LONDON—Despite the international reputation this town has for perpetually glittering theater, it’s common for locals to tell a visitor there isn’t much to see. A tourist with only days or a week to spend, however, often finds abundant worthwhile fare and wonders why natives are pulling such long faces. Recently, though, denizens have definitely known what they’re complaining about.
But while pickings are slim, they’re not entirely nonexistent. David Hare’s Breath of Life (Haymarket) is one of the plus-column entries, despite its reputation as a second-rate showcase for, as their alphabetical billing reads, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Married to fashion designer Nicole Farhi, dramatist Hare often outfits women as smartly as his wife does. The piece he’s tailored for the two Queen Elizabeth-sanctioned dames is a blues duet. (Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog’s torch song “Don’t Explain” plays during a scene break.) Popular novelist Frances (Dench at her most injured) has come to the Isle of Wight to find out from rival Madeleine (Smith at her most drolly muted) what she can about husband Martin, who’s left both of them for a younger Seattle woman. Through four scenes and an 18-hour time frame, the women spar, each suspicious of the other; Frances expects to incorporate what she learns into a tell-all memoir, which makes Madeleine nervous and all the more sarcastic. Perhaps the negative buzz on Hare’s two-hander stems from its not having any melodramatic twists. True, it doesn’t. Yet, when Madeleine at last walks Frances to the departing ferry, the playwright has incisively presented two women who, deeply wounded by the same shallow man, are finally about to resume living.
In Shelagh Stephenson’s effective and affecting Mappa Mundi (Cottesloe, closed), infirm Jack and family have come together (though straining to pull apart) for daughter Anna’s wedding. One of the dramatic issues is that Jack, a map-collector, hasn’t much sympathy for Anna’s marrying a black man. He’s also a bloke who rigidly runs his life according to rules and facts. But the main complication involves Jack’s imminent death, and Anna and her brother Michael’s efforts to keep that fact from him. Unsurprisingly, Jack does realize he’s dying, and has been hoping to withhold the information from them. Who says only American playwrights concern themselves with dysfunctional families, while English dramatists excel at more encompassing subjects? When Anna and Michael present the failing Jack with a map of his paths through their small rural village and he comments that “I thought my life would be more complicated than that,” Stephenson hits on a psychological truth too deep for tears. Proving her Chekhovian mettle, she’s written a play in which, after much contentious carrying on, the characters earn their curtain-line reconciliation.
When Philip Massinger succeeded John Fletcher as chief playwright of the King’s Men in 1626, he inaugurated his tenure with The Roman Actor. The Royal Shakespeare Company has now taken the work out of mothballs. Because James I died in 1625, Massinger’s exercise has to be categorized as early Caroline drama. Nevertheless, buckets of Jacobean blood flow, along with the iambic pentameter. The depiction of troubles that a sybaritic tyrant causes a suppressed society, not to mention the women sharing his busy bed, is the stuff of nightmares. For all the deaths the doomed Domitian Caesar (Antony Sher, typically over-the-top marvelous) orders during five turbulent acts, The Roman Actor is also an amusingly playful piece. Throughout, Massinger teases the audience with this still-pertinent question: Can theater provoke audiences to action? As Massinger’s Caesar slowly realizes he can hack limbs but not spirit—”The flesh is but the clothing of the soul,” one condemned man proclaims—the author throws in three Mousetrap-like plays-within-the-play to catch the conscience of various nefarious participants. Also, at one point Roman actor Paris delivers a ringing defense of his profession that will cheer thespians everywhere.
A quick rundown of productions participating in the Festival of Chaff currently taking place across London:
Michael Weller’s What the Night Is For (the Comedy) may not be the worst play on offer, but it’s up there. (Has it bowed on the Eastern side of the Atlantic because no one wants it the Western one?) In the piece, Gillian Anderson, making a West End debut, and Roger Allam steal around a hotel bedroom as ex-lovers possibly resuming their affair—spouses be damned. Anderson, given to incessant in-your-face gesticulations that have to be getting on Allam’s nerves, does little to mitigate the stale encounter. Director Michael Grandage, taking over artistic directorship of the Donmar Warehouse from Sam Mendes, has curiously chosen to declare himself king of that mountain with Noel Coward’s moss-gathering Vortex. He’s made the endeavor more mysterious by casting the black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Francesca Annis’s drug-riddled son. The non-trad casting isn’t the real problem—the major slipup lies in Ejiofor’s failure to act substance-abused energy rather than young man’s high spirits. Then there’s Trevor Nunn’s decision to revive Anything Goes as his Royal National Theatre farewell. Though he extracts adequate performances from his troupe, he’s inexplicably dropped many of the Cole Porter lyrics to “You’re the Top” and “It’s De-Lovely.” And that’s de-lousy, like so much available here.