LONDON THEATRE WEEK MAY 15 -19
Six plays - four hits/two misses - in five days.
At the Royal Court, Jez Butterworth, with expert direction of Sam Mendes, premiers THE FERRYMAN a sprawling tale of a multi-generational, Catholic Irish farmer household in Derry (Northern Ireland) beset by a past of fatal politics and family demons both. Part mystery, part political thriller, part love story, Butterworth amazingly creates a clan - a vital middle-aged father, his dutiful, distanced wife, two sons, four daughters, the widowed sister-in-law, her fatherless son, the embittered spinster aunt, the bachelor uncle, the demented, oracular aunt, their cousins, plus the local priest and some mean IRA men. Mendes brings these characters - and all their tensions - together with astonishing naturalness , which comes most naturally to a five-month old infant, the youngest member of any cast I’ve ever seen. Butterworth's extensive exposition and construction of conflict takes time, but it’s always engaging, and culminates only its final minutes in a shattering conclusion. For an English playwright (JERUSALEM), Butterworth could be mistaken for an Irishman, or the play seen as Butterworth’s homage to his real Irish contemporary Connor McPherson, even if his treatment of the Irish surreal - banshees across the fields and all - lacks Irish verisimilitude just a wee. No matter. It’s grand theater, transferring directly to the West End and, as US impresario Sonia Friedman is producing, no doubt Broadway-bound. See it where and when you can.
The full day spent in the Lyttleton at the National Theater for ANGELS IN AMERICA was about the most exhilarating I’ve ever experienced (at least since seeing Ivo van Hove’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Young Vic twice in one day a few summers back). The privilege of seeing Part 1 Millennium Approaches in the afternoon, then Part 2 Perestroika in the evening made the pair - same cast, same set, same directorial POV - play seamlessly. Perestroika, which is quite messy, this time, seems congruent. Tony Kushner’s epic, revived on its 25th anniversary in its original venue, re-emerges , under the skillful direction of Marianne Elliott (WAR HORSE, CURIOUS INCIDENT), as both a timepiece of the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s and a timeless contemplation on human connectedness. The small cast is superb. All except Andrew Garfield, perfect as Prior, play at least two roles. Nathan Lane is as savage as Roy Cohn as he is as hilarious as the foppish 16thC “sodomite” Prior. Russell Tovey (whom I thought was miscast as Eddie in the US production of van Hove’s take on BRIDGE) is just right as Mormon Joe Pitt, as is Denise Gough, as his soulful, emotionally challenged wife Harper. But it’s actors Amanda Lawrence and Susan Brown, who display the most amazing versatility, playing angel, nurse, the homeless women and rabbi, Cohn’s doctor and Joe’s Mormon mom. Ian McNeil’s set design is a wonder. His tiny cubicles outlined in neon-tubes that house the compartmentalized, discrete lives, spatially define the stage in Millennium Approaches, giving way by the end of Perestroika to a wide, open stage over which hovers a huge metal , protoplasmic-shaped sculpture, bearing witness to celestial communion in Prior’s visit to Heaven. This ANGELS bears an uncanny prescience: there is no mistaking Lane’s Cohn as Trump’s mentor. When Cohn denies his physician’s AIDS diagnosis, insisting he is not a homosexual, it’s impossible not to recall the egotistical delusion of the Oval Office occupant. In Part 2, the lunatic homeless lady proclaims “In the next century, everyone will be crazy.” Well, here we are. ANGELS starts NT LIVE broadcasts in the US on July 20. I won’t spoil the magic and wonder of the angel’s appearance this time around. Don’t miss it.
In Islington at the Almeida Theatre, one of the most reliably creative venues away from the West End, I took a flyer on a revival of Martin Crimp's 1993 satire THE TREATMENT, about what happens to a true-life story of a more-or-less average person in the hands of craven movie agents. A critic friend who adored the original production recommends this revival and I can see, sort of, how THE TREAMENT might have been trenchant 25 years ago, but we’ve become so inured to constant objectification of one and all in social media, I found the satire in THE TREATMENT irrelevant. The cast is fine but their characters so loathsome, I didn’t give a damn about any of them. In the final scene, a blind passenger asks his blind taxi driver “where are we going?” and the reply is “I have no idea!" As the Brits say, “Indeed”.
