New and Different
(and Same Old) Stuff
Despite regular and justified complaints that the London Theatre is being diminished by economic cuts and producers so terrified of losing money they’ll attempt nothing innovative or unusual, there’s still a surprisingly healthy scene for theatre-lovers. Not just in the capital but also thrughout the UK, where repertory theatres and major touring prouctions are alive and well and doing very good business. The continuing glory of the scene is the variety of approaches from the classics to the funky revivals of more recent plays and musicals; these are almost always original or subversive and also showcase extraordinary and treasurable talents.
Like every other marketplace, though, caveat emptor rules. For instance: I thought a new musical called Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was unadulterated dross, but it’s been touring extensively and has an audience that clearly adores its star, David Hasselhoff, who is the main draw. (He was a US TV magnet in The Young and the Restless, a popular soap, and a leading man in Baywatch.) Is he the Donald Trump of American entertainers, some stranger said during the interval? No. He’s much too classy by comparison. However, to me his show is a perfect example of creativity based entirely on opportunism and the lowest common denominator audiences. And lucky you! you’ll be able to see for yourself what the fuss is about on US TV very soon! It was filmed live on stage here in Oxford just for your delectation. And I bet you’ll be able to buy the DVD damned cheaply about two months after its release.
On the other hand, Chicago, for instance, has a touring company on its third round of all the UK’s notable venues, with such an interesting and slickly adept new cast that it’s selling out again with good reason. In London, there’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar Warehouse, revived after 30 years with Christopher Hampton’s script/adaptation and a cast that includes the excellent Dominic West (as a less sinister but sexier Valmont than usual), and a scary Janet McTear as a believably evil Madame Merteuil, as well as veterans such as Una Stubbs. The pleasure of the revival, of “collecting” the performances, is undeniable; but it isn’t exactly an innovative idea. The play was recently broadcast live in cinemas and hopefully will be released on DVD preserve this production.
An interesting new production of Jean Anouilh’s Le voyageur sans bagages has just followed Dangerous Liaisons into the Donmar; I recommend this because Anouilh is, these days, unfairly neglected and underrated in the English-speaking world. This production is a new English version of the play by Anthony Weigh with a worthy but not starry cast. Weigh has called his new version Welcome Home, Captain Fox! and I’m guessing that it’ll be as much a reminder of Anouilh’s importance as the production of Flare Path was a year ago for reviving interest in Terrance Rattigan. (Written at the height of the Blitz in World War II and a favourite play of Winston Churchill’s, Flare Path has been successfully touring the country since its return to the West End.)
Another classic revival in the West End is a new adaptation, this time by David Hare, of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. With Ralph Fiennes for his Big Name Star, Matthew Warchus direct’s a very strong interpretation of the play and has a cast that works brilliantly as an ensemble. After 19 March The Master Builder is followed at the Old Vic by a new production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with the brilliant Timothy Spall and again directed by the very imaginative (and very busy) Matthew Warchus, whose gift for inhabiting the text never fails to illuminate unexpected insights.
Down the road at the Young Vic, you might want to check out the plays in the smaller auditoria for new, funky texts. On the Main Stage, Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabaratha, played to full houses until 27 February, trailing clouds of glory from the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. Brook has a virtual annual residency for his work at the Young Vic, and a very fortunate thing that is for London, too. Following at the Young Vic is a show/musical/cabaret called If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me that sounds both interesting and unusual. Starring the multi-talented Jane Horrocks (another Young Vic regular, having done The Good Woman of Szechuan and Annie Get Your Gun there), and conceived by her with Aletta Collins, who directs and choreographs, this promises to be memorable theatre. It runs in the main house from 10 March to 15 April. I am also looking forward to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in the Young Vic’s The Maria auditorium. Annie Ryan has adapted the novel by Elmear McBride and the star turn by Aiofe Duffin promises to be unforgettable.
At the National Theatre, the play that interests me the most this season is their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. Sharon D. Clarke is Ma Rainey and the director is Dominic Cooke, who ran the Royal Court Theatre so successfully from 2007-2013. From the stylish and apt way this production works, He clearly has a real affinity for this material. It’s running in repertoire until mid-May according to current listings, but if it’s a success it will hopefully simply carry on. It’s one of the most powerful and exciting of the sequence of plays by Wilson portraying the experience of African-Americans, decade by decade, in the 20th century. Also coming up at the National from the end of March is a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s neglected and virtually unknown masterpiece, Les Blancs. The director is Yael Farber whose work has dazzled me since I saw a production of hers brought to the UK from South Africa about ten years ago. I need know nothing more. If you see the name Yael Farber as director on anything anywhere ever, just buy tickets and go. There’s also a revival of the notorious Harley Grandville-Barker play Waste that was famously banned by the UK censor in 1910 or so. You can still just catch that one. But just as excitingly as Ma Rainey, the RNT is staging a new production of the Brecht-Weill iconic Threepenny Opera from 18 May. Rufus Norris is directing a cast that includes Rory Kinnear.
Joshua Harmon’s successful comedy, Bad Jews, returned to London for a month from mid-February for a run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Ilan Goodman reprised his much-applauded role as Liam, alongside new cast members Ailsa Joy, Antonia Kinlay, and Jos Slovick. This American play is directed by Michael Longhurst. And Matthew Perry, of erstwhile Friends fame, has just opened in a play he himself has written called The End of Longing, about which I have heard not such very good things. Still, it is a brand-new play! There don’t seem to be many of those around these days!
