A LETTER FROM LONDON: Come for the Olympics, Stay for the Theatre

Special Features   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Come for the Olympics, Stay for the Theatre
 
A walking tour of recent, current and upcoming London theatrical events, including programming for 2012 World Stages London, plus Broken Glass, Crazy for You, The Lion in Winter, Collaborators and more.

Charles Edwards stars as George VI
Charles Edwards stars as George VI Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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There's a strange misconception among American theatregoers that when they visit London the only thing to see is Shakespeare. Because, it is thought, that's what we do best. Well, not necessarily. Londoners are already over-excited about next year's Olympic Games, and even without Shakespeare, some of the accompanying theatrical offerings promise to be as spectacular as the 100-metre sprint.

World Stages London, subtitled World Stories for a World City, and sub-subtitled A Season of Theatre, is, for me, worth any amount of transport and crowd inconveniences. It is an unprecedented collaboration between eight London producing theatres and 12 international companies, all planning to use theatre to illustrate the dazzling, cosmopolitan sweep of London's intercultural communities. Leading theatre artists from 14 countries — including some from every continent except Antarctica — are making theatre pieces based on the experiences of living, playing and working in one of the most diverse cities on earth. If London is going to be king next summer, at least the theatre isn't going to be left out of the celebrations.

From China comes the first ever stage version of Jung Chang's bestseller "Wild Swans," a collaboration between London's Young Vic and San Francisco's American Rep, designed by Beijing artist Wang GongXin. From Germany comes Three Kingdoms, a satisfyingly creepy murder mystery performed by an international cast in three languages along the banks of the Thames. It is a co-production between the Lyric and the Munich Kammerspiele. From France and South Africa, Peter Brook weighs in with a musical that is also a psychological thriller. From Israel, the Palestinian company Shiberhur — which crosses boundaries of language, culture, geography and politics — brings a new play inspired by the Biblical and Koranic story of Abraham and Isaac.

But if you really have to have Shakespeare, the Royal Shakespeare Company is producing a trilogy of old Will's plays by locking together the three "shipwreck" plays — The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest — into a mini-cycle exploring migration, exile and the discovery of brave new worlds. These too will be performed during the Olympic summer in London under the collective title What Country, Friends, Is This? In what I think is pure serendipity rather than good planning, the Palestinian actor Amer Hlehel, from the Shiberhur company, will be making his RSC debut. And — it had to happen — The King's Speech, also known as the most popular grown-up film of last year, will also be playing during the Olympics. The stage play stars Charles Edwards as the stuttering king and Jonathan Hyde as his voice coach, Lionel Logue. If you can't have Shakespearean kings, you might just feel you need an English king in a more modern incarnation. We've got lots. Pick a king, any king.

If all of this and the 20 or so other productions currently in the planning stage are even half as good as they sound, sign me up. World Stages London, with all its subtitles, sounds like a winner, even if you don't know who's running in the 100-metre sprint. You'd have to be a much bigger sports fan than I am to want to be here in London next summer. The 2012 Olympics are already wreaking havoc with the public transportation system on weekends while it's updated, polished, cleaned and rerouted to get the faithful to the events. Parking and driving will only be easy for those who are going to or from the Olympic stadium and will undoubtedly take its toll on those of us who live here. Personally, I'm going to get on the first flight to the United States — not, however, before taking in what promises to be the most comprehensively international experience of the entire Olympic season: the theatrical events.

Sheila Hancock in The Last of the Duchess.
photo by Johan Persson

Lest you think I've been wasting my time in recent weeks, there's a pile of London theatre programs at my feet, giving testimony to my nightly toils on your behalf. Before we leave the Royals completely, Nicholas Wright had a highly amusing new play at Hampstead about the Whore of Babylon. No, I jest — I'm talking about Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, she who nearly brought down the English monarchy by marrying Edward VIII, who abdicated for love of her. And a good thing too. The more we learn about him the more we realize what a disaster it would have been to have had a Nazi sympathizer for King. Anyway, all the characters in The Last of the Duchess (which closed Nov. 11) were real people, remembered by many who are still alive, which adds a real frisson to what is already a wonderful production (by Richard Eyre, who also directed the current Broadway Private Lives) and several fine performances, especially from Sheila Hancock as the monstrous Mâitre Blum, the Duchess' lawyer and gatekeeper.