Back in the West End, at Theatre Royal Haymarket, Edward Albee’s THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA? gets deserved treatment in its revival. Damien Lewis (of American TV fame in Homeland and Billions) plays an award winning architect with a successful 25 year marriage who loves - sex included - a goat. Both Lewis and Sophie Okonedo (in van Hove’s take in THE CRUCIBLE last year on B’way) are excellent, but I was most impressed with newcomer Archie Madewke who’s never acted professionally before as the gay teenage son. It’s breakout role (or at least it was for Eddie Redmayne when he played it when he was starting out). The ostensible topic, beyond the extramarital affair, is bestiality. Albee amazingly ricochets from giddy black humor to acid-etched truth as he does always. This GOAT had me really listening to the language: what I really heard was the unique vitality of Albee’s syntax. And just when one thinks, one has it figured out what Albee’s really writing about - how do we fill that deep, deep hole of loneliness - Albee turns the tables. When, after the wife exacts her revenge (oh, it’s real, right there on the living room floor) and the husband wails “Why?”, she answers “ because you said she loved you as much as I did”, it lands like a new gut punch just when you thought you were down for the count.
The Donmar, usually a reliable venue for revived classics, disappoints with a terribly misconceived adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI. Brecht’s parallel about Hitler is a personal favorite, which I first saw back in college in the round at the original Arena stage in Washington DC. (The production design was a center ring of a circus, trapeze artists, jugglers and all.) At the Donmar, the Chicago Prohibition-era politics takes place in a speakeasy club with café seating around the playing space. One of Britain’s leading comics, Lenny Henry, plays Ui, but this version’s inappropriately broad comedy isn’t his fault. With his large, imposing stage presence, Henry has gravitas and his wry style of humor could have been subtle enough left to his own devices. Director Simon Evans’ forces everything funny, even playful, “immersively” engaging theatergoers in the play’s action. Worse, writer Bruce Norris, distinguished for his Pulitzer Prize-winning CLYBOURNE PARK, defangs Brecht. I might have missed it, but I swear I didn’t hear Brecht’s famous warning: “…though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again” Instead, Norris panders with naked comparisons to Trump. When Norris has Ui proclaiming “make American great again” (Brecht NEVER wrote that), director Evans simultaneously unfurls a banner proclaiming same from the rafters. Could it be more obvious? One of the greatest plays of the 20thCentury gets trivialized.
If Brecht has never been less sinister than he is at the Donmar, he has never been more humanistic than he is across the Thames at the Young Vic in the splendid, inspiring new production of THE LIFE OF GALILEO. Ingeniously conceived by Joe Wright (besides theatre known for films like Atonement and Pride & Prejudice), GALILEO is staged in the round, on a circular ring, with floor seating in the “donut hole”, planetarium ceiling above. The action, i.e. circular motion, mirroring Galileo’s debate with the Church and nobility about the heliocentric nature of the universe, is non-stop. Equally kinetic is the explication of Brecht’s text punctuated with a new electronic score by Tom Rowlands and spectral, digital projections by 59 Projections, overall production design by Lizzie Clachan. Brendan Cowell brilliantly - exhaustingly (I hope his voice holds up) - plays Galileo as not only a powder-keg intellect but also aggrieved, conflicted sensate, authenticating Galileo as an individual whose knowledge derived from what he observed, what he sensed. The production couldn’t be timelier when science and proven fact is being assaulted by conspiracy notions and fake news, but director Wright and Young Vic dramaturg Sarah Tipple don’t bang us over the head like the Donmar: they let Brecht’s text speak for itself. The scene that closes Act 1 where a lowly monk confronts the enlightened Galileo about how his pie-in-the-sky theories relate to hands-in-the- dirt farmers cuts to the quick about the class divide evidenced in Brexit and the US 2016 election. Most remarkably, with this production, Brecht emerges no longer as Communist apologist, unreconstructed Marxist, or Socialist advocate but as humanist. Authentic theater at its best, the perfect evening to conclude the week.
Good or bad, it’s always all good.