The Fall of London: A Theater Roundup
Nearly 100 years ago, George Bernard Shaw warned, One cannot live by masterpieces alone, not only because there are not enough of them, but because new plays as well as great plays are needed.
This fall, the London stage disagreed. Masterpieces have been thick on the ground, new plays sparse. Shaw has been the rare playwright not afforded a revival. The boards have thronged instead with new productions of Shakespeare, Sophocles, Strindberg, Ayckbourn, Pinter, etc. The little new writing thats appeared has sprung primarily from the pens of our own countrymenChristopher Shinn, Neil Labute, and Tarell Alvin McCraney. (Admittedly, a new David Hare play, Gethsemane, has now opened at the National.) The two new musicals that arrived on West End stages this fallFlamenco Flamenka, which featured recycled songs, and Eurobeathave already closed. Another one, Imagine, has debuted, but as its set in a Polish ghetto in 1942, one questions its survival.
That said, some of these old plays have boasted new translation or adaptations, like Tom Stoppards take on Ivanov, David Greigs version of Strindbergs Creditors, Ben Powers and Rupert Goolds vigorous rewrite of Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Frank McGuinnesss Oedipus. A press office mishap prevented me from seeing that last show and thus denied me the chance to ogle the broad chest and bloodied orbs of Ralph Fiennes, an error I may on my deathbed forgive. That grave disappointment aside, I recently spent a cheerful week in London seeing six revivals, and many of these dead white men appeared very fetching.
The white, male and yet living Kenneth Branagh cut a melancholic dash in Stoppards very funny, but somewhat flimsy take on Chekhovs second full-length work, produced by the Donmar Warehouse as part of its West End season at the Wyndham Theatre. The play concerns the deterioration of Nikolai Ivanov (Branagh), a minor landowner, once idealistic, but now succumbing to debt, depression, and an unhappy marriage. Happily, Branagh played Ivanov with a near absence of the smugness that sometimes mars the actors performances. Under Michael Grandages direction, Branagh was wonderful in the comic scenes with his estate manager, uncle, and neighbor (Lorcan Cranitch, Malcolm Sinclair, and Kevin R. McNally, all excellent), but didnt really make sense of the despair that drives this man to intemperance and suicide. (In his defense, as well as Stoppards and Grandages, Chekhov didnt make much sense of it himself. My plot is unprecedented! hed crowed in a letter to his brother, which is a cheerful way of saying it doesnt work.) To you its all very psychological and intellectual, a neighbor told Ivanov, to me its just bad behavior.
A few blocks away, in the Donmars usual space, bad behavior was also on display. David Greig, the Scottish playwright who authored the engaging version of The Bacchae that played at Lincoln Center this summer, unveiled his adaptation of The Creditors. Designer Ben Stones made the most of the Donmars cramped environs, creating a Scandinavian interior, airy and claustrophobic at once. He ringed his set with a small moat, into which a few unsuspecting audience members dropped their purses. In Creditors, written in 1888, Strindberg offers a queasy rewrite of his marriage to Siri von Essen. The play opens as a talented young artist (Tom Burke), now grown ill, converses with a mysterious older gentleman (Owen Teale). As they talk, the young man becomes convinced that his novelist wife has effectively emasculated him, draining him of life and creative power like a vampire in a bustle. The older man gradually reveals himself as the wifes first husband, a creditor knocking at the bedroom door intent on exacting revenge for her desertion. Strindberg was not a funny writer, but the emotional exigencies of the scriptso morbid, so venomousmade for some peculiarly humorous moments. The laughter excited did not, however, undercut the plays expressive power, particularly when the regal Anna Chancellor appeared as the maligned wife. Her performance tamped down the scripts excesses; she even undercut its misogyny. Strindberg owes women a debt, and Chancellor helped to collect it.
If Creditorss admixture of infidelity and nervous collapse proved insufficiently upsetting, you could have further tested your equanimity at the grotesqueries on parade in Powers and Goolds rather thrilling Pirandello update at the Gielgud Theatre, which Goold also directed. Prostitution, desertion, incest, and suicide all appeared, to say nothing of a slasher film sequence. In a foreword to the 1925 edition of Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello wrote how he conceived the idea for the script, in which six characterscreated and then rejected by their original authorinterrupt a play rehearsal in search of someone who will tell their story. It seems like yesterday, Pirandello begins the introduction, that a nimble little maidservant entered the service of my art. However, she always comes fresh to the job. She is called Fantasy.
