A LETTER FROM LONDON: From Ibsen to Miller to Shakespeare, It's Midsummer Madness in London

Special Features   A LETTER FROM LONDON: From Ibsen to Miller to Shakespeare, It's Midsummer Madness in London
The summer lull is anything but in the London theatre scenes. For starters, Kevin Spacey is Richard III and Kristin Scott Thomas stars in Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

Kevin Spacey in Richard III.
Kevin Spacey in Richard III. Photo by Tristram Kenton


Remember how the cat in "Tom and Jerry" cartoons would suddenly screech to a halt, his ears, tail and whiskers standing straight up, his fur quivering with the effort of stopping so fast? That's how I feel at the end of the London theatre season — one week I'm taking in six evening performances and two matinees, the next there's nothing, absolutely nothing opening in the theatre. Suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, there's time for a movie (I haven't seen a movie since Christmas) and dinner with friends and a new cabaret show. All of a sudden there's Wimbledon and Ascot and the Henley Regatta. OMG, there's a world out there that doesn't start in the dark at seven in the evening. Really.

But just because there's nothing new and important opening until the fall doesn't mean it isn't a golden time in the London theatre. Not only is there a new production of Richard III, there are two. One has Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic being very creepy as Shakespeare's favorite villain, and the other is a touring production from the all-male theatre company Propeller.

One measure of the enormity of Shakespeare is that you can see the same looooong play (Dick3 runs well over three hours) twice in the same week and still be hungry for more. In fact, Propeller, run by Sir Peter Hall's brilliant son Ed, showed us a matinee of a Mexican-style Comedy of Errors in the afternoon and a modern dress Richard III in the evening, with a dinner break between them. While my posterior was complaining by 11 PM, my mind and emotions weren't. Some of the fun, of course, comes from seeing the same actors cross-cast in such different plays. Richard Clothier, playing Richard III with the requisite degree of menace in the evening, was a hilarious duke in the afternoon, strumming a guitar and clowning in a Mexican sombrero.

Simon Callow in Being Shakespeare.
photo by Joel Ryan

Spacey, of course, got and deserved all the encomiums for his Richard, although I particularly loved the performances by the women in this Sam Mendes–directed production — those disenfranchised, discarded, unregarded queens who are used as counters in Richard's personal chess game of power politics. And that's not the only Shakespeare around town. It seems impossible to call Simon Callow's Being Shakespeare a one-man show because "the air is full of noises" and people. The characters in the plays, sonnets, poems and life of the Bard have all been lucidly collected by Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate and joyously re-created by Callow in the most enjoyable evening in the West End.

London has not just William Shakespeare but also Tom Stoppard (his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is playing at the Haymarket in the first major production in a decade or more), Harold Pinter, Simon Gray, Christopher Marlowe, John Gay and, for the first time in 40 years, one of the original Angry Young Men, Arnold Wesker. And those are just the Brits. Foreigners include Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Schiller and — hardly registering as foreign, being American and much-beloved on this side of the ocean — Arthur Miller, represented by two "new" plays collectively known as Danger: Memory!

Kristin Scott Thomas in Betrayal
photo by Johan Persson

It's starry around here. Kristin Scott Thomas is the only woman in Harold Pinter's most accessible play, Betrayal, the story of an affair played backwards from the breakup through the passion and betrayal to the first meeting. Pinter based this one on an affair he had with a friend's wife, a well-known television presenter, and the play follows the path of that affair. As it happens, I knew all three of the protagonists personally and can bear witness that the playing of the characters in this three-hander — husband, wife, lover — is just as chilly as the people they are portraying. Only slightly more human is the loathsome but fascinating Butley, the title character in Pinter's best friend's best play. Simon Gray's creation involves a university professor so steeped in self-hatred that he poisons the world he inhabits. Dominic West (from "The Wire") is riveting as he sets out to destroy his colleagues, his wife, his friends and, finally, himself. Wonderful theatre, but after meeting Butley you end up wanting to take a long, hot shower. Sad to remember that both Pinter and Gray have died in the past few years; between them they wrote some of the best plays of the second half of the 20th century, and their antics off-stage were vastly amusing too.

Stoppard, thank goodness, is still very much in our midst, though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead — his first great hit and the one that that made us sit up and realize that we had, in this tall and attractive young man, a new voice in our theatres — first opened in 1966. I bumped into him outside the Haymarket, struggling with multiple shopping bags, on the opening night of the current revival. What was in the bags? Lovely opening night presents for his talented cast, no doubt.

Kit Marlowe has not been hanging around outside theatres this week for the excellent reason that he died in 1593. But he is very much alive at the Globe, where his Doctor Faustus is getting a decorative workout from a talented cast who have, fortunately, not grasped that Marlowe's gift for language and characterization didn't exactly extend to plot. In Matthew Dunster's production, it's not hard to know what's going on, for once, and the enthusiastic young audiences standing in the pit are thrilled to meet the Seven Deadly Sins face to face. Marlowe's fascination for science and philosophy are given full weight and Faustus' (Paul Hilton's) at first gradual, then headlong, rush into hedonism is satisfyingly convincing.

