Friday, 14 December 2012

A week in London Theatre

I’m in London for a few weeks and thought I’d share a few observations about what’s on in town.

I caught the all-male Twelfth Night, a transfer from the Globe now playing in the West End. It was performed in 'original conditions' - the production was created for the anniversary of the first recorded performance of the play in the Middle Temple Hall, and so it suited the comfort of the Apollo Theatre more than it might have. It stars Stephen Fry as Malvolio and the incomparable Mark Rylance, the oft-proclaimed greatest British actor of his generation, as Olivia. It plays in rep with Rylance's Richard III.

I've never 'got' Twelfth Night. I've never found it very funny or interesting. There was a period when it was fashionable to give 'brown' productions, glossing the play with a Chekhovian melancholy. It's never worked much for me, I'm afraid, though I am prone to gentle drifts into ennui and, like Orsino, am often best when least in company.

Every production I've ever done of Shakespeare has been informed in some way by my longtime research into Elizabethan and Jacobean performing practices. Hamlet, Julius Caesar and As You Like It at La Boite have all eaten at that table. The space suits: the Roundhouse and Globe are related. So the production had real interest.

This is one of the most lucid and assured productions of Shakespeare I've seen. It's not an ambitious production, in that it does not test any unusual conception, but it does strive for, and achieve, a quite uncommon and unrushed maturity. 


The cast is terrific and beautifully balanced, despite a miscast Orsino and an Antonio who doesn't quite hit the mark. The revelations are numerous. Stephen Fry's Malvolio is not what you might expect. This is no star turn. This is an understated performance completely in tune with the production and perfectly pitched. Often tricky roles such as Maria and Feste are stand outs here. Who would have thought Maria would feel such a key part of proceedings? But Paul Chahidi gives her genuine stature.

But the great highlights are the scenes involving Mark Rylance's Olivia and Johnny Flynn's Viola/Cesario. The all-male practice comes into its own here. I have never seen these scenes come so much alive. There is a level of fragility that is mesmerising and very funny. Here, identity is eggshell, and this somehow gifts the scenes with a kind of quivering. Rylance is a glory. And Flynn, in his big scene with Orsino, delivers a level of erotic charge that is difficult to describe. I have never seen a foot express such fragile longing.

A few night earlier I caught an all-female Julius Caesar. This play presents a distinct challenge to any director. Big sections of Acts 4 and 5 are rubbish, the result of a writer following his sources much too closely without a conception of how to transform what's on offer. A highly imaginative directorial solution is required or else the show falls apart, no matter how exciting Acts 1-3. At the Donmar Warehouse, director Phyllida Lloyd has a good shot at it. The production is framed as a play-within-a-play set in a contemporary women's prison. The conception doesn't always hold up, but the production is bold and very often inventive and gripping at two hours straight through. For a while, it seemed like the decay of the play in its final acts wound be reflected in the play-within-the-play falling apart. An interesting idea, but not pursued. This is not a particularly gendered production, curiously, in that this most male of plays retains its 'masculinity' because of the brutalising impact of a prison environment. This might be part of the point. But beyond all, the acting is terrific, with (Dame) Harriet Walter's Brutus a stand out. It's a wonderfully modulated performance, full of insight, feeling and very much of the contemporary world. Every word counted. I wonder what she was in for?

I first saw Simon Russell Beale on stage in 2000 when he, as a tubby 40-year-old, played Hamlet at the National Theatre. He was his own Hamlet, as all good Hamlets are, sitting just outside the production, as all good Hamlets do. He was just fab. So it was a delight to see him in drag in Peter Nichol's 1977 play Privates on Parade, giving us his Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda, Vera Lynn and (not in drag) Noel Coward. The play is about a very camp British military concert unit, stationed in Singapore and Malaya in 1948, who entertain the troops fighting the Communist insurgency. It begins Michael Grandage's brave, 15-month season of five very starry plays on the West End, under the banner of the Michael Grandage Company. Jude Law, Judi Dench, Daniel Radcliffe and the like have already signed up. There are around 200 seats at each performance going for just £10, which has made many wonder where the money's coming from. But let's not be distracted by such things. The work will be good. 

This loose, revue-style, play-with-songs is an intelligent, compassionate opener, though not quite deserving of the rave reviews it's collected in the last day or two. There's a clearly a critical desire for Grandage's endeavour to succeed. Among the tuneful and witty songs, dress-ups and looseness, though, we are reminded that some, then and now, have been denied the right to love and mourn openly, and that some use camp to laugh off pain. It also reminds us of the racism, duplicity and futility of so many colonial wars. But while the show's star is a true and fleshy treat, the role itself demands little of his immense talents. But are there any privates on parade, I hear you ask. Quite a few!

