(NOTE. A hot-ticket item, a nearly sold-out National Theatre production of Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill’s modern updating of the Aeschylus trilogy about war and its aftermath. Pinter’s last-to-first sequence about long-term domestic infidelity, Betrayal, captures a chilling reality grippingly portrayed. Beckett’s Happy Days, an ironic study of how a human being survives the most constricting of limitations, provides a powerful metaphor for understanding life itself. Christopher Hampton’s engrossing adaptation of Laclos’s novel Les Laiasons Dangereuses raises the question of the extent to which moral issues may underlie a supposedly amoral approach to living. Stephen Poliakoff gives a somewhat mysterious title to his play Sweet Panic, explaining it in the context of an inquiry into the question of changing standards of child safety.
Oscar Wilde’s comedy-drama A Woman of No Importance, a great success in its own time and now given full-dress treatment and superb direction at the Haymarket, allows its audience to experience Wilde’s subtle but effective ways of upending conventional beliefs and opinions that stand in the way of more meaningful life. David Hare steps away from his usual method of writing plays to join forces with the Out of Joint Company in developing Permanent Way, at the National Theatre Lyttelton, a combined effort to mount a revealing and unsettling investigation into worrisome railway accidents. In this unwitting remaking of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Pirates of Penzance, its director turns a familiar piece into a series of vaudeville acts likely to drive staunch followers of the G & S line summarily out of the theatre.
A new dramatist, Joanna Laurens, finds visibility for her thoughtful, linguistically original play about a dysfunctional family, Five Gold Rings, at the Almeida Theatre. Tom Stoppard shows himself once again at his mysterious best in a revival of Jumpers, in which the murder of a gymnast not only remains unsolved but becomes a pretext for further uncertainty. In a second play this season, David Hare’s Secret Rapture, a dramatist at the top of his form also introduces a sudden murder and then envelopes it in mutually hostile frames of reference, fascinating yet elusive. Martin McDonagh departs from his usual setting in the west of Ireland for an unnamed European environment, but his subject as explored in Pillowman remains the same, an inquiry into the obscure but formative springs of violence that apparently affect all human beings, or at least those who attract the playwright’s uncompromising attention. Brilliant, sustained choreography takes center stage in Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, a National Theatre Lyttelton production in which double-cast dancers act out a private story involving complex relationships between couples, to the delight and sustained attention of their audience.
Offenbach was never better than in an opera he did not live to finish (at least in its orchestration). Les Contes d’Hoffmann, in a sumptuous Covent Garden production, offers a ravishing musical setting for a well-sustained, three-part tale, told in a tavern by the love-lorn Hoffmann, of encounters with three beautiful but faithless or problematic women whose loss has defined his life. Perhaps the most shocking play of Edward Albee’s career, mounted on the stage of the Almeida, is The Goat; or, Who is Sylvia? Little in the way of comfort emerges for its audience, who must decide whether the play is about bestiality, as its action would seem to indicate, or something much more recondite, even while they witness the painful breakup of a family. John Fletcher, an expert follower and sometime collaborator of Shakespeare, was very much his own man, as he indicated in crafting a sharp, effective sequel to the elder dramatist’s The Taming of the Shrew. In successive performances by the RSC, Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed is given a top-notch production, along with an equally accomplished mounting of the Shakespeare original, with the same actors portraying identical roles in both plays — a memorable tour de force.)