A Letter From London: The Importance of Being Unselfish

Special Features   A Letter From London: The Importance of Being Unselfish
Columnist Ruth Leon highlights London theatres for their initiatives in bringing new and diverse audiences to the theatre—plus her thoughts on Amadeus and Lazarus.
Michael C. Hall in <i>Lazarus</i>
Michael C. Hall in Lazarus Jan Versweyveld

In a time where not much is going right on either side of the Atlantic, I thought we might recognize a few tiny sparks of unselfishness in the London theatre. The Donmar Warehouse, which completes its spectacular trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a women’s prison this month by adding The Tempest to the already much-lauded Julius Caesar and Henry IV, is serious about building a new audience. Under a scheme called YOUNG+FREE, supported by some of the starriest names in the business—Meryl Streep, Cynthia Erivo, Christine Baranski, Cush Jumbo, and our own Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan—the Donmar is giving away 25 percent of all the tickets for the trilogy to theatregoers aged 25 and under. There’s some sponsorship from corporations, but much of the money for the scheme comes from older individual theatregoers voluntarily paying it forward.

Alongside this scheme, the Donmar’s outreach programs will enable 2,300 students from London schools with limited experience of Shakespeare performance to see these productions, not the children’s versions or second cast throwaways so often offered to young people. They are the real thing, the first cast, the front row. If that doesn’t get kids excited about live theatre, nothing will. The Tempest is set to transfer to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in January 2017.

Most responsible theatres these days have signed performances for the deaf and many have described performances for the visually impaired but I’m fascinated by the increasing number of theatres reaching out to special audiences. I haven’t previously been aware of the availability in London theatres of performances that specifically welcome people who are experiencing mental health problems. At these safe space performances, audiences can come and go as they wish.

The Young Vic has a program for “babes in arms” at 11:30 AM. They keep the houselights up so that parents can move around if necessary to settle a fussy infant and there’s a place to warm bottles, park buggies, and change diapers. David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, has always been innovative and it will be interesting to see the extent to which these brave new programs attract and keep new audiences.

At the National Theatre, there’s an oddly misbegotten production of one of my favorite plays by one of my favorite directors. From its inception in 1979, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus had tremendous ambitions. Through the eyes of Vienna’s most popular composer, Antonio Salieri, it told the story of the rise and fall of that upstart Mozart, while asking perhaps the most important question you can ask about artistic innovation: What is the difference between talent and genius? Mozart, according to Shaffer, is a horrible little man with disgusting personal habits and no common sense or social acumen. But he is—and Salieri knows it with a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach the second he first hears his music—a genius, and nothing he says or does to stand in his way can change that. Not that Salieri doesn’t try. He may know he’s not fit to stand on the same podium as Mozart, but the rest of the Viennese court doesn’t, and he is free to make Mozart’s like a misery.

Michael Longhurst’s fussy and discordant production, starring Lucian Msamati as Salieri and Adam Gillen as Mozart, is not aided by the full chamber orchestra playing live onstage or the enormous cast milling around, seemingly always in the wrong place at the right time. And yet, if you strip away all the extraneous conceptual nonsense, it’s still a terrific play examining a perfect question.

Confession time. I’m tempted to whisper this: I am not a David Bowie fan. Lazarus, the compilation musical starring Michael C. Hall as Bowie’s Man Who Fell to Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton, is pretty hard to penetrate. A good cast of singers, actors, and musicians occupy themselves by singing his songs and animating a sort of story, which I fear I never quite understood. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I admit that the rest of the audience, clearly more familiar than I with the Bowie oeuvre, were close to ecstatic. Even I could discern that some of the songs are unusual and well-crafted and that the voices chosen to sing them often excellent. If you love David Bowie’s music Lazarus is for you.

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