Beverly Rudd and Flora Specer-Longhurst in The Beggars' Opera
photo by Alastair Muir

You may well wonder, over there on the other side of the Atlantic, why we Brits insist on pretending that our weather is sufficiently predictable for us to plan theatrical events outdoors, whether at the Globe or at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. On a typical midsummer evening in the park, with rain threatening but not quite pouring, I wondered the same thing myself, as helpful staff handed out not only plastic seat covers for protection against the downpours of earlier in the day but also plastic ponchos against the forecast of more. Luckily, I was comprehensively diverted by a new production of John Gay's The Beggars' Opera. First produced in 1728, this saga of corruption and crime with a criminal for a hero and an entire cast of rogues, liars, tarts, pimps and politicians, could, with almost no adaptation, become a torn-from-the-headlines television thriller like "The Wire." The only difference is that contemporary crime series usually have do-gooders and police officers around to make it all come right at the end, and in The Beggars' Opera there aren't any do-gooders. The forces of law and order are, if anything, even more corrupt than the miscreants. On second thoughts, it's more like real life than like television: bawdy, tuneful, good fun. Michael Grandage at the Donmar has already had massive international success with his rediscoveries of the plays of Schiller — Don Carlos and Maria Stuart — and is now tackling his Luise Miller, the story of a girl from an ordinary family who is in love with a prince and falling tragically afoul of his powerful family. Once again, Grandage's meticulous casting and delicate handling of Schiller's text stops it from falling over into melodrama, although Mike Poulton's too-modern translation is often jarring. Luise Miller is a great find. On the other hand, the National Theatre's decision to mount Ibsen's unknown six-hour epic Emperor and Galilean can be seen as brave but foolhardy. Even though they've cut it to three and a half hours, this mind-numbing rambling discussion of the time when, after the death of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, it was still a toss-up as to whether the world would come down on the side of paganism or Christianity, it still feels as though it lasts a week. I've never seen it before and I devoutly wish never to see it again — but yes, bravo to the National Theatre for putting it on.

Danny Webb and Samantha Spero in Chicken Soup With Barley.
photo by Alastair Muir

At the Royal Court there is a wonderful revival of Arnold Wesker's 1958 Chicken Soup With Barley, a play about the power of an idea. It takes place in London's East End, starting in 1936, and the idealistic group around Sarah and Harry Kahn are committed Communists, going to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking part in the Cable Street riots, fighting Mosley's Black Shirt fascists, looking to Communism to change and improve their world. As the years pass, and the last act is set in 1956, the tight-knit group around Sarah marry, find other outlets for their idealism, and become alienated by the excesses of Stalin, while Sarah herself (in a transcendent performance from Samantha Spero) remains committed to the cause. What is astounding is how well this overtly polemical play has held up. The first part of a trilogy that also includes Roots, which made a star out of the young Joan Plowright, and I'm Talking About Jerusalem, I feared it would be outdated and could have little relevance for a contemporary audience. And so I took a young American university student with me. She was enthralled and captivated, as was I all over again, with the power of political fire and by the freshness of the writing. From America, there's the premiere of a new musical of the Ken Ludwig Lend Me a Tenor that is amusing, inoffensive, sometimes charming, well performed and so old-fashioned in style and content that you'd swear you'd seen it before. Shrek: The Musical has made its stately green way to London and gained lustre on its transatlantic voyage. It opened in a blaze of glory, boasting a spectacularly fine cast led by the two NigelsLindsay as an adorable Shrek and Harman as a highly amusing Lord Farquaad — and an enchanting Amanda Holden as Princess Fiona. Even painted bright green, Nigel Lindsay's personality and ability shine through. I expect Shrek to hold court at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for most of our lifetimes.

Michael Matus and Damian Humbley in Lend Me a Tenor.

At the other end of the theatrical scale, in every possible way, at the Jermyn Street Theatre there's a splendid curiosity — two short plays, sketches almost, by the great Arthur Miller. Under the collective title Danger: Memory!, in both of these little plays — I Can't Remember Anything and Clara — Miller sought to re-examine a recurring preoccupation: the fallibility of both remembering and forgetting. The events of the past were always central to his view of the present, and these two fragments — one an elegaic dinner conversation between bickering old friends, seamlessly addressed by Anna Calder-Marshall and David Burke, the other a scene possibly torn from a longer play about the murder of a young woman, carefully acted by Rolf Saxon as the dead girl's father and by Roger Sloman as the interrogating police officer — sets out Miller's stall. In the first, it is probably Alzheimer's that causes the lapses for both Leo and Leonora, but in the second, it is the pain of remembering that causes both characters to forget.

Nobody, however, could forget Janie Dee. This beautiful, elegant performer, a triple threat singer–dancer–actor who has won two Best Actress Olivier Awards and is so versatile onstage that she has scored in both Pinter and Gershwin, is planning to tour the United States and Canada at the end of the year with her new cabaret show, which I caught at the Pheasantry in London. Remember the name, and when you see it on a poster, book. You may not know Janie Dee now, but believe me, it only takes one exposure to become a lifelong fan. In this quirky, evening-long show she ranges all over the vocal and dramatic range, from comic songs to torch songs to flamenco to Fred Astaire to the inevitable Sondheim. She sings, she dances (even tap-dances), she becomes as many different characters as the songs she sings, she plays a mean Joplin piano rag, even imitates a trombone. She sings in French, in Spanish, in Cockney and in a haunting true soprano. She will charm the socks off you. She's the real thing. Trust me.

(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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