Frankenstein and Keira Knightley—Don’t Confuse the Two

A March march through London theater (sorry, ‘theatre’)

Director Bijan Sheibani throws a lot at the production (sometimes literally: flurries of paper snow, a slew of plastic bottles), but little of it illuminates or thrills. A notable exception: the life-size animatronic polar bear (again, how do they pay for these things?) who wanders on eliciting cheers and gasps from the audience, and this is even before he munches on an actor. Would someone please bring this bear over here? Maybe we can get him a stint in Chicago. (And, yes, London’s long since imported that show, too.)

Another chilly creature appears in a competing climate change play, Richard Bean’s The Heretic at the Royal Court. Dr. Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson) is the titular iconoclast, a waspish scientist who remains skeptical on the subject of global warming and is fired from her university job for it. Bean is a funny writer and often quite a daring one—his last play, England People Very Nice, attracted various accusations of racism.

Yet he’s unlikely to provoke much with this new effort, which first withholds plot and then piles it on, sacrificing theme and character development to volleys of jokes, many of them amusing. If neither of these plays on environmental catastrophe succeeds, at least you can hand it to Londoners for mounting two shows on the subject when we haven’t yet managed a single major one. American playwrights, start your hybrid engines.

Miller and Cumberbatch do a monster mash
Catherine Ashmore
Miller and Cumberbatch do a monster mash

Stevenson’s clipped speech and the set of her jaw make her an excellent choice to play Cassell. Similarly, you can more or less see why director Trevor Nunn wanted the gorgeous Sienna Miller for his Theatre Royal Haymarket revival of Flare Path, Terence Rattigan’s 1943 patriotic drama about R.A.F. bombers. Miller, who revealed herself as a limited actress on Broadway in After Miss Julie, is now cast as one. Miller plays Patricia, actress wife to bomber Teddy (a sympathetic Harry Hadden-Paton) and former lover of Hollywood star Peter (James Purefoy, slick and commanding), who has come to reclaim her.

Miller acquits herself well enough, though she can sometimes appear oddly blank. But the real revelation is the luminous Sheridan Smith, a musical theater actress (she just received the Olivier, the equivalent of a Tony, as Elle in Legally Blonde) who plays a brassy barmaid now married to a Polish count. At first she seems mere comic relief, but as she listens to a letter from her husband, presumed dead, I dare you not to feel a crumpet-sized lump in our throat.

Rattigan is enjoying considerable London vogue at the moment. A production of After the Dance (1939) recently closed and one of Cause Célèbre (1976) will soon open. His mid-century reticence seems to appeal to a newly austere Britain. But if you think Rattigan is a picture of reserve (and indeed one character in the midst of Flare Path whines, “How I hate all this polite air force understatement”), you will discover with some surprise that Flare Path closes with a song as profane as anything on the contemporary stage.

Restraint, repression, and conflicted longing are also at the heart of Ian Rickson’s well-appointed revival of The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama at the West End’s Comedy Theatre. This play also boasts a marquee name—well, two if you’re a Mad Men fan, as many Londoners are. Keira Knightley plays Karen Wright and Elisabeth Moss plays Martha Dobie, two schoolmistresses accused of lesbianism by a uniquely nasty pupil named Mary (an irritating Bryony Hannah).

Rickson, who will soon bring Jez Butterworth’s marvelous Jerusalem to Broadway, can’t decide if he wants naturalism or something more stylized, but he ably creates the hothouse atmosphere of the small town school. And Knightley, who received mixed notices when she made her stage debut last year with The Misanthrope, flourishes. While her New England accent is highly variable (and those of her students deplorable), she lends remarkable emotional access to the conflicted Karen, and Moss is even more striking as a woman forced to kill herself once she reveals her long-stifled desires.

If characters were forced to kill themselves every time they aired uncomfortable truths, writer-director Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep would end in record time, which would be a fine thing. Brother Bobby (Lost star Matthew Fox) and sister Betty (Olivia Williams, of Dollhouse and Rushmore fame) meet at her lakeside cabin to clear out a tenant’s possessions. As Betty glugs a bottle of wine, Bobby pounds Budweisers. Very little packing occurs, though both of them work through remarkable amounts of exposition and several preposterous secrets.

The play wouldn’t be so bad had LaBute not employed the same directorial moves and the same dramaturgical strategies as he has so many times before—the annoyingly loud rock music, the gotcha structure, the endless inarticulacy, the privileging of the boorish white guy, the misogynistic vocabulary (“cunt,” “bitch,” “whore”). If the play does prove popular, which seems unlikely, it will serve to confirm Brits’ worst suspicions of Americans—that we’re crass, violent, sex-crazed, murderous, and utterly unable to ever shut up. In all likelihood, In a Forest, Dark and Deep will wash up on our own shores next season (likely at MCC). But we ought to want better from our theater. And better from London theater, too.

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