A LETTER FROM LONDON: Mary Shelley Comes Alive, and So Does The Browning Version (Twice)

By Ruth Leon
June 24, 2012

London attractions at the moment include David Hare's South Downs, paired with its inspiration, Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version, plus Helen Edmundson's Mary Shelley, a new look at life of the author of "Frankenstein."



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Once the Oliviers and the Tonys are over, and the Edinburgh Festival looms, it's time to start thinking about the upcoming season. Everything in London is upside down this year with the double whammy of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, followed only a few weeks later by the Olympic Games, and the theatre too has been strutting its stuff, trying to show the millions of visitors some of what the British still do better than anyone else. But some of us, ever ungrateful, are looking forward to traffic returning to normal.

What's coming up bodes well for jaded old me, desperate for some new plays by living playwrights. The outgoing artistic director at the Royal Court, Dominic Cooke, has an autumn season marked with new work by Jez Butterworth, whose Jerusalem was an unexpected hit on both sides of the Atlantic; Caryl Churchill, whose work is often dense and difficult to fathom but always fascinating and worth unraveling; and the versatile Martin Crimp, one of Britain's most important and iconoclastic playwrights. A new play by any of these acclaimed writers could rightly be accounted an event for any theatre, but to have all three in the same season is a major coup. Butterworth's The River centers on a man and a woman during a moonless night in a remote cabin and reunites the same creative team that nurtured Jerusalem. Caryl Churchill's Love and Information apparently has 100 characters, but presumably not 100 actors, and Martin Crimp's In the Republic of Happiness is billed as "a violent satire" and set during a family Christmas.

Cooke has also planned new plays by three young playwrights whose work has caused recent sensations. It is not unusual for the Royal Court, noted for its emphasis on new playwriting for more than 50 years, to commission a first play. What is rare is for any theatre to encourage and mount productions of a second play, and this season, EV Crowe and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who had Upstairs successes at the Court in their studio sp ace last year, are now getting a second chance. Lucy Kirkwood's new comedy (her last was Bloody Wimmin) opens in October and explores power in the media.

Timberlake Wertenbaker

The dire state of arts funding on both sides of the Atlantic has caused some innovative, if slightly desperate, moves over here. The respected director Max Stafford-Clark, longtime artistic director of the Royal Court, is so strapped for money after the withdrawal of Arts Council funding from his famous Out Of Joint company that he has decided to open his rehearsals to public scrutiny to raise additional money to keep his company going. He is inviting members of the public to look in on his rehearsals for the revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play Our Country's Good if they will pay £6 (about $9). This, says Stafford-Clark, is to give them a sense of what goes into the making of a play. He told me, "It will give the public the chance to discover what is normally a very secret process and will be of value to students and aficionados." Not easy for the cast, though, who are accustomed to making their mistakes in private and discovering their characters through trial and error in the hallowed safety of the rehearsal room. Open rehearsals can't help but put pressure on the actors to "perform" even when they're not ready to do so. But needs must, I guess.

The other exciting news here is the establishment of the new Michael Grandage Company. With a seriously stellar company of actors — imagine being able to draw upon a list that includes Judi Dench, Simon Russell Beale, Jude Law, Daniel Radcliffe, Ben Whishaw, David Walliams and Sheridan Smith — the former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse is announcing his intention to direct five plays. He is planning, in a single season, two Shakespeares, two modern classics and a brand new play. This is firepower on a truly grand scale. The season calls for Jude Law as Henry V; Simon Russell Beale in Privates on Parade, Peter Nichols' wonderful comedy about an entertainment unit in World War II; Daniel Radcliffe in Martin McDonagh's searing Irish drama The Cripple of Inishmaan; David Walliams as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream; and can you envisage a better start for a new play than John Logan will have for his Peter and Alice than for its first cast to include Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw?

