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London Theater: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Helen McCrory in Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea,” directed by Carrie Cracknell. | RICHARD HUBERT SMITH
Helen McCrory in Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea,” directed by Carrie Cracknell. | RICHARD HUBERT SMITH

BY ANDY HUMM | While not all those who voted for the Britain to leave Europe were xenophobes, the vote for Brexit did unleash a disturbing wave of attacks on people perceived as different — from violence against Muslims on buses to a Polish waitress being told to go back where she came from to a gay friend being called a “poofter” on the street for the first time in his life. Things got ugly quick — and themes of ugliness seemed to dominate a week of excellent theater in London.

Imperialism, rebellion, infidelity, suicide on stage, along with our own Washington Heights

King Ugly, of course, is front and center in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Ralph Fiennes brings a stunning blend of menace and hilarity to the role made even more intense by the intimacy of the Almeida Theatre in Islington (to Aug. 6 only, but let’s hope for a transfer to the West End and Broadway).

Fiennes, often speaking from the very front of the stage, cajoles the audience into forgetting his moral deformity and rooting for his audaciously evil plots — hating ourselves for laughing at his twisted commentary. It’s not unlike some Trump rallies (with Finbar Lynch as Buckingham — Richard’s lead henchman, reminiscent of Trump’s deposed manager Corey Lewandowski) — though Shakespeare’s poetry rises infinitely higher than anything coming from The Donald and his crew.

Rupert Goold directs Fiennes and a fine ensemble including veterans Vanessa Redgrave as an exceedingly bonkers Queen Margaret, Susan Engel strong as Richard’s mum, the Duchess of York, and Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth — whose little princes Richard has had murdered — matching his ferocity.

I saw Fiennes play Frank Hardy quite well in “Faith Healer” in 2006 on Broadway, but Lyndsey Turner’s production at the Donmar Warehouse (to Aug. 20) sets a new standard for Brian Friel’s three-hander consisting of four monologues spoken directly to us. It’s the play that doesn’t sound as if it can work but miraculously does — even if you don’t believe in Frank’s occasional “miracles” with the ailing and deformed people who come to his tent for healing.

Stephen Dillane is heartbreaking as Frank, the rural king of chicanery, as he bares his secrets, doubts, and deepest fears. And Gina McKee is something beyond that as his long-suffering mistress/ wife Grace. But Ron Cook as manager Teddy is a tour de force, delivering an epic discourse on show business and the people in it that is just, to use one of his favorite words, “fantastic.” Loved it so much I bought the play text, unwilling as I was to take my attention from these performances for a second to jot down a note.

Elizabeth McGovern and Ben Miles in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “Sunset at the Villa Thalia,” directed by Simon Godwin. | MANUEL HARLAN
Elizabeth McGovern and Ben Miles in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “Sunset at the Villa Thalia,” directed by Simon Godwin. | MANUEL HARLAN

Then there were the Ugly Americans. Alexi Kaye Campbell, whose debut gay-themed “The Pride” in ’08 wowed as did his screenplay for “Women in Gold,” is back at the National’s Dorfman with “Sunset at the Villa Thalia” (to Aug. 4) with Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Grantham!) and Ben Miles (“Wolf Hall” on Broadway). We’re in Campbell’s homeland, Greece, in 1967 during the military coup. McGovern and Miles, as someone who says he works for the State Department, are a middle-aged American couple having an impromptu visit (or is it?) with a young British couple played by Pippa Nixon and Sam Crane, as a playwright, at the Skiathos house they are staying in.

Campbell’s drama is never less than engaging and entertaining as he blends the personal and the political — from large themes around the morality of US subversive activity in Greece and Chile and of profiting from people who sell at a loss when they are displaced to the emotional cost of abiding in a loveless relationship. Directed by Simon Godwin, this is a terrific play with a touching coda.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea is a pale blue set (by Tom Scutt) of a tenement filled with blue people in Carrie Cracknell’s take on Terence Rattigan’s mid-century classic “The Deep Blue Sea” (to Sep. 21 at the National’s Lyttelton and in cinemas here through ntlive.com on Oct. 6, with encores), echoing her acclaimed revival of “A Doll’s House,” complete with scrims bringing rooms and neighbors outside of Hester Collyer’s home into her sad flat where she lies before the gas fireplace hoping to have died as the play opens. Helen McCrory plays Hester as neither heroine nor victim, exposing the fragility of war survivors in the land of stiff upper lips. (Her “Medea” in 2014, also directed by Cracknell, was similarly wrenching.)

