Monday, 11 July 2016

Mike Bartlett's WILD at the Hampstead Theatre, London

     The two strongest new plays I saw during my two weeks of London theatergoing were Ayad Aktar's THE INVISIBLE HAND at the Tricycle and Mike Bartlett's WILD at the Hampstead. Alexi Kaye Campbell's plodding allegory of the relationship between the U.S. and Britain, set during the Greek junta, was an uneasy combination of domestic drama and political commentary. I had raved about the New York production of THE INVISIBLE HAND in an earlier entry. The play seemed even more powerful in the claustrophobic production at the Tricycle.
     Mike Bartlett is still on his thirties, but he has given us a string of brilliant, very different plays from the minimalist COCK to the maximalist EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON. The main question is plays ask is whether contemporary individuals really have any agency. WILD gives us a version of Edward Snowden sitting in an anonymous hotel room in Moscow (is it really Moscow?) after pushing the "Send" button on all those NSA documents. Snowden is convinced that he is a hero whose actions have changed the world and a martyr to his cause. During the course of the intense, often hilarious one-act play, he is mocked, belittled, threatened and psychologically tortured by a man and a woman who are agents of some unnamed power. "We represent power," one of them finally asserts. At first the agents seem to want Snowden to become a spokesman for Russia, but Snowden is definitely not a joiner, but an ardent believer in the individual. By the end they want him to "join anything." Above all, they want to destroy his faith in the meaning of any individual action. Power rests on the fact that people don't want to know about the abuses of power. They are happy so long as they can get stuff for free via the internet. As one of the agents says, Snowden hasn't changed the egregious abuse of power, "You just pointed at it." But nothing is as it seems. The hotel room is not really a hotel room and by the end the laws of physics don't even apply. In a spectacular coup de theatre, Snowden's world is turned, if not upside down, at least at a 90 degree angle. The laws of gravity don't even apply. Bartlett has written a dizzying, funny, thought-provoking and funny play that turns downright scary. His vision is dark but the play is anything but.
     Director James Macdonald has captured the play's depiction of a man who has gone down the rabbit hole. Jack Farthing's quiet, determined libertarian hero is a foil for Caoilfhionn Dunne's depiction of the wacky, mocking unnamed female agent who alternates tearing the central character down with John MacKay, who plays her quietly menacing counterpart.
     WILD should transfer to New York. It's a terrific, funny, terrifying play.

OSLO by J.T. Rogers at the Lincoln Center Theatre

     OSLO depicts the negotiations of the 1993 Oslo accord, a courageous attempt to broker an agreement between the leaders of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It led the the PLO governing the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but obviously didn't lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The idea for these back channel negotiations came from a Norwegian sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen (the always wonderful Jefferson Mays), who believed that only unmoderated face-to-face meetings between enemies could lead to a successful outcome, and his wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle on top form), an officer in Norway's foreign ministry. These two connived, dickered and sometimes lied to their superiors and leading figures in the Israeli government to get the talks started and keep them going. What was most surprising and sad was that the Arab diplomats had never sat down with Israelis and vice-versa. On the whole, this is an absorbing, intelligent and entertaining play. It could be improved with some judicious pruning. There are too many lame attempts to make the Israelis and Palestinians likable--too many scenes of drinking and joking--and a few too many reminders of how momentous it all was. The scenes of negotiation are fascinating. OSLO is the kind of play British playwright David Hare has been writing for years. Rogers does it better.
     Bartlett Sher has given the play a fleet, beautifully staged production on the Mitzi Newhouse stage. The cast couldn't be better. Mays gives the central character great charm, but doesn't hide his hunger to be at the center of events (at the end, his wife has to remind him, "This is not about you"). Anthony Azizi and Adam Dannheisser are brilliant as the passionate PLO and Israeli representatives. These actors head a superb, large ensemble.
     OSLO gives us a slice of history that is still timely. I was still jet-lagged when I sat through its three hours, but I was totally fascinated.


