterosexual one. Some say that Williams would have liked to make this tale of a famous writer who gets caught in a sex scandal about a homosexual scandal, but in the days of strict censorship the play would not have been produced. However, anyone who knows anything about Williams will know what the play is really about.
     Williams's central character, Will Trenting, is about to be knighted. He is a celebrated author (Nobel Prize winning no less) who lives in a lovely Regents Park home with his doting wife and adolescent son. Will is admittedly a bit of a Jeckyll-Hyde character; sometimes respectable, but driven to orgiastic extra-marital sex. At one "dirty party" over a pub in a working class area of London, he has sex with a fourteen-year-old girl (she doesn't look fourteen) which opens him up to blackmail and scandal. His wife has always been exceedingly understanding (as was Williams's wife). At the end, the scandalous secret life is no longer secret and the family must live in exile in Guernsey, of all places. The situation is an intriguing one. In moving back and forth from respectability to orgiastic pleasure, Will also has to move back and forth from an upper middle class milieu to a working class one. He seems comfortable and happy in both. Indeed, his most faithful friends are working class. In typical British form of the period, sexual freedom is tied to the working class. The man who tries to blackmail him has social pretensions -- the worst sin in this play. Honesty is everything. It is also the seedier side of Will's life that fuels his writing. 
     This production at the tiny Finborough Theatre is the first production in London since the play's initial run sixty years ago. It's a good represenation of the play, well directed (Blanche McIntyre) and very strongly cast. The only disaster is the man playing the fourteen year old son -- he's obviously at least twice his character's age and taller than most of the other characters which make his scenes funny in ways Williams didn't mean. This isn't his fault. It's simply poor casting. Everyone is good, but the aptly named Graham Seed and Alan Francis are particularly strong as the seedy, pretentious blackmailer and the loyal secretary. If the supporting cast seemed stronger than the leads (Aidan Gillet as Will and Saskia Wickham as his wife) it is because the supporting roles are better written.
         It was good to have the chance to see this play. I have written on it but never experienced it in the theatre. It doesn't stand up the way Rattigan's plays do, but thank heaven the major fringe theatres are willing to produce plays like this. The reviews have been very favorable and the run has sold out. Obviously there's also an audience for this sort of work. And I am grateful that small productions like this are still economically viable in London. 
ACCOLADE by Emlyn Williams. Finborough Theatre. February 20, 2011.