Meanwhile the Almeida is doing yet another Uncle Vanya in a new version by Robert Icke. It runs through the end of March. It’s always worth seeing Uncle Vanya and the Almeida has a very good record with classics like this, so if you are in the mood for some Chekov, this could be a good bet. And when Nina announces that she’s a seagull for the third time, I think everyone in the audience should shout out: So flock off, lady! and see what happens…
Uncle Vanya is followed at the Almeida by a new play by Leo Butler called Boy. Last year, director-designer team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether had a success with a groundbreaking production of a play called Game at the Almeida; however, the excitement and hype around this new production of theirs is based not just on their work as a team but also on the writing of Leo Butler who seems to be establishing himself as a talented playwright of political polemics that address hard current issues.
A new play about that Cockney cutie Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale has moved at last from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Apollo Theatre in the Strand. You may recall that Nell (the mistress of Charles II) was one of the first actresses in England ever, and probably an inspiration for the character of Amber St Claire in the ripe Restoration bodice-ripper Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I’m attracted to this one partly because I just saw the excellent Queen Anne at the RSC and read again the brilliant and unjustly neglected masterpiece of a novel, Henry Esmond, by William Thackeray. This new play is like a prequel to all that.
This time round the consistently brilliant and many-faceted Gemma Arterton is
Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166
playing Nell. There was controversy over the casting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the role because she is black, but she’s a rising star and may be too busy with conflicting commitments. Do Google her! She’s quite wonderful. Also, Christopher Luscombe is directing Nell Gwynn again with some other cast changes as well. Luscombe is one of the most consistent, intelligent and witty directors in the UK at the moment. I always try to see anything he puts his hand to. His production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor from the Globe Theatre, for instance, is available on DVD and is a good way to get a measure of just how talented this man is. Even though Arterton and Luscombe are involved, I’ll miss Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who caught the essence of a woman able to captivate both king and country. But then I expect Arterton to do no less. It’s a bawdy, entertaining and informative evening’s theatre. You might also want to check out the overlapping story of Edward Kynaston in Richard Eyre’s delightful 2004 film Stage Beauty (starring Claire Danes).
Also of note: the Royal Court is bringing the play I See You by Mongiwekhaya to London, before it plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, part of its commitment to international new plays which has long defined its lineup; while Jamie Lloyd is directing a new production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studio 1; and the Kenneth Branagh Company season continues with The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre from early March. The Painkiller stars Branagh and Rob Brydon in the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon roles from Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of this material called Buddy, Buddy. Wilder’s film was based, in turn, on a play by Francis Veber; the material is adapted here by Sean Foley who also directs. Another attraction of this production is the appearance in one of the roles of the inestimable Claudie Blakely.
…and some notes on notes…
The ENO has just done a successful-enough production of Norma directed by Christopher Alden. It has a strong cast and conductor and is set in the 19th century for reasons that make no sense to me, and it’s interesting to see how Alden approaches one of the ultimate, romantic, bel canto works. How many chairs will inhabit the set? Marjorie Owens will sing the demanding title role and to pique your interest further there is actually a preview snippet of her doing “Casta Diva/Virgin Goddess” with piano on the ENO site at https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/norma
As well as a new Norma, the ENO is reviving their famous production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten for the first time in decades. I recall it as being totally mesmerising. Their musical this year from early April will be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and they’ve got Glenn Close to repeat her assumption of the main role as Norma Desmond. Michael Xavier, who was a brilliant Sid Sorokin in a recent Pajama Game, will be Joe Gillis and Trevor Nunn is directing. And while we’re in a Broadway time warp, there’s also an upcoming revival of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre from early April that will star Sheridan Smith. This is great, it seems to me, for a younger generation for whom all these things are legends they could never before see live on stage. Meantime, a production of Guys and Dolls that originated in Chichester and transferred to the Savoy Theatre is so successful that it’s now transferring again, to make way for Funny Girl, this time to the Phoenix Theatre from 19 March 2016. Emma Thompson’s equally talented and totally wonderful sister, Sophie, is playing Miss Adelaide; and Jamie Parker’s singing as Sky Masterson was compared in some reviews to Sinatra’s! With David Haig as a fine Nathan Detroit, the musical is directed by Gordon Greenberg and choreographed by no less a dancer than Carlos Acosta. Beat that!
Meantime, at the ROH, there is that new production https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sehC_IP2Px8 of Boris Godunov for the first time in ages. Pappano is conducting and Bryn Terfel is undertaking the title role, with Richard Jones directing, so there ‘s a lot of excitement over that one! It opens on 14 March and hopefully will be broadcast to the world on cinema screens near you. Looking ahead to May, I would watch out for Enescu’s rarely performed opera Oedipe. There will also be a new production in April by Katie Mitchell of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that is strongly double cast.
Looking even further ahead to June, I am personally very keen for one special thing: that Audra McDonald is bringing her Billie Holiday show, director Lonny Price’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, to London. If you couldn’t get tickets on Broadway but are coming to the UK this is an absolute must. There is a fine Broadway cast recording, too. McDonald sings 14 songs and is never off the stage. Book now, and try this sample on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZTwdR3C6_E And please also try to acquire the Simon Rattle concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town in which Lady Audra is a superlatively acted and sung Eileen. She is, as always, utterly gorgeous in every way.