Letter from London: Out and About on the West End Theatre Scene

Special Features   Letter from London: Out and About on the West End Theatre Scene
One viewer’s take on Reza’s Art, The Royal Shakespeare Company, and the stage adaptation of The Kite Runner.
The cast of <i>Art</i>: Tim Key, Rufus Sewall, and Paul Ritter
The cast of Art: Tim Key, Rufus Sewall, and Paul Ritter Photo courtesy of The Old Vic

But is it Art?
Yasmina Reza’s plays speak to the middle-class theatregoing audiences’ desire to see themselves onstage, but behaving far worse than they would dare to. The first of them, Art, has landed at the Old Vic in a bang-up revival by Matthew Warchus.

It’s still three Frenchmen arguing about a painting one of them just acquired, which turns out to be a completely featureless white canvas. In a program note, the director writes that “Art is about identity, fear of change, tolerance, prejudice.” For this theatregoer, it’s about friendship between men, the male fear of being laughed at, and the depth of the connections that can transcend differences. Male bonding is a fragile thing, once they get beyond talking about work, women, and football. So here we have three close friends arguing about a painting, loved by one, disliked by another, and despised by the third. This play, and all of Reza’s work, attracts very good actors, in this case Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter, and Tim Key.

The originating cast was Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, and Ken Stott—equally good. I remember that production with particular pleasure for an incident that happened about halfway through the press performance. A woman in a box stood up and shouted at the stage, “This is a load of rubbish,” whereupon a man in the orchestra shouted back, “No, it’s not, it’s brilliant.”

Other audience members joined in the debate and the cast looked at each other, stopped speaking, and sat down. After a few minutes, when a number of audience members had had their say, Albert Finney got up and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is all fascinating but, if it’s all right with you, we’d like to get on with the play as we’ve all got trains to catch.”

The play resumed, hugely invigorated by the impromptu argument. That year, Art won the Olivier for Best New Comedy and the Tony Award for Best Play. It was translated into more than 30 languages, which proves to me that there are lots of people still going to the theatre who see themselves as intellectual heavyweights but want their art, and their Art, in bite-size, easily digestible nibbles.

The other thing I remember about that first production, back in 1995, was that it was the first of the now-frequently produced plays that last less than two hours and have no intermission. As we went into the theatre for that first press performance we were informed that the play was just 90-minutes long. My husband, also a critic, said, gleefully, “Oh goody, a perfect play. Curtain up at 7, in the Ivy [restaurant] by 9. Let’s come every night.” A lot of people did and still do.

Labour of Love
The Royal Shakespeare’s pairing of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing is pure joy as the two plays transfer from their home theatre in Stratford upon Avon to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End. If you can, see them as I did in one day.

It makes for a lot of Shakespeare all at once, but there is much speculation that Much Ado—my favorite of all the comedies because it’s the only one entirely about grown-ups with no fairies or gods or sprites to distract us from the business of words, plots, and emotions—is actually the long lost Love’s Labour’s Won. Whether it is or not, director Tim Luscombe has brilliantly set Love’s Labour’s Lost, that enchanting evening of young aristocrats heedlessly falling in love in a summer idyll, in the famously sun-filled English summer immediately before the First World War, and Much Ado in the same house, now a convalescent home reminiscent of latter episodes of Downton Abbey immediately after the same war. In a perfectly judged coup de théâtre, Luscombe has the young men at the very end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, when Shakespeare makes them promise not to see their fiancées for a year, march onstage in uniform to go to war. We know that many of them will never return. It is the perfect ending for this light-hearted comedy and a fitting preparation for the darker tone of Much Ado, the more adult and serious work. This is “don’t miss” Shakespeare.

Go Fly a Kite
Surprisingly, the stage adaptation of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel of a young boy living during the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy, fails to ignite. I may have been the only person who went into the theatre without having read the book—which, with Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, has sold nearly 40 million copies—so I came to the story of a privileged Iranian childhood followed by exile in San Francisco with enthusiasm. Sure, the guilt that Amir feels when he abandons his servant and childhood friend is touching, as is the difficult adjustment to his American life, but I was never engaged either with Amir (Ben Turner) or his progenitor, Khaled Hosseini. It’s a workmanlike, sturdy adaptation and the performances are adequate but I left the theatre thinking that I’d better read the book.

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