A period of nearly three weeks in London (March 21 – April 8, 2011), during which we saw the following plays. There was no time for chronicling these experiences, owing to a heavy research schedule, and so, at this late point (April 17, 2011 and subsequent dates) I am now attempting to recall and record what I remember:
- Wednesday, March 23: Caryl Churchill, Fen (Finborough)
- Saturday, March 26: Terence Rattigan, Cause Célèbre (Old Vic)
- Wednesday, March 30: Terence Rattigan, Flight Path (Haymarket)
- Thursday, March 31: Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park (Wyndham’s)
- Monday, April 4: David Eldridge, The Knot of the Heart (Almeida)
- Tuesday, April 5: Beethoven, Fidelio (Covent Garden Opera)
- Wednesday, April 6: Allan Monkhouse, Mary Broome (Orange Tree, Richmond)
- Thursday, April 7: Mark O’Rowe, Terminus (Young Vic: Maria)
Before this visit I had not been to London for well over three years. My impressions at that point, that British theatre was suffering from hard economic times and a growing dearth of new talent, were confirmed this time. Among the eight works we saw, only two were truly new, and one (Clybourne Park) was an American play in its first London production. Of course, London theatre has always paid great attention to revivals, and five of these plays had not been seen for some time: Churchill’s Fen for nearly thirty years (I remember reading it as a young teacher in connection with a production by the University of Massachusetts theater); Monkhouse’s Mary Broome, in what is, I believe, its first revival since 1912; and Rattigan’s early play about pilots in the second war, Flight Path, which is one of two Rattigan plays contributing to the current Rattigan revival, the other being Cause Célèbre, Rattigan’s last produced play, dating from, I think, 1977, though focusing on a true event, a murder and a trial, that occurred in the 1930s. Fidelio, of course, the perennial favorite for its wonderful music, but produced last April in a Covent Garden revival that lacked movement and a coherent setting.
Overall, then, a somewhat mixed bag of plays and opera. British actors are still among the world’s best, but not so many of them are employed these days as used to be. The Royal Shakespeare Company several years ago ended its “permanent” tenure in London, at the Barbican, and only occasionally now jobs in a hit production at one of the West End theatres. I have yet to go to the reconstructed Globe, and will not until I manage to get to London in the late spring or summer, when it is open. And some London houses are venues I have never been in and whose doors I will never darken, so long as a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber is playing there or some other equally trite, mindless concoction.
My long-standing bias against musicals stands open in that statement. I make no apology for this gaping lacuna in my otherwise broad and eclectic taste for the theatrical experience. I have tried to like musicals ever since I lost my initial love of them as a teenager (Guys and Dolls was my favorite then), but have failed. I remember, one Saturday during my senior year in high school, I played hooky from my job in a camera shop, went to the local library, and spent a full two or three hours listening to the new original cast recording of Frank Loesser’s immortal adaptation of a Ring Lardner story. Even my usual curiosity as a theatre historian is not strong enough to take me to see Les Miserables. These musicals are great fun for high school students to produce and perform in. Easy to sing and stage, they become in some cases the most memorable events for graduates for years after. But their gratuitous sentimentality and falsification of the truths of adult existence in this country make it impossible for me to tolerate them, with very few exceptions (Most Happy Fella, Carousel, some of The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and a few others).
Enough of that. London is no different from any other western city in its preoccupation with the musical. What has drawn me to London theatre since I first arrived here in 1965 is its combination of revivals of plays from one of the richest histories of theatre, some four hundred years old, with new plays by established playwrights or new ones. Three years ago there were several Irish plays to choose from; this time only one, by a writer new to me, Mark O’Rowe, author of Terminus, but a play whose Irish locale is almost incidental to its real topic; it could be any run-down major city instead of the Dublin that is in fact its setting.
