A World Awry: A Preview of the London 2009 Theatre Season

Special Features   A World Awry: A Preview of the London 2009 Theatre Season
The London theatre scene in 2009 reflects our tumultuous times as it presents several plays depicting an England, and a world, in turmoil — not just now, but at various times during the past century.
Nicholas Hytner
Nicholas Hytner Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Perhaps no one theatre has taken to heart the stage's duty to hold a mirror up to life than the Royal National Theatre, which will open on Feb. 11 England People Very Nice, a new play by Richard Bean that is described as "a riotous journey through four waves of immigration from the 17th century to today." Bean illustrates that national protest over immigration was not invented in our times. In his play, the native population of England is alarmed and aggravated by everyone from the French Huguenots to the Irish to the Jews to the Bangladeshis. Theatregoers are taken from the 17th century to today in Nicholas Hytner's production of the comedy written with "scurrilous bravura."

On May 5, in the National's Lyttleton, director Rupert Goold delivers a new production of a play about the disappointed aspirations of another era: J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways. In this drama, which begins in 1919, the clock and the calendar are the villains, as a peek into the future reveals that 21-year-old Kay's plans for her life are not exactly what fate had in mind.

The creeping shadow of Russia's violent past casts a pall over the National's Burnt by the Sun, written by Peter Flannery from the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov. Ciarán Hinds stars as Colonel Kotov, a decorated hero of the Russian Revolution, who, while on vacation with his family in 1936, finally understands what it means to have Stalin as your leader. Howard Davies directs the piece that, in a time when Putin is slowly trying to rehabilitate Stalin's image, may be as pertinent as ever.

Toby Jones in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
photo by Simon Annand

A National revival of Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn's seldom-seen Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, beginning Jan. 16, will remind theatregoers of the slippery relationship between truth and freedom. Toby Jones plays a dissident prisoner who will be released by the authorities only if he admits he has been mentally sick and, after treatment, is now well. The man must ask himself which price is the dearer: freedom bought with a lie, or sticking to a truth that ensures captivity. Felix Barrett and Tom Morris direct. Kevin Spacey's Old Vic takes a look at Bush-era politics vis a vis the press in Complicit, a work by Joe Sutton that echoes the recent White House scandal involving Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, Valerie Plame and New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Richard Dreyfuss plays Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ben Kritzer, who is hauled before the Supreme Court "where he faces the dilemma of defending his belief in the freedom of the press or protecting his family." Now on stage, performances continue through Feb. 21. The starry cast also includes David Suchet and Elizabeth McGovern.

Rowan Atkinson in Oliver!

The societal problems of another century are visited in the current revival of Oliver!, Lionel Bart's musical based of the novel by one of the socially indignant novelists of all time, Charles Dickens. The production, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, is directed by the hot Rupert Goold, and co-directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne. Rowan Atkinson is Fagin, and Jodie Prenger — who won her role by public vote, following the BBC 1 Reality TV show "I'd Do Anything" — is Nancy, sharing the role with Australian Tamsin Carroll, who starred in Cameron Mackintosh's 2002 Australian production of Oliver!. The production opened Jan. 14 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Uneasy souls of several eras are on offer courtesy of the Donmar Warhouse. Beginning Jan. 22, the theatre will offer Be Near Me, adapted for the stage by Ian McDiarmid — who also stars — from The Booker Prize-nominated novel by Andrew O'Hagan. McDiarmid plays David Anderton, an Oxford-educated Catholic priest who befriends two unstable Scottish teenagers in his parish. Jonathan Pryce and Anne Reid star in Athol Fugard's Dimetos, about a skilled engineer who escapes to a remote coastal village in search of a simpler existence. Performances begin March 19. And, Gillian Anderson stars as Ibsen's immortal Nora in a new production of A Doll's House, starting May 14.

At Donmar's West End address, the Wyndhams Theatre, beginning March 19, Judi Dench stars in Madame de Sade by Yukio Mishima, an all-women play about the inexplicably loyal wife of a notorious figure. Michael Grandage directs.

The Almeida Theatre 2009 season starts Jan. 22 with Duet for One, Tom Kempinski's tale of a concert pianist, played by Juliet Stevenson, who seeks out a psychiatrist, played by Henry Goodman, when she is faced with a tragedy that causes her to reevaluate her life. This will be followed by Jez Butterworth's Parlour Song, about the strange things that keep happening to demolition expert Ned, played by Toby Jones. Ian Rickson directs. The run begins March 19.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

Finally, for the ultimate "world gone wrong" production, we have a star-laden new production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Sean Mathias will have his hands full directing Ian McKellen (Estragon), Patrick Stewart (Vladamir), Simon Callow (Pozzo) and Ronald Pickup (Lucky). Performances begin April 30 at Theatre Royal Haymarket Company. Other shows of interest in the coming months include: The Royal Shakespeare Company's revival of its 2005 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Novello, starting Jan 15, followed by The Taming of the Shrew on Feb. 12; a new revival of Alan Bennett's comedy Enjoy at the Gielgud, beginning Jan. 27; a new revival of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain at the Apollo from Jan. 30; a stage adaptation of the film On the Waterfront by its screenwriter Budd Schulberg, directed by Steven Berkoff, beginning Jan. 28 at the Haymarket, Theatre Royal; a new staging, starting March 17, of Marlowe Dido, Queen of Carthage, directed by James Macdonald at the National's Cottesloe; and Grasses of a Thousand Colours, the new Wallace Shawn play, at the Royal Court from May 12, which stars Shawn and Miranda Richardson and concerns "the embattled relationship between man and beast." But, hey: that's the underlying subject of every play, isn't it?

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