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Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

Stoppard, Chekhov, Williams, Frayn et al: This Fall in London

When Londoners complain to visiting Americans about the number of musicals during the season, the latter can only smile. There are nearly 20 straight dramas currently on the boards in London, some about to close, more opening. Broadway audiences are lucky to have two or three to choose from, most of them imports from Ireland or the United Kingdom. As matinees in London are sometimes on Wednesdays, sometimes on Thursdays, always on Saturdays, and now occasionally on Sundays, the compulsive theatergoer can max out on a total of 10 performances in a week. That takes real Sitzfleisch.

Another feat of endurance is the trilogy. The Duchess Theatre recently opened with Alan Ayckbourn’s comic trilogy, Damsels in Distress, three plays that the critics point out are not so related in theme or narrative development that they cannot be viewed separately. And while it is true that over on Southbank, in the Olivier Theatre, each play in Tom Stoppard’s new trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, can be understood independently of each other, their essential unity is emphasized by the occasional all-day performance, which, apart from various intervals and breaks between plays, goes on from mid-morning until eleven at night.

With so many theater offerings, variety is natural enough; something will appeal to almost any sensibility, from Chekhov to Tennessee Williams, from Hollywood stars to young actors just out of school making it big, from revivals to new plays by unknowns, from tragic plays to sad ones, to comedies, to satires. For New Yorkers used to anxiety attacks over ticket purchases, there is the pleasure of being able to buy tickets to almost everything right up to the day of performance. On the other hand, the shock of being asked to pay three pounds (roughly five dollars) for the program does not really make up for the discovery that tickets are cheaper than in New York and that old folks can get a large discount on whatever tickets remain on the day of performance. London audiences, which seem uniformly polite and knowledgeable in their response, however, have the strange habit of leaving their ice-cream containers and other detritus from intermission beneath their seats, right in the line of the feet of departing patrons. It is like being at a cheap movie house in an American mall.

From Stoppard’s Russians to Chekhov’s
The sheer magnitude of Stoppard’s offering (which I’ll review in the next edition of is the talk of theatergoers right now. Two Chekhov plays currently in production, whether by design or not, are a fitting complement to The Coast of Utopia, which is set partly in Russia in the nineteenth century but otherwise concentrates on Russians in exile. There is more than a hint of Chekhov in Stoppard, so one might assume at least that this connection came to mind when Ivanov was scheduled for the Cottesloe at the National Theatre.

It is Chekhov’s earliest play, one in which he seems not to have yet worked out the comic perspectives in tragic lives. It is hard to like, being melodrama verging on tragedy or vice versa, in which characters deliver pompous or vain remarks that, unfortunately, the young author seems to believe in too much. Owen Teale, whom New Yorkers will remember from his Tony Award-winning performance in A Doll’s House, was a last-minute replacement for Paul Rhys, and he hasn’t quite found his way to animate the lead in Ivanov’s long speeches. One wonders why he was directed into sitting at a table for his long monologue; he has not sufficiently mastered it to get at emotional rhythms, if indeed they are there, for which body movement might have modified the sameness. But then again, the monotony might be the point. Perhaps the play needs to be retired from the repertory, as its hero suffers so obviously from a medical condition that we nowadays call clinical depression and that can usually be successfully medicated. Chekhov was a doctor, and Ivanov describes his boredom in a clinical fashion; this is not existential ennui, acedia, or any other transcendent human condition. You know that there is no help for him; his rejection of his wife and desperate turn to the young daughter of a neighbor are therefore inherently uninteresting moves since they do not represent choices as much as symptoms. The production is excellent, with the audience seated on either side of the stage and thus being pulled into the drawing room in which the action takes place. That intimacy works on the emotions especially in a way that the speeches cannot.

Over at the Donmar Warehouse, Sam Mendes is saying goodbye to sell-out audiences with his production of Uncle Vanya, which is alternating in repertory with his Twelfth Night. Uncle Vanya is one of Chekhov’s masterpieces, and Mendes has assembled a cast, headed by Simon Russell Beale, whose performances leave you ready to slit your wrists by the time that Sonya, played by Emily Watson, ends her last brave, sad, desperate, resolute speech to her uncle. Beale is marvelous in the role, as he plays the fool in trying to attract Yelena’s attentions. What is especially good about his performance is the glimmer of sexual self-confidence as he presses himself upon her. He uses his heavyset body magnificently, at one point almost rolling at her feet like a dog trying to impress himself on its master. It is funny and sadly grotesque at the same time. You have the feeling that such is Yelena’s boredom that she might have yielded were it not for the doctor, played here by Mark Strong. He is such a strong sexual presence whenever he is on stage, from his shining bald head, to his strong thighs, slim waist, and piercing, sexually excited eyes, that poor old Vanya doesn’t stand a chance.