It would seem even more difficult than in the past to be a successful dramatist in London or anywhere else these days, but the play at the Almeida, The Knot of the Heart, by David Eldridge, shows that it is still eminently possible to make a living at this nearly impossible craft. Eldridge’s plays, not a single one of which I have seen until now, I’m sorry to say, include dozens of titles, for the theatre, television, film, and radio. He is most fortunate to have established a strong relationship with the Almeida, which for some time has been the premiere serious theatre in London, and has for the last nine years been distinctively well piloted by its artistic director, Michael Attenborough, a man with huge experience as stage director and artistic director of various provincial theatres, the RSC (for twelve years, to 2002) and other venues, before taking over the Almeida. Eldridge has developed a sub-specialty as an adapter of Ibsen (three plays).
The Knot of the Heart is about drug addiction, and it pulls no punches in its ruthlessly honest portrayal of a young woman, a television celebrity on a children’s show, who succumbs to crack cocaine, enabled by a well-meaning and loving but disastrously wrong-headed mother and a stern, guilt-tripping elder sister. The cast is composed of a variety of persons, played by four women, including Lisa Dillon, brilliant, incisive, and sympathetic yet true to reality, as Lucy, and a single man, Kieran Bew, who plays six widely different characters. Michael Attenborough directs this extremely well mounted yet simply staged production, on a turn-table-mounted setting (one of the signal benefits of the total rehabilitation of the Almeida a few years back). As the action proceeds, we are made aware that the mother has long been a widow, but the nature and circumstances of the father’s death, when the two daughters were still quite young, are yet to be revealed. I realized, during the course of the play, without knowing from the program that Eldridge was an adapter of Ibsen, that he was well-versed in that writer’s magnificent ability to recreate the Sophoclean structure of progressive revelation of the past simultaneous with ongoing present action – a structural feature codified by critics as “retrospective exposition.” That is exactly what happens here, and the dynamic between mother and daughters and between the two daughters themselves has a dire, inevitable quality to it reminiscent of the somber Norwegian master. And so when the play ends on a seeming up-beat note, with Lucy having conquered her addiction and untied the metaphorical “knot of the heart” that gives title to the play, we find ourselves wise enough to remain skeptical that her success will be of lasting strength. It all seems much to be wished for but precarious to maintain.
The writing is superb, and masterfully articulated in the action. The noticeable quality of every scene is how precipitous it is; in only a few lines, the characters go from a surface tranquility to a stormy unburdening of emotions welling up and fueling differences that erupt in angry accusations or insistent cross-purposes that bring the scene to a calamitous end. Scene after scene is built this way, and so we can be pardoned for thinking that the last scene, with its sunny harmonies and fuller understandings of what has led the three, mother and daughters, to a kind of tranquil resting place, will in fuller time not end in the same kind of debacle that has characterized the previous action. But it is a very nice, ironic touch on Eldridge’s part, all the same. Only a dramatist with much experience and seasoning could summon up the confidence to appear to lead his audience in a newer, better direction while counting on their superior understanding about the way life actually works to point them toward the truth of the matter.
This was the best play, and best theatregoing experience, we had during our hard-pressed three weeks in London. There were nonetheless other experiences that were worth the effort.
But first, a brief notice of one that was not. Beethoven’s Fidelio is a magnificent piece of music. The composer’s only opera, it is fired by white-hot libertarian sentiments that infuse the music but somehow result in a stage action that is rather static. The Covent Garden production did nothing to improve on this condition. The production seemed almost like a staged reading, in costume. The large cohort of male prisoners in Act I were dressed entirely in white, and seemed almost like a convention of bakers. The prison scene in Act II was somewhat the victim of its having to be accommodated to the huge stage of this opera house: a few stage props, in the form of seeming piles of clothing, were provided for the prisoners to lounge on; otherwise, it was bare. The tall ladder fixed against the upstage wall did duty for the sole entrance point, but again the action seemed static and uneventful. More concerted efforts were made in the third act, but the rendering of the villain of the piece, the warden of the prison, as a Saddam Hussain look-alike, a veritable statue who is pulled down to ruin, was a cheap, inappropriate idea. And, all the while, this glorious music. Fortunately, the mere experience of being in this wonderful opera house mitigated to an extent the longueurs we had to sit through.
