London shows (Oct 2013)

  • Handbagged, 10/28/13 (Mon), Tricycle
  • Roots, 10/29/13 (Tues), Donmar
  • Ghosts, 10/30/13 (Wed), Almeida
  • The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 10/31/13 (Thur), West End

Handbagged was an unusual comedy examining the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher via the weekly teas they held throughout the latter’s decade as prime minister. Each was played by two actresses, with an older pair reflecting on their past and their younger selves recreating that past. They were joined by two male actors playing the entire supporting cast, including Dennis Thatcher, numerous British politicians, a footman, Ronald and Nancy Reagan and the president of Zambia. Thatcher is portrayed as serious and political, while the Queen, preferring to steer clear of heavy issues, simply wants some good gossip. That is, the prime minister’s permanent combativeness is contrasted with the Queen’s duty and apparently sincere desire to bring the nation and Commonwealth together.

The fourth wall was basically dispensed with: as the younger pair play out their meetings, the older pair would comment (“I never said that!”), while the two actors would argue over who would take which part. This seemed hokey at first, but gained depth as the evening went on, providing what proved a fascinating look at a key period in modern British history. It would probably even be better if I were more familiar with some of the names, like Neil Kinnock and Michael Heseltine. But the most pleasant surprise was that despite the jokiness, the portraits of the two women were largely sympathetic or at least neutral. Thatcher in particular is usually a punching bag on the British stage – in Billy Elliot, they actually call for her death – and it’s refreshing to see her presented as is, leaving the judgment to us. Her downfall, though largely self-imposed, was very moving here. The ending was superb, as Thatcher, ungraciously dumped by her own party, goes to the Queen for her final tea. The latter: “Sit down.” Thatcher, defeated but still defiant: “No!!” (It works in context.)

The two older actresses were pitch perfect, especially the Thatcher. They not only looked like their real-life counterparts but replicated their movements and speech patterns with terrific skill. The younger actresses were not on that level but did a very fine job. The men were fantastic in their wide range of roles and accents; my favorites (maybe inevitably) were the Reagans, which I thought they captured superbly. I didn’t see the much-lauded The Audience, which covers some of the same ground, and this jagged, goofy format isn’t going to appeal to everyone. But I found it an enjoyable piece that happened to be quite thoughtful as well.

I had standing room tickets for Roots, the Arnold Wesker revival at the Donmar Warehouse, and wasn’t looking forward to standing for nearly three hours. But a seat turned up literally 60 seconds before the show, which I grabbed. I knew that this was a “kitchen sink drama” but was surprised to see an actual kitchen sink, which plays an important part in the show.

Beatie returns after some years in London to her home deep in the English countryside. Her stay in the big city has given her ambitions and a lot of socialist-leaning ideas, mainly borrowed from her boyfriend. These are received by her bemused farming family as the ravings of an impressionable young girl who’s seen too much but knows too little. Beatie’s boyfriend is scheduled to visit, and she wants to present her family in the best light, unintentionally suggesting that his is the standard to which they should be aspiring. That dynamic is what drives the play. Resentment gradually boils over at Beatie’s inadvertent disparagement of the family’s small-town ways, and the mother explodes with force and utter conviction. In the end, Beatie is crushed to learn that she has been jilted by her heroic boyfriend, who writes that he isn’t coming at all. I figured that this humiliation and a subsequent climb-down from her high horse would be the climax. But in fact what followed was her joyous discovery of her own sense of self. What threatened to be a downbeat drama ends on a surprisingly upbeat note.

