First and foremost is the stunning Othello that Donmar Warehouse artistic director Michael Grandage has staged, which features a warrior at its heartbreaking center who's also at war with himself. Chiwetel Ejiofor, speaking Shakespeare's and Othello's poetry with velvety masculinity, Ewan McGregor, as an Iago smacking his lips over serial betrayals, and Kelly Reilly, whose Desdemona is innocent beauty personified, are all a treat to watch. On Christopher Gram's burnished gold-and-black set Grandage has thought up some intriguing directorial touches, including a novel way of explaining how Desdemona's troublesome handkerchief gets lost. Here, when Desdemona wipes Othello's brow with it, he snatches it and spitefully tosses it aside -- making him the author of his own jealous undoing.
The first of two truly dazzling offerings at the National is Katie Mitchell's inspired transfer of Euripides' Women of Troy to the 1930's with its echoes of the Spanish Civil War and the lead-up to World War II. The astonishingly creative director's particular gift -- realized by actors with whom she regularly works -- is locating the basic subtextual emotion and bringing it thrillingly to the surface. For Euripides' ancient take on the fabled Trojan War, she probes the seminal dramatist's sense of the powerlessness of women in wartime. Until it's all but unbearable, she pushes the emotional frenzy exhibited by Hecuba (furious Kate Duchene), Cassandra (tremulous Sinead Matthews), Andromache (elegant Anastasia Hille), Helen (feral Susie Trayling), and their fellow prisoners. In Bunny Christie's industrial-warehouse prison, the women pace, preen, collapse, and even go trance-like into dance movements while Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" plays. There may be nothing more moving on any stage anywhere than the sight of these despairing figures preparing Andromache's murdered toddler, Astyanax, for proper burial.
The second National Theatre eye-popper is Nick Taylor's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, which follows a boy and the horse he's raised through World War I. The story -- unmistakably anti-war in its grim depiction of the peaceable equine population during military campaigns -- is the thing, but the even more astonishing things are the horses, life-size puppets handled by three (sometimes two or one) puppeteers. Designed and made by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for Handspring Puppet Company, they're an accomplishment ranking with the best imaginable stagecraft triumphs. It would be a hard heart that didn't soften as Albert Narracott (Luke Treadaway) becomes a soldier in order to reunite with his horse Joey (Tommy Luther, Craig Leo, and Toby Olie -- all obviously horse lovers), whom his father Ted (Toby Sedgwick) sold over the objections of mother Rose (Thusitha Jayasundera). Although Morpurgo's narrative contrives to jerk those inevitable tears, neither the playwright nor adapter Stafford nor director Marianne Elliott pull many punches during the mordant battle scenes.
The acting is also top-notch in Alan Strachan's hyperkinetic revival of Absurd Person Singular, Alan Ayckbourn's disturbing comedy about marriage and shifting social standing, at the Garrick. In this three-act comedy, a lower-class couple on the rise (the always hysterically funny Jane Horrocks and tightly-wound David Bamber) eventually overtake a busy architect and his suicidal wife (John Gordon Sinclair and Lia Williams) as well as their banker (bumbling David Horovitch) and his dipsomaniac spouse (Jenny Seagrove, nicely deteriorating scene to scene). Though nothing more than hectic activity unfolds in the kitchens where the pairs meet on three successive Christmas Eves, Ayckbourn reveals plenty about the flimsy bond marriage can be.
A stronger but much briefer marriage ripens into genuine love in the return of William Nicholson's Shadowlands, at the Novello, which is about philosopher-novelist C. S. Lewis (Charles Dance) and his late-in-life romance with plain-talking American Joy Gresham (Janie Dee). True, Nicholson might have rethought how to handle with more dramatic persuasion the terminal cancer Gresham develops when she and Lewis are only just beginning their romance, since the audience spends much time waiting for the worst to happen. Still, under Michael Barker-Caven's extremely sensitive direction, Dance and Dee, Richard Durden as Lewis' understanding brother, and John Standing as a cynical don, fill the longueurs with fine performing.
The primary reason to see The Sea, at the Haymarket, is Eileen Atkins, who belongs in the Guinness Book of Records for racking up an unbroken string of superlative performances. In Edward Bond's dodgy comedy about a backwater English town where the drowning of a young man sets off a series of comically tragic events, Atkins is once again superb as Louise Rafi, the burg's dismissive grand dame, while David Haig, also a stellar presence, is Hatch, the proprietor of a notions shop and a man suddenly convinced the recent death has brought aliens to town. The production -- directed as well as could be expected by Jonathan Kent -- is an odd choice for Bond's first West End bow, since the play gives the class system a poke in the eye, but not as effectively as many British plays have done.
Finally, amidst a season of dramas, there's musical delight emanating from the Shaftesbury, where director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell have duplicated the hot hit they first achieved on Broadway with Hairspray, which just took home two Critics' Choice Awards. The 1960s-set storyline concerns Tracy Turnblad (Leanne Jones, whose smile is as wide as her swiveling hips) -- the chubby child of overweight housewife mom Edna (the gruff but loving Michael Ball) and tchotchke-store-owner dad Wilbur (the jolly Mel Smith) -- who struggles to become the new favorite on a local dance show and find true love with resident hunk Link Larkin (Ben James-Ellis). While the musical is undeniably breezy and good-natured, it shouldn't be forgotten that what Tracy fights are late skirmishes in the Civil Rights War. So be assured that the roar of audience approval greeting the cast after the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman "You Can't Stop the Beat" finale isn't only for the professionally slick show just witnessed; it's as vociferously in recognition of what Hairspray says about embattled race relations.
For more on London theater, including the full list of winners of the Critics' Choice Awards, visit www.whatsonstage.com.
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