Saturday, 19 February 2011


     Let's start with a big question. What is an opera? A musical drama that is through-sung. Well, not necessarily. We consider Mozart's MAGIC FLUTE and Beethoven's FIDELIO to be operas and they have spoken dialogue. Are through-sung LES MISERABLES and MISS SAIGON operas? The differences between opera and musicals (isn't THE MAGIC FLUTE really a musical -- isn't that what "Singspiel" is?) are in the modes of presentation. Opera is an art form that uses a particular type of voice -- what we call a "legit" voice -- that can carry beautifully unamplified in a large theatre. The voice should be beautiful and expressive. There was a time when the voice was everything. It didn't matter how the singer looked or whether the singer could act. In our age of HD theatrical transmissions of opera and opera on DVD and YouTube, looks and acting abillity are almost as important as singing. One only has to look on opera singers' websites to see how important looks are (Wagnerian singers are more likely to be forgiven obesity and static stage presence).  Opera also puts an emphasis on the orchestra and the relationship of voice and instrument. The conductor has far more power than he does in other forms of musical theatre.
     I mention all this because the detractors of Mark Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas's ANNA NICOLE try to denigrate it by questioning its operatic credentials. This is in part because it is a crowd pleaser and much of contemporary opera is anything but crowd pleasing. My problem with much contemporary opera is that the musical language does not fit the drama. Many composers seem to be stuck in the style of Alban Berg -- a great style for Berg, but we are almost a century past that and many other musical influences have been added to the mix: minimalism, jazz, rock, the American songbook, for starters, not to mention influences from non-western cultures. Opera, of all forms, should reflect this eclecticism. And all elements -- including the music -- should be dramatic and theatrical. There is nothing wrong with writing an opera that a lot of people will enjoy hearing. John Adams has done that brilliantly over the last quarter century. And there is everything right about creating an opera about our era or the forces that have shaped our era. To my mind, short of John Adams's works, ANNA NICOLE is the most successful contemporary opera I have heard and seen.
     Why Anna Nicole Smith as the central character in an opera? First, her life is operatic and Richard Thomas's libretto manages to poke fun at her and take her seriously at the same time. Second, she represents much that is wrong with contemporary western culture. Why should anyone care about this talentless, self-destructive woman? Why does anyone care about Paris Hilton? Anna Nicole Smith is one of the worst examples of our celebrity culture in which people can be famous simply for being famous. She is a grotesque exemplar of our consumer culture. Having bought her gigantic boobs, she married rich and bought everything else in sight including too many drugs and too much food. She is a real-life grotesque parody of our world. Thomas's raunchy libretto underscores all this the way his brilliant JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA did a decade ago. Mark Anthony Turnage's eclectic score which has everything from sweeping grand music, to parody of bel canto coloratura to jazz to allusions to The Pointer Sisters matches Thomas's libretto perfectly. Annas big arias do sound like Broadway -- what's wrong with that?
     As director Peter Sellars has been a major collaborator with John Adams, so Richard Jones's production of ANNA NICOLE is a crucial aspect of the work. It seems perfect for the tone and substance of the libretto and score. It is comic when it needs to be but deeply moving in the second act. The design is wonderfully garish and encompasses the entire opera house. All the pictures on the walls have been covered over with a picture of Anna Nicole Smith. The auditorium has been transformed into a parody of itself. Picture of Anna Nicole cover the light sconces on the horseshoe balconies. The show curtain is a gaudy replica of the Royal Opera House curtain, but with AR emblazoned on it instead of ER. A picture of Anna Nicole covers the queen at the top of the proscenium.
     Eva Maria Westbroek is perfect as Anna. This great diva could have coasted on her Wagner and Puccini roles, but chose to take on this vocaly and physically taxing role. She is never off stage. Even her costume changes and boob expansion take place on stage. This is a real star turn and Westbroek deserved the prolonged wild ovation she received at the end. The rest of the large supporting cast was fine and the orchestra under Antonio Pappano played  the score lovingly.
     A great occasion. I only hope audiences around the world get to experience ANNA NICOLE.
ANNA NICOLE. Royal Opera House. February 17, 2011.    

