The U.K. Way: A Week of London Theater

From rebelling tots to rocking Shakespeare

To spend a week at theater in London is to consider having your eyes examined. (And to contemplate a visit to an ENT, as well.) Call it theatrical double vision. In London, as here, you’ll find a mix of straight plays, musicals, and cross-genre experiments, staged in posh venues as well as dingier sites. But while these spaces much resemble New York’s, they’re subtly, eye-rubbingly different—the doors lack handles, the candies sold at intermission vary, the signs point to stalls and circle rather than orchestra and balcony. You’ll hear the same words, but listen as the intonations are changed, even see some of the same plays—or the some of the same kinds of plays—but watch as the emphases are altered.

While the British can’t currently best us in categories such as the showy musical and the gut-spilling family drama, to pass a few nights in their theaters is to be reminded of what they do well—lively revivals, truly provocative verbatim drama, and children’s entertainments that aren’t childish. (They also have quite a good line in new writing—Penelope Skinner, Nick Payne, DC Moore, Mike Bartlett, Laura Wade, etc.—though not much was on offer during my trip last week.) But if London’s successes aren’t the same as ours, the struggles are, namely how to interlace drama with other forms of art and how to make theater purposefully relevant and innovative.

Going Dark, offered by the experimental company Sound&Fury at the New Vic, clarifies some of these difficulties. Scripted by Hattie Naylor, this one-man show concerns Max (John Mackay), an astronomer soon to go blind. Staged in the round, as if in a planetarium, with stars wheeling above, the theater is kept dark. Very dark. Not dark in the sense that you can’t see to read your program, but dark in the sense that you can’t see the hands that hold it.

A pleasingly very loose Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Keith Pattison
A pleasingly very loose Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith.
The Recruiting Officer reveals that the Donmar has recruited a good new artistic director.
Johann Persson
The Recruiting Officer reveals that the Donmar has recruited a good new artistic director.

This darkness is of course a metaphor for Max’s own loss of sight, but also for the cosmos that surrounds him. “The universe itself is going blind—going dark,” he tells us. “The more we find out about the cosmos the more we realize what we don’t see, what we can’t see, and what we will never see.” Unlike Sound&Fury’s Kursk, a much-lauded piece about a submarine disaster, here the immersive elements feel forced rather than necessary, and the relationship between script and set and sound design, however well theorized, less seamless. I’m not sure the audience learns more about Max’s blindness through experiencing it themselves, nor do the metaphors become deeper through the visual analog, just blunter.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by contrast, courtesy of another young-ish company, Filter, metaphors are mostly dispensed with altogether. In this madcap, messy, and fearless version of the Shakespeare comedy at the Lyric Hammersmith, there are no trees, flowers, or babbling brooks to represent the Athenian woods. The lovers merely repair to another part of the shabby playing area. Puck isn’t given wings or other supernatural accoutrements—instead he’s played (by the fine Ferdy Roberts) as a disdainful stage manager. Rather than exploring ideas of nature, fantasy, and liberation, Filter seem to just want to screw around onstage. And they do it wonderfully.

The play begins as Ed Gaughan, an emcee who also plays Peter Quince, takes the stage to apologize “for the crushing sense of disappointment you’ll be feeling an hour and 42 minutes from now.” Fat chance. Apparently lacking in any anxiety of influence, Filter cheerfully add bits to the script (like a rock band fronted by Gaughan) and cut out any parts that bore them, such as the frame narrative. And though the show is recommended for children as young as 11—who greatly enjoyed themselves, particularly during a food fight scene—Filter also saw fit to insert a number of sex jokes, such as an extended sequence in which Bottom discovers that transformation into an ass has its anatomical advantages.

Such naughtiness might offend a conservative audience member, though it’s far less daring than DV8’s Can We Talk About This?, a brave and bludgeoning piece of dance theater at the National Theatre. DV8’s director, Lloyd Newson, began work on the piece after reading of a poll in which 500 Muslims were asked whether or not they found homosexuality acceptable. All 500 replied in the negative. Can We Talk About This? is verbatim theater, largely comprised of interviews and speeches attacking Islamism. (Though the focus of this attack is presumably centered on radical Islam, moderates are given almost no say, so the whole of the religion appears under fire.)

Newson sets the piece against Britain’s practice of multiculturalism, a process by which government policies “promote, retain, and sustain minority cultural and religious values.” Unusually for a dance show, the piece includes speech from one end to the other, drawn from authors, politicos, activists, and academics. As each actor speaks, he or she also moves, providing a physical and rigorously athletic counterpoint to the words. Sometimes the gestures poignantly underscore the speech, at other times, particularly when those defending Islam speak, the dance ironizes the text.

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