A LETTER FROM LONDON: Powerful Dramas Pack the Stages and May is a Memorable Month

The monthly missive from Across the Pond pays a visit to Other Desert Cities and reports on the stage adaptation of Fatal Attraction

Natascha McElhone and Mark Bazeley in Fatal Attraction
Natascha McElhone and Mark Bazeley in Fatal Attraction (Photo by Alastair Muir)

This might be known as the month when our national treasure, Angela Lansbury, returned to the London stage after many years on American television's "Murder, She Wrote." Or it could be the month when London got to see one of the finest American plays of the past few years, Other Desert Cities, in a Old Vic production, which I'm proud to report is every bit as strong as the Broadway version. Or it might be the month we celebrate arguably the worst play ever brought to the West End. Take your pick.

Let's tackle the last first. Fatal Attraction is almost bad enough for me to urge everybody who reads this to go see it. Almost, but not quite. The sad part of this set of serial disasters is that it ought to have been good, or, at least, not this bad. It has a respectable cast of West End A-listers, a respected designer, and a former head of the National Theatre as its director. But from the very first line, delivered portentously against a neon blue set of shifting screens that almost, but not quite, obscure the actors, the audience starts to titter. You remember the movie — Glenn Close and Michael Douglas as a one-night stand that goes psychotically wrong, an idiotic sexual interlude with catastrophic consequences — a pair of terrific screen actors having fun with a good script. Suffice to say that the best acting in this stage adaptation comes from the bunny.

That's all the bad news out of London this month. The rest of it has been pretty fabulous.

Noël Coward wrote five great comedies and about 50 other plays that were pretty good. From the moment Angela Lansbury steps onto the stage as the dotty medium in Blithe Spirit, one of the great ones, you know you're in the presence of a master who knows exactly what she needs to do to make you laugh, and then does it. From her tightly coiled orange braids through her Turkish ragbag of a costume, dripping with enormous jewels, to her sensible shoes, to her meticulous timing, she is on top of every moment, every line. The rest of the cast are excellent and Charles Edwards is particularly fine as the husband who has to cope not only with a tough new wife, but also with trying to dispose of the ghost of his flighty former wife, but, in truth, Lansbury, a remarkable 88 and counting, makes it her play as much as Coward's and owns it from beginning to end. Blithe, indeed, and blissful.

Sinéad Cusack, that most Irish of Irish actors, is simply brilliant as the elegant and destructive Jewish mother in that most Californian of plays, Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities at the Old Vic. As Baitz dissects the effect on a rich Palm Springs family of a tell-all memoir by their most accomplished but damaged member, the seeds of Californian conservatism in the mode of Reagan and Schwarzenegger begin to sprout, and the schism between Right and Left emerge with laser clarity. This is a deeply political play as well as a family saga. As every character limns their own limitations, so does the political structure of this richest and poorest State reveal itself. Martha Plimpton is a welcome visitor to our shores in the role of the daughter who will blow up her family with her pen, and the sole American actor in an all-British cast. I noticed, but not until the play was over, that every actor's American accent was flawless, which says something for the training at British drama schools.

Sinéad Cusack in Other Desert Cities
Photo by Alastair Muir

Staying in America, figuratively and imaginatively speaking, at the Young Vic, just along the street from the Californian wealth of Palm Springs, comfortable at the Old Vic, we find Red Hook, New Jersey, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is, or was in 1955 when Arthur Miller wrote his Greek tragedy of Italian immigrants ekeing out a precarious living on the docks, a poor and under-nourished neighbourhood. Eddie Carbone shelters a pair of distant relatives in his crowded little house until they can earn enough to return to Italy. His wife's niece, his pride and joy, the centre of his ambition for a better future, falls in love and decides to marry one of the boys and Eddie's obsession leads him to shop the boy and his brother to the immigration authorities as illegals, an act which puts him forever outside his society and his neighbourhood. One can argue with the Belgian director's austere production on a empty platform, but not with the intensity of the acting and the impact of Miller's writing. Once again, as in Other Desert Cities, family and society are twin preoccupations although, whereas Baitz' play contains a stage-full of articulate and educated characters, A View From The Bridge's people express their dignity in half sentences and incomplete thoughts. At the end of both plays, the leading characters attempt to justify themselves and their actions but, in the end, what they all want, as Eddie almost says, is respect for their views and recognition of the rightness of their positions. "My name. I want my name." Wonderful.

Our national fascination with the aristocracy of our country and our royal family is legendary. The Brits love their royals, hence Shakespeare's understanding that he could always make a living in 16th-century London if he wrote about kings and queens, dukes and earls. In King Charles III, Mike Bartlett, long a favourite playwright of mine, has imagined what could happen when Queen Elizabeth dies and Charles takes over as King. Virtually all the characters are real people — William and Harry, Kate, a Prime Minister and leader of the opposition who are as much like David Cameron and Tony Blair that they might as well bear their names — so there is an additional interest in hearing these people speaking in ways that we, their subjects, will never hear them speak. Most intriguing of all, Bartlett has written this contemporary, indeed, futuristic play entirely in Shakespearean blank verse. It takes a while to get used to the cadences of iambic pentameter and to listen to the arguments in this unusual form but, slowly, we realise that this allows Bartlett leeway to discuss political and emotional issues divorced from the vernacular.

In a way, Julian Mitchell's Another Country is equally distancing. It is a sort of prequel to real life, taking place in a boys' public school (private school) where the pupils are being readied to be the leaders of the next generation. They will all go from this school to Oxford or Cambridge, then perhaps to Harvard or Yale, and then into the Foreign Office where they will become ambassadors or senior politicians, even Prime Ministers.

This then is the hothouse from which the movers and shakers of the British Establishment will emerge. But what if they don't? What if they become spies instead? What if, like the Cambridge Five, who operated as a most successful spy-ring for the Soviet Union, they reject their exalted background to become hardcore Communists?

Another Country gives some suggestions from their schooldays as to how Kim Philby would get to be so highly placed in the foreign office or how Anthony Blunt would become the Master of the Queen's Pictures while working for the Russians. Who were these people and what caused them to abandon everything they had known — their families, friends, and entire heritage to spy for the enemy during the Cold War? This play, beaufully realised and acted, offers some answers while leaving most of these questions deliberately open.

(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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