All plays will be performed, starting this December, at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End. This — if Grandage can pull it off, and I have every confidence that he can — will be a monumental achievement. His intention is to bring theatre's best to the widest possible audience. To that end, every performance will have 200 tickets to be sold at £10 each ($15), amounting to 100,000 tickets over the course of the season. With these plays, this director and, above all, this cast, it should be possible to attract younger people than the standard West End punters and bring back to the stalls many theatrelovers who now find the West End simply too expensive. When I ask friends who used to be regular theatregoers why they now attend so rarely, if at all, the ticket price is always the first item mentioned. Add to that a babysitter, snack or dinner, parking (and in Britain, you have to pay for your playbill!), and you've got an evening out beyond the reach of many. This new Grandage Company initiative, coupled with the now traditional National Theatre Travelex £12 seats in the Olivier Theatre, may well be one way to redress that.

(Noël Coward would definitely approve of all this activity going on in "his" theatre. After the massive hit in the West End and on Broadway of Private Lives, which starred him and Gertrude Lawrence, Gertie asked him to write another play they could do together. "Oh, darling," he protested, "I really don't want to do the same play night after night." "Fine," Gertie retorted, "then write two so we can alternate them." In the event, Coward wrote nine short plays, which he called Tonight at 8:30, and they performed three of them each evening, switching them about to suit his mood. Two were turned into movies. One, Still Life, became a classic; it is better known as the film "Brief Encounter.")

Anna Chancellor in South Downs.
Photo by Helen Maybanks
Several good new plays have sprouted around town. Alongside Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version, a classic of mid-20th century English restraint and angst set in a boys' public (for which read "private") school, is a new play set in a similar environment, this time by David Hare. One of our most accomplished playwrights, Hare has always been somewhat eclipsed by the verbal brilliance of Stoppard in the United States but here at home he is much prized, and a new play from him is an event.

In South Downs, he doesn't let us down. This is a fine piece of work, set in a similar school some 30 years later and deliberately designed as a companion to The Browning Version, a cross-cast group of actors play out the inevitable tensions when adolescent boys are juxtaposed with adults who mean them both good and ill. In The Browning Version, a brilliant but unpopular teacher whose wife is having an all-too-public affair with a colleague rediscovers himself and his values through a gift from a student, an unexpected kindness that is life-changing. An act of kindness is also the machine that informs South Downs. This time the kindness flows from an adult to an unpopular schoolboy, an unusual child who also needs to believe in himself and to learn to like his differentness. Both plays, which collectively run no longer than an average single play, together form a thoroughly satisfying evening in the theatre. South Downs/The Browning Version plays the Harold Pinter Theatre.

The subtext of Children's Children, a new play by Matthew Dunster at the Almeida, is not very sub- at all. In fact, the environmental message it contains could, and perhaps should, be emblazoned on the Almeida's nonexistent front curtain or the front page of the daily newspapers. Whether it can be clearly understood as the subtext of a drama is the job of the attentive audience for Children's Children. The plot concerns old friends who have grown apart — one has become successful, one has not — and what happens to them over several years. There is very fine acting, as you would expect from the Almeida, and many points to ponder in Dunster's impassioned plea for action.

Kristin Atherton in Mary Shelley.

I'm praying that Helen Edmundson's Mary Shelley makes it across the Atlantic intact from the Tricycle Theatre so that American audiences can enjoy the meticulous staging, beautiful performances and delicate writing encapsulated in what, on the surface, seems a straightforward biographical play about the woman who, at the age of 18, wrote "Frankenstein," one of the seminal novels of the 19th century. Born of a freethinking father, the philosopher William Godwin, and an early feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary's relationships with her sisters, her father, her stepmother and above all the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley are the meat of this terrific play. Edmundson makes them all more than believable; she makes them real and human, and I suspect that if I ever hear anything about any of them that contradicts her, I shall not believe it.

Staged very simply, the only set piece being a large table that does for just about every piece of furniture, conveyance and prop, this accomplished and inspiring company, Shared Experience, has over a number of years perfected the combination of text with movement. In the case of Mary Shelley, this ideally suits the episodic nature of the action. It is rare to enjoy an evening in the theatre this much while still learning buckets about the historical people portrayed in it. (It closes July 7.)

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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