A column of theatre reviews from London by Playbill correspondent Sheridan Morley.
As we lose Richard Eyre from the National, we welcome his predecessor, Peter Hall, to the Old Vic with what must be the most ambitious project even that stage has seen since the National itself crossed the river almost a quarter of a century ago: ten shows in repertoire by midsummer, Sunday openings and, as a foretaste of the sheer range of work to be seen there, a triumphant revival of the Victorian but ever-topical Waste is countered by the first-ever London production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly fully a dozen years after it took Broadway by storm.
The time-lag has not been altogether kind to Rabe's play: In the interim David Mamet (notably in the 1988 Speed-the-Plow) has revisited these Hollywood hills with still more manic intensity, and Rabe's account of the old "me-generation" misfits tumbling from fringe show business through cocaine to destruction mode seems now curiously dated as well as way past its sell-by date. True, no director would have an easy time living up to the first New York production, which, directed by Mike Nichols, starred Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Christopher Walken and Sigourney Weaver, most of whom won Tony nominations; since then, you'd be hard pressed to find any major Hollywood star of the nineties who has not played Hurlyburly somewhere on the road.
But despite a strong Old Vic cast (Rupert Graves, Andy Serkis, Stephen Dillane and Elizabeth McGovern for director Wilson Milam), the play does now seem to creak a bit, and it is harder than ever before to care for these self-obsessed losers and dreamers caught between Sunset and Mulholland in a canyon of their own despair. Suddenly one aches for Clifford Odets, who in the forties gave us the seamier side of Hollywood but with plots we could follow and characters we couldeven in all their larger-than-life awfulnessactually care about. Rabe, by contrast, is so eager to alienate that we wind up unable to care about any of his people and thankful they never got around to starring in the movies we would then have had to watch. There is a time-clock on plays like this, and it should perhaps have been observed. POPCORN
At the Apollo, Ben Elton's Popcorn is far and away the best comedy in town as well as the most thoughtful. Topically enough, it is set over an Oscar weekend in Hollywood, where a Tarantino-type director has just received his first statue for a film of unremitting bloodshed and violence. He makes the ritual Academy Award speech of stunning incomprehensibility and inanity ("You are the wind beneath my wings, and I flap for you") and returns home with a nubile bimbo-model, actress, only to find that his house has been invaded by a couple of serial killers who proudly tell him that their multiple murders have been a kind of tribute to the violence he has shown them on screen. And what's more, they now intend to practice it on him and his nearest and even sometimes dearest.
The stage is thus set for a moral debate, which would not disgrace many more serious dramatists than Elton, and it is greatly to his credit that Popcorn remains as fresh and crackly as its title, never sinking into the portentous philosophic chat show it could so easily have become. The great American quest, the play (last year a best-selling novel of the same title) tells us it is not for beauty or freedom or truth but essentially just someone to blame, and by the end of a bitchy and bloody couple of hours, all the survivors of a body count worthy of Hamlet have managed to find suitable scapegoats for their own appalling behavior.
Like Noël Coward, Elton is a moralist carefully disguised as a comedian; again like Sir Noël, after a couple of disappointing early scripts, he has come into his own with a tough, socially conscious debate about selfishness, which could well be seen as a throwback to the one with which Coward made his name in 1924, The Vortex. Here, too, the laughter quickly turns rancid as you realize just what these people are up to high in the Hollywood hills; nothing less than the destruction of an entire moral code in the quest for social and sexual gratification.
In its own contemporary way, Popcorn is as much of a problem play as any ever devised by Shaw or Wilde; it asks essentially whether an artist can be blamed for the reaction of an audience, and though the final scene, with all American hands pressed on their remote controls about to vote on matters of life and death by a simple channel-surfing switch, may seem a little desperate in its contrivance, Danny Webb at the head of a cast of Californian cranks points up just wonderfully the double standards by which a movie culture now lives and, often violently, dies.
In a lifetime of theatre-going I must have seen upward of 50 King Lears, some more majestic than that of Ian Holm at the National, some still more mesmeric and some perhaps more hauntingly destroyed by their own weakness or even their own strength; but never have I seen one more intimately moving or immediately accessible.
To call this Lear domesticated would be to undervalue its infinite pity and compassion; yet by allowing the intimate dictates of the Cottesloe to condition what is effectively a studio production, director Richard Eyre has managed to celebrate the space and the play and the actor without any of the modernist gimmicks that have all too often marred previous attempts at down scaling.
-- By Sheridan Morley