London (Nov 2014)

  • ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, 11/2/14 (Sun), Globe
  • King Charles III, 11/3/14 (Mon), West End
  • The Marriage of Figaro, 11/4/14 (Tues), ENO
  • Great Britain, 11/5/14 (Wed), West End
  • East is East, 11/6/14 (Thurs), West End
  • The Play That Goes Wrong, 11/6/14 (Thurs), West End
  • Miss Saigon, 11/7/14 (Fri), West End

I was on my way to Tel Aviv and decided to route myself through London for a theater trip. I just missed the much-praised James Trilogy about the first three Scottish kings in that line, which I had really wanted to catch, but there was enough to occupy me otherwise.

I had heard of the notorious Whore but didn’t know much about it, so as soon as I heard it would be playing at the Globe’s indoor Wanamaker Theatre, a new space for me, I picked up a seat before even leaving Tokyo. The small space is lit almost entirely by candlelit chandeliers, which can be raised and lowered or fitted with more or fewer candles for effect. The shutters on the top floor can also be opened to let in light during daytime performances as at the old Kabuki theater in Kotohira. The flickering light adds tremendously to the atmosphere, alone making the trip worth it. Seat-wise, I felt the same way as at the Globe: I guess the layout is authentic and all that, but I wish they had adjusted it to modern bodies to give us more leg space. And that’s not even mentioning the irritating pillars. Still, the theater itself is a fantastic experience, and I look forward to more shows there.

The play is a wild story of incest, extreme violence, random murder and madness, excessive even for these post-Shakespearean stories. A young man and his sister have fallen in love with each other. Knowing they are going against society and nature, he goes to a priest for help, and she tries to choose among three suitors lined up by her father. But she and her brother find themselves inexorably drawn to each other. When she finds herself pregnant as a result, a jilted suitor takes actions that spiral out of control.

The play is interesting in that it doesn’t judge the siblings, presenting a fairly sympathetic portrait despite their forbidden love. In this portrayal, they are innocent souls, guilty of nothing but loving each other in a Romeo and Juliet kind of way (complete with balcony scene and nurse confidante). All a bit uncomfortable given that there are in fact very good reasons for banning incest, making it hard to write these guys off as typical unjustly persecuted lovers. The text is so baldly cruel at times – the merciless blinding and banishment of the nursemaid who has assisted the sibling dalliance, the gruesome murder of the pregnant sister – that the point seems to be just the shock value, which still works. There was an amazing tense, macabre scene when the protagonist, having viciously stabbed his sister, bursts into a birthday party with her heart skewered on his knife in search of his next victim. There was some welcome if overdone comic relief involving one of the suitors, but the brutality is what sticks with me. The surprises go right to the startling last line, when the Cardinal, quoting the line that gives the play its title, basically puts the blame on the girl for her own rape and murder.

I don’t know what to think of this play, but it’s memorable for sure. The excellent fast-paced direction kept things moving smoothly on the small stage. The two young leads were both excellent, but the best performance was the Cardinal (who doubled as the comic suitor), whose stunned reaction to the murders before his eyes contrasted brilliantly with his immediate cool appropriation of the victims’ belongings for the Church. The nude warnings given before the show were mainly just the woman’s boobs; they should have warned of the violent content instead, though the director did right to go for it given the material. A no-holds-barred production of a ferocious show.

King Charles III imagines the reign of the current Prince Charles after the death of his mother – rather tasteless since she’s very much alive, but I wasn’t going to miss it. It opens with a distraught Charles attending the funeral. Though the coronation is months away, he has instantly become king with his mom’s passing, and is soon confronted with controversy when he is asked to sign a privacy bill that he sees as a threat to the right of a free press. The monarch’s approval is by tradition a formality, but the king, driven by his conscience, unexpectedly refuses to go along, triggering a constitutional crisis. The prime minister reminds him threateningly that the king rules at the prerogative of the people, but the king stubbornly clings to his cause and uses his formal power to dissolve Parliament and (in a dramatic Act 1 closer) force an election. The opposition leader curiously deceives him even though Charles supports his cause, and eventually, with the monarchy at stake, William betrays his dad and forces him to abdicate.