Helen McCrory as Yelena is not at all as obviously sexually charged as others who have played this role, but that adds to the mystery of her motivation. She is locked into her part as the wife of the professor, who is the most tiresome example of that species after George Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon. McCrory portrays the character with a certain noncommittal acceptance of her experience that is particularly frightening. This is the great play about boredom, about the desperation of human existence, which in the end has its funny side since human beings don’t matter that much. The hard-working country doctor challenges Yelena more than once for doing nothing with her life to stave off her boredom. But his own rage, emptiness, and utter lack of hope give the lie to his assertions. Everyone has to live through one’s days, that is all. The old nurse who sits knitting through so many scenes of the play is there at the beginning and again at the end, when all the emotion, tension, possibility of change, and realignment have come and gone, a kind of counterpoint to Yelena’s pacing back and forth.

Brian Friel did the excellent translation of Uncle Vanya; the lines read fluently in contemporary conversational English. Still, it seems a bit much to advertise the play as “Uncle Vanya by Brian Friel, a version of the play by Anton Chekhov.” There is so much more than language that makes this a play by Chekhov. Friel evidently could not shake Chekhov from his mind. He is the author of Afterplay, a play that imagines Sonya with Andrei Prozorov in Moscow in the Twenties, which is currently in production in the West End. The play has been called thin by most London critics, although audiences will certainly materialize to see the celebrity cast of John Hurt and Penelope Wilson.

America, America
Celebrity means “movie star” to Americans, and Londoners can now see the tantalizing Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof, an inconsequential American play that premiered at Manhattan Theater Club, got legs, went on to Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize. It is an experience, indeed, watching audiences react to established American film stars playing on the London stage, as it is revealing of the actors. We see this so often in reverse when famous English stage stars appear on Broadway, sometimes in performances that are so routine as to suggest that rehearsals began the previous night. One thinks especially of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren hamming it up two seasons back in Strindberg’s Dance of Death in a performance in which the American David Strathairn seemed singularly out of place. The audience was enthralled; this, they knew, was “real acting.”

Just now at the Comedy Theatre, Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan are appearing in a new play, On An Average Day, by the American John Kolvenbach, whose work has never before reached Broadway, let alone London’s West End. Both actors are well-known; Mr. Harrelson brings his commonplace screen personality to this play, whereas Mr. MacLachlan, who is a constant presence as the obtuse ex-husband in the television series, Sex and the City, is a surprise. The play, however, is not, being a kind of thinned-out soup of a Sam Shepard tale of bonding brothers, where one has the smarts and polish, and the other crudity and directness. In this case, Mr. Harrelson, who plays the lout, is given the part of – what can I say? – at the very least a severely mentally challenged adult male. The action begins at the moment when he meets his brother again for the first time in 23 years. Neophyte playwrights do not necessarily think to work out the answers to the questions their plays inevitably provoke in audiences, so we will pass over that dubious aspect of this enterprise. More to the point is the question of why anyone would want to spend time sharing the experience of a man whose brother cannot manage a rational response to any remark directed to him. Yet the audience was rapt in attention, partly because of the superb chemistry of the two excellent actors before them, more I suspect because the drama presented exactly their notion of what American life away from the multicultural, polyethnic big cities must be like. These were “real” Americans, almost cowboys, the one as crude and dumb, the other as neurotic and impossible, as any person they could imagine existing in the States. An hour and 20 minutes after it began, we were mercifully out on the streets again, with no one complaining of the brevity or inconsequentiality of what they had just seen.

A certain Streetcar
Over at the National, in the Lyttleton, Glenn Close is opening in A Streetcar Named Desire. Londoners have a love affair with American playwrights of the Fifties that Americans do not share. Too often we cannot get beyond Arthur Miller’s pretentiousness or Tennessee Williams’s campiness to see what the English see. I can remember having to fight off the giggles watching Vanessa Redgrave in Orpheus Descending and, on another occasion at the National, hearing the spinster granddaughter in Night of the Iguana deliver her self-pitying, sentimental, overwrought speech about caring for the old Nonno to an audience enraptured, holding themselves breathless in absolute silence.

