A LETTER FROM LONDON: The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Opens and Spending an Evening With Stephen Ward

By Ruth Leon
09 Feb 2014

The only lighting is candles, and the smell of candlewax as the large candelabras move up and down to suggest daylight, nightntime, privacy, and everything in between is intoxicating. This is how it was done in Shakespeare's time. We know this because there was an indoor auditorium not far away called the Blackfriars, which was originally the refectory of the Black Friars monastery. The Blackfriars was used by Shakespeare's company, by then called The King's Men, as a winter space for when the light or weather was insufficient or inclement to perform outside at the Globe. That is how the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be used, too, all year round for plays and musical events even when an outdoor space is impractical.

They started this week with that goriest of all Jacobean tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi, starring British film and television actor, Gemma Arterton. In this atmospheric setting, with the slight smell of candlewax enhancing the Jacobean mood, you can believe the ill-fated Duchess, secretly married to her steward, does manage to fool her two mad brothers — one a randy Cardinal, the other an incestuous Duke — that she is still a grieving widow long after she's borne three children. Their vengeance (and I've never really understood why they're so cross with her) is terrible and bloody, and the new theatre provides all you could wish by way of creepiness.

The new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Stephen Ward is a sort of chamber opera about a recent British sex scandal — the time when the Government of Harold Macmillan was brought down by a Cabinet Minister, John Profumo, who lied to the House of Commons about his affair with Christine Keeler. Keeler was a good-time girl who was almost but not quite a prostitute, and this was on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties and at the height of the Cold War. The whole business might well have blown over if she hadn't also been sleeping with an attaché at the Russian Embassy at the same time.

The catalyst for all this mayhem was Stephen Ward, osteopath to the rich, famous and aristocratic, who kept his social status by introducing influential men to working girls. He was a talented artist and a brilliant osteopath and, in an effort to distract public and newspaper attention from their own less-than-salubrious behaviors, the Establishment figures whose confidant he had been threw him to the wolves of Fleet St. as their handpicked scapegoat. He committed suicide while still on trial for living off immoral earnings. Clearly Lloyd Webber and his co-writers, Christopher Hampton and lyricist Don Black, feel the trial itself and the attempt to hide the Establishment's misdeeds is a great miscarriage of justice.

It's all rather sordid — not Stephen Ward the musical, but the real story itself, and inevitably, no matter how well they do it — and Richard Eyre has directed it impeccably and Alexander Hanson gives an award-worthy performance in the title role, smooth, silky and beautifully sung — you come away feeling somewhat sullied by spending an evening in the company of all of them.

Josie Rourke, new artistic director of the Donmar, has played a blinder with her new modern-dress production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston. A stunningly simple set by Lucy Osborne and a supporting cast to die for, this is a thoroughly satisfying evening and the first Coriolanus since Corin Redgrave's that makes dramatic and emotional sense.

(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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