Arts Review

The London Theater Season

A visit to London in mid-February revealed a city vibrantly alive with activity. Theaters and restaurants were packed, streets were full of shoppers and tourists, and a sense of rebirth filled the air. London has moved much more quickly than New York toward a full reopening; mask-wearing was spotty at best; and although most theaters were still checking vaccination status, restaurants were not. The dark days of the Omicron surge, just two months prior, seemed a distant memory. In a busy week of theatergoing, we faced only one Covid-related cancellation, which we fortunately were able to reschedule for later in the week. We even enjoyed a few days of unusually sunny warmth. Mostly, we enjoyed a wide array of exciting productions in a series of favorite venues, virtually all of which showed off what British theater does at its best: tell vivid stories, old and new, with outstanding acting and powerful directorial visions.
We started at the top: Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe. It would seem that not much more can be said about this greatest of plays, and I went expecting few revelations, especially from a company that is generally (though not exclusively) devoted to “original practice” performance style. This was actually the first time the work had been done in the Globe’s winter auditorium, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. And, under Sean Holmes’s direction, the production began with a period-faithful approach, using only candlelight, Elizabethan garb, and hand-pulled scenery. But Holmes eventually broke these conventions, turning on the electric house lights, for example, when Claudius cries “Give me some light!” at the end of the Mousetrap scene. As the play went on, costumes contemporized, political graffiti covered the set, and acting styles became increasingly hyperbolic. A few bits of line and scene reordering induced whiplash in those of us who know the text intimately (the “Too, too solid flesh” soliloquy became Hamlet’s first words, before the exchange with Claudius and Gertrude in the second scene; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entered later than usual). By the final act, Holmes resorted to wholesale rewriting, most particularly the Gravedigger scene. The usual dialogue was replaced by a contemporary, and admittedly very funny, stand-up routine from the production’s composer and music director, Ed Gaughan, who had spent the first four-fifths of the evening playing guitar in the background.
Holmes’s approach destabilized the many preconceptions we have of this work, forcing us to examine its contradictions, especially those within the title character who contains multitudes: honorable and deceptive, brilliant and naïve, victimized and victimizer. In this task, Holmes had a strong partner in George Fouracres, whose performance as Hamlet was unlike any I had seen before. Slothful and belligerent at first, he ended as a raging, avenging fury. Excellent work from Polly Frame as Gertrude and Rachel Hannah Clarke as Ophelia supported this interpretation. Unfortunately, this was the week’s only production that featured a few poor performances, most notably those by the Claudius and the Laertes. The Globe operates with a loose internal repertory company, and it’s likely they slotted in actors who didn’t fit their assignments. Overall, this Hamlet was erratic: riveting in a gonzo way, constantly provocative and smart, but often maddening and unconvincing. Still, there was much to chew on, and the attempt to reframe an over-familiar piece was admirable.
A much more successful Shakespeare production was director Max Webster’s updated Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse. The chief attraction of the revival was the lead performance by Kit Harington, famous as Jon Snow, the central character in the television series Game of Thrones. Harington’s role on the show has much in common with Shakespeare’s title character: a callow youth thrust into kingship who must find a way to galvanize a fighting force while navigating tricky internal and external politics. Boasting a solid theater background, Harington triumphed in the role, bringing naturalness to the language, an easy warmth and humor to the early scenes, and soaring charisma to the battle orations. His gender-agnostic supporting cast was equally fine, most particularly Kate Duchêne as a redoubtable Exeter and Millicent Wong, doubling as the Chorus and the Boy who follows the military camp. Four members of the ensemble were opera singers, inhabiting smaller roles and providing gorgeously atmospheric a cappella musical scoring, composed by Andrew Mackay.