Actors are brave to take on Streetcar, just like anyone singing Tosca has to reckon with Maria Callas. No one can forget the Blanche of Vivien Leigh, in whose filmed image resonated still deeper the memory of Scarlett O’Hara and thus a century’s history of the Old South. Males have to contend with the image of Marlon Brando, whose cry for his wife, Stella, is as well-known and as much imitated as Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan call. Ms. Close is a film star of prominence, which gives her that special presence Blanche needs. More to the point, she has been directed by Trevor Nunn, who was also her director in Los Angeles in the musical Sunset Boulevard. Glenn Close as Norma Desmond was a revelation, a monstre sacré by turns comic, tragic, or just plain camp grotesque. Close and Nunn have created a Blanche Dubois who is an over-the-top, almost madwoman, a tragicomic caricature of a Southern belle, played by a woman physically too old for the part, which makes Blanche all the harder and more terrifying as she pirouettes around the stage in the first act, imagining she is actually flirting with the men, who watch her with fascination as though she were a drunken chicken staggering down the middle of a highway. It is a bravura performance, crazy enough that Close completely mesmerizes the audience and gets away with it.

Fifty years on, however, Stanley Kowalski represents a theatrical problem. Iain Glen is marvelous in the part, distancing himself from Brando and establishing his very own Stanley, with a body that is a hell of a lot more buffed than Brando’s was. His cry for Stella is a child’s, on his knees, deflated as only a child whose mommy has left him can be. In his drunken fight scene in the first act, the choreography is brilliant, all the men surrounding and supporting him. It is when he punches Stella out, as they say nowadays, that present-day audiences must assess him as a drunk, an alcoholic binge-drinker and wife-beater. Blanche has the only honest reaction to this psychological menace: I’m outta here. The problem is that Stella won’t go, too, and so Blanche stays, and becomes even more unhinged than when she arrived.

Here we encounter a great difficulty in the drama. When Blanche comes to Stella’s side the next morning to find her sister beaming after a night of reconciliatory sex, the audience must accept that she has not a single bruise, nor sore part to her body, not the least misgiving about what has been done to her, that somehow the cosmetics of fairytale have trumped reality. It is not difficult to understand that Blanche is horrified and Stella reconciled to Stanley’s behavior. The former is a normal response to domestic violence, the latter commonplace compulsive behavior in battered women. It is just hard nowadays to read Stella’s behavior as anything other than pathological. And that is okay, too, except that Stella’s easy and painless recovery from the experience registers as the playwright’s acceptance, as though Williams does not see Stanley’s sexuality in violence as in any way problematic. Perhaps it is not fair to go outside the play in this fashion, but it is hard not to think of rough trade with all the sexual thrill of the promise of violence contained in tough young men. The smack Stanley gives Stella made me resist the play more completely than I have ever done before. I think it would be better if Blanche were a young man named Beau and Stanley were a flirtatious gay-basher.

Like all productions at the National, no expense is spared. The set is a towering two-story apartment building with walls that turn on the ground level and reveal all the spaces in which the action takes place. Street life is not suggested, it takes place, with prostitutes, peddlers, and jazz musicians strolling back and forth, establishing a Fifties “realism” that the economies of present-day American theater have almost completely lost. It is a luxury to watch theater at the National when truly accomplished performers have a rich, sensuous, crazy script in which they can revel. An audience would be hard put not to lap it up. This production, and Ms. Close particularly, is probably more the fantasy that Williams had in mind, and more than he would have acknowledged when he worked on the play. The English have a way with these American dramatists; perhaps we Americans are afraid of them.

English architects and Dutch artists
Another revival is Michael Frayn’s 1984 hit, Benefactors, a domestic comic drama set in the late Sixties that gives us a chance to revisit customs of marriage and ideas of urban renewal long since gone. Frayn, author of Copenhagen, wrote a play about the pretensions and problems of urban planning set beside the same impulse and delusion in helping out individuals that exists in men and women with the compulsion to control.

Robert Jones has designed a space that serves as various rooms depending upon the placement of a long table used for eating as well as working. It is enclosed by walls that replicate the rough concrete with patterning of wooden forms so popular in architecture of the time, buildings that we now see 30 or so years on sadly worn and blackened by acid rain. The backdrop recalls the estates that architects and planners were busy erecting at the time to provide low-income people with better housing; it also suggests the prison that marriage was in the days before middle-class women customarily left their homes for work.

