A LETTER FROM LONDON: From the Stage to the Screen, Productions Cross the Pond

By Ruth Leon
25 Dec 2013

Mark Rylance in <i>Richard III</i>.
Mark Rylance in Richard III.
Photo by Joan Marcus

The monthly missive from Across the Pond reflects on the year onstage and offers an insider's look at Jude Law's Henry V and a scaled-down Candide.

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The most exciting theatrical advance this year has not been a single play or musical; it's been the increasing exchanges of the best that New York and London have to offer by way of the cinema. In selected local movie theatres here, we've seen live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, which, although they lack the excitement of the experience of being in that grand opera house, convey the music magnificently and the theatricality of the experience. In return, we've sent you some of the finest productions from our theatres, not only the National, but also the Donmar and the commercial theatre. As a resident of both London and New York, I have, over the years, often missed important shows through being on the wrong side of the ocean when they occurred — not any more! I never thought in my lifetime that I would see the greatest performances as they happened, no matter where they originated. And not only is this a miracle in itself, but this wider dissemination has not, as was feared, diminished the audiences who go to the theatres to see the shows live — it has actually increased them, encouraging those who rarely venture to the playhouse to try it, often for the first time.

This approach to exchanges is obvious in the live theatre too, although so far the movement has more usually been from here to there. Still, New Yorkers would have been disappointed to have missed Mark Rylance's remarkable double act in Richard III and Twelfth Night. The musical Once landed on our shore with modest pretensions but is still here and flourishing. There are many other examples of shows that have happily traveled in both directions, an eventuality that, though devoutly wanted for many years, has only now reached its true potential. Happy New Theatre Year to us, recipients, I hope, of many more international treats.

The other striking element of 2013's theatre for me has been the standard of acting on both sides of the Atlantic. It is actually difficult to find a bad performance on a West End or Broadway stage; such is the bench strength of the thespian fraternity. And I don't just speak of the principal performers. Watch, in the boring bits, the characters on the stage who are not part of the scene being acted out, who are, as it were, stage window-dressing. You will find that, in every case, they still inhabit their characters, are still part of the action, even when nobody is watching them. That's their job. There's always also the possibility that the director is in the house and looking for talent. In an industry where more than 90 percent of its union members are out of work at any given moment, that's a consideration not to be dismissed.

Good acting, acting where the actor disappears, giving way to the character; acting where the character is amplified with a look, a word, a gesture; acting where emotions communicate to the audience so clearly that they can identify even when they have no experience of the circumstances is much less rare than it used to be. We've seen this so often in this past year that we assume it's easy, that all they have to do is learn the lines and then speak them on the stage. Don't ever underestimate how hard it is, how many hours go into understanding the character, getting inside the play, channeling the author, endeavoring to discover what the playwright felt and thought, as well as what he or she wrote. Acting is an art, a science, and very, very hard work. And the only the best can do all that and make it look as though they're not doing anything at all.

Jude Law
photo by Johan Persson

I thought of that this week as I watched Jude Law's Henry V, an apparently effortless performance in which every nuance of the warrior king's thought process was laid bare for us all to follow. Law has never been my favorite movie star. The great film actors are the ones who let you see them think on celluloid; Tom Hanks is the most obvious example, Cate Blanchett is another. Great stage actors require different chops, though; they need physical skills, a way of moving that coordinates thought, sense and emotion — a tilt of the head that pulls the audience into their space. Law has that. He is physically unprepossessing, rather weedy-looking, in fact, but the face that conveys so little, to me at least, on film, is a universe on stage. All the conflicts of the young king are contained in his person: The cruelty and the compassion, the desire to avoid bloodshed and the bloodthirst of the ruler who must conquer or perish, the summoning of big ideas when big ideas are needed. In Michael Grandage's clever hands, this Henry V will, I promise, erase the stagier filmic version by Laurence Olivier from your mind and heart.

Candide, on the other hand, is the stepchild musical that nobody ever got right. Until now. I'm not entirely sure that this new production by Matthew White at the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory does have it right, but it's maybe the closest anyone is likely to come. To start at the top, the score by Leonard Bernstein and a variety of of bookwriters and lyricists is one of the glories of the American musical theatre, which is, of course, why directors keep on trying to get it right. There is not a note, not a bar, not a measure of music which is not fresh, clear and utterly irresistible, whether in the big orchestra version of the original and of many subsequent recordings, or in the brilliant nine-musician orchestrations by Jason Carr in this production.

If I tell you that there are no fewer than six major writers listed as having written the lyrics, you will quickly ascertain that it is the book, the story, that is intractable. Based on Voltaire's philosophy that "everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds," it takes place in ten different countries and more or less the same disasters happen in them all. Repeat disaster is boring. It is therefore entirely to the credit of the director and a very fine cast that an enthusiastic audience is willing to sit through every last disaster yet again and revel in some of the best singing to be had anywhere in London (and I include the Royal Opera House in that). I hope that, like their recent, revelatory Merrily We Roll Along, which was televised throughout the world, the Menier will make this Candide available to audiences in America and beyond.

There's truly great acting on offer at the Old Vic right now, where a beautiful production of Fortune's Fool stars, in the two principal roles, Iain Glen as the impoverished gentleman, humiliated by Richard McCabe as the neighborhood boor in Turgenev's elegiac tone poem about country manners and men in the Tsar's Russia. The other members of the cast are fine, but these two performances are a sort of master class in how to inhabit the skins of unfamiliar characters and impart a more than skin-deep understanding of their problems and peculiarities.

Director Lucy Bailey seems to breathe the air of mid-19th century Russia, and her designer, William Dudley, perfectly captures the atmosphere — even the dust motes of the country estate of which we were to see so much more in The Cherry Orchard. Above all, the translation by Mike Poulton has not a single anachronism or false note, seeming to provide a landscape of a world now totally gone.

From 19th-century Russia to 20th-century America is an abrupt change of scene and tempo. Of all the odd ideas, adapting Bret Easton Ellis's novel "American Psycho" into a musical is one of the oddest but, somehow, it works. Set in 1980s New York, it tells the tale of a man who is all-surface, a man who looks perfect and behaves in the manner of many upper-class educated young Americans, a man who in an effort to feel something, anything, becomes a murderer, a rapist, a slasher. The man "who simply isn't there" is played here by Matt Smith, the most recent actor to take up the mantle of Doctor Who, in a role as far from the Doctor as it is possible to imagine. Duncan Sheik's music is serviceable and entirely electronic, underlining the lack of human sympathy in the characters, and Smith's performance is sure and strong, whether singing about his obsessions or about how clean he is. "American Psycho" was a compelling and, in its way, loathsome novel which has been turned, without ameliorating its less attractive features, into a compelling and only slightly less loathsome musical. And I mean that as a compliment.

(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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