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


     Nick Dear's adaptation of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN as directed by Danny Boyle is as close to a contemporary tragedy as I have seen. The central character, a physically deformed man-made creature, learns how to behave from human example. As people curse him, beat him and betray him, he learns to curse, to kill and, from his creator, to lie. From a kind blind man who takes him in for a year, he learns to speak and to read. This is Frankenstein's monster (called The Creature in this version) as a poetry-loving intellectual who wants to be rational and good in a nasty world. His cruelty often seems more rational, less nasty than that of the people around him. Above all, he is lonely. He hunts down his creator -- arrogant, heartless Victor Frankenstein -- and demands a mate to alleviate his loneliness. Eventually he and Victor, two different kinds of monster, become linked forever in an endless chase. In the first half hour we see the monster born and learn the things a child needs to learn -- to stand, to walk, to eat -- but without anyone's help. His creator takes one look at him and rejects him as an experiment gone wrong and not worth his attention -- not even worth killing. But this creature is intelligent, sensitive, articulate and much more capable of feeling than his creator. This is not the old FRANKENSTEIN as scary melodrama. There is much food for thought here.
      There is also one of the most impressive theatrical productions I have seen in years. The experience starts in the lobby with ominous noises. The entire theatre has been transformed into a strange environment. Lots of smoke and noise. A large bell rings occasionally. A giant, strange light sculpture looms overhead. It will be the bolts of electricity that bring the creature to life and, later, the night stars. All the gimmicks of the Olivier Theatre are used effectively. The designers have done most of their work in film, but seem to be having a ball working with the possibilities of the Olivier stage and auditorium.
      One of the interesting aspects of this production is that Benedict Cumberpatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate as Victor and The Creature (there will be two opening nights and two HD theatrical transmissions so audiences can see the play both ways). We saw Miller as the creature and Cumberpatch as Victor. This on paper looks like the most logical casting. Miller is always an adventurous actor. Here he is absolutely mesmerizing. Cumberpatch was good in the less challenging role. I didn't feel it was all there in this preview, but I imagine the lead actors are spending more time and energy on developing the creature. There's more to be found in Victor, particularly in the scene in which the creature describes what love feels like. Does Victor realize in that moment that his creature is his emotional and spiritual superior or does he only fear the idea of the creature breeding? Of course, one doesn't want the camp acting of Colin Clive in the classic film, but Victor is as internally deformed as his creation is physically deformed and we need to see that a bit more. The actor playing the creature has almost an hour to establish his character and the audience's sympathies before we get a real scene with Victor. Therefore Victor has to be painted in vivid colors quickly. I have a feeling that at this stage Miller would do that better. My impression from his work on stage and television is that Cumberpatch is a good actor in the old tradition of British understated acting, quite different from the more daring actors of his generation: recent performances by Andrew Scott, Leo Bill, Rupert Young and Rory Kinnear come to mind. I'd like to go back and see it the other way round for I can't quite see Cumberpatch as the creature. It's casting against type, but that can be the most interesting casting. It might totally change my idea of Cumberpatch as an actor. You certainly can't understate the creature. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. The always excellent Karl Johnson is superb as the creature's old blind teacher. Otherwise the performances range from OK to poor in the case of the actor playing Victor's father. One problem with the play is that it so much centers on the creature that other characters seem distractions unless they have a direct relationship with him. The play sags a bit when the creature is offstage. Frankenstein's fiance, Elizabeth, only becomes interesting in her scene with the creature. Even Victor only becomes important when the creature needs him. I do think the very brief first scene when Victor runs off in horror at the sight of the creature could be more fully developed. Perhaps it will be during later previews.
      This has been a hit and miss year for the National. The best new plays go elsewhere and some of the revivals have only been so-so, like the recent TWELFTH NIGHT. Some of the work, like GREENLAND and SEASON'S GREETINGS is just poor.  However, FRANKENSTEIN is what the National does well -- a fine big play demanding the resources of that well-heeled organization. I can imagine it in a simpler production, but Danny Boyle and his designers have justified every bit of spectacle.        FRANKENSTEIN is a sign of changes at the National. Although it has often brought in fine actors with television and film credits, it has never before in my memory given its stars two page bios in the program with giant photographs. Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave didn't get that. There was always the illusion of an ensemble even when stars were in the leads. This is pure star system. Obviously Messrs. Miller and Cumberpatch have very good agents.
         It is interesting that the National's riveting FRANKENSTEIN is following Rory Kinnear's brilliant Hamlet onto the Olivier stage. They plays have a good deal in common -- a cruel society forces a good person to become a killer. Like Hamlet, the creature is a brilliant, articulate, poetic man suffering isolation and disillusionment. Frankenstein's creature is one of the best written characters to appear on the London stage in a long time and this production is truly a special event. It's a must-see.
FRANKENSTEIN, adapted from the Mary Shelley novel by Nick Dear. Directed by Danny Boyle. The fantastic sets designed by Mark Tildesley, lit by Bruno Poet. Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb. National Theatre Olivier Theatre. February 15, 2011