Two couples that live across from each other, the husbands acquaintances since school days, are in and out of each other’s lives. Present-day work and exercise habits have more or less emptied the home of daytime inhabitants, so that the dalliances and intrigues and messing with other’s lives that make up this play are pretty much an anachronism. David (played by Aden Gillett, who portrayed Gerald in An Inspector Calls several seasons ago on Broadway) is an architect who puts up increasingly massive units of public housing as he juggles the logistics of engineering that the site requires. He is optimistic, successful, and oblivious to the immediate human needs either of those around him or the low-income people for whom he designs. Everything is a problem to be solved, and it will be. He loves his wife, Jane, who works for him unpaid, which is an expression of his condescension, a marked feature of male-female relationships at the time and in this play. She begins to move on when she takes under her wing the very needy lady from next door, Sheila, marvelously played as a delightful waif and insistent parasite by Emma Chambers. With Jane’s help, Sheila becomes David’s employee, and thus Jane becomes redundant and needs to find something to do. Enter Colin, Sheila’s husband, an embittered, unsuccessful man who has known and resented David since school days (quite unrecognized by the latter who, like many designers, has the arrogance to fail to comprehend human beings with whom he is in contact). Colin steers Jane to an organization that seeks to prevent the destruction of old neighborhoods, and these two realignments make the engine that drives the play. Jeremy Sams, who recently directed the very successful Noises Off for London and Broadway, has again shown his marvelous way with the choreography of characters on stage. Here he moves them about in arrangements suggestive of the shifting forms of control, dependency, and mutuality that make up human relationships. The four actors are all excellent, never for a moment letting the pace slow; the characters are none of them nice people, but they are normal, vulnerable and aggressive by turns, as most people are.

Still, it is nice to discover nice people on the stage. One of the most, if not most, satisfying theatrical moments of this London season is the National Theatre’s production of Nicholas Wright’s play, Vincent in Brixton, at the Wyndham Theatre in the West End. Directed by Richard Eyre, the production is a continual delight. Wright has invented an emotional life taken from remarks the 19-year-old Vincent Van Gogh made in letters to his family while in Brixton working for his relatives in their London art gallery. The son of a pastor, reared in a strict, religious environment, as yet unsure of his vocation, aware of his genius, young, and awkward, Vincent takes lodgings in the home of a French widow living with her daughter. It is the notion of Wright that Vincent, initially attracted to the daughter, transfers his affections to the mother when he discovers that the former is secretly but passionately in love with the other male lodger (whom she does in fact marry, as historical record shows). The play is a study in generosity of spirit, nurturing, failed ambitions, the arrogance of genius, kindness, acceptance, and love.

  Mme. Loyer allows herself the luxury of surrendering to an emotional relationship with the very young gauche Dutchman, something immensely warming for anyone to witness who is beyond the first blush of youth, even if, as happens here, she is soon coldly abandoned. What is more, she can later welcome him into her home, albeit grudgingly, because she has devoted her life to discovering and promoting creative talent. Her daughter’s suitor, who she had previously nurtured as a promising young artist, realizes he has no particular talent when he sees the casual sketches of young Vincent, yet generously accepts this and welcomes the aggressive young fellow into his heart. Between these two truly admirable people – the widow looking like nothing so much as a Cezanne portrait, the daughter’s suitor remarkably handsome – stands the radiant young Vincent, a difficult, selfish, cruel person, often because he is devoid of social grace, disagreeably sure of himself, and obtuse, qualities one often finds in excessively religious persons. One virtue of this very good play is that when Vincent begins to spout doctrine, Mme. Loyer not only tells him that he is a consummate fool, but the playwright uses his behavior as the first telling indication of the madness that will destroy him in the next decade.

The characters are perfectly realized in the acting. Claire Higgins as the widow uses her low, rich voice as an instrument of sorrow, and by turns love. She deploys the smallest movements of her mouth and eyes to convey so many empathies, sorrows, and wisdom recalled that she demands the deepest empathetic response from the audience. Jochum Ten Haaf , who plays Vincent, is a young Dutch actor whose accent is, of course, perfect for the role. Although he is just out of school, Ten Haaf is a superlative actor; he finds the smallest gestures of confusion and insecurity, homesickness and loneliness, to undercut the arrogance of Vincent’s speech and demeanor, and is thus immensely appealing as an unappealing young man. Sam Plowman takes on the difficult role of a good person and succeeds in conveying the fundamental love his character bears for others. Is it his great good looks that give the character the security from which love can so easily spring?