Simon Russell Beale in Collaborators.
photo by Johan Persson

Timberlake Wertenbaker, in a sparkling new translation, managed to make sense of Racine's windy Britannicus (it closed Nov. 19), which also, in its way, dealt with royals, just rather disappeared royals such as Nero in Ancient Rome. And only slightly more visible, Robert Lindsay is the saving grace of The Lion in Winter (to Jan. 28), finding rather more humanity in Henry the Second than Peter O'Toole did in the film with Katharine Hepburn. Coming down the scale from royalty to aristocracy, Three Days in May (to March 3) gave us Churchill (royal addicts will know that he grew up in Blenheim Palace) trying to decide whether to make a deal with Hitler or to fight the second world war. A must for military enthusiasts. And those fascinated by politics will be equally taken with Collaborators (to March 31), a new play by John Hodge about Stalin, playing a cat and mouse game with the writer, Mikhail Bulgakov. In the febrile atmosphere following the Russian Revolution, Bulgakov is frightened into writing a play about the life of Stalin, at Stalin's behest and with Stalin's collaboration. What makes this one stand out are the two central performances from Alex Jennings as the playwright and the great Simon Russell Beale as the dictator. Sadly, Collaborators is in the National's smallest space, the Cottesloe, which, while suitable to the small scale of the play, is nonetheless maddening for those fans who, despite the longer-than-usual run, haven't been able to buy tickets for this sold-out production. There's good news: Nicholas Hytner's acclaimed production to the Olivier Theatre starting April 30.

Only the National Theatre can even imagine doing plays on the scale of 13 (to Jan. 8), a massive epic by Mike Bartlett about the cataclysmic state of contemporary society in which a Christ-like figure returns from exile to give daily sermons to an already-convinced Occupy-type populace. Highly political, Geraldine James steals the show as a more contemporary version of Margaret Thatcher who wins every argument against the much more human face of her electorate, all of whom seem to be having the same nightmare. 13 has a cast of 21, an enormous moving set, specially composed music, and a lighting design for the ages. How lucky we are on this side of the Atlantic to have a National Theatre with this kind of scope and resources.

Antony Sher

At the Royal Court, April de Angelis' Jumpy (which closed Nov. 19) was a funny, well-observed contemporary play about the stresses of the way we live, with a natural central performance from Tamsin Greig as a put-upon mother of a teenage daughter. A British Subject (which closed Nov. 26), Nichola McAuliffe's tender and brutal play about her own efforts, and those of her husband, the Daily Mirror journalist Don Mackay, to extract just one innocent Afghani from jail, was moving and significant.

Broken Glass (open ended), Arthur Miller's late-career play about a woman who is paralyzed by news of Kristalnacht, should be a wonderful evening out, starring, as it does, a committed Antony Sher as the buttoned-up husband. Unfortunately, some vocal coach has taught the entire cast to speak with a Brooklyn accent so exaggerated that nobody ever spoke like that in Brooklyn or anyplace else, and, although the British audience loves it, anyone who has ever spent any time in New York will find it risible for all the wrong reasons. Other revivals this month include a rather anemic version of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden (to Dec. 31) and Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods, which closed Nov. 12 and seemed somewhat dated by events. A Cold War play doesn't have much resonance in the age of Russian oligarchs.

The fringe theatres, as always, have had a selection of terrific stuff — legit and musical — you won't find in the West End. Julia Pascal's Honeypot, about a Scandinavian woman who volunteers to spy for Israel after the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics (can't get away from the damn Olympics), was a thoughtful meditation on nationhood with an outstanding performance by Paul Herzberg. At the tiny Finborough was your rare chance to see Ivor Novello's musical Perchance to Dream, which is never produced these days and boasted a silly book but lovely singing from the entire cast, especially Martin Milnes and my old friend Annabel Leventon as Lady Charlotte Fayre (it's that kind of musical). And at the even tinier Landor, 40 seats tucked above a pub, was a stunning production of one of my favorite shows, Ahrens and Flaherty's Ragtime. It seems entirely impossible to shoehorn 21 cast members and a band onto a playing area the size of my car but, not only did the director, Robert McWhir, do it, he did it with style and full justice to both E.L. Doctorow's great novel and Terrence McNally's book.

People always ask me what I enjoy most every month. This month I think it would have to be Crazy For You (open ended), its Regent's Park outdoor production now shifted successfully to the West End. Gershwin, sung beautifully, well staged, and performed as though they really mean it, always works.

Finally, I had a bittersweet evening at the final performance in London of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Its founder, who died last year, specified that his hand-picked company should embark on a final world tour and then disband, which they will do in New York at New Year. Anyone who cares about dance has a lot to be grateful for and Merce Cunningham will be remembered as long as modern dance is performed anywhere. (Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

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