Monday, 14 February 2011

COMPANY- Southwark Playhouse

     Like many of the people around me at the Southwark Playhouse production of Sondheim's COMPANY, I have seen the show many times (there was a lot of comparing of productions going on during the interval). I saw the original production early on in its run and was blown away by its originality. Later I saw the touring production and admired the Donmar Warehouse revival fifteen years ago. I have also suffered through countless amateur productions -- COMPANY is easy to do badly. COMPANY has a great score, but a problematic script. George Furth and Stephen Sondheim, with original producer-director Harold Prince, took a group of short one-act plays on marriage and tied them together with a central character, Robert, a thirty-five year old bachelor who is ambivalent about commitment but enjoys the company of his married friends. The characters are more types than three-dimensional figures which is fine because each married couple only has ten to fifteen minutes of stage time. Bobby is on throughout but is more a detached observer than a protagonist and detached observers aren't dramatically very interesting Dean Jones was bland in the original cast (he only lasted three months) which threw all the focus onto his married friends and girlfriends, like being straight man to a dozen comics. In the 1995 Donmar revival, Sam Mendes found a way to make the show more Robert's by making it clear that he is remembering all the events of the show while deciding whether to attend the surprise 35th birthday party they have planned for him. Adrian Lester gave Robert a personality and some motivation. The Donmar production also proved that, like many Sondheim shows, COMPANY works best as a chamber musical in a small theatre. The current production goes even further in solving the problems of the book. Under Joe Fredericks' direction, Rupert Young's Robert is a troubled man with bad dreams. Facing thirty-five is clearly a crisis for him. Young brings more charisma and energy to Robert than any performer I have seen. He's a very physical actor and his big moments really fill the theatre. Robert's eleven o'clock number, "Being Alive" was not just a big song belted, but a real cry for help, sung beautifully but also acted. I only knew Young from supporting roles on stage and on television. This production proved he has real star quality. One understood why  everyone loved Robert. The show was effectively updated to the present (a couple of anachronisms in the lyrics stood out, particularly lines about message services in an age of cell phones) and Robert was like many young men now (more than in 1970) who don't think about settling down until they're near forty. Every number in this production seemed part of Robert's mindset rather than a clever commentary on marriage.
     For the most part, the entire cast was excellent as singers and as actors. The married couples and three girlfriends are both supporting cast and chorus in this show. This was certainly the best sung COMPANY I have experienced. The staging and choreography were effective. Since the audience sat on three sides of a stage, simple platforms and a few pieces of rolling furniture were the only set pieces, but with good lighting, that was all we needed. The costumes, unfortunately, looked messy and as if they hadn't been cleaned or pressed since opening night. This was sub thrift shop. The cast and production deserved more. A good six piece band was piped in from another room and the amplification was more tasteful than usual.
     Until recently, the Menier Chocolate Factory has had the monopoly on intimate revivals of hit musicals. Actually the co-producer and casting director of many of those productions served in those capacities for this COMPANY. Actually the Southwark Playhouse is a nicer venue than the Menier. It is larger, less claustrophobic and has a large, comfortably furnished bar and large, clean bathrooms. It is certainly a better spot than the smaller Union Theatre which has aso been producing strong musical revivals. I hope this is the beginning of a new phase of the Southwark's work.
     I went to this production thinking, "Do I really need to see another COMPANY?" At the end, I wondered whether I could get a ticket to see this production again.
COMPANY. Southwark Playhouse. February 13, 2011.      

Thursday, 10 February 2011


     Only once in my life did I have to teach fifteen year olds. I was in my early twenties and found it scary. They are hormones on legs with negative attention spans. I can only imagine what it is like to teach a roomful of socially dysfunctional adolescents. This is the task facing young Zoe in John Donnelly's THE KNOWLEDGE, one of the two plays on education in repertory at the Bush Theatre.
     The new teacher, Zoe, has trouble controlling her class and isn't quite in control herself. She admits that she was a troublemaker in high school and still has an adolescent's hunger for booze, dope and sex. Like many young women, she feels alternately defensive and insecure in the boys club she has joined -- her teaching mentor and headmaster are male and not politically correct in their treatment of her. Her students are a nightmare. One boy is a sociopath, another manipulative. The two girls seem more redeemable. All the students are obsessed with sex and asserting some sort of power over their territory. We watch Zoe make some dreadful personal and professional mistakes and lose the trust of the students. This is BLACKBOARD JUNGLE for the twenty-first century, but without the virtuous teacher and the good African-American to defend him. You witness the teacher's nightmare of a classroom spinning out of control. Donnelly does a superb job of shifting our sympathies as the play progresses. The seemingly nice people eventually don't seem so nice and the cynics are eventually shown to care. Zoe turns out to be the biggest troublemaker, more like her students than she wants to admit.
     The Bush is a tiny space, so a powerful play like this is almost painful to watch. The theater is set up as an arena and the stage seems at times like a boxing ring. Actors sit with the audience when they are not onstage. Charlotte Gwinner's production is nicely staged and paced and captures the intensity of the script. The cast is uniformly excellent. Joanne Froggatt whom I loved in tv's DOWNTON ABBEY captures the light and dark sides of Zoe. She's a tiny woman, but when she lashes out viciously at one of the students one almost cringes. The four young actors playing the students are suitably intense, particularly Joe Cole, playing the hostile Mickey. He has very light blue eyes that seem to bore through the other characters. Handsome Christopher Simpson plays the science teacher as a cool man on the make until his sense of right and wrong are challenged. Andrew Woodall is properly droll as the cynical headmaster counting the days until his retirement.  
     I look forward to seeing the other play in this cycle.
THE KNOWLEDGE. Bush Theatre. February 10, 2010.


