London (Jun 2014)

  • Another Country, 6/9/14 (Mon), West End
  • Wolf Hall, 6/11/14 (Wed mat), RSC
  • Bring Up the Bodies, 6/11/14 (Wed eve), RSC
  • Titus Andronicus, 6/12/14 (Thurs mat), Globe
  • A Small Family Affair, 6/12/14 (Thurs eve), National
  • Incognito, 6/13/14 (Fri), Fringe
  • 1984, 6/14/14 (Sat mat), West End
  • Hobson’s Choice, 6/16/14 (Mon), Regent’s Park Open Air

I wasn’t able to leave for London until Monday because of theater and other obligations, so I missed a weekend of potential shows. Plays I wasn’t able to catch this time included Noel Coward’s Relative Values, Good People with Imelda Staunton, an ENO staging of Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame), Kevin Spacey’s one-man show about Clarence Darrow (tickets impossible anyway), and Sean O’Casey’s Silver Tassles. I wasn’t too interested in the still-previewing revival of Miss Saigon, already a huge hit, or holdovers like The Commitments and Once. But that left plenty more to see.

Another Country is based on a true story of two elite students at a posh school in post-war England who later became parts of a Soviet spy ring. It explores why kids who would seem to have everything going for them would be willing to betray the very country that made that all possible. Historically three of the four spies involved in the famous scandal were gay, and the sexuality of one of those here was a key theme. He was amazingly and defiantly sexually out, at least within the confines of his school, but was broadly accepted by others – in fact, he was apparently active with students on both sides of the sexual line. However, when it came to giving him a post of prominence in the student governance, it proved a different story, a theme that reflected society at large.

The suggestion was that the country failed him by forcing him to repress his nature once out in society – he noted, for instance, that he might be able to rise to ambassador to a tiny island nation, but never to France. Seems a pretty flimsy reason to sell out his country, but there you are. The other spy-to-be was a revolutionary student who did not come from a privileged home and wanted to overthrow the capitalist government and install a communist regime. I was struck by the fact that while no one ever appeared convinced by his ravings, neither did they question his right to rave. Though I’m not sure that was even a theme here, it caught my interest in light of the news these days, when a number of famous women in the US (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condaleeza Rice, IMF leader Christine Lagarde) have been disinvited from college campuses for their views.

While all this sounds heavy, the show was by and large a comedy and thankfully never self-pitying. The tolerance among the students for the eccentricities of others in their ranks, whether or not true to life, seemed plausible here since most were from the same social class. Numerous scenes show the head students trying to establish rules and order, but it was the ones who deviated from this order who stood out. There was one particularly funny interlude in a visit by one student’s respectable old uncle, who alludes to his own not-so-straight past and present. Overall the story rambled a bit, albeit very entertainingly, and I wasn’t sure where it was going until the very last scene pulled it all together with the ambassador talk. I’m not sure I’m ready to blame his treachery on his victimization by society, but the show puts the case subtly enough with consistently intelligent dialogue and believable characters. There were good natural performances by pretty much all the notably young cast, with special kudos to both the leads.

Henry VIII is always good fun, and Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, two of the toughest tickets in town (especially the former), squeeze plenty of juice from the subject. The first covers the upending of Katherine of Aragon and rise of Anne Boleyn, while the second tracks the dumping of Anne for Jane Seymour. I was worried that I might be left behind since my memory of events is pretty skimpy. But that proved no problem at all. The shows, while covering all the necessary plot points, were more focused on character and the philosophical issues than the story as such. They were powered by exceptionally strong dialogue, plentiful humor, fluid staging and some great acting. With the constant flow of characters, all with varying motives and well flushed out, there was never a dull moment. Some previous knowledge would be helpful: at the end of the first show, a young woman, asked to identify herself, says simply “I’m Jane Seymour” – and then blackout as a collective “aaah” sweeps through the audience. That only works if you know who she is in the first place, though it was a great way to sell tickets for the second show.

