A LETTER FROM LONDON: Jonathan Pryce in King Lear, the Refurbished Bristol Old Vic, Josie Rourke's Donmar Slate

By Ruth Leon
October 1, 2012

An amble through the landscape of U.K. theatre, with stops at Matilda, the Donmar Warehouse, Lear at the Almeida and Hedda at the Old Vic and more.



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Somebody had a great idea: to celebrate, over five nights, the work of some of the world's greatest poets, and bring those works to life through performances by some of our finest actors, including Deborah Findlay, Derek Jacobi, Felicity Jones, Rosamund Pike, Eddie Redmayne, Dominic West and Samuel West.

Michael Grandage, who until recently was the successful artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and now has his own company, put together this classy tribute to the writer and poet Josephine Hart, who died last year. The five evenings covered W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, the World War I poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and an array of American poets from Emily Dickinson to Walt Whitman. Each evening was introduced by luminaries such as playwrights David Hare and Tom Stoppard, or the former director of the National Theatre, Richard Eyre. This was entertainment on a very lofty level indeed, and much enlivened by the witty and imaginative writing by Hart that accompanied the poems. The audience, almost entirely composed of London's theatrical and publishing elite, were reassured that, in an uncertain world, it is still possible to be amused, liberated, stimulated and enchanted by nothing but words.

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The Bristol Old Vic was built in 1766 (I remember it well!) and is the oldest working theatre in England. That doesn't matter (we have lots of old stuff) — what does matter is that this beautiful theatre has just been rebuilt after an 18-month refurbishment and is even more gorgeous than before. The great David Garrick called its original architect, James Saunders, the greatest theatre designer of the 18th century; since the Bristol Old Vic is the only large theatre of the period to have survived this long, we have to believe him. It has always been an actors' theatre. The aforementioned Richard Eyre says of it, "Everybody knows that Bristol Old Vic is old, rare and beautiful. What they might not know is that it's one of the best places in the world for actors, directors and writers to put on plays and for audiences to see them." It reopened last month with a production of John O'Keeffe's Wild Oats, first performed in 1791, barely 25 years after the theatre was built.

Kerry Ingram in the West End production of Matilda.
photo by Alastair Muir

Matilda is heading for New York. The hugely popular musical, adapted from Roald Dahl's story about a clever little girl with superhuman powers, has won just about every award the British theatre can offer, including Olivier Awards for its four rotating 10-year old stars, the youngest ever to win this major prize. Now 400,000 tickets have gone on sale in the U.S., booking from opening night in April 2013 through to Christmas. I found it a little scary, but the children in the audience didn't turn a hair at the cruelty that gave me pause. They're used to Roald Dahl, one of the most popular children's authors ever, and know it will all work out in the end. I think Matilda will be another Book of Mormon story — a megahit sellout — so if you have a moppet with a strong stomach, get your tickets now.

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In an effort to offset the principal complaint of theatre audiences — that even though they love the theatre they can no longer afford to go — one of London's premier theatres has a new initiative. The Donmar Warehouse is planning to hold back two-thirds of its front-row seats across both the stalls (orchestra) and circle for all performances, and put them on sale every Monday for just £10 ($15). The Donmar is small and exclusive, with most shows selling out as soon as they go on sale, so this is a real boon for serious theatregoers. And the new season under new artistic director Josie Rourke looks interesting. First up is a new production of Julius Caesar, the play in which Shakespeare tells us what he thinks of power, with an all-female cast. Yes, you read aright. After the Globe's all-male Twelfth Night, the Donmar is planning to put on the most testosterone-fueled of all Shakespeare's history plays with an all-women cast and a female director, Phyllida Lloyd. Not so surprising when you remember that the monarch at the time of the play's writing was Queen Elizabeth I. Then Joe Wright, the director of the current movie of "Anna Karenina," makes his stage-directing debut with Pinero's Trelawney of the Wells. And to round it off, Rourke is directing a new production of Conor McPherson's searing The Weir. And you might be able to see all these for £10 each.

Jonathan Pryce
Photo by Keith Pattison

The old saying goes that if you're old enough to play King Lear, you're too old. When asked for advice on how to play the mad king, Sir John Gielgud, the greatest actor of a generation stuffed with great actors, used to say, "Find a small Cordelia" — referring to the last scene, when Lear has to carry his dead daughter around the stage. The fact remains that every actor who reaches a certain level of distinction and fame wants to top off his career with Lear, just as every actress aspires to one day play the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. This week, on subsequent days, we had both. And the following day we had Chekhov's Three Sisters, but by that time we were all too classic-ed out, so that's another story.

It is Jonathan Pryce's turn to tackle the old reprobate, and he gives a brave turn. On a fine, stony set by Tom Scutt that makes the best use of the Almeida's bare walls, Pryce never for a moment asks for our sympathy nor, even in Lear's extremis, becomes anything but a tough old boy determined to have his own way. Not, perhaps, one of the great Lears, but a strong contender.

Over at the Old Vic, though, we may have one of the great Heddas. Sheridan Smith, who at first glance is too delicate and charming for the feisty, dissatisfied Hedda, is, even in her first scene, the tamped-down virago Ibsen clearly intended. This is a Hedda whose only concern is for herself, whose indifference to her husband, his aunt, her friend and her competing lovers takes the audience's breath away. They see her beauty, her almost permanent smile, her smug confidence, her manipulation of others. Only gradually do they see her hollow centre, her intrinsic timidity, her conventionality, her inability to commit even to her own life. It is finally clear why she has married the dull, academic George (fabulous Adrian Scarborough) and why she is unable to turn her crippling boredom into a real life. This is a masterful performance, exposing much that is usually hidden within this great play and, fine though it is, she couldn't pull off so many layers of character and form had she not the finest supporting cast it has ever been my privilege to see in these characters.

Every part of Anna Mackmin's production, from Lez Brotherston's beautiful, light-filled set to the darkness of Hedda's casual cruelty, fits perfectly into a satisfying whole rarely experienced within such complexity. Brian Friel's pellucid writing forms the scaffolding on which this great production is suspended. As soon as it was over I wanted to go back into the theatre and see it again. And I fully intend to do exactly that.

(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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