Two weeks of theater in London and two of the best plays were by Irishmen –– a new one from Conor McPherson and a revival from Martin McDonagh with Daniel Radcliffe, who continues to evolve from film megastar to one of the shining lights of the stage.
Actor Peter McDonald, who has known McPherson since their University College Dublin days in the early ‘90s, wrote that Conor often says you need to put the audience in “first class” and “get to that place where you do not even notice the writing.” It’s what McPherson does so consistently and what many playwrights — mostly playing with themselves — fail to.
I got to see McPherson’s “The Night Alive” on its last day at the Donmar Warehouse, but would confidently bet it will get a New York run and a worldwide audience along with the rest of Conor’s canon. He was aided in London by the intimacy of the 250-seat Donmar, an enviable ensemble led by Ciarán Hinds and Jim Norton (just off Broadway stints), and an able director named Conor McPherson. But this little story of desperate and literally bloodied people could fill a big house as well.
This “Night” is lit up by echoes of Beckett, Pinter, “The Honeymooners,” and the Gospels, shifting from comedy to horror to tragedy on a dime and giving dignity and beauty to people many would dismiss as “losers.” No political speeches here, just very human beings.
McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” is getting a welcome revival from director Michael Grandage as part of his new company’s season at the Noël Coward Theatre (to August 31). Starring is a splendid Radcliffe as “Cripple” Billy, but it’s really the work of a terrific ensemble perfectly hitting all the dark comic notes in this admixture of Beckett and “Saturday Night Live” in its heyday. We are a long way from the winsome stage-Irish humor of “The Quiet Man” and into something painfully funny and revealing about what my friend Bernárd Lynch calls “the first and last British colony,” started 700 years ago and still not united with Northern Ireland.
The English, American, and Italian offerings in town were not too shabby either.
Pirandello’s “Liolà” (no, I had never heard of it either, and the title character is a guy) is the kind of play the National excels at like no other theater –– taking a forgotten 100-year-old work by a major playwright, commissioning a new version (written by Tanya Ronder), and mounting a production not with stars but with the best stage actors around. Not to mention putting the National’s former artistic director Richard Eyre at the helm.
This uncharacteristic comedy for Pirandello centers on how wealth is passed through male heirs –– an unshakeable tradition that gets some serious upending as a childless older landowner (a formidable James Hayes) yearns for what randy Liolà (a merry Rory Keenan) does so easily as he repopulates the town with progeny by women to whom he is not married. But it is the women who are the real interest here (notably Rosaleen Linehan as an aged aunt and Niamh McGowan as Ciuzza, the town good-time gal), using what little power they have to survive and advance. (As in some other productions I’ve seen in London, peasants of whatever ethnicity are played by Irish actors, whom I am sure are glad for the work if not the underlying casting concept.) It took several scenes for this one to come together, but when it does the results are very satisfying. (To November 6 at the Lyttelton.)
Nick Payne’s new “Same Deep Water as Me,” directed by John Crowley at the Donmar (to September 28), is a comedy that takes on a profession that little theatrical light has been shed on –– personal injury law. What starts out as a Brit-com evolves into a tense but funny courtroom drama and ends with a coda that combines violence and a hint of redemption—maybe too much. The lead law partners (Daniel Mays and Nigel Lindsay) are spot on as are the supporting players (Monica Dolan, Peter Forbes, and Joanna Griffin), who do double duty as shakedown artists and then court officers. Isabella Laughland gets a memorable star turn on the witness stand as a Tesco delivery driver falsely accused of causing an accident. Marc Wootton is riveting and frightening as Kevin, who dreams up the false claim, and Niky Wardley as his conflicted wife gives the play its heart. Sets by the legendary Scott Pask.
The National Theatre has revived James Baldwin’s little-known “The Amen Corner” (to August 14 only) from 1954, which he wrote fresh off his breakthrough novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” –– and against the advice of his agent who wanted him to finally make some money writing for magazines. The play comes out of his Gospel church roots and is set in Harlem in 1953. Melodrama is redeemed by intense writing and, here, a magnificent company directed by Rufus Norris and led by Marianne Jean-Baptiste (“Secrets and Lies”) as Sister Margaret, pastor of a storefront church dominated by strong women trying to hold themselves and their men to their Lord in the face of a deeply racist society.
While “Corner” seems to be the kind of play that would work best in a small house that would put us with them in the church and the apartment below, this company fills the big Olivier temple and brings the audience to its feet. John Osborne gets credit for pioneering kitchen-sink realism in “Look Back in Anger,” but Baldwin was doing it two years earlier.
One night after “The Amen Corner,” the Olivier stage was transformed into a modern military base that is the setting for director Nick Hytner’s “Othello,” another meditation on race and one of Shakespeare’s most melodramatic plays — enhanced by his searing poetry and, here, another spectacular ensemble led by Adrian Lester as the Moor and Rory Kinnear as Iago.