The story seems far-fetched in real life but entirely plausible as drama, and was extremely interesting not only as a study of a monarch’s role in democracy but more broadly as the price of his blind More-like adherence to principle (shades of the Tudor shows on my last trip to London). The audience had fun identifying the real-life characters and their various traits. It presents a troubled Harry as wanting out of the royal life when he gets involved with a rowdy young girl (but back in when push comes to shove), Kate as scheming and ambitious, William as level-headed and no-nonsense, Camilla as loyal to her husband. Diana even makes an appearance as a fleeting ghost, when, troublemaker beyond the grave, she encourages both her ex-husband and elder son to pursue their conflicting goals. Charles’ portrait is surprisingly sympathetic in showing a principled man whose tragic flaw is going too far for his beliefs. The highly praised lead was unfortunately out but the understudy couldn’t have been better. Harry, the girl and the prime minister were also very good in an overall strong cast. The set was minimal, with desk and chairs moved onto a raised platform in the middle when needed. The script was delivered in blank verse as a hip Shakespearean history play, which I’m not sure was necessary, though the rhyming couplets at scene-ends were a nice touch. History might make this un-revivable, but it’s an enjoyable exercise in speculation.

The Marriage of Figaro is a critical hit and was being offered at£30 for £100+ seats, so I figured why not. It was a fluid, fast-moving production that deftly brought out the comedy without going overboard, updated without being ridiculous. The director obviously put his trust in the material, which was well rewarded. It was surprisingly well acted by a great all-around cast, who seemed to be enjoying themselves. On top of all that, this was easily the best English translation of opera I’ve ever encountered. The writer didn’t just throw the words together, but clearly thought about what the piece was trying to say in terms of both narrative and music, important particularly in a farce like this. I wish more attempts at English operas (not to mention musicals) took the same care.

Great Britain was a Richard Bean satire on the tabloid press based on the recent phone-tapping scandal in Britain, apparently written Chikamatsu-style as events were unfolding and staged as soon as the court proceedings made it possible. As such, there was a lot of hit and miss, but I’d say mostly hit. It’s a 21st-century version of Front Page filled with fast patter and one-liners, including topical British references – names named, warts and all –that I couldn’t always follow. A ruthlessly ambitious woman working at a scandal rag discovers a way to break into people’s answering services and hear their messages, and has no qualms about using the information to sell papers, whatever the truth or context and whatever the consequences for the people involved. As one of the many characters suggests, the information is potentially true when it’s printed, and that’s enough for these guys. Morals have no room in the business. Politicians themselves use the process as much as they are abused by it. Things take a different turn when the woman is found to have tapped the phones of kidnap victims who were later murdered, pushing the legal boundaries. It affects her job and relationship with a policeman but apparently not her conscience.

The characters are all broadly drawn and can’t be taken seriously, but the pace is so fast that it’s hard to notice. I suspect that the author would normally polish this to a finer sheen if he weren’t so intent on being so up-to-date. (This was originally commissioned by and performed at the National Theater.) The brochure essay interestingly discusses political satire as something that lets the audience off the hook, as viewers can just blame the politicians. This show tries to put them right back on the same hook for buying the sleaze in the first place. The show made an interesting companion piece with King Charles III, where the monarch seeks to prevent overeager privacy laws that would shut down just such reporting. The set made liberal use of video projections on movable walls featuring stills of scandalous articles, TV news reports, appearances by the incompetent ethnic-Indian police chief and more. The lead woman was a tall blonde who gave every impression of mowing down whatever stood in her way using every means at her disposal, including sexual. The dwarf lawyer was also striking in a part obviously written for her – she refers sardonically to her size on several occasions, and gets a laugh when she gets out of her wheelchair and walks (“You can walk??” “Yeah, but the wheelchair saves time”). This is hardly among Bean’s masterpieces and (as with the Charles play) may not be revivable in years to come, but it addresses a serious theme and was worth seeing.

East Is East is a revival of an old comedy about a Pakistani immigrant, his (Caucasian) UK wife and their seven kids in working-class Manchester around 1970. I enjoyed the similarly Pakistan/UK-themed Rafta Rafta by the same writer Ayub Khan Din some years back, so I was eager to catch this one. As a bonus, the writer himself plays the overbearing father against Jane Horrocks as his wife.

The action takes place mainly in their home and the father’s curry shop, where the kids all work. The father’s lived in the UK for decades, but his heart is clearly still back in Pakistan (or India, as it was then), where he still has a first wife and where fathers were evidently absolute monarchs of the castle. His portrayal of the powerful patriarch trying to hang on to his culture is both funny and terrifying, including attempts at forced marriages for his kids (which has already caused the oldest to flee), a forced circumcision for his teenage youngest, and, more disturbingly, sometimes abusive treatment of the mother, along with plenty of ranting and raving about society, Pakistani politics and the younger generation. He’s basically a South Asian version of Archie Bunker, and similarly appealing in his clueless desire to bully his way to self-worth. The kids are English by birth and sensibility, and their loyalty to the family becomes increasingly tested. All is held together by the no-nonsense mother, who gives as good as she gets, especially when it comes to protecting her brood. The story peaks in a hilariously disastrous get-together with the snobbish parents of a prospective groom for the daughter.

