It's becoming harder and harder to tell London and New York apart, theatrically speaking. We got Once, you got Matilda. We got the new Bruce Norris play at the Royal Court, you got the Royal Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar. One Man, Two Guv'nors from here, The Book of Mormon from there, and, in return for those fabulous opera broadcasts from the Met, we've been sending you some pretty sensational presentations from our National Theatre. Is there no end to it? Well, oddly enough, I think there is. There are still some things on our stages here in the West End that may not translate to Broadway with any comparative success or comparable comprehension.
Several years ago a wonderful play by Michael Frayn, Democracy, lauded and covered with plaudits in London, was met with blank stares and almost universal verdicts of "booooooring" from New York critics and knowledgeable theatregoers alike. The problem lay both in its subject matter—Germany under Chancellor Willy Brandt (who cares?)—and the fact that in the West End, each of the "men in suits" who ran his government was played as a recognizable English type, complete with regional and class accent and clothes. In America, where accents identify location rather than class, the differences between the men, all of whom wore suits, were not discernible, and the play was therefore an endless succession of lookalikes and sound-alikes instead of an endlessly fascinating ballet of constantly moving political events.
I fear that three of the best plays currently on London stages might suffer the same fate were they to transfer to Broadway, although they're so fine in both content and production that I'd love for the New York audience to enjoy them. No, not The Audience, which we discussed last month, in which Helen Mirren as the Queen has a series of conversations with her prime ministers.
I refer to This House, which I suspect would be incomprehensible to anyone not intimately familiar with the parliamentary system of government. One of the characters, a very minor character, is the late Margaret Thatcher, struggling to obtain the leadership of the Conservative Party as a young—well, young-ish—Member of Parliament. And all the people on stage, although played by actors, are real politicians, to the extent that politicians may be described as real. This House, by James Graham, deals with the day-to-day events in a real British crisis, the hung Parliament of 1974–79, when no single party had a majority to govern and the Labour Party and the Conservative Party fought it out over the teacups and sweet biscuits. So narrow were the margins in each vote that, on occasion, Members were carried in on hospital beds because their vote might make the difference to winning or losing the issue. Two Members actually died during this strange interlude and two others took their own lives from the stress.
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