Rattigan wrote the play in response to the suicide of his ex-partner, but by the time it premiered in 1952 it had been de-gayed. Daring in post-war Britain for its treatment of suicide and living together without benefit of marriage, these are now themes dealt with constantly in network TV soaps, which also present gay characters without fear of censorship.

While Hester is a pre-feminist creation, Rattigan’s exploration of the grip that love (or desire or obsession or whatever you decide has driven her to the brink) has on her is something to which most all of us can relate. A good supporting cast, notably Nick Fletcher as Mr. Miller, the foreign-accented neighbor who is not a doctor but is most capable of healing.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” co-directed by Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin. | JOHAN PERSSON
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” co-directed by Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin. | JOHAN PERSSON

One hundred years after the Irish Easter Rising against British oppression, Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars” (to Oct. 22), set in the year before and then during the rebellion, invades the Lyttelton co-directed by Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin, two of the National’s stars. O’Casey, who fell out with the rebels over their putting nationalism over socialism, gets back at his former comrades by satirizing them so it is understandable that the play caused riots in 1926, so soon afterwards — and led to O’Casey exiling himself to England.

This combination comedy and melodrama is perhaps not the best introduction to the rebellion, even if it was conducted by a gang that couldn’t shoot straight led by gay poet Padraig Pearse and gay gunrunner Roger Casement, both of whom were among the 15 leaders executed by the British. O’Casey tells the story through average people in Dublin — some ridiculous, most poor, some loyal to the crown, others hoping to be part of a people’s revolution that was sweeping Europe.

The National has assembled a fine Irish ensemble to recreate the chaos of 1916 and what led up to it, but I agree with the rioters of ’26 that the subject needs a more serious treatment — not that O’Casey does not get deadly serious by play’s end.

'Gillian Wright and Nicholas Le Prevost in Alan Ayckbourn’s “How The Other Half Loves,” directed by Bill Kenwright. ALASTAIR MUIR
'Gillian Wright and Nicholas Le Prevost in Alan Ayckbourn’s “How The Other Half Loves,” directed by Bill Kenwright.ALASTAIR MUIR

Prolific Alan Ayckbourn is back in the West End with his side-splitting and breathtakingly constructed 1969 infidelity farce, “How The Other Half Loves,” at the Duke of York’s (to Oct. 1), directed by Bill Kenwright with a cast led by Nicholas Le Prevost, born to play the bumbling wealthier husband, Frank, and Jenny Seagrove as his wife, Fiona, who is cheating with Frank’s employee, Bob (Owen Oldroyd, the understudy, though fully in command of the role), who is cheating on his feisty wife, Teresa (Andrea Lowe). Matthew Cottle and Gillian Wright as the mild-mannered Featherstones, invited to dinner on successive nights by the couples, complete the mayhem — with Wright’s mousey Mary blossoming into the most fully realized human being amidst the schemers. I haven’t had so much fun in the theater since, well, June when I saw Ayckbourn’s “Confusions” at the 59E59 Theater in New York.

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda rapped the story of the founding of our republic in “Hamilton,” he applied his poetry to the story of his uptown neighborhood in “In the Heights,” his Tony-winning musical enjoying a hit revival at the King’s Cross Theatre (to Oct. 30) in the burgeoning new neighborhood behind St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations. It’s a lively, heartfelt, and traditional family tale with a Latin beat and rap street smarts, starring Sam MacKay as Usnavi, David Bedella as Kevin, and yet another talented ensemble. A great way to experience Miranda’s hit before his megahit.

ALSO RUNNING, COMING UP: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Wyndham’s (Sep. 8-Dec. 17). Kenneth Branagh in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer” (Aug. 20-Nov. 12) at the Garrick and in cinemas. Dominic Cooper in Stephen Jeffreys’ “The Libertine” (Sep. 22-Dec. 3) at the Haymarket. Glenda Jackson returns to the stage as King Lear at the Old Vic (Oct. 25-Dec. 3). “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) at the National’s Dorfman (Aug. 8-Oct. 1). David Hare’s new versions of Young Chekhov Plays: “Platonov,” “Ivanov,” and “The Seagull” (to Sep. 3) at the Olivier at the National, where Russian plays thrive. The late Pete Shaffer’s “Amadeus” with Lucian Msamati (“Game of Thrones”) as Salieri at the National’s Olivier (Oct. 20-Dec. 31). The Donmar at King’s Cross has a Shakespeare Trilogy (Sep. 23-Dec. 17): “The Tempest,” “Julius Caesar,” and “Henry IV,” all directed by Phyllida Lloyd with all-female casts led by Harriet Walter. That “Tempest” comes to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn Jan.13 through Feb. 19.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Battle lines says:
Perfect article.
Sept. 1, 2016, 9:07 am

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