     Yes, Virginia, another climate change play. After suffering through GREENLAND at the National (see below), I feared the worst. Actually, Richard Bean's THE HERETIC is delightfully heretical on the subject. Diane Cassell is a professor of paleophysics and geodynamics at a northern British university who passionately believes that science is more important than dogma. For her, what cannot be scientifically proven is simply cant. Diane measures sea levels in the Maldives and her research shows no change on water level. Meanwhile, everyone in her's and related fields is firmly in the climate change church. As she tells a news reporter, "The real global warming disaster is that a small cohort of hippies who went into climate science because they could get paid for spending all day on the beach smoking joints have suddenly become the most important people in the world." Everyone around Diane sees her as an apostate. Her department chair -- her lover twenty-five years ago -- declares her insane and puts her on suspension because her research and pronouncements may prevent major corporate funds from coming into the department (no academic freedom at this university!). Her anorexic daughter has joined Greenpeace. The Sacred Earth Militia are sending her death threats and are planning to kidnap her. Her new protege won't get in a minibus for a class trip because it uses fossil fuel. Diane knows that some of the science supporting theories of climate change is sloppy or downright dishonest, but no one wants to believe her.
     THE HERETIC is not a primarily a polemic against climate change. It is a sweet, intelligent comedy about four deeply flawed people. Diane's troubled, anorexic daughter is the collateral damage of her own intellectual tyranny. She home schooled her daughter so she would not have to deal with lesser mortals. Her chair is a sweet, weak man who is still madly in love with her. Her star pupil is a lonely, troubled young man who happens to be brilliant and deeply imaginative. Along the way, these four flawed people become something of a family. In a cynical age and in a country famed for its sense of irony, THE HERETIC is a celebration of being human. At the end, Diane muses, "The stars are God's mistakes. We are the miracle. Life. Human intelligence. Human innovation, creativity, invention. That is why every night the stars gaze down on us in awe." It is also an attack on crippling dogma.
     One could quibble about some aspects of Bean's play. The professor in me wonders if academic freedom is so threatened in British universities. I am as anti-dogma as Bean, as skeptical of cant from the left as from the right, but I don't think we can ignore all the junk we send into the atmosphere. As someone once said, "The human is the only animal that fouls its own nest." Nonetheless, I enjoyed every minute of THE HERETIC. Like the last few occupants of the Royal Court, CLYBOURNE PARK and TRIBES, it is a clever, provocative look at contemporary codes of morality and at the same time, affirming of the best in people. And, like them, it is intelligent writing.
     We saw a preview and there are still a few glitches in Jeremy Herrin's production, particularly the climactic scene which is now incoherent. I had to read the script to understand what was happening. However the cast is superb. The Royal Court always seems to get the best actors. It is wonderful to have the radiant Juliet Stevenson back on stage in a role that is perfect for her. While everyone else is fine, the standout is young Johnny Flynn as the nineteen-year-old idealist. He comes close to stealing the show.
THE HERETIC by Richard Bean. Royal Court Theatre. February 9, 2011. 

