Best of Thames

Statecraft and stagecraft across the pond

During This House, James Graham's sly, acerbic survey of government tumult throughout 1970s Britain, one politico remarks that parliamentary democracy "is one of the few things this country has manufactured and exported that hasn't been sent back." Theater is another.

Where would American drama be without English playwrights (to say nothing of the Irish) and the stagecraft they invented? Our first professional players were English--as were the plays they performed--and more than 200 years after independence, it's still impossible to think of a season that doesn't rely, in ways great and small, on British writers, actors, and directors.

That's not to say we Americans don't also have a thriving export business (mainly new writing and the occasional Hollywood star), or that we haven't taught Olde England some new tricks. But British theater, especially in its London locus, has its particular strengths (state-of-the-nation plays, immersive works, infinitely better theater bars) and weaknesses (pantomime), as a week spent surveying its offerings--and various intermission ice creams (treacle toffee!)--will attest.

The Queen (Helen Mirren) and Young Elizabeth (Nell Williams) in The Audience.
Johan Persson
The Queen (Helen Mirren) and Young Elizabeth (Nell Williams) in The Audience.

For one thing, the English continue to have us beat in terms of political drama. Wrack your brains and see if you can conjure a successful American play as enmeshed in the workings of government as Graham's. This House plays out in the halls and back rooms of Westminster in the turbulent years of the mid-'70s--a time of hung parliaments, minority governments, and fragile coalitions.

Graham competed against Caryll Churchill for this year's Evening Standard award for best new play (they both lost to Nick Payne), and he shares Churchill's taste for quick, sharp scenes and a concentration on the workings of power. Characters do emerge here, but only gradually, and Graham demonstrates an interest less in individuals than in the schemes and machinations in which they participate. The script rarely bothers with exposition and almost never condescends, so there's a precipitous learning curve for those--like me--who lack easy familiarity with British politics. But the play amply repays the attention it demands.

Graham seems captivated by both major parties (even if the play ultimately reveals a bias toward Labour), and shows neither as particularly principled. Both sides talk and play dirty. They might be almost indistinguishable, except for the Tories' posher accents and (in a running gag) much nicer suits. But both sides combine Machiavellian cunning with occasional flashes of strange decency.

The cast is expert (with standout performances from Phil Daniels, Reece Dinsdale, and Charles Edwards); the design simple and clever, with onstage audience members unknowingly assigned the roles of backbenchers; and the direction by Jeremy Herrin lucid, though sometimes self-consciously cool. If this script is likely too inside baseball (inside cricket?) for an American transfer, U.S. audiences can still catch it in cinemas when National Theatre Live screens a performance on May 16.

Also set for an NT Live screening (June 13) is The Audience, Peter Morgan's play starring Helen Mirren, now in the West End and rumored for a Broadway run. A series of vignettes, it focuses on the weekly tête-à-têtes between Queen Elizabeth II (the resplendent Helen Mirren) and the 12 prime ministers who have served since her accession. The role of Elizabeth requires an actress who can age 60 years and wear a succession of sensible dresses and skirts (and rather less sensible jewels) with aplomb.

And of course Mirren, under Stephen Daldry's direction, pulls it off magnificently. She can do imperious, she can do vulnerable--well, really, she can do just about anything. She triumphs in her more acerbic mode--as when Elizabeth describes herself as "a postage stamp with a pulse"--though she has some fine scenes with Richard McCabe's bluff Harold Wilson, for whom, Morgan suggests, she has a sly affection, and with Edward Fox's Winston Churchill, with whom she bargains, unsuccessfully, to adopt her husband's name. "I may be the queen of England," she says with a hint of plaintiveness, "but I am also a woman and a wife."

Mirren is at the top of her game. (Has she ever been at the bottom?) She never coasts on impersonation and doesn't showboat, either. It's a maximal performance delivered with a minimum of fuss. Even in the scenes that don't come off, particularly that with Haydn Gwynne's Maggie Thatcher, you fault the script rather than her. While Morgan conjures some nice ironies (the P.M.s have all struggled for their positions while the queen has been thrust, not altogether willing, into hers) his script proves too self-satisfied and tidy, a far less gratifying effort than The Queen or Frost/Nixon.

Still, at least The Audience doesn't require seeming vats of stage blood, as in Jamie Lloyd's rather silly staging of another monarchical drama, Macbeth. This Shakespeare revival stars James McAvoy as the murderous usurper and is set in a post-apocalyptic Scotland poor of soap and bereft of clean laundry. Lloyd overuses classic scare tactics--flickering lights, disquieting sound, masks--but the biggest shock of the evening likely comes when Lady Macbeth (an unremarkable Claire Foy) shuffles onstage in a fresh nightgown. Wherever did she find it?

Prospective audiences might have worried that McAvoy, a rather slim and cerebral actor, would be up to the role, even though he already played it in a 2005 TV production. Happily, he has little trouble seeming appropriately bloodthirsty and martial. He wields an axe surprisingly well and often demonstrates real textual sophistication and intelligence, particularly in the many monologues. But can this matter in a production that requires him to vomit his apprehensions into a stained commode and treat the blood-soaked floor like a sanguinary slip-'n'-slide? And for goodness' sake, can't someone knit the King of Scotland a complete sweater?

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