From Romance, to War, to Mammon

An unforgettable holiday sampling of the bounty of London's stages.

It was a long Passover-Easter weekend well spent in London where, in the theaters of this world cultural capital, one could embark on an exciting examination of values and of the human condition in the modern era.

The least expected venue for such an experience was a pub in Kilburn, where the Cock Tavern Theater Company is staging Puccini's "La Boheme" until May 15. The resident OperaUpClose company, led by artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, assembled a cast of young and promising singers, recent graduates of the best music academies in the United Kingdom, for a fresh and surprising performance. Singing in English, to the witty translation of Robin Norton-Hale, these talents transplanted Puccini's emotional drama from Paris of a century ago to today's Kilburn, with surprising ease.

What remained unchanged was the unselfish love of Mimi (the brilliant Pamela Hay) for Rodolfo (the convincing Anthony Flaum), and their nonmaterialistic approach to life. For these poor bohemians and their friends, money meant something only if it could help heat their frosty apartment or buy medicine for the ailing Mimi. Only art, literature, friendship and joie de vivre really mattered.

Love of a different kind - between a boy, Albert Narracott, and his horse Joey - is the theme of "War Horse," a National Theater production based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, now on at the New London Theater. It all starts with money, when, in a show of bravado, Albert's father bids against the boy's uncle and wins a horse in an auction. Later, to pay for the mortgage on the family farm, he sells the animal to the British army at the beginning of World War I. Yet once money is out of the picture, we are left with a moving saga about a relationship - not a simplistic one, as in Hollywood films, but a deep and true bond between men under fire, and also between human beings and animals.

On his Web page, Morpurgo recalls a visit to a farm 25 years ago, where he noticed a boy speaking to a horse: "He spoke confidently, knowing he was not judged or mocked. And I had the very strong impression that the horse was listening, and understanding too ... I think it was that extraordinary inspirational moment that gave me the confidence needed to begin writing 'War Horse.'"

In this breathtaking play, therefore, we follow the travails of Joey in the war of the trenches in France and Flanders. (Historian Max Hastings reminds us of the "forgotten heroes" of the Great War - the horses thrown up against German barbed wire and machine-gun fire by stupid British generals.) And we see Albert lie about his age in order to go to the front, desperately searching for his beloved horse.

How do you get a horse to act? Through ingenious prop design by Rae Smith and masterly choreography by Toby Sedgwick - thanks to whom the fake equines (Joey and its "mate," Thompson), each operated by a crew of three people, breathed, galloped and neighed like flesh-and-blood animals. This was truly an amazing sight. No wonder that at the end, the horses received applause as loud as that enjoyed by the superb human actors.

Talking about acting, if I were you, I'd cancel all my plans, catch a flight to London and buy a ticket at any cost to the Apollo Theater before April 24, when Jez Butterworth's play "Jerusalem" is taken off the stage. The reason: the mesmerizing, once-in-a-lifetime performance of Mark Rylance, who plays Johnny "Rooster" Byron, part Falstaff-part Puck, who attracts youths who use drugs and are seeking meaning in their lives to his cabin in the woods, thanks to his magnetic personality and fascinating tales.

Money is also involved in this story: The local council is determined to evict Byron and bulldoze his cabin, in order to build an apartment complex on the site. The main plot, however, focuses on old English tradition and values, and is inspired by William Blake's lines: "I will not cease from mental fight / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England's green and pleasant land."

And finally, there was a play solely about money: "Enron." Lucy Prebble's powerful work, now on at the Noel Coward Theater, follows with some artistic license the meteoric rise of this giant Houston-based energy company and its path to a colossal fall. The (true) story is pretty well known: Jeffrey Skilling (Samuel West), the CEO of the company, is anxious to boost Enron's profits. At an employees' meeting, he launches his "mark-to-market" strategy as "a way for us to realize the profits we're gonna make now."

How can you possibly pocket profits now that can only materialize in the future? Indeed, however bright Skilling thought he was, his idea was half-baked, until Andrew Fastow (Tom Goodman-Hill), Enron's CFO, came up with a trick: ghost companies that consumed the losses of Enron, so its books never showed the company as being in the red while its stocks skyrocketed. All this took place under the nose of Kenneth Lay (Tim Pigott-Smith), the firm's president and founder - the man who liked to muse about the importance of God, family, democracy and the good old days, among other things. Yet he became so excited by the promise of huge profits that he let his other two colleagues carry on with their sinister schemes. In the rush for profits these executives, while putting obscene sums of money in their own pockets, didn't hesitate to urge employees to break their pension funds and buy Enron stocks.

This luftgesheft had to explode at some point, and when it did, Enron collapsed like a house of cards, leaving more than 20,000 employees without a job or pension, a $30 billion debt, and two executives in jail (Lay died in the meantime).

The acting is generally good, but Prebble tends to be a bit too didactic, at times having her protagonists sum up what's going on.

In any event, a little post-mortem lecture to the audience by a Citigroup analyst, who explained how all this could have happened, was both amusing and telling: "You get on a plane, you don't understand exactly how it works, but you believe it'll fly - crazy as it may seem. And if you got out of your seat and said 'I'm not flying, I don't know how it works' - you'd look crazy. Well, it's like that. Imagine if the belief that the plane could fly was all that was keeping it in the air. It'd be fine. If everybody believed. If nobody got scared. As long as people didn't ask stupid questions. About what it is that keeps planes in the air."

So thus ended a theatrical tour of a century, leading from a naive love story through the culture shock of World War I, via the agonies of a sick society longing for old values, and culminating in the naked worship of Mammon. And there was no better venue for such a tour than the stages of London.