A LETTER FROM LONDON: Helen Mirren as The Queen, a Mercer and Short Memorial and More

By Ruth Leon
28 May 2013

Frances Barber stars as Julius Caesar

Also on its way is the all-female cast of Phyllida Lloyd's production of's Julius Caesar. Of all Shakespeare's plays you may think this the most perverse one to choose for a cast of women, being perhaps the most testosterone-fueled of them all, but a marvellous cast of experienced Shakespeareans and Lloyd's innovative approach make it all work. Both Red Velvet and Julius Caesar will be performed at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse.

Two plays within a week celebrate, if you can call it that, women in the workplace. One is British, one American. John van Druten, who wrote the stories on which the musical Cabaret was based, also wrote London Wall, a fine play, written and set contemporarily in 1931, about what it was really like to be a typist in a London lawyer's office. These single women—married women need not apply and those who marry are dismissed—are desperate for a husband because the alternative is lifelong boring toil for a pittance, living in a dismal room, with no prospect of escape. From this unpromising material, van Druten crafts a picture of the life of an office and of the very different young women who work there, with sympathy, humour and no lack of anger at their plight.

London Wall is at the new St. James Theatre in Victoria, near Buckingham Palace, the first new theatre to have been built in London for many years. Now, along comes another, the brand new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park—not, until now, a particularly theatrical neighbourhood. Sleek, shiny, and very user-friendly, this two-theatre space has learned lessons from all the 35 London theatres the artistic director and architect trawled when cogitating what the Park should be.

The results are now on view in These Shining Lives, an American play by Melanie Marnich which begins in Chicago in the 20s, when young women were beginning to enter the world of work and the independence it could give them. The play is a true story about four young women who go to paint clock faces for the Radium Dial Company. Their work gives them much happiness and fulfilment until they all become ill and the cause is traced, by one courageous doctor, to the radium itself. The company fires them when they become ill, not accepting any blame, and one of them, at her wits' end, sues. Even though we know the outcome, the journey is worthwhile and the insight into womens' lives at other times in our history, on both sides of the Atlantic, is fascinating.

(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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