Patrick Stewart in The Master Builder
Patrick Stewart in The Master Builder
Since I last wrote here in March, Ragtime has come and quickly gone, as has Contact -- two shows that failed to generate the same kind of heat in the West End that they did at home. They join a catalogue of recent transfers, from Kiss Me, Kate to The Full Monty, that haven't repeated their Broadway success over here.

But that's not the only reason that London theater is suffering from a severe case of déjà vu. Everything old is new again, and not just in terms of the globalized theatrical brand that is Shakespeare, who is everywhere this summer in the capital: at the National, at Shakespeare's Globe, the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, and the RSC at the Old Vic. More improbably, the Norwegian doom-merchant Henrik Ibsen is also to be found all over town.

No less than four Ibsen plays have opened in half as many months. It all started when the veteran Swedish director Ingmar Bergman staged Ghosts as part of the Barbican Centre's BITE:03 festival. (That production, reputedly Bergman's theatrical swan song, was subsequently seen at BAM in New York). Then came Natasha Richardson, stepping into shoes once famously worn by her mother Vanessa Redgrave to play the title role in The Lady from the Sea at the re-opened Almeida. When the stranger she's obsessed with returns from the sea to reclaim her and he tells her, "I'm in you. Inside You. In your face, in your voice," I couldn't help thinking that these could be Vanessa's words to her daughter. The sense of déjà vu was amplified by the fact that the two are looking and sounding more alike than ever, and both exhibit the same combination of vulnerability and grit on stage.

Next up in the ongoing Ibsen fest, Ralph Fiennes and Patrick Stewart have returned from Hollywood to respectively play the title roles in Brand (at the Haymarket) and The Master Builder (at the Albery). Both were once stalwarts of the RSC: Fiennes began his career there and Stewart had a 26-year-history with the company before being beamed up, Scotty, to play Captain Picard in Star Trek.

It's great to have them back on the London stage, but neither have made it easy for us with the plays they've chosen. Brand, a practically unstageable poetic epic, has been pruned to under three hours but is still a hard slog up a philosophical as well as literal mountain as a pastor rages against the faith that he's lost and is finally enveloped by an avalanche. The Master Builder is another Ibsen tale of lofty aspirations -- again, literally true in this story of a builder, Halvard Solness, who used to create the highest church towers in the world -- and the very human failure to meet them. While both stars are solid, these productions are too stolid.

London's current penchant for things classical also embraces a surprisingly unengaging Three Sisters at the Playhouse. Originally, it had another British movie star, Kristin Scott Thomas, making her icily cool British stage debut as one of the sisters in Michael Blakemore's production; now Thomas has left but the show is continuing without her, ahead of another National revival of the same Chekhov play that's scheduled to open in August. There's also a dated dose of Pirandellian tale of truth and illusion in Absolutely! (perhaps), which marks the reunion of actress Joan Plowright and director Franco Zeffirelli after such stage and film collaborations as Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tea with Mussolini. Though there's lots of smoke and mirrors here, it's difficult to become engaged by the strained result.

More star power at the Comedy Theatre fails to create much excitment in a revival of David Mamet's slight, one-act, revue-like early '70s report from the frontline of the singles scene, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The title isn't the only come-on that creates false expectations: The cynically opportunistic casting of Friends star Matthew Perry (in his first theatrical role since a high school production of Our Town) and returning British actress Minnie Driver does the same. With stronger support from local star-in-the-making Kelly Reilly and the excellent Hank Azaria, Perry and Driver have joined the throng of Hollywood actors lately seeking to reclaim a bit of stage credibility in the West End, but they have failed to make much of an impact except at the box office: This show has been one of the few solid hits of the London summer.

Far more alluring is Hitchcock Blonde, Terry Johnson's dense but wittily realized play about a contemporary film lecturer reconstructing an old Hitchcock film, that plot combined with the story of the great director auditioning body doubles for Janet Leigh in Psycho. As played by an uncanny look-a-like, William Hootkins, Hitch is a hoot here -- especially when seen in profile; and Rosamunde Pike (recently seen as the blonde Bond baddie in Die Another Day) reveals that she fulfils the title of this play only to a certain point when she joins the long line of Johnson leading ladies who have disrobed on the London stage. Overall, this is a far more persuasive play and production than Johnson's dreadful stage adaptation of The Graduate.

