A LETTER FROM LONDON: Divas at the National Portrait Gallery, Plus Tracey Ullman, Mike Leigh, Driving Miss Daisy and More

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Divas at the National Portrait Gallery, Plus Tracey Ullman, Mike Leigh, Driving Miss Daisy and More
Actresses from British theatre history — hello, Nell Gwyn! — have been gathered at the National Portrait Gallery. Plus, new plays by Conor McPherson and Mike Leigh.

A 1675 portrait of Nell Gwyn by Sir Peter Lely
A 1675 portrait of Nell Gwyn by Sir Peter Lely


Sometimes the best theatre in London isn't in a theatre. Despite it being the height of the season, with every West End, subsidized and fringe theatre lit every night — despite a queue of plays and musicals waiting for theatre space, praying for a flop so the theatre will become available — despite a procession of star actors and playwrights jockeying for ink and recognition, the most theatrical event in London is over at the National Portrait Gallery, where an exhibition of paintings of "The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons" is just opening. This is where the London theatre really started, after Oliver Cromwell tried, and nearly succeeded, in making England a republic and, with his Puritanism, destroyed the all-male pre-Revolutionary theatre.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the new king, Charles the Second — renowned libertine and lover of women, especially actresses — opened the theatre to women, destroying an entire industry of boys playing women's parts and taking the saucy redhead Nell Gwyn, formerly a Covent Garden orange-seller and now the toast of the comic theatre, as his official mistress. There are some serious scholars who believe he actually married her, although that's unlikely.

Actresses in the 18th century, although generally not considered respectable or wife material by royalty or the aristocracy, had a unique position in London society. The best and most famous had their own households with servants, carriages and elegant accommodations. A good actress with a regular company could afford the most fashionable dresses, wigs and hats and was seen at the best public events. They were independent women with their own incomes at a time when all the assets of a woman, no matter how rich or aristocratic, were automatically transferred to her husband upon marriage.

A 1785 portrait of Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough

These were the celebrities of the 1700s, and their every move was followed by their fans; these paintings are the equivalent of rockstar posters. The marketing that surrounded them included renderings of them in all kinds of media, from intimate biographies to wall tiles, playing cards, snuff boxes and figurines, which their besotted fans would snap up as soon as they came on the market. The audiences would have known the identity of each actress on sight, whether the paintings portrayed them as themselves or in one of their famous roles. Hardly surprising, then, that the great artists of the day — Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, William Hogarth — queued up to paint them. This exhibition brings to life both the plays and the performers. These women were admired and envied, the objects of adoration for the young bloods of the town and the mistresses of the rich and distinguished. Some of them even married into society: Lavinia Fenton, Polly Peachum in the first cast of A Beggar's Opera, eventually married her lover, the Duke of Bolton, and Giovanna Baccelli, a famous dancer and singer whose portrait by Gainsborough is one of the highlights of the exhibition, married the Duke of Dorset. Some of the most interesting subjects — Mary Robinson, Frances Abington, Elizabeth Inchbold — became writers, poets or playwrights of considerable distinction when they retired from the stage, maintaining their position as independent women of wealth, in control of their own lives and money.

They were the Lady Macbeths, the Perditas, the Ophelias of their day, and their fame alone attracted audiences to Drury Lane and Covent Garden, just as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith do today. Everyone knew the names and the favorite roles of Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, Peg Woffington, Dorothy Jordan, Nell Gwyn and their colleagues, and you had to have seen their latest performances to be able to converse in the coffee houses and London parks.

Grand ladies of the time also wanted to act, but of course they couldn't be seen at a public theatre, so in the private houses and stately homes, aristocratic women often put on plays for family and friends. One of the most fascinating paintings in the current exhibition shows Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire — two ladies at the very top of society — and their friend, the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer, as the Three Witches in a private performance of Macbeth, painted by Daniel Gardner in 1775. Because of the closeness and the friendships that grew between the painters and the actors in a London where show was a business even then, the portraits in this exhibition were, in themselves, an intrinsic part of the theatre theatrical. It's wonderful to see them together at the National Portrait Gallery, (geographically) exactly where they should be — just steps from Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