The real star throughout is not the king or Thomas More but Cromwell, who is shown in a more sympathetic light than I’m used to. He’s cool, scheming and manipulative, to be sure, but his actions are well motivated, making him a more complex character than the kabuki-like villain I remember. I loved the mounting tension in the scene in the second show where he patiently and ruthlessly crushes the country boy in the interrogation over Anne Boleyn’s love life, but there were plenty of great set pieces. The portrayal of Henry VIII was more introspective than usual regarding his reasons for seeking a divorce and his awareness of the possible consequences, though his explosive side was in full evidence as well, and Thomas More was not a pure angel here. The array of individuals on stage was dizzying but never confusing, and all were sharply drawn, including the few women: Katherine was staunch in defending her position, Anne was coldly ambitious, and so forth. It made for a fully realized drama.

Cromwell and Henry in particular benefited from superb performances in every way, the former controlled and authoritative, the latter restless and volatile. That applies as well to Katherine, especially after her arrest, and a wonderful Cardinal Woolsey, every inch a cardinal. Actually, the overall level of acting, down to the minor characters, couldn’t have been better. One think I noticed after struggling to hear the previous night: I could understand every word being said, which was fortunate given the density of the dialogue.

The staging used a spare set with a crucifix in light and uchippanashi concrete walls, apparently based on Ando Tadao’s famous church design in Osaka. Props and furniture were brought on as needed. That allowed for smooth scenic transitions, a big help with this large cast. The expert lighting contributed to some nice effects, like the snowy funerals and the surprising transition from funeral to wedding in the second show. In contrast with the minimal set, the costumes were lavish and period appropriate.

I’m sure the shows cut a few historical corners or shifted events as needed, but I thought they gave an excellent picture of the issues at stake. It was fantastic seeing them on the same day. These are based on two best-selling novels, and a third is apparently being written at the moment, presumably about Cromwell’s decline and fall. If there’s ever a stage version of that, I’m so there.

Titus Andronicus was returning to the Globe in a lauded production from some years back, though the focus of most reviews was the show’s extreme violence. I had been eager to get back to the Globe and, never having seen this minor show, figured this was a good chance.

The production starts at an hysterical level as Titus and his tribe return victorious from war, and pretty much sustains that throughout. There was a lot of screaming, carrying on and much undue violence for no evident reason. And no shying away on blood in guts in a real gore fest, both in the script itself and the staging: random murder and rape and mutilation and other sadistic acts, all jubilantly carried off before our eyes. Corpses began to pile up within minutes of the opening, the lead chopped his hand off in exchange for hostages (who were beheaded anyway), a lady was shockingly killed by a spear up her anus (for unwittingly aiding in the birth of a child), a girl had her hands and tongue ripped off and wandered around bloody and dazed, and even the jester was brutally slain for some reason or other. One audience member standing near the stage actually fainted; they simply carried on with the show as the staff dragged her out. I saw no point in the over-the-top story at all, and the characters were not particularly well developed with the possible exception of the viciously evil moor. This was evidently one of Shakespeare’s first shows and a blockbuster hit in its day, but it doesn’t feel like Shakespeare at all. The one exception was a beautiful speech by the uncle after seeing the mutilated girl, though I did wonder if he shouldn’t be calling for help rather than poeticizing. Curious play.

That said, it was absolutely worth seeing if only for the wild staging, which met the material head on with one gruesome set piece after another. The director used the entire theater, with characters being wheeled in on big steel carts through the groundlings, popping up in the seated areas on upper floors, and throwing confetti and such from the roof – Kabuki, eat your heart out (actually, not a good metaphor here). Since the play has no detectable redeeming values whatsoever, the presentation is key, and I suppose every director wants to outdo the carnage of previous productions. This one certainly lived up to its billing; it was a great use of a great playing space. It had its moving moments as well, especially with the heart-rending presentation of the mutilated girl. But it’s the violence that stood out, basically leaving us waiting to see if the director could top herself with each new cruelty (she did). The acting was a bit too cutesy at times with leers and knowing grins and odd line readings, but the actors threw themselves into the proceedings with gusto. William Houston was energetic as Titus but little else, both the main women (Indira Varma as Tamora and Flora Spencer-Longhurst as a moving Lavinia) were quite good as was the uncle (Ian Gelder), and others did their jobs well enough. I have no burning desire to see the show again, including the Julie Taymor film, but it was certainly an experience. I did come away wanting to see more at the Globe. I wonder if they’d ever consider doing Kabuki there.

