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Timon of Athens and Five More Must-See London Plays

Reports on Scenes From An Execution, Hedda Gabler, Our Boys, Red Velvet, and Damned by Despair.

Simon Russell Beale in Timon of Athens
© Johan Persson
Londoners – or those willing to cross the pond – have plenty of must-see plays on their plates, ranging from new takes on Shakespeare and Ibsen to new works about Shakespearean actors and more.

At the National's Olivier Theatre, artistic director Nicholas Hytner has given Shakespeare's Timon of Athens a rousing, disturbing interpretation, transforming the play about a generous man who turns on the recipients of his generosity after the ingrates turn on him into a modern-dress fable for our one-percent-versus-99-percent times.

Here, Timon (the peerless Simon Russell Beale) is first seen at a celebration of a room being named after him. However, not many months elapse before he has given away so many funds that he ends up in a financial bind himself from which no colleagues care to release him.

Soon enough, he's howling at the universe in an Occupy Wall Street-like camp (designed by Tim Hatley). And even though Timon discovers gold buried there, he refuses to resume his former life, giving the work an unusually downbeat if highly provocative ending.

Plays in which wounded soldiers bond (or don't) will always be timely, as is the case with Jonathan Lewis' 1993 drama Our Boys, now at the Duchess Theatre.

Set in 1984 during the IRA sieges, the work focuses on five enlisted men (Cian Barry, Arthur Darvill, Laurence Fox, Matthew Lewis, Lewis Reeves) and a potential officer (Jolyon Coy) due to begin training at Sandhurst obsessing over their afflictions, worrying about their futures, discussing women they might romance, mocking hospital higher-ups, pulling off pranks on each other, and smuggling beer in for forbidden binges.

To Lewis' great credit, he credibly presents a thick slice of a certain kind of life where men's physical and mental lives are in question, and he refuses to offer easy answers. Better still, director David Grindley has assured that the play's rampant humor and equally rampant pathos mesh smoothly.

Fiona Shaw and Tim McInnerny in Scenes From An Execution
© Marc Douet
Perhaps reflecting on his own experiences, Howard Barker's 1984 work, Scenes From an Execution, now receiving a sumptuous revival at the National's Lyttelton Theatre, dramatizes the artist's eternal tussle with critics, censors, fellow artists, and the general public.

Barker initially shows early (and fictional) 17th-century Venetian painter Galactia (played by Fiona Shaw, giving vent to her most trenchant instincts) sitting on the floor of her studio and sketching the buttocks of lover and fellow painter Carpeta (Jamie Ballard) for a study, before tackling the 1571 Battle of Lepanto canvas the Doge (Tim McInnerny) has commissioned.

While Galactia — a down-to-earth gal who paces the studio topless — is intent on representing the Lepanto conflict for the slaughter it was, she runs into trouble when the Doge and his minions declare Galactia's rendering to be a treasonous act against Venice.

Galactia is then thrust into her own campaign versus the superiors, a face-off ultimately not as dire as might be expected, and which unfolds with the participation of many other colorful characters, including Prodo (Jay Simpson) a survivor-model with an arrow still stuck in his head. In the end, just about everyone gets to spout pithy lines on art, truth, and repression in this hyper-intelligent work.

In Anna Mackmin's physically gorgeous production of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, now at the Old Vic, Sheridan Smith ensures that whenever she's on view, she draws all eyes.

One of the most noticeable things about her take on the monumentally frustrated title character, who settles into an unfulfilling union with earnest, unimaginative George Tesman (the wonderful Adrian Scarborough), is her ramrod-straight walk -- a walk often raised to agitated pacing that ends in her leaning rigidly on Tesman's expensive furniture.

As Mackmin presents the play — on Lez Brotherston's sparkling glass-and-light-wood set, under Mark Henderson's sun-infused lighting — the famed ending is absolutely and gasp-provokingly incendiary. Not only have translator Brian Friel and Mackmin recharged the finale, but they've emphasized and deemphasized various aspects of the classic drama, all of which is brought to startling life by an excellent company.

Adrian Lester in Red Velvet
© Tricycle Theatre
The commanding Adrian Lester — sometimes modulating his rich voice and sometimes letting it boom -- is the pressing reason to see Lolita Chakbrati's Red Velvet, at the Tricycle Theatre, in which Lester is impersonating 19th-century actor Ira Aldridge, who was famous for playing the most demanding Shakespearean heroes, but for whom establishing himself wasn't easy.

Indeed, it's the degrading episodes — such as the deflating rejection Aldridge received when replacing the ailing Edmund Kean in a Covent Garden production of Othello -- that Chakrabarti spotlights in an extended flashback framed by the thespian's final days.

Aldridge and his white wife Margaret (Rachel Finnegan) are brought to the Kean Company by producer Pierre Laporte (Eugene O'Hare). While they immediately run into resistance from Kean's second-rate actor son Charles (Ryan Kiggell), other troupe members are less forbidding, particularly actress Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), who begins to appreciate Aldridge's passionate but frowned-upon theatrical responses in the final terrifying Othello-Desdemona exchanges.

Perhaps because she's depicting the 19th Century, Chakrabarti wants some of the scenes to resemble period melodramas. Still, several other sequences are either amusing (a discussion of acting styles) or disturbing (a reading of the prejudice packed into the first-night reviews for Aldridge).

A final must-see show is Frank McGuinness' version of Tirso de Molina's little-known 17th-century play Damned by Despair, also at the Olivier, directed by Bijan Sheibani. This cautionary tale about what constitutes salvation concerns the ascetic Paulo (Sebastian Armesto), who is duped by the Devil (Amanda Lawrence) into redeeming ultra-evil Enrico (Bertie Carvel). The results are unexpected, and the action is surreal-contemporary and inflammatory, as Spanish Golden-age Catholic theology usually is.