      One of the hottest tickets in London this season has been the revival of the 1964 Barbra Streisand vehicle FUNNY GIRL. The production, directed by Michael Mayer, began its life at the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory where the run sold out in advance. The revival earned raves from the critics. A few weeks ago its star, Sheridan Smith, collapsed, claimed total exhaustion, and temporarily left the show. She was replaced by understudy Natasha J. Barnes who got the old "understudy to star" treatment in the press. Jule Styne's score for FUNNY GIRL is pleasant enough, but not on the level of his work on GYPSY or even BELLS ARE RINGING. Bob Merrill's lyrics aren't Sondheim, but are clever. Harvey Fierstein has revised Isobel Lennart's book. I don't remember the original well enough to assess what he has done, but it seems to be a conflation of the book of the musical and the screenplay for the hit film.
     Like GYPSY and BELLS ARE RINGING, FUNNY GIRL is an old-fashioned star vehicle. The original production succeeded for years after Streisand left because Mimi Hines, a well known television and nightclub comic (half of the Phil Ford and Mimi Hines comedy team), found a way to make the show work on her own terms. Plans for Broadway revivals have floundered because the right star wasn't found. FUNNY GIRL demands star quality. In this production, Natasha J. Barnes provided lots of energy and perkiness, but it wasn't Fanny Brice or anything resembling a star. She's not a particularly good singer and she doesn't have the unique stage personality that makes one taken notice -- star quality. She works hard, in fact watching her is exhausting.
     Michael Mayer's staging is routine. Like many transfers from the Menier, it looked low budget for West End prices. I came away feeling cheated.
     Thom Sutherland's revival of TITANIC at the Charing Cross Theatre is a small-scale revival of a megamusical that totally justifies itself. Maury Yeston's score is a gem, one of the best since Sondheim's heyday. In this production two dozen excellent singing actors did the work of the forty-some performers in the original cast. Instead of the giant, four level set of the original production, we had a simple, two-level unit set plus moveable ladders and ropes.  This production was more character-oriented than spectacle, and Peter Stone's book made much more sense than it did in the original production. TITANIC became a show about social aspiration, particularly about women who would not settle for the social roles assigned to them. Here was a revival that justified itself, one that is an improvement over the original production. Bravo to the director and his amazingly gifted cast.
     Daniel Evans' production of SHOW BOAT, which has moved into the New London Theatre from the Crucible Theatres in Sheffield is an excellent production despite the offensively loud amplification, a source of complaint for everyone seated around me. The Black performers steal the show from a pretty bland bunch of white performers. Malcolm Sinclair, excellent at playing befuddled English toffs, doesn't do anything with Captain Andy, the central character of the show.  For all Evan's flair at staging, there's something a bit impersonal about the production. The theatre was only about 1'3 full, which may have led to a sense of routine.
     There is nothing routine about Rufus Norris's production of the Brecht-Weill classic, THREEPENNY OPERA at the National Theatre. Simon Stephens has updated the script and made it more about sex than capitalism. This Mack the Knife is what we would now call a sex addict. Everyone seems to be more motivated by sex than greed. The Peachums, models of respectability and hypocrisy in the original are now cartoons of lasciviousness. Mrs. Peachum slinks around in a red dress like an aging madam and Peachum is a grotesque queen. This changes the work considerably and not always for the better, but the performance is so lively and inventive that you forgive it its excesses. It's the first production of THREEPENNY OPERA I have seen that didn't seem endless.
     The less said about the revival of Terrence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA in the cavernous Lyttleton Theatre the better. When a production is lit to be so dimly that one cannot see faces, an alienation effect sets in. When the set of that is supposed to be a tiny, sleazy apartment in a boarding house is the size of a football field, any sense of intimacy is lost. I can't say much about the acting because I could barely see the characters through the murky blue lighting. I have considerable admiration for Rattigan and for this play, but could barely keep awake through this revival.