A person who makes a short visit to London and wants to get a full taste of its theatrical offerings forms his opinion on the basis of what he has seen - but also on the basis of what the city was unable to offer. Thus, for example, in the middle of December on the stages in London (the repertory theaters, the West End) there was not a single play by William Shakespeare. "All's Well that Ends Well" was on in his birthplace, Stratford, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production with Judi Dench, the Britons' favorite dame, but the battle for ticket sales for performances in the middle of this year is still under way.
The perception that arose during a four-day stay is one of a London theater that is looking back, perhaps with fondness, perhaps with longing, and almost without any real criticism, to the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s.
England has new, young playwrights who are dealing with everyday English life, and every theater, on the fringe or in the establishment (but not the West End, which seeks commercial success) is glad to produce them. But the English also have veteran playwrights who are continuing to write new material, but are also experiencing, in their own lifetimes, revivals of their past successes.
Outstanding among them are Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. Last year the National Theater put on a new production of "Jumpers," Stoppard's second full-length play, which was first produced at the National Theater in 1972. It is set in 1969, on the day Man landed on the moon. At its center are an absent-minded professor of ethics named George and his wife Dotty, who was once a successful cabaret singer and is now slowly going out of her mind. The central image in the play is a troupe of acrobats, members of the philosophy faculty at the university where George lectures, one of whom is murdered.
With verbal and philosophical acrobatics, the play examines the experience of humanity, from whom one of its romantic images (the moon) has been taken, and also the ethical-university experience, which is made up entirely of intrigues that bend the rules of logic and morality for the sake of survival.
The production at the National was greeted with mixed reviews that were, however, good enough for the play to transfer to the Piccadilly Theater in the West End. Its greatest virtue is actor Simon Russell Beale, who displays an astonishing ability in comic rhetoric, skill in verbal, vocal and physical effects, precise timing in his acting and the ability to plumb the depths of emotion and make Stoppard's acrobatics of ideas into something truly moving and exciting.
However, one of the central images of the play - man's foot on the moon - has lost its power after 30 years. The fact that the two astronauts in the play are called Scott and Oates - a reference to Robert F. Scott's journey to the North Pole in 1912 - also slips by almost unnoticed. It could be that on balance the production came out less well because I saw it with a stand-in for the lead actress, who was ill. But in my opinion, there is more in this play than the basis for an acrobatic production, on which director David Leveaux concentrated. The essence of Stoppard's statement - that even in a situation of philosophical relativity there is a clear distinction between good and evil, between life and death, between moral and immoral - was blurred somewhat in the uproar of the production, even if Russell Beale did a marvellous job of expressing it with his entire being.
On another stage in the West End, at the Duchess Theater, Harold Pinter's play "Betrayal" is on (again). This is a story of a triangle of betrayal, related from the end to the beginning: At any moment of the plot, the audience knows more than the characters on the stage. Here, too, as in its world premiere at the end of the 1970s (though its atmosphere belongs to the end of the 1960s), the director is Peter Hall - the Nestor of English theater directors - and the set designer is John Gunter.
The set is mainly a pile of furniture placed in the depths of the stage, from which (and as if from the past) the actors pull out what they need for each scene. The time of the action (which is screened on slides and is essential to the plot that moves between the present and the past) has been moved to this century, but the play has remained unchanged: It is still a precise emotional mechanism, very English, that deals with the definition of betrayal - between a man and his wife and between two friends. It is flawlessly acted: Janie Dee, Aden Gillett and Hugo Speer are good-looking, polished, professional and affecting in that restrained, throttled, somewhat mysterious English way.
Arthur Miller's "The Price" at the Apollo Theater is also a production that has moved from the repertory theater (Tricycle) to the West End. Miller's play, which is set in 1968, tells of the struggle between two adult Jewish brothers over the estate of their father, who has died and left them an apartment full of old furniture - a symbol of family memories. The father had gone bankrupt. One of his sons became a policeman and supported him; the other became a successful doctor and cut himself off from the family. Now they are meeting when it is time to liquidate the estate, and they are faced by a used furniture dealer: a very elderly Jew (the embodiment of the character of the father). Facing the dealer, the brothers must decide what the past is worth, what the family ties between them are worth, and what the furniture on the stage is worth. Is the dealer cagily offering too low a price, or is it the correct price? Is there a correct price for memories and family ties?