Michael Feast in Saved.
photo by Tristram Kenton

To return to what's actually onstage rather than on the walls, here's the recent round-up:

At the Duke of York's is Backbeat, by Ian Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, about the early days of the Beatles. Waiting for their big break, they have Pete Best instead of Ringo Starr on drums, and their star isn't the foul-mouthed and vulnerable John Lennon but the cool, brilliant and doomed Stuart Sutcliffe — who must choose between being in a band and being an artist, and chooses the art. Backbeat is part play, part rock concert, part biopic, part memory piece. It tells what happened "before" — when they were new, when they were young, when it was all in front of them, when they were five and only three of them would become the Fab Four. It is an entertainment pretending to be a play, a serious drama masquerading as a light-hearted songfest, and a contemporary take on a history we know all too well. It is also thoroughly compelling.

Twenty-five years after its first shocking production, Edward Bond's Saved (closed Nov. 5) got its first major revival at the Lyric Hammersmith. This is the play in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram by a gang of teenage boys as a metaphor for the boredom and apathy of the British underclass. It was brave to mount Saved then, and it still is. I am very glad I had the opportunity to see it in its new production, and I don't ever want to see it again.

The National Theatre is, as usual, in a class of its own. Three shows this month — two new, one revival. The Veil, by Conor McPherson, to Dec. 11, is a beautiful, funny tragic poem of a play, set in Ireland in 1822 at the time when the issues between Catholic and Protestant, land and faith, were becoming the fault lines that would continue to trouble us until our own time. Even when McPherson's preoccupation with spirituality and death tip over into the uncomfortable or the absurd, the poetry of his language and the delicacy of his characterisation enthrall and enrich.

Lesley Manville and Marion Bailey in Grief.
photo by John Haynes

Mike ("Secrets and Lies") Leigh's new play Grief, devised, as are all his plays and films, by his regular repertory cast of actors as well as himself, is a miserable evening of surpassing artistry and brilliance. Set in a frozen landscape of post-war 1950s gentility, it brings to everybody who remembers 1957 a shiver of recognition and relief that we don't have to live there any more. The loneliness and isolation of the emotional setting and the fake cheeriness of the dialogue paralyse the senses, but the depth and importance of the play's tragic core hits hard. It plays to Jan. 28, 2012. Just for the pleasure of seeing something very difficult done very well, you must not miss The Kitchen, which is by some serendipity, or perhaps by design, also set in 1957. Arnold Wesker's ballet of a play follows a restaurant kitchen operation from early morning until late at night. A closely choreographed picture of chefs, cooks and waitresses, this is a microcosmic, pressured world where a thousand diners come for lunch and another thousand for dinner in a dining room we never see but which exists just beyond the swinging doors into another world. Never mind the quality — this is British food in the 1950s, after all — The Kitchen is all about process. The work itself, that's what matters: how the fish got fried, the meat got grilled, the salads got made, the fruit flans assembled. And, in between, the workers, from all over the world, fall in love, fight and dream. Delicious. It ends Nov. 9.

Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest.
photo by Catherine Ashmore

Ralph Fiennes was a fine (sorry) Prospero in Trevor Nunn's clear but slightly over-egged production of The Tempest, now closed, while Douglas Hodge, who won a Tony for his turn as Zaza in La Cage aux Folles, returns to the legit stage as the self-loathing lawyer in John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence, a constantly moving (in both senses of the word) look back at the dislocation of the '60s. It runs to Nov. 26.

Tracey Ullman returned home to My City at the Almeida (its run ended Nov. 5). The first new play in ten years by film and television playwright Stephen Poliakoff, it's a loose compendium of diverse stories held together by a former head teacher who walks the London streets by night. The Old Vic is hosting J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World — truly authentic, if the sometimes impenetrable Irish dialects are right — with the irresistible Niamh Cusack as the widow down the street. It plays to Nov. 26.

And the encomiums keep coming for Driving Miss Daisy, hot from Broadway, and running to Dec. 17. Boyd Gaines is very good as the put-upon son of the old lady whose failing eyesight requires that she hire a chauffeur. James Earl Jones is breathtaking as always and Vanessa Redgrave is, well, a force of nature.

(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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