Perhaps Fantasys started cleaning Goolds house as he invigorated a play that has long seemed a worthy but rather bloodless exemplar of modernism. Here, the play began as the charactersdecked out in 60s Cinécitta garbdescended on an editing session for a sententious drama documentary about assisted suicide. The most vocal family members, Ian McDiarmid as the Father and Denise Gough as his pert step-daughter, soon convinced the producer (Noma Dumezweni) to document them instead. The plays first act, which hewed to Pirandellos structure, worked better than the second, a somewhat indulgent affair that presented a labyrinthine look at identity, reality, repetition, etc. At the close of this, the older couple seated next to me, theatergoers unfamiliar with the Pirandellian source, seemed about to weep from confusion and distress.
One doubts if any tears were shed over Goolds anemic production of Pinters No Mans Land at the Duke of York. Goold seems omnipresent these days, with his successful Macbeth, which played on Broadway, and his King Lear with Pete Postlethwaite soon to open in London. But barring a few nifty light cues, hes absented his auteurism from this revival. Michael Gambon made a cracking Hirst, a role that Pinter himself once played. But here the play seemed more a worthy exercise than a chilling meditation. I did not feel, as Michael Billington wrote of its 1974 premiere, the sense of being caught in some mysterious limbo between life and death, between a world of brute reality and one of fluid uncertainty, as much as I felt the sense of being caught in some middlingly mysterious cocktail hour. Hirst, tended by two manservants, has invited the obsequious Spooner (David Bradley) to help guzzle his supply of malt. While Spooner claims, perhaps falsely, that hes a poet, Hirst is known as a lauded man of letters, rather like Pinter himself. The play may then function as a psychodrama of the playwrights experience of his own positionhalf literary lion, half impostoran impression aided by Gambons resemblance to the eldery Pinter, frail and formidable at once.
Harley Granville Barkers Waste, staged at the Almeida, did not seem frail in the leastthough the 100-year-old play is somewhat unwieldy. It lays claim to a three-hour running time, 16-person cast, and stage directions one might easily mistake for slim novellas. (This, and its numerous conversations devoted to political arcana like the governments disestablishment from the Church of England, may explain its infrequent reviving.) Waste concerns a parliamentarian, Henry Trebell (Will Keen), who impregnates a married woman (Nancy Carroll) after a loveless tussle. She dies following a botched back-alley abortion, and the threat of scandal destroys his careera pair of lives unduly wasted. Director Samuel West offered a sensitive and nuanced revival, with able cast, pleasant settings, and gorgeous Edwardian costumes, yet I found myself restless, less engaged with the production than I desired. Perhaps this owes to Granville Barkers somewhat turgid writing (a phenomenon that David Mamet countered last year with his streamlined adaptation of The Voysey Inheritance). Or one might attribute it to my seeing the play two days after the election, when its mood of political cynicism didnt precisely resonate. Or the fact that I was seated behind a large poledamn the lure of cheap tickets!
Nothing, alas, obstructed my view of The White Devil, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, performed on a narrow strip of stage with audience on either side. One of John Websters enjoyably messy efforts, it follows the love affair between the Duke of Bracciano and Vittoria Corombona, which occasioned numerous murders. By the end of this 1612 revenge tragedy, nine bodies had littered the stage. One poor actor, doubling roles, had to die twice. As the cast slogged up and down the strip of stage, expiring occasionally, director Jonathan Munbys production seemed more forced march than fiendish delight. Additionally, a few of the roles, most particularly Claire Price as Vittoria, were woefully miscast.
But finding fault with The White Devil isnt a new phenomenon. Like the original productions of Ivanov and Six Characters in Search of an Author, the play earned ire at its debut, leading Webster to deride his audience as ignorant asses. Yet this ignorant ass could still enjoy the plays complement of ghoulish aphorisms and rhymes, such as Ill neer think thee dead/Til I can play at football with thine head.
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