A LETTER FROM LONDON: Olivier Madness, Plus the American Occupation

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Olivier Madness, Plus the American Occupation In this month's column spotlighting London theatre, we look at the 2011 Olivier Awards — an embarrassment of riches — and the presence of American artists on London stages.

*

Roger Allam as Falstaff and Jamie Parker as Prince Hal in Henry IV
photo by John Haynes

Olivier Award madness abates in the London theatre just as Tony madness begins in New York. Now that it's over for another year, I keep wondering how anyone can choose between Roger Allam's sublime Falstaff in the two Henry IVs at the Globe and David Suchet's soul-searing Joe in Arthur Miller's All My Sons in the West End. Two such different plays, two such different approaches to acting, two such different performances — both great, both without vanity, both with every nerve-ending finely tuned to the play, and producing such similar reactions in the audience. Or who can ever forget the artistry of Mark Rylance delivering that absurd, 30-minute monologue at the start of La Bête? And just when you decide you never want to see another King Lear or another Hamlet, along comes Derek Jacobi's revelatory, flawed king and Rory Kinnear's up-to-the-minute, wounded prince to change your mind.

Rory Kinnear in Hamlet.
photo by Johan Persson

I pull out the Best Actor in a Play category only as illustration because every nomination in every Olivier category had the same unbeatable combination of art and technique, determination and magic. The cream that rises to the theatrical surface reinforces our belief in the immutability of the live theatre and reminds us of what, with a prodigious amount of talent and a following wind, is possible. In Britain commerce has less influence on nominations or winners, often allowing a small play or lesser-known actor to triumph. The Olivier for this year's Best Musical Revival, for example, went to Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, in a simple production in Regent's Park's Open Air Theatre without a single star. This in a category that also nominated the same composer's Passion in an elaborate and starry production at the Donmar Warehouse in the heart of London's West End.

What, I wonder, when the New York build-up to the Tonys quickens and crests, is the point of comparing five versions of perfection? And if what we're seeing isn't perfect, should an Olivier or Tony be awarded at all? A passable effort doesn't seem appropriate here and, in the Oliviers this year, was nowhere to be found.

A reluctant veteran of the late and unlamented Equity wars — when British audiences desperate to see American productions, and vice versa, were stymied by the refusal of either actors' union to allow transatlantic transfers — I applaud the awarding of Oliviers to American plays and, often, although not this year, to American actors. This year Best Play (Clybourne Park), Best Musical Revival (Into the Woods) and Best Musical (Legally Blonde) went to American works — although, admittedly, in British productions.

Keira Knightley in The Children's Hour.
photo by Johan Persson

London theatre is filled with Americans and American work. Clifford Odets' Rocket to the Moon just opened at the National Theatre, and another play by this somewhat neglected Depression-era playwright, The Country Girl, recently enjoyed a West End run. All we need now is Waiting For Lefty and we'll have a single-season hat trick. David Mamet's new play, The Anarchist, will have its world premiere in London in the fall. It will not be the first time this playwright has chosen not to start his works in the hothouse of Broadway. American actor Elisabeth Moss, star of "Mad Men," has been teamed here with a transatlantic movie star, the British Keira Knightley (with a very creditable New England accent), in Lillian Hellman's melodrama The Children's Hour. And Richard Schiff (of "West Wing" fame) gives a decidedly American flavor to Smash, the otherwise all-British comedy about taking a musical on the road before it crashes and burns in the West End. Apart from Schiff, though, Smash is something of a family affair. It was written by the late Jack Rosenthal, whose wife, Maureen Lipman, was its original star. This time around it has been rewritten by the playwright Amy Rosenthal, who is, of course, the couple's daughter. There are, as always, the big American musicals still selling out, sometimes years after their openings — Wicked, Legally Blonde, Chicago, Jersey Boys, The Lion King — but more interesting are the younger American playwrights who are habitually taken to the hearts of the British audience: Neil LaBute, Suzan-Lori Parks, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Gina Gionfriddo, Lynn Nottage and Tracy Letts are regularly produced at the National Theatre, in the commercial West End and at the Almeida, one of our most serious theatres. The barriers seem to have disappeared — or, at least, to have lowered to street level.

We still don't like Americans doing Shakespeare or Shaw, and you still don't like our musicals much (although there are exceptions in both categories), but overall, the transatlantic traffic in people and their art is healthy, vibrant and pretty even. And in this season of Oliviers and Tonys — and, let's face it, none of the myriad other awards mean nearly as much — it's worth remembering that the best the theatre has to offer, as represented by these two, are still a yardstick by which to measure the rest.

(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 more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting.

Jenna Russell and Mark Hadfield
Jenna Russell and Mark Hadfield
Today’s Most Popular News: