(NOTE: The National Theatre adds a two-person play to its repertory, in which Athol Fugard joins forces with the two author-actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona in The Island, a gripping depiction of the lives of prisoners. The NT revives The Merchant of Venice in a fresh, original approach to the issue of anti-Semitism. Frank McGuinness recasts Strindberg’s Miss Julie in Northern Irish accents, setting the play in the cavernous kitchen of a great house. Michael Gambon enacts a tour-de-force rendering of an Elizabethan theatrical manager in Nicholas Wright’s Cressida, set in a decadent world brilliantly recreated in this Almeida Theatre Company mounting transferred to the West End. A double bill of Pinter’s first and latest plays finds a congenial home at the Almeida, capturing once again the playwright’s signature atmosphere of menace and unease. The abandoned shell of what was originally a gas house, taken over and then abandoned in turn by a film studio, becomes the setting for another Almeida triumph in this oversize staging on a floor of turf of Shakespeare’s King Richard II, featuring a memorable performance by the film and stage actor Ralph Fiennes.
Some of the most lively and accomplished theatre is to be found in the fringe, notably at the Tricycle, in Kilbourn, where a Belfast play by Marie Jones had its first showing in London on its way to the West End. The Man with Stones in his Pockets is a bravura production, in which two very busy actors play all the characters, each represented by a pair of shoes lined up on the floor upstage. Chekhov’s first major play, The Seagull, initially a failure, found new life in its 1898 revival at the Moscow Art Theatre; a century later, it comes alive once again in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, transferred from the Swan in Stratford, which captures the peculiar Russian quality of the play even while making it accessible to an English audience. A revival of Peter Nichols’s Passion Play at the Donmar Warehouse captures the dramatist’s subtle but effective idea of giving his characters mask-like alter egos and allowing them to engage in the intricate sexual relationships seemingly endemic to modern life.
Another Irish play from Belfast, Gary Mitchell’s Force of Change, all the more intense for the close-in circumstances of the rehabbed Royal Court Upstairs, drew a deeply engaged audience who find themselves sitting almost on top of the violent, engrossing action. Eugène Labiche, best known for his knockabout farce The Italian Straw Hat, also wrote the similarly broad but perhaps less memorable Threesome, at the Lyric Hammersmith. The mysterious meeting of Heisenberg and Bohr in wartime Denmark is the subject of Michael Frayne’s compelling account, Copenhagen. Purposeless lives are revealed for all their funny but ultimately sad quality in Gorky’s introduction of hapless visitors to the Russian countryside, in Summerfolk. David Greig’s ambitious trilogy, Victoria, isolates his characters on a lonely Scottish island where inevitable change proves to be no unmixed blessing. Covent Garden opera in its newest, most resplendent state becomes a fitting habitat for Martinu’s The Greek Passion, based on Katzanzakis’s novel. Bernard Shaw subtitles his five-part play Back to Methuselah a “metabiological Pentateuch,” realized in a four-hour condensation by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Pit. A new translation of Euripides’ Medea starring Fiona Shaw updates the setting to a decadent, post-modern Corinth, at the Queens, Shaftesbury Avenue, presenting a stunning new version of the ancient story of Jason’s quest for the golden fleece.
Still unperformed at his death in 1973, Noel Coward’s risqué comedy Semi-Monde was premiered at the Citizen’s Theatre, Glasgow, in 1977 by its director Philip Prowse before its current realization, also by Prowse, in the West End. The theme of loneliness is prominent in J. M. Synge’s wonderfully written text of The Playboy of the Western World and well realized in this production by Irish members of the National Theatre company. While the Almeida Theatre company’s permanent home in Islington is being refurbished, their production of Wedekind’s Lulu exploits temporary quarters in the old coach station in King’s Cross, in this gruesome tale of a femme fatale who brings men to their doom. William Houghton plays a canny, redoubtable King Henry V in this stirring revival of Shakespeare’s history play, which takes great advantage of the very imperfections of scenic display to give new meaning to a familiar theme. Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin bring deep conviction and clarity, as Madame Ranevsky and Gaef, to a faultless ensemble in this National Theatre mounting of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
The same company’s offering of Brecht’s sophisticated, quasi-moral tale of The Good Woman of Setzuan amounts to a less successful entertainment for youth. An apparent part of a Coward festival, this light comedy (or, alternatively, a romp) of Fallen Angels brings to the stage of the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, two seasoned comediennes, Felicity Kendall and Frances de la Tour, who, every bit as much as the author of the play, have a manifest talent to amuse. Joe Orton’s first play, Entertaining Mr Sloan, almost as good a farce as his What the Butler Saw, is unapologetically alive and well in this furiously paced, sumptuously well acted revival at the Arts Theatre. On the expansive stage of the National Theatre’s Olivier, Harold Pinter and his colleague Di Trevis have collaborated in bringing Pinter’s screenplay Remembrance of Things Past to a live theatre format. Shakespeare’s two-part history of Henry IV could hardly be more various in tone, even while the same troupe of actors essay the central roles of King Henry, Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Hotspur over the extent of a six-hour marathon, at the Barbican, mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company.)