Phil Davis, Rory Kinnear, and Ruth Wilson in Philistines
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Phil Davis, Rory Kinnear, and Ruth Wilson in Philistines
(© Catherine Ashmore)
The best play and production on view in very busy London right now isn't the one that might immediately come to mind: Howard Davies' treatment of Maxim Gorky's first play Philistines, at the National. The play was written in 1902, but it still has the effect of a fist in the solar plexus.

In Andrew Upton's gritty new version, it also provides several actors with meaty roles on which to chew. First among equals is Phil Davis as the intractable head of the Bessemenov clan, who inhabit a large flat also occupied by several dispirited lodgers. Davis' depiction of a tyrannical man's puzzlement at the aimless lives led by his son Pyotr (the first-rate Rory Kinnear) and daughter Tanya (Ruth Wilson, endlessly inventive as a suicidal teacher) is mesmerizing.

So is Gorky's view of one extended dysfunctional family as Russia slowly edges toward revolution. While there's no denying that greatly influenced by Chekhov's ability to orchestrate intimate groups in extremis, the dramatist also infuses the turbulent action with overt politics. Amid the calamities and rocky lives endured by dissatisfied boarders like alcoholic Teterev (the never-disappointing Conleth Hill), Gorky's only hints of hope are evidenced by the few characters prepared to change, such as foster son Nil (the fervent, Scottish-tongued Mark Bonnar), who leads the march into the future. "I will grip life by the throat and make it say what I want to hear," Nil proclaims in a play that itself grips the audience by the throat and won't let go when the lights fade.

Of all the top-flight actors currently doing work on London's stages -- and at present, there's an extremely generous helping -- none is more memorable than Henry Goodman, who has grabbed the role of Tevye with both hands in Lindsay Posner's highly competent and extraordinary well-sung revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Goodman's Tevye is a God-fearing, God-challenging man bursting with vitality. It doesn't hurt that Goodman has a booming baritone and gives new and special oomph to the brilliant Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock "If I Were a Rich Man." During a musical now absolutely registering as a classic (and a candidate for opera houses), Goodman's Tevye may be more intense and even more threatening than one that would appeal to all tastes. Nonetheless, he's got the goods, and he's matched by Beverley Klein's tough, bronze-throated Golde.

Antony Sher in Kean
(© John Haynes)
Antony Sher in Kean
(© John Haynes)
Why an actor chooses to play the title character in Jean-Paul Sartre's 1953 adaptation of Alexander Dumas' 1836 Kean is obvious; it's not just the chance to play a great actor, Sir Edmund Kean, but the idea of actor as a metaphor for existential man is clear. Yet one of Britain's most accomplished performers, Sir Antony Sher doesn't soar to his usual heights this time. The reason is that the play on view at the Apollo is a dated and unfunny farce about Kean's clandestine romp with a diplomat's wife (the particularly silken Joanne Pearce) and an aspiring actress (Jane Murphy), while he both courts and cuts the playboy Prince of Wales (Alex Avery).

During the course of tedious dressing-room comings-and-goings, Sher, directed by Adrian Noble, does get to give his impersonation of Kean on stage as Othello and Richard III (a part in which Sher himself excelled years ago). But these sequences are not enough to turn the outing into another Kean-like triumph for the actor.

Another fine English actor, Danny Sapani is making his mark in Theodore Ward's 1938 Big White Fog, a nearly-forgotten large-cast drama, which the Almeida's Michael Attenborough has had the good sense to rediscover. The brawny Sapani plays Victor Mason, a middle-class father who pledges his money to Marcus Garvey's return-to-Africa campaign only to have his convictions blown back at him when the Jazz Age is swamped by the Great Depression.

"The world ain't nothin' but a big white fog, and we can't see nothin'," Mason says as his rationale for preferring to leave his native Chicago behind, although wife Ella (Jenny Jules) and his three children don't agree with his plan. Danny's rash act eventually leads to catastrophe when his older daughter Wanda (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) forms a cash-involved liaison with a white employer. Big White Fog breaks no dramaturgical grounds, yet it's unquestionably an important American theater piece in an impeccable showcase.

William Shakespeare's Othello boasts two male roles by which ambitious actors clock themselves; and in the new production at the Globe that Wilson Milam has directed with commendable lucidity, Eamonn Walker in the title role and Tim McInnerny as Iago prove to be distinguished choices. Walker has the physical power and presence to make the proud, eventually gulled Othello hugely effective, even though there are times when the resonant bottom to his voice seems about to give out. There are no flaws in McInnerny's delivery. He's the healthy, hearty, scheming lad who's risen through the ranks on sheer ability to charm and, when necessary, overwhelm.

The production boasts two other major pluses. The first is Zoe Tapper, who is as gentle yet intelligently probing a Desdemona as could be wished, and, who lends the death scene immeasurable pathos. The second is that in Milam's clear-headed presentation, Iago's motives, often described as baseless, are completely straightforward. Othello has not only passed Iago over for promotion in favor of Cassio (agile Nick Barber), but Iago suspects Othello has been intimate with his wife Emilia (Lorraine Burroughs, also graceful of form and voice). Revenge is the fuel driving the tragedy, and Milam doesn't skip a beat establishing as much.

Anyone looking for still another razzle-dazzle acting display is directed to the Royal Court where DC Moore's Alaska has just bowed. In this fast-paced character study of a contemporary racist named Frank, Rafe Spall blasts a series of angry, destructive, lickety-split speeches that instantly brand him as a young man ready for big things. Moore -- who apparently has an understanding of the mixed-up younger generation -- shows with already-honed playwriting skill the physical and mental damage a bigot like Frank can do to people around him, especially to a bright, determined Pakistani woman called Mamta (Fiona Wade).

Bob Martin, who plays Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone, should become the toast of London now that the good-time musical pastiche he co-wrote has bowed. However, at an early (non-press) preview, Elaine Paige, making her West End return after a seven-year absence, looked not as drowsy as the chaperone is required to be. Still, she had certainly and graciously found her star's way into the colorful, invigorating ensemble piece.

Paige is not the only leading lady making her mark in male-dominated London. Zoe Wanamaker is showing more of her unending versatility as the passionate, self-deluding Serafina delle Rose in the revival of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo at the National. Sporting a black wig and designer Mark Thompson's dressy and undressy costumes, Wanamaker has fun mimicking Sicilian-style outrage as a woman refusing to face the fact that her late husband -- whose ashes she keeps in an urn under a statue of the Madonna -- was two-timing her. Williams initially has a bit of trouble settling on a tone for what is a very human comedy. But eventually, he establishes this as his comic variation of Streetcar Named Desire with that play's Stanley Kowalski kneaded into male animal Alvaro Mangiacavallo. That swaggering, likable oaf is played here with exquisite slovenliness by Darrell D'Silva -- one more actor currently making London a true man's world.