Following the Chorus’ prologue, Webster intriguingly began the story proper with a five-minute recap of the final scenes of Henry IV, Part 2. Harington’s Prince Hal drunkenly stumbled onstage to join his fellow revelers in a nightclub, immediately vomiting on the floor, to general amusement. After several raucous exchanges among the crew, a messenger arrived to inform Hal that his father had died and that he was now King Henry V. A quick segue then took us to the coronation scene and to Hal’s public rejection of Falstaff: “I know thee not, old man.” In this way, Webster smartly established Hal’s dissolute youth, which is referenced but not actually shown in the text of Henry V. The stakes for his political and military endeavors were significantly increased; this was a Hal with something to prove.
Abetted by production designer Fly Davis and lighting designer Lee Curran, Webster worked miracles in the Donmar’s intimate space. This staging convincingly conveyed the modern world of tie-free diplomatic power suits, of generals in military fatigues attending cabinet meetings, of press conferences and video ops. The production engaged a military consultant, Tom Leigh, who brought verisimilitude and a poetic discipline to the battle scenes. Best of all, Webster and his team leaned heavily into Shakespeare’s thrillingly epic—and hugely groundbreaking—project of fully realizing a complete cross-section of society. The History plays as a whole cut deep through the social strata, from court to tavern, bringing psychological life to every member of the polity. And in Henry V, one of the last plays in the cycle to be written, Shakespeare goes even further by conveying a multicultural world, with Welsh, Scottish and Irish characters playing key roles in the narrative. Webster provided modern corollaries for this element, casting actors of different racial backgrounds and physical abilities, even allowing the Boy a little bit of Mandarin dialogue at key points.
A trio of productions adapted from novels that roughly fall into the Fantasy genre demonstrated the current state-of-the-art when it comes to story-theater spectacles. The use of elaborate digital video projections, puppetry, sound, and light—pioneered in plays like War Horse a decade ago—has reached new heights. It now feels as if almost anything can be conveyed on a stage: apocalyptic floods, vast oceans, star-filled deep space, anything a writer can dream up. Best of all, audiences have increasingly embraced the beautifully expressive artifice of much of this stage magic, no longer resisting highly visible puppeteers, for example. At Wyndham’s Theatre, The Life of Pi, based on the novel by Yann Martel, tells the popular story (previously adapted for an Oscar-winning film) of young Piscine “Pi” Patel, cast adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a fierce tiger named Richard Parker as his only companion. Max Webster directed, displaying, as in his work on the Henry V, a superb sense of organizing complicated stage effects and intricate patterns of movement, here abetted by designer Tim Hatley and puppet director Finn Caldwell. The Life of Pi brings dozens of animals to life on a stage that seems almost magically fluid, pivoting in seconds from a large ocean liner to a tiny boat in a vast ocean to a hospital room, from which Pi (the exuberant Hiran Abeysekera) narrates his story. My only complaint was with the clumsy adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti. Too much dialogue was repetitive, blunt, overly schematic, a frustrating limitation on the exciting directorial vision.
Much better from a textual perspective was The Ocean at the End of the Lane, adapted by Joel Horwood from the novel by Neil Gaiman. This fantastical work, centered on an unnamed boy (James Bamford) and his friendship with a neighboring girl (Nia Towle) who belongs to a family of otherworldly beings, turns the usual “kids save the world from a magical evil power” plot into a rich exploration of family dynamics. Gaiman takes the fraught relationship between angry, frightened parents and rebellious adolescents and deepens it into a meditation on memory and the stories we tell ourselves about our childhood. Director Katy Rudd’s production—as elaborate in its use of special effects as the more epic The Life of Pi and featuring an excellent ensemble cast—didn’t shy away from the darker corners of this story, particularly in its depiction of the boy’s vehement father. Fly Davis provided production design as wonderfully baroque as her work on the Donmar’s Henry V was effectively spare. This production originated at London’s National Theatre in 2019 and was here seen at the Duke of York’s Theatre—site of the original production of Peter Pan in 1904 and one of my favorite West End venues (a wonderful backstage tour lets you see the still extant system of ropes and pulleys used to fly the actors over a century ago).