Old movies have additionally made it onto the London stage via the musical Calamity Jane, cheaply staged for a summer season at the Shaftesbury with former punk rock star Toyah Willcox gamely bouncing around the stage in the title role; and a version of the film His Girl Friday, itself based on the great Broadway comedy The Front Page, back-adapted for the National Theatre stage by John Guare. In the roles taken on screen by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as the former husband-and-wife team of jousting (and jesting) Chicago journalists, Alex Jennings and Zoë Wanamaker are consummately stylish and effortlessly amusing. Broadway's Jack O'Brien, originating his first production on this side of the Atlantic, does a suave job of finding the play's comic rhythms while adding his own layers of inventiveness.

Also at the National, David Leveaux (director of the Broadway revival of Nine) offers a new production of another hit play originally premiered there in 1972 when the National was based at the Old Vic, Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. This dazzling, sometimes dizzying comedy is a play of both verbal and physical gymnastics, with Stoppard harnessing his familiar delight in wordplay and debate to a farcical plot from which a flurry of unruly ideas and arguments erupt. Leveaux's production, with Simon Russell Beale as the moral philosopher George and Australian actress Essie Davis as his musical comedy actress wife Dotty, matches the playful agility of the writing with a vitality of its own.

Michael Brandon and company in Jerry Springer -- The Opera(Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
Michael Brandon and company
in Jerry Springer -- The Opera
(Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
With all these new versions of old shows, it's a relief to find the National also hosting the most sensational piece of musical theater seen on either side of the Atlantic in the last 20 years or so. Not since Sweeney Todd, in fact, have my ears and eyes been so delightfully overwhelmed as by Jerry Springer -- The Opera. The concept of the confessional television chat show, one of the strangest of modern cultural phenomena, has inspired a brilliant stage musical. "We eat, we excrete, and we watch TV / And you are there for us, Jerry," goes one of the few printable refrains in a show that includes profanity in almost every lyric. The frequently gorgeous melodies of composer Richard Thomas are offset by the words (the work of Thomas and co-writer/director Stewart Lee) to create lots of dramatic tension.

A former stand-up comic, Thomas had the idea to set The Jerry Springer Show (now in its 12th television season, and counting) as a modern opera. "It's got tragedy. It's got violence," he has said. "There are people screaming at each other and you can't understand what they're saying. It's perfect for opera." Using a high-culture form to satirize an icon of low culture, the show reflects a decadent society where all kinds of behavior and fantasies are not only indulged but also celebrated on TV.

In the first act, a typical episode of The Jerry Springer Show comes to life. There's the rotund man who admits to his fiancée that he's been seeing two other people: her best friend (a sometime drug addict) and also a transvestite, who proudly tells his rivals, "Talk to the hand because the face ain't listening." Another man tells his girlfriend, "I want to be your baby, baby" -- and he means it literally, as we see when he throws off his clothes off to reveal that he's wearing diapers. Finally, we meet a larger-than-life, incredibly buxom blonde (the amazing Alison Jiear) who hopes to achieve independence from her abusive, redneck husband by becoming a pole dancer.

Just when you think that the show can't get any more delicious or delirious, out comes a line of tap-dancing Ku Klux Klansmen to take your breath away. (The Producers seems tame in comparison.) Tough though this act might seem to follow, Jerry Springer doesn't end here: In the second act, Jerry finds himself in Hell -- an even more hellish version of his own show during which Jesus Christ admits to being "a little bit gay." The other guests include Adam and Eve, J.C.'s mother Mary (who was "raped by an angel," she tells us), and even God, who descends from Heaven to declare: "It ain't easy being me." As the show detonates every taboo, with laughter ricocheting about the theater, it becomes an equal opportunity offender. Jerry Springer -- The Opera is already lining up for a West End transfer, and Broadway won't be far behind.

The show seems to have set the National Theatre, taken over by Nicholas Hytner in April, on a roll of creativity. The place has been galvanized by two sharp, smart new plays about city life, Scenes from the Big Picture (set in Belfast) and Elmina's Kitchen (set in London). Meanwhile, Hytner has himself created an urgent staging of Shakespeare's great war play Henry V that makes striking parallels with our recent forays into Iraq. As the publicity powerfully states it, "A charismatic leader in the flush of youth commits his troops to war. The risks are huge; the cause debatable; and bloodshed certain."

The play is staged in modern dress and propelled into the media age: Some of the action takes place in footage seen on a giant wall of TV screens and battles are fought in fatigues. There are army jeeps on stage, and loud explosions are heard. The play and the production offer a forceful reminder of the price of kingship and kinship, proving that these questions endure across the centuries.