It’s the usual culture clash story but exceptionally well presented, with believable characters, realistic dialogue and a refreshing absence of self-pity. Racism was referred to but never obsessed over and, for that matter, was evident on the father’s side as well. I could see a television show being made about this family. Horrocks was fantastic as the mother in a performance so natural that it hardly seemed like acting, completely inhabiting her character. She was the lynchpin for the show. The husband and busybody neighbor also brought their characters to life with amusingly idiosyncratic performances, and the kids did well enough in somewhat more typical roles. The director shifted adeptly from shop to home inside to home outside on the small stage with no confusion. They really could have put the vagina sculpture away during the curtain calls, but no complaints about the show itself. I hear the movie adaptation was excellent and will be on the lookout.

The rather silly The Play That Goes Wrong features an amateur group putting on a mystery show where everything that can go wrong does – props are misplaced, actors get knocked out, scenery collapses (including a second-floor landing with people on it), backstage directions are broadcast to the audience, the main actress fights her star-struck understudy and more. The book also features amusing non sequiturs, mispronunciations by the butler (misreading the line reminders written on his hand), and lines that fail to meet the new reality (such as the picture of the dog that has replaced the ancestor’s painting on the wall). The purposely overwrought acting might have been tamed to better effect, and was sometimes too much, as when the guys desperately hold falling scenery up for no evident reason. Still, it was generally a clever succession of disaster to disaster. I overheard one audience member mentioning Noises Off, but that show was completely believable chaos from start to finish and in another class entirely. This was unbelievable chaos, like an extended college skit. Nevertheless, it was skillfully carried off and very funny in parts, if a bit too pleased with itself at times. It was a good laugh. I hear this group has a similar farce about a Peter Pan production gone bad, but that’s probably one catastrophe too many.

I don’t have particularly fond memories of Miss Saigon, which I remember only as Grand Schlock. But this is a brand new production by a fresh creative team – honed partly at a theater near my house in Tokyo, as it happens – and a major critical and popular hit, and I really need to keep up with these things anyway. So curiosity got the better of me.

The production itself was unsurprisingly slick and smooth and gorgeous; we get our money’s worth in terms of scale and splendor, from the opening chorus of soldiers and bargirls at Dreamland Bar pretty much straight on through. The crowd scenes were all dynamically staged, especially the impressive embassy evacuation, and the action was nonstop. I don’t remember enough about the previous production to compare the shows, but I noted that the helicopter (with video support) and Cadillac still make an appearance. Spectacle-wise, the show does not hold back.

The music is still histrionics on parade, eventually flattening every emotion. (For some reason, I recalled another French musical, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, where there was a similar flattening effect as the characters sang about everything from love to carburetors. There, though, I think the effect was intentional.) Even worse was the awfulness of the lyrics by Richard Maltby, who should have known better. The nadir for me was “You Will Not Touch Him” (“Don’t touch my boy / He’s my only joy”). And I wondered why a girl from the Vietnamese countryside would be singing ecstatically about a solo saxophone, or why a new character like Ellen can suddenly appear in Act 2 and scream to the rafters. It all got tiresome after a while. I wish they had gone a little further with the Madam Butterfly inspiration and put the words safely in Italian. The comic songs were better lyric-wise, and there were some nice tunes like “Sun and Moon”. But most of it is a wasteland of hyped-up emotions with nowhere to go.

The one exception, a big one, was “American Dream”, a spectacular song with superior lyrics, pinpoint Vegas-y music and extremely apt staging. That fit the scene and character’s emotions to a tee, giving depth to the story as great songs do. That might be the best song not only in this show but in all of Cameron Mackintosh’s productions. I wish more of the show were like that.

In contrast with the score, I was surprised by the strength of the book. The story is very well thought out and more finely drawn than I had remembered. Chris is as much a victim as Kim, showing that the war was destructive of innocent lives on both sides. That takes it beyond simple protest against US actions in Vietnam and introduces a more nuanced view that deserves a better show. I didn’t agree with the song assignments – as noted, for instance, Ellen is a minor character not deserving of a major song (same with “Movie in My Mind” girl) – and felt the show would have been much better with dialogue instead of inane lyrics and repetitive music. Chris was easily the best of leads, while Kim and the Engineer were fine but without fireworks. The Korean pop star who played the Thuy was good enough and the right look for the role, but the accent was irritating. Surely they could have found a native speaker.

Overall the show gets an A+ on visuals, but like most of these overblown operetta-wannabes, was more intent on telling us how to feel rather than making us feel it. I still don’t get it. Give me Butterfly any day.

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