A LETTER FROM LONDON: Simon Russell Beale, Lindsay Duncan, Ibsen, Shaw and The Curious Incident of the Dog

By Ruth Leon
February 7, 2012

The monthly roundup of London's theatrical events past, present and future includes a peek into the Young Vic, the National, the Noel Coward and the Rose.



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The theatre season has started slowly this year, but looking forward, I realize that it will all heat up rapidly and that soon, as usual, I won't have enough nights in the week to cover all that's opening.

The National Theatre alone has a blistering season planned, and my experience is that what they plan, they pull off. If you've been to London before, you already know that the National is a marvelous destination even without a play to see, a busy, absorbing place to spend a few hours. There's always something going on here, inside the complex's three theatres, in the lobby and even outside by the Thames.

If you're planning to be in London for the Olympics, or even planning your summer now, you don't want to miss what the National is calling "National Inside Out." Between June 2 and Sept. 9, activities normally conducted inside the theatre will spill out onto the terraces and squares, with a packed festival program of free activities entering into the spirit of a summer in which London has to put its best foot forward. A specially designed riverfront café bar will invite passersby into a setting evoking the backstage world, and a pop-up space on the terrace balcony will offer activities and performances for children and families.

It's too much (and ego run wild) to hope that they listened to me, but you might remember that I complained loudly, in print, about Collaborators, starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings, being staged only for a short and limited season in the smallest of the National's spaces, the Cottesloe. It is, even as I write, being transferred to their largest space, the Olivier Theatre, for a much longer run. Oh, all right, I wasn't the only one who objected to this marvelous production being hidden away in a tiny theatre for a sold-out run.

And talking of Simon Russell Beale, he'll be taking the title role in one of Shakespeare's lesser-performed plays, Timon of Athens. Directed by the National's director, Nick Hytner, it will be part of the World Shakespeare Festival, which everybody over here is getting very excited about. The National season will also feature a new play by Alan Bennett (always an event), another by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and yet another by the American Lisa D'Amour, while Richard Bean — who has had such a spectacular success with One Man, Two Guvnors on both sides of the Atlantic — has adapted that hoary old warhorse The Count of Monte Cristo. Also on the classical front, there's more Shakespeare, Gorky's Children of the Sun and George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma. Interestingly, there will also be an adaptation of Mark Haddon's runaway hit novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and a brief revival of London Road, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork's verbatim musical that won all the awards last year. Altogther, it's a marvelous season if you do go to see the plays, and an entertaining place to visit even it you don't.

But great though it is, the National is far from the only game in London. (Oh Lord, don't remind me — the Olympics, the Olympics!) No, I meant theatrical game, but you knew that. Commercially, Lindsay Duncan, a wonderful Amanda in Private Lives opposite Alan Rickman a few seasons ago, once again tackles Noël Coward, this time as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. It will play, appropriately enough, at the Noël Coward Theatre.

The Young Vic (not to be confused with the venerable Old Vic, currently packing them in for the new production of Noises Off) has a well-deserved reputation for the quirky and unusual. Last season they had a notable hit with Kirsk, a remarkable reenactment of the inside of a Russian submarine that was so real I began to suffer from claustrophobia. This year, the same company, Sound and Fury, are planning Going Dark, a new play about an astronomer who, faced with losing his vision, has to evaluate his relationship with the world and the stars. It is one man's exploration of the effect of blindness on the human brain.

Over at the Rose, one of my favorite off-West End theatres, there are several major developments to report for this season. I guess I love the Rose because it's so improbable — a lozenge-shaped Shakespearean space wedged into a riverside agglomeration of multipurpose buildings in the ancient town of Kingston. It's very close to, indeed part of, London but it doesn't seem to be — more like a small market town with great shopping alongside a big city. It receives no subsidy, no government support, no financial aid from anywhere, but it often produces fine work and the café/lobby is one of the most comfortable in London, rivaling the National for food and people-watching.

The theatre's guiding hero was Sir Peter Hall, who oversaw its building and who then handed the reins to artistic director Stephen Unwin. This season, amongst others, he's planning a revival of Michael Frayn's Here, which, given the enormous success of Frayn's Noises Off, seems like a good move. Here, I seem to remember, tells of a young couple facing the challenge of organizing their new apartment and their new relationship amid multiple interruptions.

Most exciting, to me at any rate, is Stephen Unwin's production of his own new translation of The Lady From the Sea, one of Henrik Ibsen's stranger and more delicate plays, starring Joely Richardson, who has had enough success in her own right not to be constantly identified as "Vanessa Redgrave's daughter." I'm looking forward to this one. Not only does it mark Joely Richardson's return to the London stage after a very long absence, but Unwin is an Ibsen specialist. The Lady From The Sea will be his sixth Ibsen production, and he has been described by the Guardian newspaper (and not least by me) as "the best director of Ibsen in Britain."