A LETTER FROM LONDON: Pygmalion, Two Much Ados, Goldoni, Rattigan and Albee

Special Features   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Pygmalion, Two Much Ados, Goldoni, Rattigan and Albee We visit fresh London productions of Pygmalion, Much Ado About Nothing, The Servant of Two Masters, The Cherry Orchard, A Delicate Balance and more.

Eve Best and Charles Edwards in the Globe production of Much Ado About Nothing.
Eve Best and Charles Edwards in the Globe production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Manuel Harlan

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The two competing versions of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing that opened this week are reminiscent of the war of the Macbeths. In 1849 two productions of the Scottish play opened in New York. One starred William Charles Macready, the greatest British actor of his generation. The other was Edwin Forrest, the first real American star actor. The two hated each other, their rivalry fueled not only by their very different approaches to the classical roles — Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and the contentious issue of who was a better actor — but also by the explosive Anglo-American relations of the time, which pitted the mainly working class Irish-American supporters of Forrest against the anglophile upper classes who preferred the Englishman.

On the evening of May 10, 1849, both actors were due to play Macbeth at theatres only a few blocks apart — Macready at the Astor Place Theatre, Forrest at the Broadway. The mayor, fearing that feeling among the actors' rival supporters was running too high for the city police's ability to cope, called out the militia. By the time the performances began at 7:30, there were 10,000 angry people in the streets. What started as the ill-mannered throwing of rotten eggs, vegetables and other missiles outside the theatres soon degenerated into a full-scale riot; by the time the smoke cleared some 30 people were dead and hundreds were injured. The roof of the Astor Place Theatre collapsed on the heads of the audience and some of the rioters tried to set fire to both theatres. Although it would be inaccurate to say that the only cause of the Astor Place Riot was the rivalry between competing views of Shakespeare, it is indisputable that Macready and Forrest were the emblems of the battle then raging between the British and American worldviews.

David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing.
photo by Johan Persson

Which brings us back to much ado about Much Ado. David Tennant, one of the most popular of the Doctor Whos, and his onetime television assistant, comedienne Catherine Tate — both big stars in the U.K. — decided they wanted to do a stage play together, and the play they wanted to do was Shakespeare's grown-up battle of the sexes. At this level of celebrityhood, had they announced that they wanted to star together in Teletubbies, a production would instantly have materialized around them. So, midst much hype and bling, a Much Ado in jeans, swimsuits and, for the marriage scene, Princess Diana's wedding dress, arrived at Wyndham's Theatre, complete with beer swilling, loud rock music, drug-taking, much smoking and simulated sex.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, over at Shakespeare's Globe, they were already planning their own, more traditional production of the same play. This time the putative lovers are Charles Edwards, a West End and National Theatre actor with the timing of a well-adjusted clock, and Eve Best, Olivier Award–winning classical actor best known in the United States for her very funny turn as the English doctor on "Nurse Jackie." For my money, the Globe version allows Shakespeare to speak more clearly and, although the couple at Wyndham's is starrier, Eve Best and Charles Edwards have a goofy sweetness laced with a gravity that will win hearts and minds all summer long. Elsewhere on the Rialto are other wonders. At the miraculous National Theatre, where they turn water into wine on a regular basis, a reworking by playwright Richard Bean of Goldoni's 1746 comedy A Servant of Two Masters has been blissfully returned to us as One Man, Two Guvnors. It contains a treasurable performance from James Corden as the dopey but lovable amanuensis of both a diminutive gangster who turns out to be a girl (Jemima Rooper) and an adorable upper-class twit (Oliver Chris), supported by the kind of dream cast the National now routinely fields. It is part English end of the pier, part French farce, part Italian commedia dell'arte. Heaven.

Also at the National is Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, with Zoe Wanamaker as Madame Ranyevskaya, which makes up in intellectual heft what it lacks in emotional warmth. And although Madame and her family are as maddening as ever in their refusal to sell the orchard to pay their debts, at least we have someone to root for in the person of their upstart neighbor, Lopakhin, played impeccably and with total honesty by Conleth Hill.

Anne Marie Duff in Cause Célèbre.
photo by Alastair Muir

At the Old Vic, in this centennial year of playwright Terence Rattigan, there's a terrific production by Thea Sharrock of his Cause Célèbre. The play is based on a notorious 1935 murder trial in which Alma Rattenbury was accused of murdering her elderly husband with her teenaged lover. Anne Marie Duff, who was such an arresting Joan of Arc in last season's Saint Joan, is entirely believable as the far-from-saintly Alma. There's a lot of Rattigan around London this season, notably Flare Path, an almost unknown drama that has had major success at the Haymarket and provided Sienna Miller with a stage career, and an enchanting early play, Less Than Kind, that was a surprise hit at the Jermyn Street Theatre — and, of course, the National Theatre's award-winning succès d'estime, After the Dance. Rupert Everett is a slightly sinister Professor Higgins in the new West End Pygmalion at the Garrick, and his Eliza, Kara Tointon (no, I'd never heard of her either), is a true new star worth discovering. Pygmalion is the only really good play I know that was turned (by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner) into an even better musical. Most good plays don't lend themselves to musicalization, and most musicals are adapted from some other form of entertainment such as books or, these days, movies. So, unfair though it may be, I always find myself singing the songs in my head while listening to Shaw's dialogue. Lerner had the good sense to lift Shaw's dialogue from Pygmalion wholesale into his lyrics, so it always feels as though the lines in the play should rhyme as they do in My Fair Lady. It's a good production and my only cavil is that the director, Philip Prowse, has added an unnecessary mimed wedding-scene ending that neither Shaw nor Lerner ever envisaged. Ah, well, I guess directors, even the best of them, sometimes need to flex their muscles. Prowse, as he usually does, designed the handsome production as well as directed it and I expect he just wanted us to see the beautiful Kara Tointon in his gorgeous wedding dress.

In conclusion, two American revivals: At the Almeida, Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance is a pitch-perfect production by James Macdonald with the best cast in London — Penelope Wilton, Tim Piggott-Smith, Imelda Staunton — and an infallible ear for the class and regional implications of this coruscating, New England-set family drama. And at the National Theatre there is Rocket to the Moon, a rare look at a 1938 play by Clifford Odets originally written for the Group Theatre. At its center. a married dentist, of all things, yearns to break free from his constricted life, even if it's only to have an affair with his secretary.

(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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Imelda Staunton and Lucy Cohu in <i>A Delicate Balance</i>.
Imelda Staunton and Lucy Cohu in A Delicate Balance. Photo by Hugo Glendinning
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