Sunday, 6 February 2011


     This is Terence Rattigan's centenary year, so London will be hosting a number of productions of his plays. After the successful rediscovery of his AFTER THE DANCE at the National last year, producers and directors are looking to the works that have seldom been revived rather than the staples (THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE WINSLOW BOY, THE BROWNING VERSION, SEPARATE TABLES). So in the next month we shall have starry major revivals of the rarely seen FLARE PATH and CAUSE CELEBRE. This month the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre is offering a 1944 play that was never produced in its original form, LESS THAN KIND. The play was picked up be the leading acting couple of its day, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and they insisted on so many changes that Rattigan changed the title to LOVE IN IDLENESS. Only one copy of the original LESS THAN KIND exists -- the one that was sent to the Lord Chamberlain's office for approval (pre-1967 plays were censored by that office). This production of LESS THAN KIND has received critical raves and is enjoying a sold out run.
     The title comes from Hamlet's pun to his uncle-stepfather Claudus ("A little more than kin and less than kind"). Rattigan's play is an entertaining update of the Hamlet story. After being sent to Canada during the war, a teenage boy returns to London to find his widowed mother lavishly supported by a millionaire industrialist who is a wartime cabinet minister. The son is a passionate liberal who despises Sir John's Tory politics and a prig who disapproves of his mother's liaison and her newfound love of wealth and social position. The son does everything he can to manipulate his mother to leave the man and the life she now leads.
     There's a lot of Rattigan's own ambivalence in LESS THAN KIND. Like the son, he leaned toward leftist politics but loved his life of affluence and, like Noel Coward, he was considered a voice of the establishment. Like the son, he had to deal with parents who were living a less than moral life -- in Rattigan's case it was the father who was living outside the morality of the time. Rattigan's childhood was spent in the diplomatic class. Though Rattigan was only in his early thirties when he wrote LESS THAN KIND, the play's sympathies are with the older generation. The irony is that the son is the moralistic one and his elders are much more pragmatic about their appetites and desires.
     The play's sexual politics will enrage any feminist -- women in this play are silly creatures -- but the mother at least knows that her current life as an affluent socialite attached to a powerful man she loves is far better than the genteel poverty she endured with her previous husband. No one in her circle seems to disapprove of her relationship with Lord John. Yet she is easy prey for her son's puerile tactics. In this production, the most sympathetic character was the mother's lover, Lord John, played acerbically by Michael Simkins. Simkins captured John's hauteur, his temper but also his sense of irony. The tricky balance in the play is to make the son funny and a bit endearing rather than a priggish brat. Here I think David Osmond was directed to be too much Hamlet and too little the pivotal character in a sophisticated comedy. In the Freudian age in which the play was written, the son's dsapproval has nothing to do with his feelings for his late father, when he never mentions. He is suffering instead from an Oedipal complex -- he wants to be the only man in his mother's life. Sara Crowe was charming and at times touching as the mother who tries to please both son and lover and Caroline Head played Sir John's wayward ex-wife as if she just stepped out of a good British comic film of the period.
     As always, one could only admire Rattigan's theatrical mastery -- his genius at plotting and his witty, but always credible dialogue. The Rattigan year is off to a good start.
LESS THAN KIND by Terence Rattigan, directed by Adrian Brown. Jermyn Street Theatre. February 5, 2011. 

Saturday, 5 February 2011


    What an odd play this is. J.M. Barrie, who penned a number of succesful plays in addition to PETER PAN (THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON, WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS) wrote DEAR BRUTUS right after World War I. It is both a serious explotation of that favorite question of those in mid-life crisis, "What would have happened if I had chosen a different path." It is also an odd riff on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. It is, you guessed it, Midsummer Night, and a group of people have been invited to the country house of Lob, an aging Puck. No one quite knows why they are there. The only warning they get from the thieving butler is not to go into the woods. All the married couples are unhappy. A husband wishes he had married his mistress instead of his wife. A drunken artist feels like a failure. An elderly gentleman misses the freedom of youth. Magically, the forest appears right outside the drawing room windows and, one by one, the characters venture out. The second act, in the wood, gives us the characters' younger selves. The philandering husband has merely switched women -- the mistress of Act I is now his wife and the wife is his mistress. The artist is delighted to be in the company of his daughter. The old man runs around like Pan, playing on a pipe. The butler is a successful city businessman. In the final act, they are back out of the woods and facing the reality of the choices they have made.
     The play is economical and beautifully written. It s not surprising that in this J.M. Barrie work, everyone seems to be -- or wishes to be -- a child. The artist is much happier with his daughter than with his wife. The philandering husband is simply avoiding maturity. Maturity is loss, but loss that one must accept, as one must accept responsibility for one's choices.
     This was a production of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which meant that all the actors were in their late teens or early twenties, more convincing as the young adults of Act II than the middle-aged folk of the surrounding acts. However, their youth underscored the immaturity of the characters. Wyn Jones's staging was elegant and he led these young actors to convincing performances. Susanah Henry's design on the thrust stage was extremely effective. The sound design was particularly impressive.
     This is the first time I have attended one of the Guildhall's dramatic productions. I have gone to their musicals and operas. I was impressed -- and grateful to see a fine revival of this important play.
DEAR BRUTUS by J.M. Barrie. Guildhall School of Music and Drama. February 4, 2011.     

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Toneelgroep Amsterdam THE ANTONIONI PROJECT

     I have become leery of mixed media perfomances in part because of Katie Mitchell's irritating forays into the genre. She seems to be the only British director keen on importing contemporary continental theatrical styles, but she does it in a sloppy, joyless way that makes her productions a trial to sit through. So I went to THE ANTONIONI PROJECT with some trepidation. I was also skeptical about whether Antonioni's trilogy of films from the early 1960s (L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse) could be translated into another medium. They can't without major changes to the works, but THE ANTONIONI PROJECT is fascinating on many levels, one of which is the difference between actors on stage and a mediated, flat image on the screen.
     What one remembers from the Antonioni trilogy are the many moments of silence. Dialogue seems secondary to the spaces between lines. Antonioni's central characters, particularly those played by the magnetic Monica Vitti, would rather not talk. They would rather have no close contact with other people. I think of the many Antonioni scenes in which a woman avoids kissing a man. Just as he gets close, she will turn her head away. Human connection, physical or verbal, is just too difficult. Language is a problem because character know they can't live up to the big words like love. They tell others that they don't love them, but they don't really know what the word means. They have a sense of what they should feel, but simply don't feel it. The films are in black and white -- I can't imagine them in color -- and the bleak settings represent the characters' alienation. There's a wonderful moment at the beginning of THE ECLIPSE in which Monica Vitti's character is looking out the window at this strange mushroom-shaped tower. The tower looks like something out of a science fiction film -- or the cloud of an atomic bomb.  Roads are barren and empty as are the characters. There is no traditional narrative in these films. Characters meet and move away from each other. This is film influenced by writers like Samuel Beckett.
     Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands' major theater group, has combined moments from the three films into a new work. The pit of the Barbican Theatre is filed with technicians, actors and, sometimes, musicians. The large playing area is a three-sided blue screen. We see the actors on this bare stage and, above, on a giant screen with digitized backgrounds and subtitles (the performance is in Dutch). As the performance goes on, the relationship between live and projected image becomes more complex. Sometimes we only see the actors onstage, sometimes only on the screen. The large stage becomes the empty world of Antonioni's films. The screen shows us what the camera always tries to do -- seek the inner life of the characters behind the surface. In Antonioni's films, this is almost impossible. As the evening goes on the three films sometimes blend in one scene, particularly the long party scene in the second half with a terrific live jazz band at the back of the stage.
     The primary difference between screen originals and stage adaptation is the primacy of language. The film may emphasize moments of silence, but a play spotlights language. The characters seem more willing to articulate their feelings -- or lack of feelings -- even if they don't necessarily make sense. One recognizes the lines from the films, but they take on a different role.
      Yes, it helps to know the films, but it isn't necessary (the Barbican is showing them along with this stage work). The Dutch actors are superb, though none has the magnetism on screen of Anonioni's muse, Monica Vitti or the beautiful Alain Delon in THE ECLIPSE. I found the entire production to be riveting.
THE ANTONIONI PROJECT. Barbican Theatre. February 2, 2011.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