Speaking of comic turns, I enjoyed Pinero's The Magistrate at the National's Olivier Theatre, with a visiting John Lithgow. The 19th century farceur's superlight confection made me laugh out loud quite a few times, but I mostly enjoyed watching the plot mechanics of the play unfold. A good thing, because there's not much else. This should have been in the Lyttelton, but it coped. A nice way to spend a winter's afternoon.

I popped in to see the English National Opera's Carmen. I went for a few reasons. I once sang Dancairo in a production (so the music sits sentimentally within me). ENO was very kind to me when I had a six month internship there as a young director during the golden age of Sir David Pountney and Sir Mark Elder. But I visited mostly because this was directed by Calixto Bieito, the great Catalan director.

I last saw Bieito's work in this same theatre in the mid 1990s - a brilliantly dark and erotic Don Giovanni. Here, in this 12-year-old production seen here in London for the first time just a few weeks ago, he gives us a Carmen set in the 1970s during the last days of Franco, that is, for once, Spanish, sexually direct, and brutal. There's not a cigarette factory or tavern in sight, and Micaela, for once, is no sop. Not all of the singing is great, but the production more than makes up for it. It's brilliantly thought out, avoiding the mindlessly exotic, and exposes the inherent brutality of male sexuality. The last minute is the best I have ever seen it. I shivered.

ENO occupies London's largest theatre. That's lucky. In Act 3, 80 performers comfortably shared the stage with six Mercedes Benz.

I've been in the company of a couple of new plays, too. I wandered into the Royal Court for a preview of Martin Crimp's new incision into the postmodern heart, In the Republic of Happiness. I'd forgotten how small and perfectly formed the Court is, focused just right for the spoken word. On the back of the seats are names on little metal plates, relics of some distant buy-a-seat campaign. The name on the seat directly in front of me was 'Laurence Olivier', that old Entertainer. Crimp's play gets off to a fantastic start, a family Christmas dinner, a sort of 21st century A Delicate Balance, but much funnier, in which the apparent realism is accompanied by a mysterious and threatening abstraction. Hugely enjoyable, with lots of intelligent laughs, and promising much. Then we get karaoke expressionism, but without the cheap drinks. A bewildered audience seduced, then left high and dry.

I have followed Nick Payne's career with real interest. His first play If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet won the George Devine Award in 2009, and showed generous promise. His latest play, the two-hander Constellations, opened in the 85-seat upstairs space at the Royal Court in January 2012, starring Rafe Spall (son of Timothy) and Sally Hawkins. It transferred to the Duke of York's Theatre in November and that same month won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play, making the 29-year-old Payne the youngest winner of the award. I saw it last night.

The play maps out the relationship between cosmologist Marianne and beekeeper Roland, from first meeting to close. Marianne works in the fizzy field that tries to reconcile the incompatibility of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the two cornerstones of modern physics. We hear that the new(ish) string theory does some of this reconciliation but also presents us with the boggling prospect that we live not in a universe of four dimensions (only one of which is time), but a multiverse comprised of up-to-and-including 11 space-time dimensions. It's an idea that does nothing less than render the universe obsolete. Or at least that there are all these parallel universes to contend with.

Payne stumbled onto this field after his father died. It gave him curious consolation to consider that there were must be a universe in which his father died years ago, and another in which they had never met, and another in which they were estranged.

Both feeling and the thought are in this play. The couple amuse us in the multiple versions of their early meetings and move us with the multiple versions of their struggle with her brain cancer. Form and content are here in agreement, a surprisingly rare thing in drama. The play swings us in and out of their many and varied possible lives. Sometimes short scenes are repeated with just the smallest details shifted; at other times the scenes are repeated with substantive and sometimes horrifying difference. Uncertainty, a key characteristic of string theory, sits with all we see of their developing relationship(s).

The play is very affecting and beautifully performed. But there's something that's also quietly dispiriting. In the Quantum Multiverse, it seems, we are utterly powerless to exercise authority over our lives. Chance is our angel, and our demon.

1 comment:

  1. Great to hear you're having such a great time - I can't get over how catchy the 'In the Republic of Happiness' music was, I bought the CD. It was so nice to see you up there!

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