A LETTER FROM LONDON: Chichester Festival, York Mystery Plays, Kim Cattrall and More

By Ruth Leon
27 May 2012

David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf
Photo by Johan Persson
If you really want to stay in London, there are some compensations. One is Anthony Page's stunning production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, starring David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf. Of course I know that this O'Neill play is one of the cornerstones of American dramatic literature and, yes, it seems rather cheeky to recommend a British production of it to an American audience, but David Suchet, whose performance as Joe in All My Sons won every Best Actor award there was just two seasons ago, is something of a specialist in climbing the mountains offered by the greatest American plays. Having triumphed in Arthur Miller and, now, in Eugene O'Neill, I'm waiting for him to give Tennessee Williams a go (perhaps as the fallen priest in The Night of the Iguana). In Long Day's Journey, certainly the most personal of all O'Neill's plays and, as Sir Richard Eyre once said, perhaps "the saddest play ever written," Suchet conveys with delicacy and boundless empathy the love and helplessness at the heart of James Tyrone. Witnessing, yet again, his adored wife Mary descending into drug addiction and his sons into alcoholism (and, in Edmund's case, consumption), James Tyrone was O'Neill's thinly disguised father. In real life, James O'Neill had the talent to be a Shakespearean actor but had become seduced by money into becoming a barnstorming matinée star with a single role, that of The Count of Monte Cristo. British he may be, but David Suchet is as American as a torn Stars and Stripes in this portrait of an American hero manqué. Laurie Metcalf, his Mary in this production, is the Steppenwolf actor Laurie Metcalf — American but very little known in the U.K.

The Almeida in Islington has a lovely, sunny production of Filumena, Eduardo De Filippo's comedy about a longtime mistress who pretends to be dying in order that her rich lover will marry her. She tells him that only one of their sons is his but won't tell him which one. It's a sort of Mamma Mia! in reverse.

The National is still selling out Collaborators, a new play by John Hodge about the writer Mikhail Bulgakov and his terrifying relationship with Josef Stalin. Collaborators has been so successful that it had to be moved from the National's smallest theatre, the Cottesloe, to the much larger Olivier to accommodate the sell-out crowds. Meanwhile, in another part of the forest — sorry, theatrical landscape — the Barbican has Complicité's new adaptation of Bulgakov's novel, The Master and Margarita, which is generally supposed to be his masterpiece. Simon McBurney's stage version is certainly spectacular, shot through with unforgettable visual images — but I warn you, you'd better be very familiar with the novel before you go or you'll find it, as I did, beautiful but somewhat confusing.

Lindsay Duncan
photo by Catherine Ashmore

I have been proven quite wrong, and not for the first time, by a production of Noël Coward's Hay Fever. This one stars Lindsay Duncan as Judith Bliss, mother of an impossibly theatrical family whose members each invite a thoroughly unsuitable romantic guest to their country house for what proves to be a disastrous and very funny weekend. This is one of the four great Cowards, and although she wouldn't have been on my top ten list of great actresses to play Judith Bliss (because I think of her only as a serious dramatic actor without a comic bone in her body), Duncan turns out to have many, and to be just right for Howard Davies' meticulous direction.

And, finally, a little shout-out for a small company that took an old favorite, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and made of it an entertaining and fresh evening in, well, not exactly a theatre. In the heart of London's legal district, where the Inns of Court are located, lies Middle Temple Hall, used on this occasion as the playing space for Antic Disposition, the small theatre company with the temerity to take on one of Shakespeare's best known plays and make it so funny that the friend who accompanied me, who had never seen the play before, had tears of laughter streaming down her face. By the way, the ravishing wood-vaulted Middle Temple Hall was started in 1562, two years before Shakespeare was born and some 30 years before he wrote, in a scene in Henry VI, Part 2 set in the gardens of Middle Temple, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

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 (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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