What's Hot in London -- December 1997

Special Features   What's Hot in London -- December 1997
LONDON NEWS -- November 1997

LONDON NEWS -- November 1997

Sheridan Morley reviews recent major openings in London.

For those of us, maybe just those of me, who believe that Tom Stoppard has never written anything greater than his 1974 Travesties, there is great news at the National; by way of a leaving present, Richard Eyre has superbly staged the latest play by the man who is essentially what we on this side of the Atlantic have instead of Stephen Sondheim, but without the music. That Stoppard is the most intellectually brilliant playwright of my half-century lifetime, I have no doubt; but when that brilliance leads, as I believe it did in his last play Arcadia, to a series of often exclusionary mind games, there was cause for concern; the professor was in danger of disappearing up his own genius.

The Invention of Love (Cottesloe, moving to Lyttleton Dec. 20) brings him back centerstage and in total triumph; once again we are, as in Travesties, dealing with a group of world-class talents who might have met, though in fact few of them did, in a place where they all happened to be living at roughly the same time. Instead of Lenin and Tzara and James Joyce in 1917 Zurich, we now have A. E. Housman and Oscar Wilde and Frank Harris and Jerome K. Jerome and Walter Pater and John Ruskin, all gathered on the banks of the Oxford Isis sometime in the early 1880's.

Except, of course, that nothing in Stoppard is ever quite that simple; this river is not just the Isis, but also the Thames of Three Men in a Boat and the Styx of Hell, complete with a quixotically boring boatman, Michael Bryant as Charon: "I had that Dionysus once in the back of me boat." So this is a play about a river? Not exactly.

It's a play about Housman young (Paul Rhys in edgy undergraduate uneasiness) and Housman old (John Wood, always Stoppard's best interpreter, here in the performance of his life): "I am not as young as I was," he tells his younger alter ego, "whereas you, of course, are."

At one level, and there are many, many more than I can begin to excavate here, this is a play about a little-known, self-torturing, closet gay poet trying to come to terms with his sexual and poetic self amid tremendous late-Victorian uncertainty; one of the many central paradoxes of the man is that he left university without a degree and was within 15 years one of the most distinguished classical professors in the world, as acerbic in his textual commentaries as he was paralytically shy in real life, so shy that he moved houses six times, on every occasion because a neighbor spoke to him on the train to work. His life was marked only, as Stoppard notes in the play, "by long silences," and though many dramatists might have been content just to fill in those silences, Stoppard is not many dramatists. His play veers off into the night sky like a fireworks display. One minute we have all the great 1870's dons at Oxford playing imaginary croquet as they debate the nature of poetry and philosophy; the next, we get Oscar Wilde cutting to the heart of the play's only problem: "Biography," says Tom's Oscar, "is the mesh through which our real life escapes." The Invention of Love is a great play about a great deal; but in the end it is, I think, about the corruption of texts and men, and the price that the hypocritical and flawed public and private morality of the last century exacted from its greatest talents.

Matthew Bourne's stunning new ballet, Cinderella (at the Piccadilly), set in 1943, is a work of considerable genius based on one very simple juxtaposition, which has surprisingly been ignored by most of my colleagues; the ball to which this Cinderella goes, despite stolen invitation, is not set in just any blitzed ballroom of that year. It is clearly meant to be the Cafe de Paris on the night when Snakehips Johnson and many of his jazz followers were killed by a bomb, the night when police had to fire on looters (in fact fellow night clubbers) trying to tear jewelry off the lifeless limbs of those less fortunate than themselves.

It was not the finest hour of brave Londoners surviving air raids, and perhaps for that reason the story seldom gets retold; but it perfectly suits Bourne's dark vision of a Cinders whose father is in a wheelchair and whose stepmother is Lynn Seymour doing the full Wicked Witch of the West, halfway from Joan Crawford to Joan Collins.

Time and again in this dazzlingly dramatic evening, Bourne has similar insights into the way in which the old pantomime myth can be specifically pointed and dated and danced to give it a precise reference; his choreographic answer to Coward's London Pride brings ballet into the West End on an eight-shows-a-week basis unknown in the seventy years since Diaghilev (unless you count the transfer of Bourne's own Swan Lake last year), and sets the reborn Cinderella alongside The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon as a long-run musical hit.

Whether in the dance of death at the Cafe de Paris or in a brief encounter on a station platform, this is an astonishingly dreamy and dramatic evening, the kind that was only ever the l940's movie property of Powell and Pressburger until now; quite clearly, it is the Christmas treat for families of all ages, each of whom will find something special here to take away forever. Not since the Alan Bennett Wind in the Willows has there been a spectacular that manages simultaneously to celebrate and criticize its own frames of reference quite so triumphantly.

-- By Sheridan Morley

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