The National’s production of A Small Family Business, the first ticket I reserved from Tokyo, is a revival of a 1987 piece by the great Alan Ayckbourn. It was being filmed and broadcast that night as part of their Live series, so I thought it would be fun to see that performance in the theater. I wasn’t happy when I found that my seat (only £15) was right behind the cameramen, but fortunately it was just between the two with a perfect view.

Jack is taking over his father-in-law’s furniture business, and preaches the need for honesty and morality. He bends that rule, however, when he learns that his daughter was caught shoplifting, setting off a spiral of dirty compromises: he is blackmailed by a private detective investigating the shoplifting, his brother is selling his designs secretly to an Italian competitor (and nearly everyone in the family is benefiting), his brother’s wife is having an affair with the competitor (a group of brothers – she’s seeing all of them) and more. After many complications, the family ends up killing the scheming detective, and the Italians agree to dump the body in exchange for using Jack’s house to run drugs, which his daughter is using copiously. All this from Jack’s well-intentioned “cheating” to help the daughter.

The play is a beautifully structured battle of comedy vs. cynicism, with the latter ultimately winning out. The various plot strands are well balanced and never confusing, helped by a houseful of memorable characters. The every-man-for-himself plot was compelling and funny, if that’s the word for a show about hucksters and liars and drug addicts and sluts, and it barreled forward relentlessly towards the Orton-esque ending. This was written during the Thatcher years and evidently had her brand of ruthless individualism in mind, but it never refers to that, nor is that even important to know. It seemed pretty timeless to me. I had reservations about the (hilarious) opening, where Jack was suggesting some wild play with his wife and stripping off his clothes, without knowing that others were gathered for his surprise party in the other room; it seemed out of synch somehow. But the play didn’t take a wrong foot after that. The unusually large cast was superb from top to bottom. The director Adam Penford wasn’t a very good interviewee during the intermission, but he did a great job with the proceedings on stage. The set was especially impressive, showing a cross section of the house with all rooms in view. With the action spread so widely over the stage, this is definitely a show for a big theater. A superb production of a great show.

I saw Incognito on the strength of writer Nick Payne, who wrote the interesting and original Constellations. It was sold out for the entire run, and the only way to get a ticket was to tromp off to the inconvenient theater an hour ahead and hope for returns. I was keen enough to see it to take the chance, and fortunately got a seat.

There were three simultaneous stories: an American doctor performing the autopsy on Einstein steals his brain, a British man undergoes brain surgery to cure his epilepsy only to lose his short-term memory, and a British neuro-psychologist who tries to hide her straight past from both her lesbian hookup and herself, insisting that our sense of self is just an illusion. The first two are more or less true stories (though both were American in real life), and the last is likely enough these days. They all explore tricky questions of identity and memory in an intriguing structure: each story is played in brief snippets, then switch abruptly to the next story in a constant cycle. That itself reinforces the show’s theme since we are constantly having to put the pieces of each story together as information in each is gradually divulged. The stories all extend over a long period of time, so the next bit may be a significant jump forward in time. They are not necessarily clear at first, but all become coherent over time.

The American is obsessed with the idea that Einstein’s brain will provide the clue to genius, seeing it as an organ complete in itself disassociated from the rest of what makes us human. His growing fixation comes at the expense of his family and everything else. Meanwhile, the psychologist believes that she can remake herself by remembering and forgetting as she pleases, apparently including her sexuality. Her hookup isn’t as convinced and doesn’t take well to the fact that the woman failed to mention a soon-to-be-ex husband and child, which the hookup does not consider a social illusion. The most affecting story (and character) was the epileptic, who is frozen at a time 50 years earlier when he was waiting to go on his honeymoon. Each sequence sees him greeting his wife anew and trying to recall a half-remembered tune on the piano. He is still waiting even after the doctor tries to make him understand that the wife has died. There is a particularly beautiful moment at the end where the patient sits and finally plays the piece on the piano.