This lucid rendering of the play also packs a powerful emotional punch and gives new meaning to the term “base camp.” The basest desires for lust, jealousy, and revenge are carried to such extremes that it struck many in the audience as camp at times, setting off waves of nervous laughter. I’ve never seen the humor in people wrecking their own lives and those of others, but understand the need to relieve the tension built up by this drama.
Lester and Kinnear are first-rate actors. I could do with a little less of Kinnear’s mannered rhythms, but he is a villain you can’t take your eyes off of. “These men!,” Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) says ruefully in a pivotal scene with Iago’s wife, Emilia (a very fine Lyndsey Marshal), before their unanticipated murders.
This is a production that gives Shakespeare a contemporary feel –– as all good ones should no matter what costumes they’re wearing. This production closes October 5, but can be seen in US movie theaters in October. (For venues, go to NTLive.com, which also includes information on September screenings of Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II in “The Audience.”)
There is carnage of a different sort on the stage of the Old Vic in Marianne Elliott’s revival of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” a play like “Night Alive” that deals with life’s losers. Tennessee Williams gives them the added handicap of being deluded –– fading star “The Princess Kosmonopolis” (Kim Cattrall) by vanity, her “assistant,” returning local-boy-made-bad Chance Wayne (Seth Numrich) by pipe dreams of love and stardom, and the racist citizens of the Gulf town St. Cloud, hell-bent on what amounts to an honor killing of Chance, who is repeatedly referred to as a “criminal degenerate.”
Credit Williams for exposing the underside of Southern gentility and the American Dream, though this is a play that gives us no one to root for and in which –– unlike “Night Alive” –– love does not redeem but enslaves. Cattrall scores in the honesty of her growth from unmade bed to glamour puss. Numrich, the boy in “War Horse” on Broadway and scrappy fighter in “Golden Boy,” here is a beefed up man on the brink of passing his sexual prime. It is a mess that could stand some cutting, but an honest and first-class rendering of a flawed play. (To August 31)
Noël Coward’s “Private Lives” at the Gielgud is perfectly cast with Toby Stephens as Elyot and Anna Chancellor as Amanda, not to mention Anna-Louise Plowman (Sibyl) and Anthony Calf (Victor) as their hapless new spouses. (Coward also perfectly cast it with himself and Gertrude Lawrence in 1930.) It’s a tribute to the cast and director Jonathan Kent that Coward’s posh English French bedroom farce continues to entertain. (To September 30)
I saw Harold Pinter’s “The Hothouse” in 1995 with Pinter himself in the lead of this inmates-running-the asylum play and should have left it at that, but wanted to see what the great Simon Russell Beale, who was scary funny as Stalin in “Collaborators” last season, could bring to the role of Roote at the Trafalgar Studios. Mistake. Jamie Lloyd directs it as broad farce capturing little of the necessary menace except in the terrific performance of John Simm as Gibbs, Roote’s number 2. £65 is lot to ask for just that. And £5 for a program? If only Pinter were around to complain.
“Merrily We Roll Along,” Sondheim’s famous flop on Broadway in 1981, just finished a hit run in the West End at the Pinter Theatre after a transfer from the Menier, that incubator of hit revivals from “Sunday in the Park with George” to “La Cage aux Folles” (and has a redemptive “Color Purple,” according to critical consensus, on now, though I did not see it). This time, the Menier took a chance on a first-time director, Maria Friedman, one of the foremost UK Sondheim performers, to salutary effect.
The songs here are the attraction — standards “Our Time” and “Not a Day Goes By,” each done in both acts to moving effect as the characters get younger in this reverse chronology show. While the Broadway flop was attributed to using too-young performers, that’s not the case here. A weakness remains the George Furth book full of show-biz stereotypes (including gay ones). “All About Eve” it ain’t, but there is all that great music and we should hope for a Broadway transfer.
Also Running and Coming Up in London Theater: Lenny Henry is getting raves in August Wilson’s “Fences” at the Duchess (to September14)… Almeida hit “Chimerica” with Stephen Campbell Moore at the Pinter Theatre (to October 19)… Alexi Kaye Campbell’s terrific gay-themed debut play “The Pride” revived with an all-star cast led by Hayley Atwell at Trafalgar Studios (to November 9)… The Old Vic has Mark Rylance directing James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave in “Much Ado About Nothing” (September 7-November 16)… From the Michael Grandage Company, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Sheridan Smith and David Williams at the Noël Coward (September 7-November 16)… The great Antony Sher in a new play about Freud, “Hysteria,” by Terry Johnson at the Hampstead Theatre (September 5-October 12)… A new Stuart Brayson-Tim Rice musical of “From Here to Eternity” at the Shaftesbury (September 30 –April 26)… Jude Law in “Henry V” also from Grandage at the Coward (November 23-February 15).
For information on tickets and performance schedules, visit uktheatret