Not much happens in the first two acts, which is a long time for a lull. It was not entirely uninteresting but left me wondering during intermission just what was going on. The scenes were a slice-of-life presentation of an ultra-ordinary family: they peel potatoes, wash dishes, tell the time by the buses passing, and gripe about inconsequential things as they scrape out a living. The nothingness seemed to be the point. There was no sugar-coating or attempt to spice up their drab existence, though there was fortunately no self-pity either. The slow passage of unimportant events felt like a UK version of Tokyo Story. Beatie’s feelings after her city experience are understandable, but so are those of her family, who live the life that Beatie is suddenly looking down upon. I figured the playwright was stacking the cards against the daughter, but he was admirably fair to all sides. Beatie is shown more as an innocent led astray, a girl trying, however wrong-headedly, to improve herself. The others gripe but do go along with her attempt to brush them up for her city boy. This all comes together in a thrilling third act with the mother’s powerful takedown of the daughter and the latter’s epiphany.

The production, which took place in a single room, was unhurried and superb. Linda   Bassett as the mother was a tremendous actress in an all-around great cast (with some impenetrable accents). Definitely worth seeing.

Ghosts, my second Ibsen of the week (after A Doll’s House), was about as sour a show as I can remember; I’m surprised Sondheim hasn’t set it to music. In order to protect her reputation, Helene has lied to various people about her late husband, her reasons for building an orphanage, her relationship with the slime-ball preacher and probably a lot more. When her son starts fooling around with the maid, Helene reveals that the maid is actually her husband’s love child, i.e., the son’s half-sister. She then discovers that her son has a fatal inherited disease (supposedly syphilis) and, when he has a debilitating seizure, is having to decide whether to comply with his wishes and euthanize him as the play ends.

This feels like a play that’s trying to be as offensive and edgy as possible, and it works. Ibsen does know how to structure a good story and writes compelling and believable dialogue. The problem is that it’s difficult to like anyone on stage or care at all what happened to them. Nora had her problems, but at least there was some sense that she was coming to grips with her life at the end. Maybe Helene should have walked out on her husband too. Anyway, I get the idea with all the ghosts – the lies that come back to haunt Helene, the husband’s disease visited on the son – but I was happy to get out of there. No complaints about the excellent no-nonsense production by Richard Eyre (also a second for the week) or the sharp cast, including yet another great female lead performance in a week full of them, this time by Lesley Manville. I liked the way the back part of the house was made visible through use of a semi-transparent wall, a smart touch that added a level of depth. For all that, I’m really not interested in seeing this show again.

With Arturo Ui, I added Brecht to Ibsen, Pirandello and Wesker to the list this time – I’ve really been all over the map with old European dramatists this trip. The real draw here was the ever-reliable Henry Goodman as the lead. According to the interesting program, Brecht wrote this satire of Hitler in 1941 specifically for performance in the US, which was still sitting out the hostilities in Europe at the time. For whatever reason, the play never got there; its first performance was in Germany in 1958. But Hitler looms large in history, and the piece still has claws.

Arturo is the leader of a mafia-like group that takes over the cauliflower market in 1930s Chicago (read: Berlin), then, getting greedy for more, moves to grab the neighboring town as well (read: Austria). Arturo is somewhat ill at ease at the start, but his confidence builds as things go unexpectedly right. In the best sequence, he takes “electrocution” lessens from an actor to improve his public speaking, and as his awkward movements give way to salutes and goosesteps, the great dictator is virtually born before our eyes. The Chaplinesque comedy at the start gradually builds into tragedy, and while Arturo meets his end, the play makes clear that there are more like him out there with a stark ending line: “Though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

The allegory was pretty obvious, and there were evidently many parallels with history, like the burning of the warehouse (Reichstag). Whatever those details, the director clearly wasn’t going to let much stand in the way of good comedy. The antics on stage were more like an extended Monty Python sketch than a play, but it was undeniable fun. I wonder if Brecht had seen the previous year’s The Great Dictator. Goodman played it to the hilt, showing Arturo as a timid nobody who basically stumbles his way to evil – an entirely resistible rise that no one bothers to resist. His exuberance was infectious. This show is unlikely to displace Mother Courage in the Brecht pantheon, but it was a worthwhile production of a worthwhile show.

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