Old Wine, Middle-aged Bottles: Time Warp in the West End
by Mel Cooper
Looking at the upcoming season in the West End, I’m worried by how much old wine is being decanted into not-so-new new bottles. Already last season I was wondering: why does one need a stage musical of Sister Act when its music is inferior to that of the original film? And why does one need to stage Priscilla Queen of the Desert? (Other, of course, than the fact that title recognition helps sell tickets.)
There’s no denying the pleasures of twice-told tales, or of seeing them performed on stage. Indeed, “seeing it live” and giving other casts chances at the roles is probably the main fun — but at least in the 1980s, when La Cage aux Folles was “adapted,” it was still informed by an idiom that worked, and generated a score that was a really creative expansion of the material. When the Menier Chocolate Factory revived a “classic” musical (as they did so successfully with both Cage and A Little Night Music last season), there was a persuasive rationale—an exciting new take on an old story―that also revealed the strength of the original material.
What worries me at the moment is something like the announced rehash of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (opening 9 September at the Haymarket Theatre). Admittedly, if anyone can challenge the iconic image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, Anna Friel is a top contender . She is, I think, a very witty, charming and completely committed actress. I will go see the show just to see what she makes of the role. But I live in hope that the team doesn’t stray too far from the original text.
And, if you go back to the original, then it certainly makes much more sense if actually set in 1943, as was Capote’s novella, with all the louche and wacky aspects of the tale being seen in the context of living through wartime, when sexual mores loosened up; a time when a man might go off to fight and be dead within a week. Also, of course, there was the nostalgia element: Capote looking back to that era from inside the safe and increasingly bourgeois society of 1953. If they can portray all that again, I’ll stop worrying. For now…..
But the publicity also concerns me because it suggests that they’re going to retain the “love theme” between Holly and the writer upstairs that was so much part of the film. Does no one remembers any more that a major point of the novella was that the narrator was clearly gay, very much observing and recording Holly as a platonic friend from the outside? They did that with Goodbye to Berlin, too, when they turned it into Cabaret (and before that, I am a Camera), so I guess it’s part of a tradition. And at least in the film of Cabaret they made the narrator (a thinly-disguised Christopher Isherwood) bisexual. That said, I would again so much hope they were trying to do something new with the story―like sticking to it―rather than doing a live-on-stage version of the film. (I also wonder what they will do to justify spending millions on turning Legally Blonde into a musical? If you have an answer, send me a post.)
And there’s more: the menu for this coming season in London includes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (the Debbie Allen Broadway production with some recasting); an adaptation of Prick Up Your Ears (opening 17 September at the Comedy Theatre); and even It’s a Wonderful Life (actually playing soon at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, but hoping for a transfer), live on stage; I will love them all if they offer great imagination, great performances, or even just some new insight. I also accept that there is a whole new generation that has probably never seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (opening at the Novello Theatre on 23 November) as a stage play, and needs to. MGM did the play itself a favour by bowdlerizing so much of the material that you had to know the original play to understand what Tennessee Williams was really saying (nice as it was to see Elizabeth Taylor in a slip, or Paul Newman in pajamas, in the movie). It makes me feel sleepy before the season’s even begun.
On the sunny side, one play I’m very curious about in a positive way is is the Othello coming to Trafalgar Studio One on 11 September. That venue is developing distinctive and very successful programming, and is now definitely a theatre to watch. Lenny Henry is playing the warrior driven mad by jealousy. In the UK he’s a noted stand-up comic and TV personality. He’s been on tour with the play for months. Word of mouth is that, like all great comics, he has such impeccable timing that he can play tragedy with strength—following in the footsteps of Hugh Laurie―once a skilled comedian, now the brooding, dyspeptic TV doctor/star of House.
Another classic I’m eager to see is Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play Inherit the Wind, at the Old Vic, which opens on 18 September. The play itself is powerful, and I’d go, whoever was playing. But with Kevin Spacey as the Clarence Darrow character, and Trevor Nunn directing, it’s high on my agenda. It’s still, sadly, as topical today as it was when the original trial took place (1926), let alone when the play was premiered on Broadway in 1957, with Paul Muni. So, even if you saw the movie, it’s worth another look. The Darwin-deniers are still with us, wanting to interfere with the school curriculum, and even blocking the distribution of Jon Amiel’s new film, Creation (with Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany), in the US.
And Definitely Looking Good….
There’s a line in A Little Night Music, in which Stephen Sondheim captures the zeitgeist of every new theatre season: “Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul, but bad for the heart.” Yes, we live in hope every September, praying the lineup will pan out. As in life, sometimes it does. But the disappointment when it doesn’t can really be bad for the soul, if not the heart.
Some keenly anticipated stagings, if you’re heading for or residing in the UK, have just been announced: The RSC’s new Twelfth Night opens in Stratford from 15 October to 21 November; it moves to the Duke of York’s Theatre from 19 December to 27 February. There are several reasons for it to raise high hopes: a super cast very much on the rise (Richard Wilson, of One Foot in the Grave TV fame in the UK, takes on his first-ever Malvolio; Olivia and Viola will be played by the estimable Alexandra Gilbreath and Nancy Carroll respectively; and Jo Stone-Fewings will be Orsino.) But the best reason to get excited is director Gregory Doran―he who can do no wrong! I’m betting heavily on this one………….
Replacing Twelfth Night at Stratford for Christmas will be a new production of the Arabian Nights. brilliantly conceived and directed by Dominic Cooke.
Meanwhile, at the Royal Court Theatre, one of the most infamous scandals in financial history has been turned into a theatrical epic—Enron, a new play by Lucy Prebble―to run from 17 September to 7 November. Samuel West, a superlative actor, plays Jeffrey Skelling, CEO of the ENRON corporation. Enron is directed by the estimable Rupert Goold, in his Royal Court debut. And Prebble won the George Devine Award and the Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright with her first play, The Sugar Syndrome, at the Royal Court in 2004. This should be worth watching for risk-takers and theatre buffs alike. It’s already a very hot ticket.
And, BTW: A Little Night Music will transfer to New York in December, with Catherine Zeta-Jones. If you saw the film of Chicago, you’ll know she has the chops to sing and act on stage. Big, big bonus: Angela Lansbury will co-star.
No-brainer: Jude Law’s limited New York run of Hamlet is sold out.