The London Blitz

Plague! Arson! Smut! A visit to Britain’s classy theater.

LONDON—The effects of the Red Death, according to Edgar Allen Poe: “There were sharp pains and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution, …scarlet stains on the body and especially on the face…. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” That I live to write this—unpained and unstained—suggests I have survived Punchdrunk’s extraordinary The Masque of Red Death as well as several other shows in a long weekend of London theatergoing.

Like the Broadway season, the London one hasn’t enjoyed any out-and-out hits, though O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones at the National, Weiss’s The Investigation at the Young Vic, and Patrick Stewart's Macbeth (soon to appear at BAM) have received strong notices. In addition to Stewart, London plays boast a fair amount of star power, with Daniel Radcliffe trotting along in Equus, and Denise van Outen in Rent Remixed. (I was delighted to see two regulars from my favorite ITV series Midsomer Murders, John Hopkins and Graham Turner, treading the boards.) Few new plays enliven the West End, save the somewhat maligned Alex, by Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor, inspired by the Telegraph cartoon, and All About My Mother, based on the Almadovar film.

My affection for Toby Stephens is also based on film, or more properly, television miniseries. A few years ago he played a dashing Kim Philby in Cambridge Spies and a brooding Rochester (with really unfortunate hair) in the latest Jane Eyre adaptation. He hasn’t appeared on a New York stage since 1999, when he played Nero, Hippolytus, and a couple of roles in Ring Round the Moon. As I hadn’t been able to catch his stint in Betrayal at the Donmar earlier this season, I determined to see him strut and swagger as Horner in William Wycherley’s naughty comedy of 1675, The Country Wife, performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. (Horner, an arch lecher, has it rumored that the pox has unmanned him—the better to reassure husbands and secretly seduce wives.) In billowing shirts, tight pants, and a grin so rakish it could do yard work, Stephens doesn’t disappoint. Nor do Paul Brown’s prankish set and costumes.

Punchdrunk’s The Masque of Red Death
Benedict Johnson
Punchdrunk’s The Masque of Red Death

But director Jonathan Kent seems so convinced that audiences will tire of the Restoration language that he has increased the antics and raunch to an exhausting degree. Every line’s a double entendre—some Wycherley intended, some he never dreamt of—accompanied by telling looks and motions. Much of the stage business unfolds at a near hysterical pitch. At one point the character Lady Fidget declares, “Let us not be smutty,” but the rest of the characters are far too busy making rude hand gestures to hear her.

Not in the least smutty was War Horse at the National. Designed as an entertainment for children and adults—in the manner of recent National successes such as His Dark Materials and Coram Boy—the play is admittedly more kid-friendly than Equus, but a traumatic couple of hours all the same. Based on a young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, the play concerns Joey, a horse drafted into the WWI cavalry, and Albert, the boy who joins up to safeguard him. Elegantly staged by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, and with exemplary mechanical horses courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company, War Horse may not rank as the most violent children’s play (that honor belongs to Shockheaded Peter) but it is one of the more distressing. Several horses collapse, one is stabbed through the ear, another entangles itself in barbed wire and screams—to say nothing of the humans shot, gouged, exploded, and run over by tanks. The white-faced children around me kept stiff upper lips while chewing on their lower ones, but I gave over to tears.

Eyes and tone remained dry at the Royal Court’s The Arsonists, running in repertory with Rhinoceros, part of artistic director Dominic Cooke’s attempt to recuperate the European absurdist tradition. In Max Frisch’s none-too-blazing parable, a feckless industrialist invites a pair of vagrants into his home, even though he lives in an arsonist-plagued city and his new lodgers keep assembling drums of petrol. Britain’s class anxieties occasionally lend the script a bit of frisson (the bourgeois hero is desperate to appear unprejudiced), but the threat never feels urgent or necessary. Ramin Gray offers a stylish staging, but this play about the banality (and impotence) of goodness threatens to be itself banal, as slick and bloodless as the chic international-style setting.

By contrast, Punchdrunk’s The Masque of Red Death is slick and quite bloody. A site-specific and participatory adaptation of various Poe short stories, the show plays out amid endless rooms in the Battersea Arts Centre, a former Victorian-era town hall. Since 2000, Punchdrunk has specialized in immersive theater, projects in which the audience creates much of the action. Punchdrunk had a hit with last year’s Faust, performed in a five-story Wapping warehouse, and must have made a Mephistophelian pact as they’ve now produced a show regarded as even more impressive. Upon entering, everyone is issued capes and beaklike masks—of the sort doctors wore during the plague—and warned in fearful tones to keep safe. Then you’re let loose into a darkened, fabric-draped passage. You can try to map the space geographically (as I did); or follow various characters as they enact “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” etc.; or progress haphazardly.

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