A LETTER FROM LONDON: Nicholas Hytner's New Hamlet, Arthur Miller's Broken Glass and More

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Nicholas Hytner's New Hamlet, Arthur Miller's Broken Glass and More
In this month's column spotlighting London theatre, Ruth Leon writes about Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Onassis, Hamlet, Broken Glass, Design for Living and more.


Lawrence Zazzo and Christine Rice as in the opera Radamisto
photo by Clive Barda

There are certain places you're supposed to be at particular times of the year — Como in August, Paris in April, Aspen in January — but anyone who heads for autumn in New York is missing November in London. The Royal parks are still in flower and the colors in old England would surely give fall in New England a run for its money. And, theatrically, this fall is bustin' out all over. I've just seen nine performances in 11 days — seven plays, a ballet and an opera — and I'm longing for an evening at home with some bad American television and a carry-out Chinese supper.

A recent Saturday afternoon was particularly sunny and beautiful. I really would have preferred to have been playing tennis but I rather resentfully but dutifully took myself to the Coliseum to hear a Handel opera I'd never heard, nor, in fact, heard of before. Radamisto is sublime music and singing coupled with an absurd plot. Such are the joys of 18th-century opera. And not the only ones. The "wrong" voices come out of the characters: Radamisto, a tough warrior, is sung by a counter-tenor in a voice so sweet and high that he sounds like a marionette whose puppeteer has got him mixed up with a female puppet; a brutal courtier beating up his enemies is sung by a soprano in a beard and fez and you have to keep reminding yourself that it doesn't have to make sense because it's Handel and so beautiful that it's worth missing the sunshine just outside in Trafalgar Square for.

Rory Kinnear on Hamlet
photo by Johan Persson

There's some great stuff on at the moment but the one unmissable event is Rory Kinnear's Hamlet at the National Theatre. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, it's set in a modern police state where the machinery of politics rules every move and where every moment is watched. Against this background, Kinnear's conflicted Dane tries to bring to his uncle's totalitarian court some measure of the normality he has experienced at university. His is not a noble Hamlet but isolated and lonely, trying by himself to come to terms with the hardest questions because he doesn't know who around him he can trust. In Hytner and Kinnear's interpretation, Gertrude is an alcoholic afraid of her husband and Claudius is a cold-blooded and remorseless dictator. Every character, including Polonius and Ophelia, is pretending, everyone is false, there is no firm ground. You get a sense of what even the most modern royalty, say, Prince Harry and Prince William, experience in trying to live a normal life.

I have to admit that my heart sank at the idea of yet another Hamlet (we've had three major London productions in the past year) but this was worth every moment of its 3½ hours. By the way, the idea of doing Shakespeare in contemporary costume has all the best antecedents — Shakespeare himself played in modern dress.

Lydia Leonard and Robert Lindsay in Onassis
photo by Tristram Kenton

In telling the story of the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, and his relationships with Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas, playwright Martin Sherman invokes the Greek gods in his play Onassis, a title I mentioned in last month's column. Everybody talks to them although they don't seem to do much for the Onassis family. Robert Lindsay in the title role demonstrates, with his frequent forays into taverna dancing and singing, his many musical theatre talents and we hear snippets of Callas' voice although there's not much here about the tangled lives of the up-market Greeks that we didn't know already. Sherman has Onassis admit to having had a hand in the murders of both Kennedy brothers and to be planning the death of his son's girlfriend, Baroness Thyssen and his arch-rival, Stavros Niarchos, but that's dramatic license and not all that dramatic anyway. Should I admit that what I liked best about the production was the frequent interjections of Greek music? There's a lot of Noel Coward around even though Brief Encounter has left us for New York. The Old Vic has a sparkling Design for Living, his three-cornered meditation on why love is impossible as well as essential, and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, has Hay Fever with Nicola McAuliffe as Judith Bliss, matriarch of a howlingly funny family. Last season we had Kim Cattrall in Private Lives, leaving, of the four great Coward comedies, only Present Laughter unrevived. Wait, like buses, there'll be one along soon.

On American revivals, a sensitive new production of Arthur Miller's Broken Glass at the Tricycle offsets the somewhat lackluster version of The Country Girl, Clifford Odets' backstage drama at the Apollo. I was somewhat taken aback to note that Broken Glass, Miller's most overtly "Jewish" play, about the effect on a suburban American family of Kristalnacht in 1938, was directed by a Muslim, Iqbal Khan. On the other hand, why shouldn't it be? We don't ask the religious affiliation of directors of any other kind of play. Imagine asking Nicholas Hytner (who is Jewish) why he directed Don Carlos, which is full of Christian imagery. A more interesting question is why is Miller is so loved in Britain and so reviled in the United States? His All My Sons would still be running here, to sold out houses, if its stars, David Suchet (of "Poirot") and Zoe Wanamaker (of "My Family") had not had prior commitments necessitating a limited run.

I never miss my favorite regional ballet company, Birmingham Royal Ballet, when they're on their leisurely trek around Britain at this time of the year. At Sadler's Wells, they're performing a real curiosity as part of their "Pointes of View" Triple Bill. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is a madcap comic ballet originally choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Richard Rodgers for the 1936 Broadway show On Your Toes. This was the first ballet dance number ever to be integrated into the plot of a musical. It's more Keystone Kops than Dying Swan and lots of slapstick fun.

(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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Birmingham Royal Ballet's <i>Slaughter on Tenth Avenue</i>
Birmingham Royal Ballet's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Photo by Birmingham Royal Ballet
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