Rattigan’s Flight Path is set in a dark inn at the edge of a military airport somewhere south of London. The time is World War II, and the cast is populated by pilots and military support staff, plus the women who love them or work for them. The title, obscure to some, refers to the lighted landing path that guides returning RAF bombers coming back from their bombing sorties over Germany. This is old-fashioned dramaturgy with predictable nerve-wracking anxieties and heart-warming reunions, but as directed by the superb theatre artist Trevor Nunn it achieves an authentic feeling of wartime anxiety and trauma which, even as a boy not yet ten years old, I remember feeling during those hard years of deprivation and menace from offshore, ending in 1945.
Nunn is part of a new theatre company, the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, of which he is Artistic Director. Founded in 2007, information in the program informs us, the company seems to be dedicated to revivals of distinguished plays. In that first year they revived Wycherley’s The Country Wife, Edward Bond’s The Sea, and Michael Legrand’s Marguerite. In 2009 they brought back Waiting for Godot, with Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow, and Ronald Pickup, a stellar cast and a production I would love to have seen. The Haymarket is a very old and distinguished theatre, with notoriously uncomfortable seats, and they are charging top-of-the-line West End prices: £55, plus even higher prices for luxury boxes. The Company seems to be in fact an amalgam of various experienced, well-seasoned producing organizations, sharing the risk: Matthew Byam Shaw for Playful Productions, Act Productions, Tom McKitterick, and Bob Bartner and Norman Tulchin. Nunn is of course a prime choice as artistic director. He has a gift for clarity — the first virtue of a distinguished stage director, along with a penetrating eye for the precise emotion carried by a line of speech and a faultless technique for seeing it expressed unambiguously and in a way that carries the action forward. And so what could have been simply a walk down memory lane becomes something much more like a representation of difficult and anxious times to which we can still relate, even as we are treated to examples of the kind of long-suffering patience, selflessness, and hoping against hope that is still connected in the popular mind with the rigors and fears and losses associated with that time of war, a war that is still thought of as “a good war.”
Clybourne Park, an American play, takes its title from the name of a middle-class suburb of Chicago, and it is set in two periods, a generation ago and the present. The first act has to do with the first black family moving into a lily-white neighborhood and the consternation this causes — over property values, over the integration of races, and by extension over the larger, more general issue of having to live with people who are “not like us.” That’s the first act; the second act is set twenty-five years in the future, and . . . wouldn’t you know it? The neighborhood has declined terrifically but the same problems pertain. This is a skillfully written satirical comedy, fast-paced and generally speaking convincing, though there are some drammaturgical cheap tricks that detract or seem somewhat contrived. The playwright’s challenge has been to use a group of actors, white and black, to play one set of characters in Act I and an entirely different set of actors in Act II. (Using the same set of actors for both acts is., of course, what makes the script viable for a theatre company.) Bruce Norris responds to this basic dramaturgical need (the alternative, unthinkable in the commercial theatre, would be to use a different set of actors for each act) by giving us our money’s worth in the form of a second set of characters whose personalities and characteristics are very much different from the parallel characters of the first act. That is, the actorly challenge of having to play a character much different from the other is one that is perceived by the audience as genuinely interesting, so much so that it becomes a part of the theatrical experience, part of the pleasure of playgoing. More thoughtful audience members might even be inclined to see in this some complexities that have to do with moral character as well as with dramatic character socially conceived. Follow this line of speculation, and the play turns out to have something approaching a philosophical dimension to which the dramatic representation of social conflict does not often lend itself.
In other words, a play of substance which is at the same time a crisp, fast-paced comedy despite the fact that most of the time characters are sitting around in a half-circle; but they are speaking very well crafted lines. And meanwhile we are getting an uncommonly rich experience that seems to grow out of the adventurous casting itself. Add to this the fact that it is interesting for British audiences to see how Americans really live, and you have all the ingredients for a play that has become one of the hottest tickets in London. Oh, yes, the American accents are very good; one of the black actors is a Jamaican, but you would never know it.