TWELFTH NIGHT at the National Theatre

     I probably know 12TH NIGHT better than any other Shakespeare play. I have directed it three times. I know its strengths and its pitfalls for a contemporary audience. I have also seen dozens of productions of the play and am always fascinated  with directors' approaches to it. So I looked forward to Peter Hall's new production at the National Theatre.
      What does one make of a virtually laugh-free TWELFTH NIGHT? Is the problem with the play or with the production?  The National Theatre invited Peter Hall, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, to do a production of his choice. He chose to do TWELFTH NIGHT in the small Cottesloe Theatre with his daughter, Rebecca Hall, as Viola. It is not surprising that this TWELFTH NIGHT focused more on Viola than most productions. Yes, she is at the center of the play, but other characters are as important. Hall is such a wonderful, charismatic actress that one would have to surround her with stronger personalities than the ones Hall chose for the play to be in balance.
      TWELFTH NIGHT is the last of the joyful comedies before Shakespeare's work became darker and more complex. It contains elements of happy earlier works like THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (twins, mistaken identities, farce elements) and AS YOU LIKE IT (girl disguised as boy, proxy courtship, love at first sight, clown), but far more beautiful poetry. AS YOU LIKE IT and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING are more prose heavy. One remembers the lovely verse of TWELFTH NIGHT. More than the earlier comdies, there's a sense of danger here, a sense that there's a dark side to the laughter. The crucial thing for any director is to find the balance between dark and light. There was little light in this production. I have read of productions from half a century ago that emphasized the melancholy of the play. Peter Hall, who has been directing since the nineteen-fifties, seems still to be a proponent of that kind of production. It was clearly spoken, but dull in places.
      What went wrong? One can begin with the casting of Orsino and Olivia. The first scene sets the tone for the play. If Orsino is lugubrious, if the actor and director don't see his silliness, the play starts off on the wrong foot. Orsino's poetry verges on bathos. It's all overdone. He calls for excess. TWELFTH NIGHT is about excess -- Orsino's self indulgent emotion, Olivia's excessive grieving (covering the walls with tear-making brine is silly excess). Toby's excessive drinking, Malvolio's excessive "self-regard." That excess has to be funny. We shouldn't take Orsino too seriously, but we should believe that Viola would fall in love with him. This dull, homely, tmiddle-aged Orsino would hardly inspire love in a relatively sane teenage girl. I believe the excesses of the characters in TWELFTH NIGHT are the excesses of youth. It is clear from the text that Viola and her twin brother are adolescents. It is also clear that Olivia and Orsino are young. Otherwise why is Olivia still unmarried? So why did we have a middle-aged Orsino and a matronly Olivia? Amanda Drew spoke Olivia's lines clearly, but there never was a character there. The dreary Orsino and Olivia fought the comic potential of their characters.
     I don't totally blame the production for the fact that the more comic characters didn't elicit much laughter. Their scenes get tiresome. Simon Paisley Day found no humor in Malvolio which is a valid way to play him, but not a very enjoyable one. Hall is right in asserting in the 1960 essay reprinted in the program that Malvolio should not be a sympathetic character, but can't he still be a figure of fun? Simon Callow was a charming Sir Toby. Sir Andrew was too good-looking, but sweet. He was, if anything, too sympathetic to be funny. Hall obviously wanted his comic actors to be believable in a realistic sense, but a lot of TWELFTH NIGHT is farce, and if the comic scenes aren't funny, what's their point? I totally disagree with how Maria was portrayed. Sir Toby might be a drunk, but he is also a snob which is why he so despises Malvolio's assumptions of a higher social position than he deserves. If Maria (Finty Williams, Judi Dench's daughter) is played as a common serving wench rather than a Lady-in-Waiting, why would Toby associate with her? She isn't Doll Tearsheet. And who is Fabian supposed to be? One of the problems in the play is that Fabian pops up halfway through the play with no introduction. It is important to establish him visually earlier so we know his role in Olivia's household. I don't think Toby consorts with servants, so he must have a higher social position. This Fabian seemed to be some sort of yeoman farmer.
     The most controversial casting for critics has been the elderly David Ryall as Feste. Hall states in his 1960 essay (I repeat the date of this essay because I think Hall's ideas about the play were fixed half a century ago) that Feste is "bitter, insecure, singing the old half-forgotten songs to the Duke,  .  .  . his jokes now tarnished and not very successful." This may be a valid reading of Feste, but it is not a very entertaining one. The Fool in KING LEAR is bitter, but still funny. This jester isn't good company and can't even sing.
     Any energy this production had depended on Rebecca Hall, a beautiful, charismatic actress. Her Viola didn't have much of a sense of humor. I think Shakespeare and Viola see the humor in Olivia's love for her as well as the similarity in Olivia's hopeless love and hers for Orsino. Here it was dead serious.
      Hall seemed to be skittish about Antonio's love for Sebastian. Has Sebastian reciprocated? Since Ben Mansfield is far from being an adolescent, his Sebastian certainly would have understood Antonio's protestations of love. It all seemed very pre- gay liberation. If one is going to take characters' emotions as seriously as Hall does, then Antonio's love and loss of Sebastian should not be forced to the margins in the final scene.
     It was nice to see a simple, intimate TWELFTH NIGHT. However, as an elderly person perhaps I shouldn't say this, but this was an elderly man's production of TWELFTH NIGHT, a youthful play about the silliness of youth and maturing into real, loving relationships. I watched the production unmoved and unamused.
TWELFTH NIGHT. Royal National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre. January 31, 2011.