High Thames: Part II

Curry On: Rafta, Rafta

Spent all of Wednesday at the National Theatre. Indeed, whenever I'm in London, I pass a good portion of my trip there, attending play, haunting the bookshop, eating intermission ices, and, when weather permits, lounging on the steps outside to enjoy the live music. It always makes me very happy and madly jealous. What I wouldn't give for a similar space in New York! I imagine some sort of amalgam of the Public Theater, if it used all its spaces, Lincoln Center, is it were more fun and adventurous, and a little bit of St. Anne's Warehouse. It would also have to have a much better cafe (the National has five) and maybe then it could attract an audience like the National's--varied among age, race, and class, among local and tourist, invariably enthusiastic.

In its three theaters, the National schedules a mix of revivals, new plays, and some experimental work as well. It attracts top-flight playwrights, directors, designers, and actors. Perhaps it's a vagary of the British system or character, but TV and film stars seem delighted to work here and they're almost always excellent. One thinks that the theater has attracted the best man or woman to the role, rather than accusing them of stunt casting or a callow way to attract punters.

On Wednesday I attended a matinee of Rafta, Rafta and an evening performance of Landscape with Weapon...

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Rafta Rafta is Ayub Khan-Din's (East is East) adaptation of Bill Naughton's 1963 play All in Good Time. Both plays are set in the Boulton region and concern a young groom who, because he and his bride are forced to live with his parents, proves unable to consummate his marriage. Khan-Din has moved the action to the present day when Boulton is largely an Asian community, this makes terrific sense as it's really only among immigrant communities that one can imagine that premarital sex might not have taken place or that family structures might encourage the two couples to share one roof.

It's quite a gentle play that Khan-Din offers, sensitive to the suffering and desires of his characters--it's also often a very funny one, with more of the comedy stemming from personality rather than language, though there are some fine lines ("I don't think whiskey agrees with me." "I'm not asking you to have a discussion with it.") and some cracking monologues.

The chief pleasures are provided by Harish Patel and Meera Syal as the groom's parents, he supplies the laughs, she the compassion. They're both exceptional film and stage veterans and it's a rare treat to relax and watch them get to work, he daubing across a very broad canvas, she painting her role more finely, each exquisite. Someone really ought to tempt them--and the play--to our fair shores.

But we might perhaps leave Landscape with Weapon to London. The Atlantic Theater's production of Blue/Orange stirred much interest in Penhall, but this seems in may ways a lesser play. If Blue/Orange managed to balance ideological arguments and character, Landscape achieves no such equilibrium.

It concerns an engineer names Ned who's developed a navigational device for drone aircraft and comes to question how his invention will be used and whether he can countenance it. Initially, the discussions between Ned--initially sanguine about his work-- and his lackadaisical brother Dan threatens to interest. But the argument quickly palls. Penhall clearly displays a preference for Dan's opinion--as any audience member might--even as he puts it in the mouth of a none too authoritative character. (Though quite an attractive one--as Dan Julian Rhind-Tutt uses his blond mane and slouched height to great effect.) Clearly Ned won't maintain his position for long.

Director Roger Michell encourages his performers to adopt a distinctly non-actorly style of acting, though it's very showy all the same. Rhind-Tutt and Tom Hollander as Ned act while eating, drinking, belching, hunched and slumped, hands in pockets or hanging awkwardly at the sides. This reaches its acme during a Indian take-away food fight, in which reasoned speeches give way to a basmati-addled grapple. So there's an extreme casualness to the style, but also a feeling of artificiality--a sort of, "Watch quite how cavalier I can be."

Hollander and Rhind-Tutt are worth watching, even if their deliberately slapdash approach does prove trying. they're each able to register split-second switches of mood, tone, and expression. In their relationship, they offer an alternative, a welcome one, to the play's ideas and reasoning, which can be reduced to Ned's rather facile explanation of contemporary warfare, "We throw everything we can at a human problem, except humanity." Penhall does provide humanity, but it isn't sufficient to sustain the play's rather rickety premises.

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