(NOTE. Shaw’s central character in You Never Can Tell, the Waiter, is an early example of one of his wise, vital commentators who knows and has the patience to lead others less enlightened, including the audience, to serviceable wisdom. Hollywood’s love affair with tinsel and pretension gets its comeuppance in Kaufman and Hart’s Broadway success Once in a Lifetime, in which an aspiring playwright tempted by fame and fortune but who has a lot to learn learns it, much to everyone’s benefit. Mark Ravenhill raises the question of the high price of emotional stability in The Cut, a play about a surgeon stricken by doubt and guilt over his power to cure disturbed persons of their unhappiness. Tennessee Williams’s Period of Adjustment, at the Almeida, embodies in its title the ironic qualities of his perennial subject, the ineluctable maladjustment of characters stranded in a hostile world.
The title of David Harrower’s play Blackbird captures an ominous quality increasingly in evidence as the action proceeds. This drama about an older man and a younger woman treats its central subject of pedophilia with great tact but with unremitting clarity and drive, leading its two characters to a knock-down fight that leaves them shaken yet unrelenting, while leaving its audience convinced that Harrower’s voice is an original one that merits following. In Christopher Hampton’s Embers Jeremy Irons returns to the West End theatre in a role he has played many times before, of a coward unable to stand up to the demands of wife and friend. A virtuoso actor, Irons has a large following that will evidently put up with the shortcomings of almost any theatrical vehicle that offers a chance to hear his memorable voice. Joanne Murray-Smith’s Honour features a married couple and a younger woman who has broken up the marriage and then deserted the husband she seduced. This interloper is a dramatist, but not a very good one, and her tendency toward the over-explicit may be an apt description of Murray-Smith’s play itself.
Into a mounting of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, on the NT Lyttelton stage, the Complicite ensemble has breathed a deep coherence aided by incisive observation, in a modern dress production enhanced by important technological means. The result is a compelling presentation that unearths deep, problematic values remaining long after the final, troubling scene has come to a close. Almost a chamber opera in its small, intimate scale, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden benefits nonetheless from the large-scale scenic means brought to this memorable, beautifully sung production. A giant tree grows at the center of this RSC production of As You Like It, at the Novello, from whose limbs the enthralled Orlando hangs love letters to Rosalind, in this winning production of Shakespeare’s comedy.
A Trafalgar Studios (1) revival of Alan Bennett’s 1977 play The Old Country makes fulsome comedy out of a somewhat tawdry situation involving an international exchange of spies. Golden costumes for the Incas are part of a full-dress spectacular approach, at the NT Olivier, to Peter Shaffer’s engrossing but troubling story of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, at whose center lies a wrenching personal conflict between the Spanish conquistador and the Inca himself. The text of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has seldom been better served than in this RSC production, at the Gielgud, enhanced by close-to-authentic accents and a great range of fine acting and effective settings that capture the dreary landscape of seventeenth-century Salem.
La Belle Hélène, Offenbach’s revamping of the old story of the rescue of Helen by Paris as a triple-forte opera bouffe, is mounted on the rehabbed stage of the Coliseum by a French company, the Théâtre des Châtelet, with comical high-jinks galore and a stomping mad Menelaus. Peter Hall’s Theatre Royal Bath production of The Importance of Being Earnest, touring the United States, stops off at the Brooklyn, New York, Academy of Music for a successful if brief run, capturing Wilde’s great instincts for farcical comedy but presenting the Lady Bracknell, in the person of Lynn Redgrave, as more music hall entertainer than proper dowager.)
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(Comment: In London for the month of March and into early April, without as much time to see a full schedule of plays as I have seen in years past, and thinking also that the theatre season now, what with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and the more recent bombings in the Underground of last summer, is understandably not as rich and varied as it was before the twin towers came down. One still hears plenty of American accents in the theaters and on West End streets, but the mood has changed. A notice posted in the lobby of the National Theatre, seen by me this afternoon on my way out of the theatre, said that random bag checks were being conducted by NT security agents who would identify themselves by name — in view of the general security situation in London. Anyone who objected to this “entirely reasonable” measure to ensure the safety of theatergoers would be “escorted out of the theatre.” One senses the presence of an armed camp, covert but nonetheless real. In some evenings and on an occasional afternoon I go to the theatre; otherwise, I am to be found in the Manuscript Room of the British Library, checking previously made transcriptions or making new ones for my portion of an edition of plays of Oscar Wilde, for the still-in-progress Oxford English Texts edition of the complete works. The manuscripts I am working on at the moment — The Duchess of Padua and The Importance of Being Earnest — are part of the Viscountess Eccles (Mary Hyde) Collection willed to the British Library, which arrived here something over a year-and-a-half ago. They fall into a new (to me, at least) category of “Special Manuscripts” which must be worked on in constant sight of attendants at the issue desk and are not to be left unattended, even to go for a drink of water. I understand and sympathize completely with these restrictions; they make it less likely that some unscrupulous person will make off with an irreplaceable manuscript. If I could go off to the National Theatre and not feel that I was leaving one fortress for another, I would somehow feel more at ease dividing my time between the two activities. As it is, somehow the joy has started to seep out of my London visits, and I find myself less eager for the constant round of theatregoing that has characterized my sojourns here for years. I first set foot on English soil in September 1965, with a wife and three small daughters in tow and a PhD from Princeton in hand. The world was my oyster. Now the world has changed, not out of recognition, certainly, but in so many ways beyond the personal way in which it has changed for me that I am thrown back squarely on my own resources and left wondering what further changes are in store that might prevent me from coming here altogether ever again. Will there be another bomb in the Underground some day this month? Will there be another security alert at the British Library more dangerous and devastating than the alerts that have emptied the reading rooms for an hour or more at a time and punctuated some of my previous visits? The IRA seems downright paltry alongside Al Qaeda.
I ponder these questions with some feelings of renewed anxiety. And I continue to go to the theatre and to keep this chronicle.)