The final—and best—work in the triptych of fantastical adaptations was The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, adapted by Bryony Lavery from Philip Pullman’s book, a prequel to his splendid His Dark Materials trilogy. Back in 2003, I saw the National Theatre’s epic, six-hour adaptation of that trilogy, at the time a landmark in the use of stage wizardry and in its cinematic evocation of an entire parallel universe. It was a peak theater experience, cementing my opinion that there are few stage directors in the world better than Nicholas Hytner. Almost two decades later, Hytner, working with the invariably marvelous designer Bob Crowley, has returned to Pullman’s world, and his work here, taking advantage of significant technological advances, particularly in digital video, is breathtaking; video designer Luke Halls’s work in particular, charting a boat ride down a flood-swollen Thames, is utterly dazzling.
Pullman’s story is set in an alternative version of our world’s London and Oxford in which all humans are constantly accompanied by a “daemon”—a talking animal who externally manifests the person’s inner dialogic voice, his soul if you will. This conceit put significant demands on puppet designer and director Barnaby Dixon, who came through with gorgeously expressive creatures, glowingly lit from within. Pullman’s books are much better known in the U.K. than they are in the U.S. (although a successful, ongoing HBO miniseries based on the original trilogy is changing that). For that reason, Lavery’s adaptation spent little time on acclimating the audience to Pullman’s intricate mythos, trusting that most attendees would know the basics. I admired this trust but had little doubt that those without a basic understanding of the His Dark Materials universe would find themselves confused for good portions of the show.
La Belle Sauvage, like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, depicts a young boy and girl who must team up to battle evil forces, here the Magisterium, an autocratic church, and its minions. Pullman’s hero, Malcolm (Samuel Creasey, a dead ringer for an adolescent James Corden), and heroine, Alice (Ella Dacres), must overcome an initially prickly relationship to rescue a baby who prophecies indicate will overthrow the church. That baby is Lyra, the eventual protagonist of the core trilogy, and the most astounding effect of the evening was the use of a real, live baby to play her. We’ve grown so used to seeing infants portrayed by lifelike dolls that it was electrifying to see the real (and beautifully behaved) thing, significantly enhancing our collective investment in the child’s fate. La Belle Sauvage was performed at the newish and beautiful Bridge Theatre, scenically situated on the banks of the Thames, overlooking Tower Bridge.
A preview performance of a new play at the Young Vic by Anthony McCarten, The Collaboration, showed promise; and, indeed, a film adaptation of the play has already been announced. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the work examines the unlikely but actual collaboration between the 50-something Andy Warhol and the troubled 20-something Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m not sure there’s much of an interesting story here, nor any deep statements about art, but the play serves as a great vehicle for two excellent actors: Jeremy Pope as Basquiat and, in particular, Paul Bettany in a revelatory performance as Warhol. All “gosh and gee” on the surface, Bettany wonderfully used humor and flashes of anger to excavate the deep insecurities of the artist who lived out his professed commitment to surfaces at the expense of depths. Given that McCarten has written three screenplays that brought Oscars for their leading men (Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, and Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody), look to Bettany’s chances once the film is made.
Besides the Shakespeare, the finest play qua play on offer was Caryl Churchill’s contemporary masterpiece, A Number, in a fine revival at The Old Vic. Churchill is arguably Britain’s greatest living playwright (one might also pick Tom Stoppard, depending on the day). Her recent work is characterized by simple, spare, sometimes elliptical dialogue that nevertheless speaks to profound human concerns. First produced in 2002, A Number, set in the near future, concerns a man named Salter who had his son Bernard cloned as a child, following the death of his wife. The play takes the form of a series of tense discussions Salter has with his now-grown original son, and with two other grown men who are both genetic replicas of Bernard. Twenty years ago, the play resonated within then-current public debates about the ethics of cloning. Now it feels even richer, getting at essential questions about identity and human connection. Directed by Lyndsey Turner, this revival fielded an impeccable cast: Lennie James as Salter and Paapa Essiedu, heartbreaking as the various versions of Bernard. I’ve seen numerous productions of this great, compact (sixty-five minutes) play before, but never one as wrenchingly moving as this one.
