An Accidental Sondheim Festival in London

News   An Accidental Sondheim Festival in London
 
London did not actually set out to mount a Stephen Sondheim festival, but at a time when his native New York is not the most hospitable of homes, the West End has welcomed him with open arms and the opportunity to have more musicals running simultaneously than anyone except Andrew Lloyd Webber. Like Arthur Miller, his work is revered in England as nowhere in the U.S.A., and at the risk of losing such Broadway friends as I have left, it needs to be noted that all three of his musicals are looking vastly better now than on their first New York outings.

London did not actually set out to mount a Stephen Sondheim festival, but at a time when his native New York is not the most hospitable of homes, the West End has welcomed him with open arms and the opportunity to have more musicals running simultaneously than anyone except Andrew Lloyd Webber. Like Arthur Miller, his work is revered in England as nowhere in the U.S.A., and at the risk of losing such Broadway friends as I have left, it needs to be noted that all three of his musicals are looking vastly better now than on their first New York outings.

One of those is Company, about which I have raved quite enough in these columns; the other two are the National's A Little Night Music, such a hit that in an unprecedented move it will play every single night through August instead of the usual repertory system, and his latest, Passion, with which it bears some intriguing and hitherto unreported similarities.

Though written 20 years apart, both musicals derive from cult art-house movies: Night Music comes, of course, from Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, while Passion comes from the largely unknown 1981 Italian movie Passione d'Amore, itself based on a still more obscure 1869 Italian novel by Tarchetti. So comparisons are not so much odious as largely unavailable. If A Little Night Music is about six mismatched lovers in some long-lost tale from the Vienna Woods, Passion is about one woman so hideously ugly (and brilliantly played by Maria Friedman) that her obsessive love for a guards officer (handsomely played by Michael Ball) starts by being ludicrously impossible and ends through the arc of the show by becoming inevitable.

I am not convinced that the director, Jeremy Sams, is right to have added an interval, since Passion works best as a kind of symphony, its score haunting and progressive and as obsessive as the title. Every time Sondheim writes a new show nowadays, it is the West End that gets rebuilt; I can think of no other living composer who would have even attempted to score this dark, difficult piece, but Sondheim, as usual, makes it soar. And no, you can't hum the songs when you leave the theatre; what you can do is buy the CD, live with it for a while and only then be made aware of the genius of this tricky, ultimately wonderful piece. Yet again, Sondheim has pushed out the barriers of the musical, this time I fear so far that other composers are going to need a passport and a road map even to find the territory, let alone reclaim it.

Of all Shakespeare's 30-something plays, the two most difficult to revive in an age of political correctness are undoubtedly The Merchant of Venice, with its considerable anti-semitism, and The Taming of the Shrew with its inevitable male chauvinism. In the Gale Edwards production of The Shrew, newly into the Barbican to open what will, in fact, be the RSC's last summer there before pulling back to Stratford and the road, both she and her star, Josie Lawrence, have a considerable triumph. Miss Lawrence, best known for a series of television improvisations and alternative comedy, makes the most powerful and confident Shakespearean debut in a star role that I can ever recall.

As for her director, Edwards overcomes the sexist agony of Kate's last enforced submission to Petruchio (Michael Siberry in 1920's matinee-idol form) by framing the whole play within the usually cut dream of Christopher Sly, a prologue and epilogue used here to offset the unpleasant aftertaste of Kate's apparent defeat.

The rest of the cast seem to think they are in Kiss Me, Kate without the songs, but in seeing the whole show as a dream, so that Petruchio awakes to find he has married his Shrew and she has remained just that, this production radically shifts the viewpoint to suit a l990's perspective. Some of the farce is admittedly overplayed, but the dinner scene is a masterpiece of Keystone Cops agility, and unlike most attempts to bring Shakespeare into line with modern prejudice, it works like the dream now at its center.

Our greatest living actress returned all too briefly to London for a week of unforgettable solo shows at the Almeida to mark her 80th birthday: I claim Irene Worth as "ours" because, although born in Nebraska, she came to England in 1945 having made only one Broadway appearance and stayed for 30 years before returning to her native land because the offer of a Tennessee Williams play (Sweet Bird of Youth) convinced her that she would again have to become an American by way of research. We seem to have managed an honorary CBE for her services to the British theatre, which are legendary and breath-taking, but what we now have to make her is a Dame. Her career here allowed her to work with T.S. Eliot and Noël Coward (both of whom wrote plays for her), and she partnered Gielgud and Alec Guinness in opening the Stratford Ontario Theatre. She remains unmarried, having given her life to the theatre; what she still gives us, in her Edith Wharton and other recitals, is a glimpse of the greatness we thought lost since the deaths of Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans and Jessica Tandy.

At the Young Vic Polly Teale's revival of Miss Julie may in principle seem a little unnecessary. Since l965 the drama has received more than 50 productions over here, a record for foreign plays beaten only by Hedda Gabler. Life, we are told in Meredith Oakes's agile new translation "is scum, moving us across the water until we sink," which is a pretty good summary of Strindberg himself. All the same, this brisk, brittle production is worth a look for Susan Lynch as the Swedish Lady Chatterley and John Hannah as her Mellors.

Hannah, of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, plays Jean with all the brooding modernity of a Hollywood star; Lynch settles for a home-counties hysteric, and the two styles collide as often as they match. But there is always something fascinating about sexual heat amidst Scandinavian cool, and in a theme better expressed by The Heiress, he loses all interest once he has discovered that she is not to inherit her father's fortune.

In one sense this is a moralistic Victorian melodrama; in another it is an attempt to approach the twentieth century's forthcoming addiction to psychiatry and brutal sexuality, and perhaps that best explains its ongoing popularity.

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