I'm still a traditional theatre sort of person. Give me a play, some actors, a director, preferably something approximating a set and I'm happy. Even if it's not a very good play. But I'm trying valiantly to be the dog who does learn new tricks, the leopard who does change its spots, because there's no question that the most eye-catching theatre in London is the non-traditional stuff.
I was quite excited to see what New York calls 'immersive theatre' when I was there, but found it somewhat tame, given all the fuss people were making about how innovative it was. Sitting amongst the actors was just a baby-step from watching from the orchestra, and dancing with them in one scene or another was just a short distance from audience members being invited up on stage in One Man, Two Guv'nors.
Here, though, mainstream theatre is morphing into site-specific performances under London's bridges, shows where the audience is invited to meet in a location and are then directed to other parts of the city for unknown portions, on one occasion a play that was acted in an office suite across the street from the theatre which we watched from the theatre's rooftop, productions taking place in enormous but enclosed multi-room settings where the actors dance or mime different parts of the story and the audience, undirected, moves from room to room, from scene to scene, from snippet to snippet, to try to glean what is going on.
I got lost during this (physically and psychologically) and happened on the last scene first and never caught up with the plot. I was there for more than two hours and don't ever remember being so bored in a theatrical setting but, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that this one takes place in an old train warehouse and you couldn't buy a ticket for love nor money. I kept asking people who said they loved it what exactly they had loved but still couldn't work it out. All this, I remind you, is in the 'mainstream', not the 'experimental' theatre. So New York's 'immersive' theatre ain't got nothin' on London's.
On the other hand, when the really mainstream theatre, such as the National, tries something experimental, it often works. The current production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward 11, written just the other day in 1593 and set a mere 280 years earlier in 1307, uses cellphones, handheld video cameras, cigarette lighters and all the paraphanalia of contemporary life, including champagne bottles held by the neck (I'm sure Queen Isabella didn't really do that, did she?) to tell the story of a young King so besotted with his male lover that he destroys his kingdom and himself.
Joe Hill-Gibbins' production has its oddities, to be sure, such as the stage actually being unoccupied for fairly long stretches of the first half while the action takes place backstage and is relayed by screens on either side in case the audience should think that the cast has all gone home or off to the pub for a pint.
The casual disregard for period in costume and set means that some of the cast are dressed as they might have been at King Edward's court and others, the lover and villain, Gaveston, for instance, are in blue jeans with and often without, a t-shirt. The estimable John Heffernan, current flavor of the month dramatic actor here, fully justifies his reputation as a febrile and sexually ambivalent King Edward, willing to placate his beautiful but ditzy wife when Gaveston is not around but completely in thrall to him when he is. Male characters are sometimes played by female actors and Queen Isabella's resemblance to Princess Diana in her post-divorce phase is hard to miss. It's all very fragmented and messy but it does, eventually, come together and we begin to understand what Kit Marlow was trying to tell us about societies needing structure and that even warring factions can co-exist if they can all agree on a leader. Chaos is, he says, inevitable, when those structures break down and there is nothing to put in their place. I can't think of a more relevant play for our times.
Talking of the non-traditional, the new St James Theatre is starting an intriguing program of lunchtime plays. Real plays, not just lightweight comedy to accompany nibbles, but Chekhov and Shakespeare and all that. Every weekday at noon and again at 1 PM, the St James Theatre, London's newest major house, is currently doing Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Later in the fall, they will present two short comedies by Anton Chekhov: The Proposal and The Bear. This is really enterprising as the St James, in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, has no passer-by drop-in trade so it must generate its audience from the neighbourhood. Located in Victoria, far from most mainstream theatres, it's finding them among those who work in the vast glass office buildings which are going up at an alarming rate around them. They can probably look out of their office windows and into Her Majesty's garden. St James, instead of this fairly boring lunchtime pastime, is offering theatre to get your teeth into instead. Good for them.
The National Youth Theatre is a brilliant organization. It gives young would-be actors the chance to work on real plays with real professionals so they can find out if this life is really for them. They even commission new work for them to perform and they are innovative enough to find new places to perform them. St. James Church, right on Piccadilly, is not a natural theatre, but a very affecting and highly technically complex production came off triumphantly as a large cast of young people presented Pope Joan, Louise Brealey's first major work. Nobody is quite sure that there ever was a female pope, but there has been enough speculation since the 9th century and even a smashed statue to suggest it that there is room for doubt.
Two young actors take the part of the Pope as a girl desperate to be allowed to read, a privilege that, as a girl, was granted to her brother and denied to her, and as the Pontiff. Legend has it Pope Joan was only discovered to be a woman when she gave birth during a formal Papal procession, and the church itself lends verisimilitude with its beautiful vaulted ceilings, the liturgical music, the solemnity of the atmosphere and the presence of some 50 actors dressed as monks, singing and occupying the aisles. It's quite a spectacle, but how they pull it off even with their huge cast is a source of admiration and amazement. Kids can do anything.
(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.) Check out Playbill.com's London listings. Seek out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting from the U.K.