The deepest disappointment of the week was a punk adaptation of Wuthering Heights at the National Theatre, on their Lyttelton stage. Director Emma Rice made her name with the Kneehigh Theatre Company, particularly with a lyrical reimagining of the film Brief Encounter. She then had a spotty tenure as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe and has since founded a new company called Wise Children, which co-produced this Brontë adaptation with the National. Her typical kitchen-sink approach was on display here: a loose and exuberant use of all sorts of devices, anachronisms, and diversions. This Wuthering Heights was virtually a rock musical, with multiple songs and song fragments, pounding choreography by Etta Murfitt, and a goth approach to character, particularly to Catherine (portrayed by the singer-actress-songwriter Lucy McCormick). Rice personified Brontë’s all-important Yorkshire moors, using a choreographed ensemble led by Nandi Bhebhe.
Some performers stood out, including Ash Hunter who did his best to make the violent, brooding Heathcliff sympathetic, and Sam Archer, an exceedingly limber Lockwood. But much of the cast succumbed to the production’s overwrought aesthetic, overacting in cutesy and sometimes screechy ways (Katy Owen, playing both Isabella and Little Linton, was a prime offender). The production was overlong and yet felt like it was rushing through the story, glancing only superficially at key plot points. Rice used a lot of flash, engaging in the same kind of elaborate, technology-driven, storytelling theater spectacle as many of the other productions seen on this trip. But that bar is high now—and Rice fell short. Her approach lacked a core.
The buzziest show of the London theater season is the starry revival of Cabaret at the Playhouse Theatre, which has been completely rebuilt and refurbished—and renamed the Kit Kat Club (the name of the fictional nightclub portrayed in the show). Director Rebecca Frecknall takes an environmental approach to staging this work: “Sleep No More meets Kander & Ebb” as my husband opined. Audience members arrive early and enter the theater through a side door, winding their way through the bowels of the building, encountering vignettes meant to suggest what might take place behind the scenes at a Weimar Berlin nightclub. Shots of schnapps and glasses of champagne are liberally distributed, and patrons are ultimately led to tables in the auditorium that has been spectacularly overhauled to re-create a typical interwar venue. Those who have so booked enjoy a full dinner and more champagne, and the ability to roam among the various playing spaces situated throughout the theater, each occupied by performers typical of the era: singers, strippers, variety acts, and more. When the show proper begins, one is already deep into the experience.
This entire prologue, and the opening number, “Wilkommen,” staged on a revolving platform that rose to surprising heights, thrilled me as no artwork had since before the pandemic, auguring a brand-new way to stage a musical. Cabaret is an unimpeachably great work. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical short stories about his life in Berlin in the days before the Nazi takeover, collected in his book Berlin Stories, the show has an origin/version history as complex as that of Verdi’s Don Carlos. Isherwood’s stories became the John Van Druten play I Am a Camera, which became a film, and then the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret with book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The latter two pay clear tribute to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, the premier music theater artists of the era in which the show is set. Bob Fosse’s brilliant 1972 film adaptation significantly reworked the show’s song-list and reverted to subplots found in Van Druten’s play. A landmark revival in the 1990s directed by Sam Mendes combined elements from the Broadway musical and the film, cutting, reshaping, and augmenting the work (in particular, incorporating the reality of the Isherwood-based character’s queer sexuality). It is this version, now standard, that Frecknall used for her environmentally enhanced staging.
