A LETTER FROM LONDON: An All-Female Henry IV Stuns and A Happy Introduction to Damn Yankees

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: An All-Female Henry IV Stuns and A Happy Introduction to Damn Yankees
The monthly missive from Across the Pond reports on the impressive and lengthy James Plays and the World War I play Flowers of the Forest.

Harriet Walter in <i>Henry IV</i>
Harriet Walter in Henry IV


I know you all think I'm obsessed with royalty, what with my previous King Charles 101 and the usual smattering of Shakespearean monarchs that grace the London stage all the time to tell you about. But there are a lot of kings who just won't shut up, and they seem to hit our theatres in clumps. This month is no exception.

We have an odd version of Henry IV, Parts One and Two, at the Donmar, set in a women's prison, and, in this one, all the kings (and everybody else for that matter), are women. This Henry is performed by an entirely female cast. It works far better than you might think, with some fine actresses — Harriet Walter, Ashley McGuire, Cynthia Erivo and many others — given the chance to expand what we thought we knew of the characters, from Hotspur to Falstaff, and the cast have not been chosen for their conventional attractiveness. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, as was the all-female Julius Caesar last season, it brings another perspective to royalty, war, incarceration and feminism. Heaven knows what Shakespeare, who never saw a real woman on a stage, would have thought.

Talking of women in the theatre, I found three more kings at the National Theatre, each inhabiting his own play, and all by the same Scottish playwright, Rona Munro. I saw her James Plays in one day, entering the theatre at noon and exiting, blinking like a badger emerging from his sett, shortly before midnight. This is a magnificent achievement, giving a view of Scottish history through the stories of King James the First, Second and Third, for the roughly 100 years from 1406 to 1502, when Scotland and the rest of Europe were slowly emerging from the dark ages into a medieval form of organizational royalty. At school we didn't learn any of this, Scotland seeming often more remote from England than Tibet, so this history is a revelation. Each of the plays is complete in itself and each is written and performed in a different style from either of the others. While there is some cross-casting, each king is played by a different actor and stylistically there is very little crossover in either the writing or the playing, which is a tribute to clever Rona Munro and her equally clever director, Laurie Sansom.

Okay, okay, no more kings for this month unless you count Electra, daughter of King Agamemnon (oh, all right), who is mad with grief over the death of her father and her conviction that he was murdered by her mother, Queen Clytemnestra. Sophocles has not built a lot of laughs into Electra, although, to her credit, Kristin Scott Thomas does manage to make her so mad that the audience does titter from time to time as one does when a lunatic takes off his clothes in church. She humanizes Electra with non-stop movement, constantly futzing with her hair, making her nervous energy almost another character in the play. I found myself sympathizing with this woman driven to extremes by grief but not finding any common ground in her ranting to empathize with her. For me, the performance of the evening was that of Diana Quick as the guilty Clytemnestra who, in one short imperious scene with Electra, showed how Greek tragedy can be played not for laughs but for true dramatic intensity.

Lindsay Lohan in <i>Speed The Plow</i>
Lindsay Lohan in Speed The Plow Photo by Simon Annand

This is not kind, but it was nonetheless true, that the chief interest in the new production of David Mamet's Speed The Plow was not the quickfire brilliance of the dialogue between the two men Bobby (Richard Schiff) and Charlie (Nigel Lindsay) as they negotiate a potential multi-million dollar Hollywood movie contract versus the seduction of Karen, a temporary secretary, but the casting of the secretary. Both actors — one Brit, one American — are very good, and although the conversations at breakneck speed between them are somewhat dated today, they still have enough juice to carry us along.

Unless, that is, you have an actress playing the secretary who is famous for her unreliability. She is Lindsay Lohan, and the betting in the cheap seats was never about her talent but about whether she would show up at all and, if she did, in what condition? It was incredibly brave of the director, Lindsay Posner, to take her on, and I can't help but feel the heavy foot of a producer on his neck for the publicity and box office. But, in the end, she came, she played, and, when she could be heard, she wasn't bad. By the way, can you imagine what the rehearsal room was like with a director and two of the three actors, all called Lindsay? Schiff must have felt like changing his name. Or not.

Two small theatre hits this month gave me the most pleasure, and they couldn't be more different. At Jermyn Street Theatre an unknown, to me, World War One play by John van Druten, Flowers of the Forest, is given a sensitive and thoroughly elegant production by Anthony Biggs. John van Druten is best remembered now for I Am A Camera, his play based on Christopher Isherwood's novel "Goodbye to Berlin," which together formed the basis of the musical Cabaret.

Flowers of the Forest, every bit as evocative of its period as its better-known predecessor, has a large cast led by Sophie Ward as Naomi, as much a casualty of war as her dead fiancé, in a family which, although most of them survived, they did so bruised and ultimately destroyed by the brutality and pointlessness of it all. Why we haven't seen this play before I can't imagine, but I hope it has a future.

I know exactly why we haven't seen Damn Yankees here before. It's about baseball, not a British game, and some of its truly American peculiarities are beyond an English audience without someone giving a pre-performance lecture about the difference between a "ball" and a "strike," a "bunt" and a "take," and all the rest. But, against that, even without the lecture, what can be bad about an evening which has "Whatever Lola Wants," "You Gotta Have Heart," the Devil and nine beautiful young men wearing nothing but towels? This Damn Yankees, staged by Robert McWhir, in the Landor, his postage-stamp pub theatre, with exquisite attention to detail and an excellent cast including a 51-year old newcomer, the charming Gary Bland, as the older version of the baseball fan who, just for one season, gets to be his younger self and win the pennant for his team, the Washington Senators, is simply terrific. This happens to be the 75th anniversary of the untimely retirement of Lou Gehrig who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, and, touchingly, despite almost nobody in England having ever heard of Lou Gehrig, and despite their audience being totally unfamiliar with the game of baseball, the theatre has dedicated this production to those suffering from this terrible disease and raises funds at every performance to support the Motor Neurone Disease Association, commonly known in the US as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Good for them.

(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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