This is a beautiful production, apart from the occasional musical accompaniment to scenes that is nowadays bastardizing theater in the direction of sentimental cinema. Tim Hatley has made a kitchen built up to the dado level with the occasional cupboard standing higher, suggestive of the kitchens one sees in Van Gogh’s paintings. The backdrop is black, characters appear in the realistic setting of the kitchen, but the tops of their bodies, silhouetted as it were against the black, give a painterly quality to the events; one thinks of Northern European painting especially. The superb lighting by Peter Mumford picks out the characters so that they seem to shine or glow from within, often coming in at angles that create shadows and light planes on the bodies suggestive of the paintings of Caravaggio. The final scene, our final impression of these people, is lit that way, allowing for a powerful visual memory to lodge within us. It is so different a sense of light from the hard, bright Mediterranean light of Arles that we associate with Van Gogh and in whose work the absence of Caravaggio’s shadows suddenly makes sense.

Irish publicans and Republicans
The London theater season is, of course, not complete without Irish plays. At the Loft over at the National, Owen McCafferty’s Closing Time is appearing in a series called Transformation, which is devoted to the work of young artists. Sad to say, this is a predictable play, filled with stereotypes. One has come to expect this from even experienced Irish hands so it is not all surprising to find it in a neophyte. Still, the question must be asked: why present yet another of these?

The action takes place in a Belfast pub/hotel, the characters are its owner, his wife, and several habitués of the establishment – one of them predictably mentally challenged as the result of an accident – who are locked into their alcoholism, from which there seems to be no escape. Although the pub needs refurbishing, the owner is short of cash. One of the regulars who now lives in the place owns a house across the street that’s been vacant since his wife was killed in a terrorist explosion (what else?) and the pub owner would like to use it as collateral for a loan. His ambitions are not realized largely because another party to these sad proceedings marches out in a drunken stupor to burn the house down, encouraged in this dubious act of destruction by everyone in the bar but its owner. Is it some kind of metaphor for an Ireland that is going nowhere, for burning and destroying, as in the Watts riots?

Alcohol destroyed the Native American population, and it is destroying the Irish, at least in theater. Again it is a clinical condition, not a state of mind or a philosophical proposition. It was not interesting years ago when Mary Tyrone was addicted to morphine or ether, I forget which, and it is not interesting today. The characters of this play are for the most part lost alcoholics; their antics sometimes making the audience want to laugh, except that it knows better now than to condescend so to the Irish. Only Pam Ferris, as the big, bawdy drunken wife of the owner, manages to convey the kind of lusty, aggressive rage that transcends habitual drunkenness so as to lunge forward into life (on good-looking legs, one might add, perched on rather high-sling heels that are a treat in this day and age when flats are in constant vogue). She has real class. As in The Beauty Queen of Leenane or The Steward of Christendom, the burden of history, self-pity, and martyrdom is really more than most characters can support.

Martin McDonagh’s immensely funny The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Garrick Theatre is an antidote to every self-pitying Irish play one has ever seen. It is a hilarious take on the pretensions of the Irish republican movement. Wee Thomas, the cat of a lieutenant of an IRA splinter group, is found dead on the road. The lad who found him is immediately suspect, while the lieutenant’s father, into whose care Wee Thomas was left, fears his son will blame him also. Trevor Cooper is marvelously funny as the father, and 19-year-old Domhnall Gleeson comes right out of acting school in Dublin to give a wonderful performance as a lad disaffected, somewhat daft, and seriously afraid of the consequences of his discovery. What follows is a series of comic maneuvers as these two try to exculpate themselves by finding a substitute cat to which they must apply bootblack, while the lieutenant, who is beside himself with concern and grief, abandons the torture upon which he is engaged to race home. The lieutenant is a stupid, vicious, bloodthirsty brute who becomes fixated upon his cat. His homeward journey and later efforts to uncover Wee Thomas’s killers are marvelous slapstick that demonstrates as nothing else really can that so-called Irish patriots are as mindless and bloodthirsty as the average Mafia-type male in any locale where law and order have broken down.

The shootout and subsequent bloodbath that form the drama’s crescendo are a demonstration of blood and gore rarely seen on the stage, from blood spurting out the backs of heads to bloody bodies center-stage being hacked to pieces. Like the obvious bit of fake fur that is Wee Thomas’s corpse to the store mannequins sawed into appropriately sized pieces, the blood and guts are more to be laughed at than taken seriously, as the visuals are so over-the-top. Still, the play is entirely serious, having to do with the proposition that even the best of protest eventually disintegrates as it creates persons who have made killing their business for so long that their characters are entirely submerged in the swamp of their own Mafia destiny. London is taking to this play in a big way; one would hope that the two sides in Ireland, or the Israelis and Palestinians, might give it a look and find its message salutary.

Next: Tom Stoppard’s The Coast Of Utopia

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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