The central theatrical conceit in Cabaret is the Emcee, the titular establishment’s Master of Ceremonies, who embodies the decadent spirit of pre-Nazi Berlin. Played in the original production and in the Fosse film by Joel Grey, the Emcee in this production was Eddie Redmayne, the Oscar- and Tony-winning actor. The other central character is Sally Bowles, the doomed British chanteuse who finds herself at home in hedonistic Weimar Berlin, but who does not have the foresight or strength of will to extricate herself from the political disaster that is about to ensue. This role has attracted great actresses like Julie Harris (in the various iterations of I Am a Camera) and Liza Minnelli, who won an Oscar for Fosse’s film. Here, Jessie Buckley took the role and was an outstanding Sally: gauche and pathetic, as Isherwood described her, yet also captivating and lovable. Minnelli has been criticized for being too talented for the role (wouldn’t any canny agent visiting the Kit Kat Club have immediately signed Minnelli’s dynamic Sally to a film contract?); Buckley convincingly portrayed a second-rate performer who nevertheless fascinates with her bohemian spirit. Buckley’s complex Sally was matched by the excellent supporting work of veterans Liza Sadovy as Fraulein Schneider and Elliot Levey as Herr Schultz.
Several problems held this Cabaret back from ultimate greatness. Frecknall’s conception of the Emcee was, in my opinion, flawed. I don’t blame Redmayne, who was committed and exciting to watch, with remarkable star charisma. But Frecknall had him playing the role at far too high a level of weirdness and abstract stylization from the first minutes of the show. For me, it became a matter of diminishing returns. Cabaret should suck you into the seductive world of the nightclub (i.e., Weimar Berlin) in the first half of the show and then shock you in the second half as you grasp the emptiness and instability of the milieu, an emptiness that the Nazis will horrifically fill. Frecknall and Redmayne’s Emcee starts at a pitch that gives them nowhere to go and gives the audience no point of entry. The production suffers from the syndrome that also afflicts many modern productions of Brecht/Weill works: everything is staged in a super-naughty, transgressive fashion, as if the artists are trying to shock the bourgeois audience. This weakens the key point of Isherwood’s stories, which is that the rise of fascism felt rather mundane, happening almost when people weren’t looking, or at least when they were distracted. (Fosse captures this idea brilliantly.) Ultimately, Frecknall demonstrated massively exciting directorial chops but a slight yet damaging lack of faith in the material. Her work is salvageable, however: she just needs to pull back and let the cabaret scenes play at a lower pitch, without the current hyperbole.
Great directorial work by artists like Frecknall, Hytner, and Webster is a hallmark of London theater. And interestingly, the theatrical highlight of the week was actually an opera production: Handel’s Theodora at the Royal Opera House, directed by the formidable Katie Mitchell. I’m not always onboard with Mitchell, who is a brilliant but extremely technical artist. Her work always demonstrates precise control over movement, lighting, pace, mise en scène, with results that can be impressive yet airless. Mitchell’s first breakthrough, a widely traveled theatricalization of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, thrilled with its virtuosic use of seemingly every available stage tool. Subsequent work has shown similar skill but also an aversion to spontaneity, to the warmth and humanity that can come from a looser hold on the reins. Theodora managed to avoid a sense of rigidity, thanks mainly to Handel’s drenchingly emotional music, which filled in the gaps in Mitchell’s vision. A stellar cast—soprano Julia Bullock, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, and countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński singing exquisitely and inhabiting their characters with brave commitment—executed Mitchell’s searing vision, catapulting Handel’s story of a Christian martyr in late Roman antiquity into our present moment of autocratic populists and morally compromised freedom fighters. Tightly coiled scenes clearly spelled out the power dynamics in the work, with Theodora and her Christian cohorts recast as embassy servants, secretly plotting a terrorist attack against a corrupt, violent regime. The tensions between the text of the work and its theatrical manifestation brilliantly produced meaning and resonance: a best-case scenario for the role of a strong, visionary director.
With works that achieve varying degrees of success but that consistently reach for the intelligent, provocative, and innovative, London theater is clearly alive and thriving.