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.

It’s a legitimately bold show—to the extent that you wonder whether or not it could ever be staged in New York, especially at a venue with the National’s prominence. By offering so few varying viewpoints, it confronts Islam with a mirror of its own narrow-mindedness. It also asks a largely left-leaning audience to take a stand as to where they’ll draw the line against moral relativism. Unfortunately, this ethical steadfastness forces a tonal sameness. Can We Talk plays out so intensely and so unceasingly that there’s little opportunity for dramatic arcs. The ultimate effect is battering rather than needling. Does DV8 really want to start a conversation, or simply quash opposing views?

Conversely, it seemed everyone wanted to talk about The Recruiting Officer, Josie Rourke’s triumphant debut as the new artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. As she followed heavyweights Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage, speculation was rife as to whether Rourke, the former director of the Bush Theatre, could fill those very sizeable boots. Yes, she can. And the trousers, braided jackets, and plumed hats, too. For her first effort, she picked George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy about two rival recruiting officers (a profession Farquhar himself practiced) sent to enroll the young men of Shrewsbury. With candles and rough hewn boards, she transforms the Donmar into a Restoration playhouse, albeit with fewer prostitutes.

Rourke has succeeded in some very clever casting, particularly regarding the male actors. She manages to wrangle the immense comic talents of both Mackenzie Crook (recently seen in Jerusalem), as the scheming secretary Kite, and Mark Gatiss (of the BBC’s Sherlock), as the foppish Captain Brazen, without having either upstage the other. And audiences should doff their caps to Tobias Menzies, known to New York audiences from The History Boys, in the lead role of Captain Plume. Rourke manages to make the tedious scenes funny, the stock bits fresh, the sexual politics startling, and largely through the use of music, imbues the whole with a melancholy beneath the bawdry, no less unexpected than it is welcome.

Historians place The Recruiting Officer as the first documented play ever performed in New York. Perhaps some clever producers will arrange for it to have another showing. Producers have already agreed to bring Matilda, the riotous adaptation of Roald Dahl’s kiddie revenge tale to Broadway next spring. Now running in the West End, scripted by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by the actor and comedy songwriter Tim Minchin, it concerns a bookish five-year-old girl (a rotating cast of four young actresses) who uses psychic powers to get even with her neglectful parents and abusive headmistress. This headmistress, Miss Truchbull, is played by the astonishing Bertie Carvel, a handsome young man who metamorphoses into a gorgon with a weightlifters’ shoulders and an eerily feminine voice. As musicals about telekinetics go, Matilda can kick Carrie up and down the playground.

Directed by Matthew Warchus, the show relies on a cast of both adults and children, some of them much tinier than their Billy Elliot peers. Like Billy Elliot, this is a musical about a child that should appeal to theatergoers of any age. It’s much sillier than Billy, though strangely just as likely to wring tears. In a song late in the play, the children push themselves on playground swings as they sing “When I Grow Up,” a wistful tune about how maturity will bring strength, bravery, knowledge, and the chance to “eat sweets every day.” (Let’s hope no one tells these mini thesps that it usually doesn’t work out that way.) Matilda is smart about children—their abilities, their anxieties, their gross-out humor. And Warchus is smart about his kiddie cast, letting them ham it up in the way children will before corralling them into disciplined dance numbers.

Early in the first act, Matilda offers an anthem in support of tot rebellion. Our heroine sings, “We're told we have to do what we're told, but surely/Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.” Surely she’s right, but sometimes, in London, in New York, and particularly in the case of Matilda, you can content yourself with merely being very, very good.

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