Mary Broome is dated only in the sense that most upper-middle-class people don’t have a stable of servants, or even a single servant any more, nor is the seduction of a servant within the household by the scion of the family a common occurrence, as it was a hundred years ago. All the same, this is a sharply observed, well written play, and the scion of the family is an uncommon sort of ne’er-do-well, since in addition to his blithely irresponsible attitude he has also a winning way: he is smart, quick-witted, the easy master of any situation in which he finds himself, and someone who always looks on the brighter side of things. And so he functions, in the dramaturgy of the play, as the source for comedy and laughter, even while his actions, and specifically his seduction of a comely, serious and shy young maid of all work causes the most disruptive kinds of difficulties all through the play, and even though the child they have together who dies from poor medical care and lack of money is a constant problem. The interest in the play comes, I think, from the series of situations invented by the playwright, Monkhouse, that serve to test whether the scion, Leonard Timbrell, can survive this latest challenge. But Mary Broome, the servant, is no ordinary, submissive wall-flower; she has an independent mind, sees in practical ways the answer to every question no matter how abstruse, and goes about solving problems without much fuss. And so the ending of the play is a departure from convention that sets us back on our heels and pushes even Leonard to take a hard look at himself and his prospects. Mary, despite the fact that she is married to Leonard, considers that the death of her son has freed her from the marriage and announces that she is going to run away with another man much more to her liking than Leonard. And so the open and generous acceptance of Mary in the Timbrell family, once it has gotten over the shock of the discovery, goes for naught, and Leonard is finally reduced to accept what he cannot change and to face reality for the sobering thing it really is.
The date of the play is 1912, and it is interesting to see it in the larger chronological circumstances of the world-changing events of war that are just around the corner, in which social conventions will be upended, the leisure class to which Leonard aspires will become hard-pressed to maintain their devil-may-care attitudes toward social responsibility, and a large premium will be placed on the kind of attitude and capability demonstrated by the redoubtable Mary Broome.
A play that comes from a much more recent time — our own — and moves us to look inward, at what seems purely private and personal, and not social, concerns, is Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus. Set in the depths of a seamy, night-time Dublin, it consists merely of three actors stationed at three separate points of the stage, who speak when the lights come up on them but never directly engage with one another. Instead, what we are given are interior monologues, with just enough reference to the exterior world to be able to identify their personas. Occasionally they speak in one-line interchanges, but normally only in self-contained paragraphs. I had some real difficulty following this play, and I’m glad that the availability of the text, in the Nick Hern series, which has been available at many a London theatre box office for some time and functions as the program as well as a supposedly accurate account of what happens on stage, will make it possible for me to read the play and find out what I missed. (I have no program for this play other than the text.) There are two women and one man, the latter a psychologically disturbed person who has much trouble distinguishing between reality and his own hallucinations. Something happens to the younger of the two women, and what this is is perceived by the elder of the two, who may be her mother, and may have been caused by the actions of the man; but the details remain shadowy and ambiguous.
The venue for this play was the Young Vic, and specifically the theatre called the Maria, one of three theatres maintained by this establishment. It is a thriving enterprise, with a bar and restaurant attached, open to the outside, and very happy and busy on the night we went. It is just down the road (“The Cut”) from the Old Vic. I remember seeing there, in the large and what was then the only theatre, a gripping production of Measure for Measure which made me see the play in a new way. And I have to say, although I was having hearing problems and not following Terminus very well, I was gripped by the intense, concentrated acting and the simple but effective scheme of lighting the speaker while placing the other two characters in semi-darkness.
I thought afterwards that the playwright might have gotten the idea for this play, or at least its format, from an earlier work by Brian Friel, Faith Healer (1979). I saw a revival of this play by the Almeida, performing in temporary quarters in Kings Cross while the theatre in Islington was being rehabilitated. The temporary stage was perfect for this play for three characters, two men and a woman, sitting separately on three chairs and narrating their stories, which were fictionally connected. Seemingly static and not dramatic, it was in fact a riveting experience. The same was true of Terminus, but of course O‘Rowe invites comparison by modeling his play so closely on the structure and method of Faith Healer, and he doesn’t benefit from the noteworthy similarity. I say that tentatively, however, since I did not follow it very well.
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So much for the London season. I now have another catching-up task to engage in. We have gone to see several things through the month of April, since we returned home April 8, and I have not yet written about these theatre visits either.