Like all theatre freaks, I get jumpy if I'm not sitting in the dark every evening waiting for the non-existent curtain to go up. Other people love Christmas and New Year; I hate it, because there are no first nights for weeks and, what does open here in London are children's shows, known as pantos. Thank goodness that's over, then, for another year and we're launched into a busy season again.
The Royal Shakespeare Company reopened their flagship theatre in Stratford upon Avon this past summer after a massive and highly successful rebuild with a series of glorious new productions. I spent most of the summer up a mountain in Colorado writing a book and so missed both the new theatre and its productions, which bothered me, but there wasn't much I could do about it from a distance of 5,000 miles. And, voila, turns out I didn't miss anything after all.
In a flurry of activity, the RSC has now brought its wares to London and installed them at the Roundhouse in Hampstead where they look impressive and give a whole new aspect to some plays we thought we knew well. I remember the Roundhouse — once a turn-around for railway engines at the end of the line — as an experimental space which, during the '60s, was home to what were then known as Happenings. These were events which were mostly unplanned and involved, I recall, an excessive amount of nudity, swear-words, simulated sex, guitars, shoulder-length hair (on the men), and a serious purpose which somehow got subsumed in the general anarchy and amateurism. I suspect today we'd find it all very tame but then it was cutting edge and very shocking.
Now, the Roundhouse is a stunning and well-planned arts center which has joined forces with the RSC, just as the Armory in New York will later this year, to provide a handsome backdrop for plays as different as As You Like It and Julius Caesar. Inevitably, some of these Shakespearean gems are better than others and, when you're planning your July Shakespeare orgy, don't miss the Romeo and Juliet with its properly young and callow pair of lovers, or the bombastic Julius Caesar, or the conundrum that is The Winter's Tale. We've had something of an orgy ourselves here in London with a fabulous King Lear by Derek Jacobi at the Donmar, and a beautifully judged Hamlet from Rory Kinnear at the National.
|photo by Nobby Clark|
In End of the Rainbow, with scarcely an off-stage moment, she plays Judy Garland in the last few weeks of her life before she died in London hotel room. She rages, she bellows, she whispers, she begs, she loves, she hates, she sings, and she yells at the hotel managers who have the temerity to ask her to pay her tab. She grooms yet another husband, her last, and torments yet another pianist and, by the end, we remember why she was one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived.
I saw her live, at the London Palladium, and years later wrote a book about her. Take it from me, Tracie Bennett so closely embodies the woman I remember in body, voice and emotional intensity, that she is, at times, almost painful to watch. This is an unmissable performance and if you come to London without seeing it, you'll regret it.
(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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