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

By Ruth Leon
May 27, 2012

If you're not planning to see Singin' in the Rain, Long Day's Journey Into Night or Collaborators in London, how about a weekend in the country, far from the crowds?



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The Olympics have hit us all hard, and it will only get harder. London streets will be closed; traffic blocked; public transportation, ahem, difficult; and I fear that the theatres will be hard to reach.

There is some great stuff, though. If you want to get out of London, you could do worse on a sunny summer's day than take yourself to Stratford-upon-Avon. There the Royal Shakespeare Company is presenting 12 new productions of its own, with actors from the USA, Mexico, Russia, Iraq and Brazil performing first as part of the World Shakespeare Festival and then going on to play elsewhere in the U.K.

Further north, and even more unusual, are the York Mystery Plays. This medieval cycle of plays has been performed by the people of York for more than 800 years and is a world-famous part of the city's cultural heritage. The plays tell the story of the cosmic battle between good and evil, from creation to the last judgment, and will return to the city this year on an epic scale; in August a cast of 2,500 professionals and townspeople will perform against the magnificent backdrop of York's St Mary's Abbey.

Judi Dench has performed in the plays three times over the course of her career and is a Patron of the plays for 2012. She says, "It is something I will always remember. I know the excitement that these events bring to the people of York and the important place they hold within the city's history." These plays are unique and well worth the extra traveling hassle that getting there might entail.

Derek Jacobi

Closer to London, in the beautiful Sussex countryside, the Chichester Festival Theatre is a hotbed of shows likely to make it to the West End by the fall. This year Chichester is presenting in the big theatre one of Cole Porter's most enchanting scores, Kiss Me, Kate, while the small Minerva Theatre will house the brilliant Henry Goodman in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. This is one of Bertolt Brecht's most demanding plays, the most shocking and easily the funniest. Written in 1941, just before the exiled Brecht arrived in the USA, and described by the author himself as a "gangster play that would recall certain events familiar to us all," The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a sharp and thrilling parable of the rise of Hitler, shot through with razor-sharp wit.

Shaw's Heartbreak House is on offer at Chichester this summer too, with the incomparable Derek Jacobi, while in September, the eminent Shakespearean actor, writer and scholar Michael Pennington is coming in to play Antony to the Cleopatra of Kim Cattrall. Yeah, yeah, that Kim Cattrall, but hasn't the poor woman paid enough dues to be identified with her considerable achievements in the live theatre — Amanda in Private Lives in the West End and on Broadway, Mamet's The Cryptogram at the Donmar in the West End, and the quadriplegic in Whose Life is it Anyway? — instead of that television series? Enough, already. She played Cleopatra to much admiration in a production last year in her hometown of Liverpool and is keen to continue with her Shakespearean career. The director is one of our finest actors and one of the greatest Cleopatras I have ever seen: Dame Janet Suzman. Should be ace.

Chichester has been on a roll recently, with its productions regularly winning Oliviers and transferring to New York. The current hit West End musical Singin' in the Rain started at Chichester, as did the best production ever of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. There is no reason to believe that a summer run-out from London this year would be anything but terrific, too.

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."

Check out Playbill.com's London listings.

 (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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