The main power of the production is in Warren Mitchell's acting in the role of the elderly furniture dealer. He extracts from the role all the possible delights of acting, and effortlessly steals the show from the two brothers: Larry Lamb as the policeman and Des McAleer as the doctor. The weakness of the latter upsets the balance of the play. But even as it stands, this play is an intellectual and emotional experience that could nourish an entire evening's discussion of theater and relationships.
One of the English dramatists who began to write in the mid-1990s is Patrick Marber (whose play "Closer" was put on at Habimah). Now he has written a modern version of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," called "After Miss Julie." In his version, the conflict between the spoiled daughter of the gentry, whose sexual urges are tempestuous, and the servant who sees her (body) as a way to advancement, has been transferred from the end of the 19th century in Scandinavia to England in 1945 - and to the evening hours of the day on which Winston Churchill lost to Labor after World War II.
In the small and crowded Donmar Warehouse, the sensual period drama turns into an experience structured for the English: Suddenly the restrictions of society and morality that are falling apart seem reasonable, and able to confuse gentry and servants, women and men. Under the precise direction of Michael Grandage (who inherited the management of the successful Donmar theater from Sam Mendes, who is concentrating on films), Kelly Reilly (in the role of Miss Julie), Richard Coyle (as the servant John, who quite possibly did vote for the Conservatives) and Helen Baxendale (in the thankless role of the servant Christine) give three very impressive performances that leave the spectator emotionally drained. I must admit that this was the first time that this crazed play convinced me of its emotional veracity.
The National Theater is concentrating its production efforts - and devoting its large stage - to an adaptation of Philip Pullman's series "His Dark Materials" (presumably, the next "Lord of the Rings") under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, the theater's artistic director.
However, in the Cottesloe hall there is the most interesting production of the last season, which will move in the near future to the larger Lyttleton hall and without a doubt is on its way to the West End. This is the play "Democracy" by Michael Frayn (who wrote "Copenhagen"), which deals with the complex relations between former German chancellor Willy Brandt and his close aide Gunter Guillame, who turned out to be an East German spy. Ostensibly this is a play about political party squabbles among the top West German leadership at the end of the 1960s. In fact, it is a profound study of what it means to be a human being.
On one side, there is Gunter Guillaume (played by Conleth Hill), who at any given moment on stage is holding a dialogue both with the reality of the top leadership in West Germany in which he lives, and with his East German operator, Arno Kretschmann (played by Steven Pacey). On the other side there is Willy Brandt, the leader the party needs to win control of the government, but he does not share his political intentions with his aides and works tirelessly to heal the wounds of Europe, between East and West Germany. Most of all, he is aware that hundreds of identities are racing back and forth within him, and until he opens his mouth, he will not know which of them is speaking from inside him. Roger Allam gives a wonderful performance of the leader who always stood alone at the brink of the abyss.
A very significant part of the production is the stage set, on two levels linked by precipitous steps. The leader is on the upper level, always on that brink. The ferment takes place below him. And when the Berlin Wall finally falls, many years after Brandts' fall from power and yet of his doing, suddenly the shelves - on which stand the files, in clear pastel colors - collapse.
In diametric contrast to this intellectual experience (which like "Copenhagen" is also a very emotional experience), in the adjacent Lyttleton hall the National Theater is putting on - as part of its regular repertoire - "Play Without Words": a dance theater work by choreographer Matthew Bourne, inspired by Joseph Losey's film "The Servant" (with a script by Harold Pinter). Matthew Bourne's design captures a scene of London at the end of the 1960s. Each role is performed by two or three dancers, and before the audience's eyes - to the live jazz music of Terry Davies - a mysterious and suspenseful plot develops about an Englishman, his fiancee, the maidservant in his home and the servant who runs his master's life.
And anyone who just hankers for good theatrical entertainment can go to the Drury Lane Theater and see an excellent production of "Anything Goes," a musical based on the best songs of Cole Porter, brilliantly directed by Trevor Nunn. John Gunter's set, also a transfer of the National Theater production (where Nunn was an artistic director until a year ago), is a luxurious cruise ship, and it revolves effortlessly. The time of the action is the 1930s. And in the plot, criminals are celebrities, the rich amuse themselves, the music and the dancing are marvelous and, as in our own times, anything goes.
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