(NOTE. A wealth of theatrical riches this season includes the Orange Tree’s inspired production of W. S. Gilbert’s satirical farce Engaged, played in a tiny but magical space in Richmond. The National Theatre’s offerings include Christopher Hampton’s portrayal of competing psychiatrists in the aptly named The Talking Cure, as well as that comic classic by Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer, paired with a new comedy by April De Angelis, A Laughing Matter, the two works performed by the same set of NT actors.
Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy Damsels in Distress — his second such work after the earlier trilogy The Norman Conquests — shows him in his recognizable profile as a writer who keeps his characters to himself, so to speak, allowing surprise to become his dominant dramaturgical card. Jacobean drama is featured widely, including no fewer than five plays from Stratford’s Swan Theatre by the RSC: Shakespeare’s lately identified history play Edward III, along with the seldom seen The Malcontent, by John Marston, and the rarely performed The Roman Actor, by his contemporary, Phillip Massinger, both productions highlighted by the compelling histrionics of Antony Scher; and for abundant good measure an unfamiliar but welcome tragicomedy by that Jacobean master of the form, John Fletcher, The Island Princess, which kept its audiences enthralled but guessing until almost the very end; along with the sunniest and most rambunctious of Jacobean fare, Marston and Chapman’s satirical city comedy Eastward Ho, which effectively lampooned moneyed but gullible persons hoping to make a fortune in the far-off new world.
Elsewhere in the West End, in an independent venture at the Albery, appeared a straightforward yet effective realization of “that Scottish play” — a superstitious reference among theatre people to the bad luck that is said to dog Shakespeare’s Macbeth but is nowhere in evidence in this full-scale, well-acted mounting. Another American import, at the Tricycle, by the African-American dramatist August Wilson, is King Hedley II, in a production originating with the Birmingham Rep and offering fresh evidence of Wilson’s preeminent standing among contemporary American dramatists, as viewed by playgoers abroad. Peter Hall’s virtually flawless mounting of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession, at the Strand, found ways to make the somewhat inexperienced hand behind this early work pale by comparison with that dramatist’s vital instinct for portraying the dramatically effective collision of two equally strong-minded women.
Once again in the small but welcoming surround of the Orange Tree, audiences responded with enthusiastic understanding to the company’s mounting of Vaclav Havel’s twentieth-century reworking for actors of John Gay’s eighteenth-century English ballad-opera classic The Beggar’s Opera. Also in the Fringe, though miles away, the venerable Pentameter Theatre, upstairs over a pub in Hampstead, brought out two short but characteristic plays by John Synge, In the Shadow of the Glen and The Tinker’s Wedding, produced by an Irish company resident in London and featuring a young Irish actress who bears watching.
Under the auspices of the RSC, at the Barbican, a long and elaborate adaptation of Salmon Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children drew a large audience but failed to enthrall. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith combined forces in a duo for virtuoso actors, David Hare’s subtle, engrossing Breath of Life, at the Haymarket. Upstairs at the Royal Court a new play, Iron, by Rona Munro, fresh from the Edinburgh Festival, put its audience uncomfortably close to an intense conflict between a young woman and her mother, imprisoned for a crime of passion. At the Donmar Warehouse, a venue just slightly larger than the Royal Court Upstairs, Noel Coward’s doom-filled The Vortex found the dramatist in the most sobering of moods in an action that draws a mother and son together in ever deepening conflict. Another provincial theatre, the Sheffield Crucible, contributed a brilliant production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, mounted by the artistic director of the Donmar, Michael Grandage.
The National Theatre mounts a stunning, disturbing modern dress revival of Webster’s uncompromising Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, almost too painful to see. Ben Jonson and two other contemporaries of Shakespeare collaborate on one of the best, most spirited and entertaining of Elizabethan city comedies, Eastward Ho! Similar spirit and know-how grace this modern approach to time-tested English comic opera in a joyous revival of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore. The Theatre Royal Bath’s touring production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It brings a well-seasoned mounting of Shakespeare’s happy comedy to Boston, Massachusetts audiences, in the midst of a blinding snowstorm.)