The set was simple, with a desk and piano on each side and a few scattered props like a jar with Einstein’s brain. The actors, all excellent, switched with amazing effortlessness from accent to accent, including pitch-perfect American accents encompassing scientists to surfer dudes, which made each story crystal-clear. I suspect they made the epileptic British so that the accents would make the story transitions clear. The transitions were very deftly handled; as one scene finished, the lights would blink for a split second, and the actors were suddenly characters in the next story via appropriate shifts in body language and accent. It reminded me of Nina Arianda’s performance in Venus in Fur. Fluid production, solid actors, challenging script. A very satisfying evening.

1984 was pretty much a spur-of-the-moment choice based on largely favorable reviews. I shouldn’t have bothered. It was a collegiate attempt to be artsy, concentrating on special effects, projections, mood lighting and ominous sound effects rather than on any semblance of a possible reality. With all the bells and whistles and science fiction, they basically forgot humanity. Winston was all angst and darkness, a self-pitying portrait from start to finish that gave us no reason to sympathize with him – even his affair with the woman seemed mechanical. I found him irritating. The show is framed as a group in the late 21st century reading Winston’s diary. They’re not clear whether the account is true or that Winston even existed, and scenes repeat in slightly different variations that make truth an elusive concept. It sounds like it could have been interesting if they wouldn’t have beat us on the head with it or made it all seem so very important. A tiresome show.

I was super-tempted to see Incognito again on Monday, but was drawn instead by the outdoor production of the old chestnut Hobson’s Choice in Regent’s Park. It hadn’t opened yet, so there were no reviews to go by, but it sounded fun. The theater was a horseshoe shape around a large stage with a revolving platform but no evident wing space. The weather had turned chilly, and I had to buy a jacket at H&M to survive it. But at least it was a nice clear evening.

A tyrannical widowed father runs a shoe shop with his three daughters. The strong-willed oldest daughter Maggie, the “plain one” who manages the shop, decides at age 30 that she wants a husband and, to her father’s horror, fixes her sights on their employer, the shop’s timid young shoemaker. She faces various obstacles: for one thing, her sisters feel she is being too aggressive as a woman, and the shoemaker is quite happy in his lot and, by the way, already has a fiancée. On top of all that, the father, not wanting to lose a good manager in any case, abjectly refuses to allow Maggie to marry beneath her status. (He never imagined that she would marry at this point, but his friend assures him that “I’ve seen ’em do it at double her age”.) The fun is watching Maggie knock each one of these aside in turn, especially as Maggie the unstoppable force meets her father the immovable object.

It’s an engaging story with smart dialogue and great characters, especially the flustered father and tough-as-nails Maggie. I was worried when I heard the show was updated from the turn of the century to the early 1960s – it’s advertised as a “Swingin’ Sixties Comedy – and the signs weren’t good when the show opened with the father singing drunkenly to Sinatra’s “That’s Life”. But the director fortunately didn’t push things too far, basically just throwing in a few miniskirts and period songs, and the story worked perfectly well in that context, a testament to the text’s underlying strength. The beautifully detailed set (lots of shoes!) made good use of the revolving platform, taking us smoothly from inside the smart two-level shop (plus a much-used door to the cellar) to the newlywed Maggie’s new home and then back to the shop, now run down following the departure of the dad’s daughter/manager and top shoemaker. The leads were all outstanding: Mark Benton and Jodie McNee as the father and Maggie, and a very appealing Karl Davies as the shoemaker Willie, great as both the shy, obedient underling and confident businessman that he becomes. The senior shoemaker was also quite good in an all-round strong cast. I’m sorry to have missed the Japanese version last year with Nakadai Tatsuya, but I imagine that the show could work in a Japanese setting with no problem. A fun production.

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