A LETTER FROM LONDON: The Profumo Scandal Takes the Stage, Shakespeare Travels the Globe and Small-Stage Musicals are a Big Hit

Special Features   A LETTER FROM LONDON: The Profumo Scandal Takes the Stage, Shakespeare Travels the Globe and Small-Stage Musicals are a Big Hit
 
The monthly missive from Across the Pond educates readers on historical scandals, a globe-trotting Hamlet and scaled-down productions of The Color Purple and Titanic.

John Profumo
John Profumo

The Profumo Scandal, it seems, simply won't die. American readers may even have forgotten the story of a Conservative Cabinet Minister in the government of Sir Harold Macmillan who, in the summer of 1963 had an affair with a teenage callgirl. The girl was simultaneously, and during the height of the Cold War, having an affair with a mid-level Russian diplomat. Profumo was a glamorous figure in London society; his wife was Valerie Hobson, a not inconsiderable and very famous stage actress, the first British Mrs. Anna in The King and I, and John Profumo was tall, good-looking, aristocratic and Minister of War in a Government that seemed unassailable, almost as though it had been elected by entitlement.

Cliveden was the stately country home of the Astor family. In fact, American-born Nancy, Lady Astor had been the first ever female Member of the British Parliament in 1919. Very unusually for rainy England, Cliveden boasted a pool and every sunny weekend the great and good of Conservative government and civil service — top rank only — could be found cavorting in it. This, according to legend, is where John Profumo met Christine Keeler and where the affair began. Inevitably, someone in the press was bound to find out, and find out they did. It is just about possible that, if Profumo had not lied to the House of Commons by denying the affair, it might have blown over. But lie he did, the Prime Minister accepted his explanation to Parliament, and, as the whole mess unravelled, and Keeler's second affair with the Russian was revealed, the scandal brought down the government.

There have been many books written about The Profumo Affair (I use capital letters because that is how it's almost always referred to in Britain), about how an indiscreet affair brought down the entire establishment of the time and how the hedonistic behavior of the London beau monde ushered in the Swinging Sixties. There have been miniseries, documentaries, articles and thinly disguised romans a clef about it all. But never before, to my knowledge, has there been a musical. Now there is. What took them so long?

Profumo the Musical, which is written by Gordon Kenney, will be staged on the 50th anniversary of the scandal. Michael Howe, a respected stage and television star, will take on the role of Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who brought the girls to Cliveden and set the ball rolling for the ultimate destruction of the Clivedon set and conservative England. Rather tame by Spitzer and Wiener standards, I daresay, but, even 50 years later, still hot stuff in London.

Save the date. Regular lovers of London theatre across the world, especially Shakespeare mavens, might like to know that, beginning on Shakespeare's 450th birthday April 23, 2014, the Globe Theatre on Bankside, Shakespeare's Globe, will embark on a two-year tour of Hamlet that will aim to take in every country in the world. The "Globe to Globe Hamlet," directed by the Globe's artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, will be a completely unprecedented theatrical adventure. The company will travel to all 205 nations in the world to stage Hamlet in a huge range of unique and atmospheric venues, from village squares to national theatres, from palaces to beaches. They will travel by boat, sleeper train, jeep, tall ship, bus and aeroplane across the seven continents.

Cynthia Erivo

Drumgoole dreamed up The "Globe to Globe" Hamlet following the runaway success of the 2012 "Globe to Globe" festival. During the festival 110,000 people — 80% of whom were first-time visitors to the Globe — flocked to watch 37 works of Shakespeare performed in 37 different languages over just six weeks. This new tour will bring one of Shakespeare's best-known plays to some of the most inaccessible places in the world. Call me a wimp, but, given the current state of the world, there are a number of countries where I wouldn't want to be spouting "To be or not to be" in the face of war and mayhem. I think I'd worry that the Sunnis and Shias, not to mention the Hutus and Tutsis, might have other things on their minds than a Danish Prince with a bad mother complex.

Nothing daunted, Dominic Dromgoole said recently, "In 1608, only five years after it was written, Hamlet was performed on a boat — the Red Dragon — off the coast of Yemen. Just ten years later it was being toured extensively all over Northern Europe. The spirit of touring, and of communicating stories to fresh ears, was always central to Shakespeare's work. We couldn't be happier to be extending that mission even further. By train, coach, plane and boat we aim to take this wonderful, iconic, multifarious play to as many fresh ears as we possibly can."

I wish them Godspeed... but I don't want to go with them.

Two seriously terrific small-scale but not small-ambition American musicals made up the very best of my theatregoing this month and, looking back, for some time before that. In my view, The Color Purple, in its previous big-stage version, was drowned by its pretensions and its ambitions despite its Tony Award. At the Menier Chocolate Factory, on an empty stage, under the sensitive direction of the extraordinary John Doyle, it has been intelligently and beautifully reimagined to focus on the inner life of one of the most put-upon heroines since the Little Match Girl.

Here, it really sings. Not mawkish, which it could easily be, played out on an open thrust stage, with only a few wooden chairs for a set, the music and character of Celie (Cynthia Erivo) is able to soar and her relationships with her rapist stepfather, her bullying abusive husband and his ladylove, can work as the authors intended and, indeed, as Alice Walker's novel demonstrates, as a triumph of love over the worst possible start in life.

Maury Yeston
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Alice Walker got a lot of criticism when her book was published that she had vilified a poor black community and traduced her own people. At least in this version of her story, they are just people. Their color, whilst many would disagree, is hardly an issue. Meanwhile, at Southwark Playhouse's new theatre in Elephant and Castle (don't get excited, it's not yet another visit to the Zoo nor yet another story about the Royal baby, but a somewhat unlovely part of London where suddenly, all the exciting theatre seems to be) there's yet another unloved American musical transformed.

I saw Titanic — the Maury Yestin/Peter Stone version in New York and, while I loved the ravishing score, I couldn't really get into the excessive luxury of the sets and costumes. ("Well, of course," pointed out my husband, reasonably, "they're all going to be dead in an hour and a half.") The best bit, missing from this new production by Thom Southerland, was when a tea trolley, laden with goodies but temporarily unattended, slowly travelled across the stage by itself and the whole audience knew the ship was listing and was going down. You can't do that on a stage smaller than my dining table.

This time there is no lavish set or special Broadway effects, just a few ropes and pulleys, a couple of chairs and some hatboxes. The cast is tiny and multi-talented, doubling and tripling as crew, passengers, steerage, executives. The score is still ravishing but now untrammelled by being over-produced and now, every note counts. And, yes, the Titanic still sinks and, yes, they all still die, but the memory that sticks is of those glorious anthems to the great engineering achievement that was the "largest moving object in the world."

America deserves to see both these gorgeous reincarnations of two of their great musicals but, please, not in a big Broadway house; instead, they shoudl be staged in some far reach of theatrical life that approximates Elephant and Castle.

(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.

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