A LETTER FROM LONDON: Immersive Theatre Takes to the Streets and Mid-Day Performances Offer Classics for Lunch

By Ruth Leon
19 Sep 2013

Joe Hill-Gibbins' production has its oddities, to be sure, such as the stage actually being unoccupied for fairly long stretches of the first half while the action takes place backstage and is relayed by screens on either side in case the audience should think that the cast has all gone home or off to the pub for a pint.

The casual disregard for period in costume and set means that some of the cast are dressed as they might have been at King Edward's court and others, the lover and villain, Gaveston, for instance, are in blue jeans with and often without, a t-shirt. The estimable John Heffernan, current flavor of the month dramatic actor here, fully justifies his reputation as a febrile and sexually ambivalent King Edward, willing to placate his beautiful but ditzy wife when Gaveston is not around but completely in thrall to him when he is. Male characters are sometimes played by female actors and Queen Isabella's resemblance to Princess Diana in her post-divorce phase is hard to miss. It's all very fragmented and messy but it does, eventually, come together and we begin to understand what Kit Marlow was trying to tell us about societies needing structure and that even warring factions can co-exist if they can all agree on a leader. Chaos is, he says, inevitable, when those structures break down and there is nothing to put in their place. I can't think of a more relevant play for our times.

Talking of the non-traditional, the new St James Theatre is starting an intriguing program of lunchtime plays. Real plays, not just lightweight comedy to accompany nibbles, but Chekhov and Shakespeare and all that. Every weekday at noon and again at 1 PM, the St James Theatre, London's newest major house, is currently doing Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Later in the fall, they will present two short comedies by Anton Chekhov: The Proposal and The Bear. This is really enterprising as the St James, in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, has no passer-by drop-in trade so it must generate its audience from the neighbourhood. Located in Victoria, far from most mainstream theatres, it's finding them among those who work in the vast glass office buildings which are going up at an alarming rate around them. They can probably look out of their office windows and into Her Majesty's garden. St James, instead of this fairly boring lunchtime pastime, is offering theatre to get your teeth into instead. Good for them.

The National Youth Theatre is a brilliant organization. It gives young would-be actors the chance to work on real plays with real professionals so they can find out if this life is really for them. They even commission new work for them to perform and they are innovative enough to find new places to perform them. St. James Church, right on Piccadilly, is not a natural theatre, but a very affecting and highly technically complex production came off triumphantly as a large cast of young people presented Pope Joan, Louise Brealey's first major work. Nobody is quite sure that there ever was a female pope, but there has been enough speculation since the 9th century and even a smashed statue to suggest it that there is room for doubt.

Two young actors take the part of the Pope as a girl desperate to be allowed to read, a privilege that, as a girl, was granted to her brother and denied to her, and as the Pontiff. Legend has it Pope Joan was only discovered to be a woman when she gave birth during a formal Papal procession, and the church itself lends verisimilitude with its beautiful vaulted ceilings, the liturgical music, the solemnity of the atmosphere and the presence of some 50 actors dressed as monks, singing and occupying the aisles. It's quite a spectacle, but how they pull it off even with their huge cast is a source of admiration and amazement. Kids can do anything.