The headline read: "Royal Shakespeare Company Becomes The First Uk Theatre To Co-Host A MOOC." A what? Okay, I'm now officially a fossil. I have no idea what a MOOC is. Or, at least, I didn't until I read on. It turns out that a MOOC is a wonder, even though when it's spelled out it doesn't make much more sense than its acronym. MOOC stands for "Massive Open Online Course." Any wiser? Me neither. The next line, however, caught my eye, "MOOC will take place in March 2015 giving young people aged 16–19 around the world free access to leading Shakespeare experts, actors, and directors." Whatever this is, it can't be bad.
"Called Much Ado About Nothing: In Performance" — that I understand — it's an electronic way that students, in their own classrooms, can not only see one of the best companies in the world performing a great play, but also discuss it with the theatre practitioners, the actors, and directors who made the production, and discover their intentions. That allows those experiencing theatre for the first time to compare how well they believe those intentions measure up to the reality of what they've seen. How I wish they'd had something like this when I was at school. Good old RSC, they seem to be marrying the 21st century to the 15th century in the most innovative ways, and making them talk to one another.
In another part of the forest, the run-up to Christmas produced the kind of frenzy that usually precedes Tony season in New York. Every London theatre was lit and the competition for theatre space was ferocious. Dickens, Shakespeare, Sondheim, even Larry Gelbart were all pouring into London to catch the holiday mood. And many of them are still there.
It's a pleasure to see again City of Angels, the funny, intelligent, and tuneful jazz musical written by Gelbart with music from the late Cy Coleman and sizzling lyrics by David Zippel. This show was a hit on Broadway, a double plot of a writer trying to adapt his private eye novel into a Hollywood movie and the private eye trying to find a missing daughter despite increasing complications with women. Josie Rourke's production at the Donmar lacks the snap of Michael Blakemore's elegant original, where the stage was divided in half, one side being the black and white of a film noir, the other the vibrant color of the early days of Technicolor. Here we don't have that contrast between the real and the celluloid as the emphasis in on how much Stine, the writer, resembles his alter ego, Stone, the detective. Instead Rourke is making a political point with an all-white cast supported by an all-black chorus who play all the menial roles, just as they did in early movies. Still, the songs are terrific and a fine cast makes the most of them. While still on revivals of Broadway musicals, the Menier Chocolate Factory has a smashing production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, the show starring just about everybody who either tried to or succeeded in murdering a President of the United States. This show has a spectacularly good score, with each assassin in turn coming to the fore to sing a song about why they each felt justified in their cause. The weakness of Assassins is that the show as a whole doesn't work, largely because, with a couple of exceptions — John Wilkes Booth (a very strong Aaron Tveit), who shot Lincoln, and Lee Harvey Oswald (Jamie Parker in fine voice), who killed JFK — they were a bunch of pathetic losers, sad men and women who couldn't do anything right. It gets tiresome, despite the great songs, listening to them posturing without a cause.
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a liberal dose of Dickens so, opening just before the gift-fest and still running at Trafalgar Studios, is an unrelated double, if that makes any sense, of two one-person shows, both based on Dickens' characters and both giving a new sense of who they might have been. The veteran actor Linda Marlowe has terrific fun taking on Miss Haversham, the bride stuck in her grief at being jilted at the altar from "Great Expectations." In Di Sherlock's imaginative monologue, she attacks Dickens himself, pointing out where he went wrong with Miss Haversham and, in the hands of this gifted actor, gives an alternative view of the life she has lived since being left by her fiancé.
One may in fact sympathise with Miss Haversham's plight, although not much as she doesn't appear to feel nearly as sorry for herself as Dickens seems to feel she should, there is no sympathy to spare for the other half of the double bill. James Swanton, a young actor new to me, has written and performs Sikes and Nancy, about the eponymous murderer in Oliver Twist and his hapless girlfriend. He's very talented, this young man, playing not just the two in the title but also Fagin and a host of others, all of them properly horrible. It's as much Dickens as I can stand at Christmas as another Christmas Carol during my lifetime would undoubtedly bring me out in hives. But while we're in the Christmas spirit, a very odd entertainment called Noel Coward's Christmas Spirits stood guard for a while at St James Studio, being a mélange of songs and stories, some by Coward, some not, sung and played beautifully by the exemplary Stefan Bednarcyk, Charlotte Wakefield and Issy van Randwyck although why, I have yet to discover.
For children, there have been the usual ghastly pantos but, if you look carefully, you can still find beautiful entertainment for the younger set, among them Will Tuckett's lovely ballet of Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" and Matthew Bourne's ballet version of "Edward Scissorhands."
Definitely not for children are the two new plays at the Royal National Theatre. 3 Winters, by Tena Štivičić (no, I don't know how it's pronounced either) refers to three different periods in the life of one family in the same house in Croatia in 1945, 1990 and 2011. Meticulously directed by the ever-reliable Howard Davies, 3 Winters charts the course of political and social change in a piece of Europe constantly fought over by the Communists, the Fascists, the Church, and, very occasionally and always unsuccessfully, democratic politicians.
The family in 3 Winters are middle-class. Not so the inhabitants of Annawadi, a neighbourhood hard by the airport of New Delhi in India where the population lives by scavenging and selling the garbage thrown over the walls of the burgeoning Indian economic miracle. David Hare, one of our finest and most socially aware playwrights, has adapted Katherine Boo's Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book about one of the poorest societies in the world. He's done a fine job, reproducing on the National's stage a number of families so deprived and a system so corrupt that a person wrongly accused of a crime can be made destitute just by paying bribes to escape the police and political system that is designed to protect him. Reading about the same people in Boo's book was difficult but necessary. Actually seeing them on a stage was, for me, different.
(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)