Reports on six worthwhile British productions, including Dominic West in Butley, Kristin Scott Thomas in Betrayal, and Alex Kingston in Luise Miller.
Dominic West is giving the kind of dynamic performance that gets people talking in the title role of Simon Gray's Butley, now being revived at the Duchess. In the two-act character study of a once-promising English professor imploding over the course of one sour day, he brings almost everything needed for galvanizing the stage while disorienting the characters trying to make Butley face himself.
Those characters include his flatmate Joey (Martin Hutson), estranged wife Anna (Amanda Drew), colleague Edna (Penny Downie), students Miss Heasman (Emma Hiddleston) and Mr. Gardner (Cal Brigden) and publishing executive Reg (Paul McGann), who is Butley's rival for Joey's affection. While all the actors shine, thanks to director Lindsay Posner, West lacks the flickering vulnerability that keeps audiences on Butley's side. Without it, Butley's overbearing nature palls, testing audience patience about such cruel carryings-on, no matter how devastatingly eloquent the harangues are.
When Harold Pinter decided to exorcise guilt over his dalliance with wife-of-best-friend Joan Blackwell, he wrote the moving-backward-in-time play Betrayal, which is currently receiving a model theatrical distillation at the Comedy under the direction of Ian Rickson. Kristin Scott Thomas and Douglas Henshall as the nervous extra-marital lovers and Ben Miles as the tense cuckold all scrupulously follow the author-dictated pauses and silences. Those ambiguous moments are Pinter's comment on how people communicate -- or don't -- and what elusive subtexts lurk. They must be acted precisely, as they are here, to replicate natural conversation, or a pretentious quality slips in.
Playwright Arnold Wesker was the flavor of several mid-20th-century months, largely because of Chicken Soup With Barley, which is getting a thoroughly satisfying revival at the Royal Court on two atmospheric lower-middle-class sets by Ultz and under the assured hand of artistic director Dominic Cooke. The unflinching drama, set over the course of over 20 years, follows unhappily married Sarah Kahn (Samantha Spiro in an astonishing performance) and Harry Kahn (Danny Webb, also highly effective), daughter Ada (the persuasive Jenna Augen) and son Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal, whose dramatic arc is the most demanding) and their associates as their Communist convictions erode as their family bonds loosen. Sarah's inability to get through to her weak, lying husband and how the consistent battling affects their children is the core of this powerful play.
Characters meant to be living in the not-quite-Carnaby Street 1960s get knocked about, custard (or a convincing facsimile) gets squirted, a twisted senior citizen on his restaurant first day falls down stairs, audience members are recruited for menial tasks, and a quartet called The Craze entertains while covering changes of Mark Thompson's ingenious set.
Friedrich Schiller's 18th-century play, Luise Miller, is as classy as melodrama gets -- and it's getting a grade-A revival at the Donmar Warehouse. In it, innocence and love is trampled but truth prevails as the unsullied title heroine (exceedingly lovely and staunch Felicity Jones) and lover Ferdinand (Max Bennett, a model of youthful ardor) are undone by the machination of his haughtily corrupt father (menacing Ben Daniels) who insists his off-spring marry conniving Lady Milford (Alex Kingston, an arresting welter of conflicting emotions). While the young couple are assailed in a series of stunningly written, though overwrought, scenes, director Michael Grandage keeps the tension taut as a piano wire. He's aided by John Light as a vicious secretary with an eye for Luise and by Peter McIntosh's shadowy design.