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Nationalizing the West End

Mark Shenton extols the National Theatre in his latest report on what's happening in London. logo
Roger Allam, Conleth Hill, and Jonathan Coy in Democracy
(Photo © Conrad Blakemore)
In the summer, Nicholas Hytner made the big, bold gesture of opening his National Theatre regime with the scabrous, fabulous Jerry Springer -- The Opera, a musical that overwhelmed me as no other since Sweeney Todd has done. The production transferred to the West End's Cambridge Theatre in November. On the first night, the real Jerry Springer was present to witness his stage counterpart (American actor Michael Brandon, an uncanny look-alike) descend to hell; then Springer ascended to the stage and joined in the curtain call, a case of life imitating art imitating life. Though that special moment was a one-off, the show bursts with powerful, pertinent and shocking words, images, and melodies (by composer/co-author Richard Thomas and co-author/director Stewart Lee) as it recreates scenes from Springer's television show and then takes its host and several other characters on a moral journey.

Of course, there's more to the National than Jerry Springer; the theater has been full of sensational shows and performances that make it quite possibly the greatest theater in the English-speaking world right now. No wonder that, at the recent Evening Standard Theatre Awards, shows premiered at the National took the three top honors: Aside from the Best Musical award to Jerry Springer, Michael Frayn's latest, Democracy, was named Best Play and Kwame Kwei-Armah was declared Most Promising Playwright for his London street life drama Elmina's Kitchen. Following the path of David Leveaux's production of Jumpers, which has just transferred to the West End's Piccadilly Theatre, Democracy is now set to move to Wyndham's in April. And since a deal has been struck by the National with Bob Boyett and Bill Haber to give those American producers the first option to transfer shows from the South Bank to Broadway, both of these productions could be coming to New York in the not too distant future.

Democracy has several things in common with Frayn's Copenhagen: Both plays were originally seen in the National's small Cottesloe auditorium, both were impeccably directed by Michael Blakemore, both are based on real-life historical relationships, and both have bitter betrayals at the heart of them. Set in 1969 and revolving around the election of Willy Brandt as the Federal Republic of Germany's first left-of-center Chancellor in nearly 40 years, the play tells of the fascinating, flawed friendship between Brandt and his right-hand man Gunter Guillaume, who was apparently devoted to him but was later revealed to have been simultaneously spying on his regime for the Stasi.

"In the chapter on Willy Brandt," Guillaume is told towards the end of the play, "you'll always have your paragraph." In fact, Frayn gives him much more: The play is a complex study of conflicted loyalties in which Brandt is fatally undermined by his own indecisiveness. Conleth Hill, last seen in the West End and on Broadway in the original cast of Stones In His Pockets, gives a superb, chameleon-like performance as Guillaume, while Brandt is played by a somewhat bland Roger Allam.

Nigel Lindsay, David Tennant, and Jim Broadbent
in The Pillowman
(Photo © Ivan Kyncl)
Another major new play, also at the Cottesloe, is The Pillowman, the latest from Martin McDonagh, best known for his Leenane trilogy. It's another trip to the dark side from a playwright whose last work, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, featured a stage full of corpses being dismembered before our very eyes. This one, set in the interrogation room of a totalitarian regime, is even more psychologically disturbing: A writer (the marvelous David Tennant) is questioned by two policemen (Oscar-winning actor Jim Broadbent, in his first stage role in nine years, and Nigel Lindsay) about the fact that a series of child murders bears an uncanny resemblance to the stories he has written. As the play in turn revisits the writer's childhood and that of his brain-damaged brother (Adam Godley, seen in the Alan Rickman/Lindsay Duncan Private Lives), it turns out to be morbidly gripping but deeply unpleasant stuff.

If there's a signature to Hytner's new National Theatre, it is one of investigating the darker sides of the human psyche, and this is epitomized in the relentlessly bleak yet richly rewarding revival of Eugene O'Neill's rarely seen epic Mourning Becomes Electra. Though the title alludes to Greek tragedy, this scalding drama of a family destroyed by murder, suicide, infidelity, and incest offers neither the catharsis of the Greek plays nor the redemptive qualities of that other defining familial tragedy, King Lear. But Howard Davies's stunning production, unfolding in waves of despair, disgust, and guilt, is so finely acted that even the most melodramatic excesses of the plot acquire a tragic inevitability. There's isn't a more explosive relationship on the London stage that that of Helen Mirren's anguished mother and Eve Best's jealous daughter.

Meanwhile, over the last six months, we have seen a scheme to popularize the National's large Olivier theater: Four productions have been offered with two-thirds of the tickets priced at the equivalent of $17 each and a top price of just $43. But the result hasn't been bargain-basement theater; performances have included Kenneth Branagh in a startling, emotionally (and physically) naked performance in the title role of Edmond, David Mamet's fierce urban journey of self-destruction. The Travelex Ten Pound season, as it was called after the sponsors that partly enabled it to happen, will return next year. This month at the Olivier, Hytner directs a company that includes Timothy Dalton in a two-part adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials novels. This promises to be among the most ambitious productions yet seen here and its title marks it as yet another National show that will explore the darker aspects of humanity.

Poster art for Anything Goes
Sunnier, funnier fare is on offer across the river in the West End, where the National's hit of Christmas last is now one for Christmas present. Sailing high at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is Trevor Nunn's penultimate South Bank show, Anything Goes. With its combination of tall girls and low jokes, great Cole Porter songs, and punchy performances from leads John Barrowman and Sally Ann Triplett, this blissful transfer proves as irresistible as ever. Snapping at its heels, the West End saw the arrival of another splashy, sassy period musical as Thoroughly Modern Millie crossed the Atlantic to open at the Shaftesbury. Jeanine Tesori's appealing pastiche score, Dick Scanlan's lyrics, and Michael Mayer's period-perfect production intentionally make this mostly brand-new show look like a throwback to an old-fashioned style of musical comedy. The result, wittily inhabited by a stellar British cast that includes Amanda Holden in the title role and veteran comedy actress Maureen Lipman as Mrs. Meers, is a crowd-pleasing delight.

On a smaller scale, new local productions of two Off-Broadway plays have met with mixed receptions. At Islington's Almeida Theatre, where Neil LaBute has become virtually the house playwright with previous productions there of bash, The Shape of Things, and The Distance from Here, his 9/11 play The Mercy Seat -- set on 9/12 -- seemed a specious, sensationalist take on the (im)moral choice that its characters have to make: A man was supposed to be at the World Trade Center on the fatal day but missed the terrorist attack because he was having sex with his co-worker mistress at her nearby loft apartment instead. Now his mobile phone keeps ringing insistently but he refuses to answer it; he's seriously thinking of letting himself be counted among the missing, leaving his wife and daughters bereaved instead of dumped, so he can begin a new life with his mistress.

A national tragedy becomes a local opportunity for this fellow, but the plotting raises more questions than it answers. While the stakes may be classically high, the realization isn't; faced with a cataclysmic moment of choice that has been thrown at them, LaBute's characters behave as if in an extended therapy session, poring over the minutiae of their relationship with wearying intensity. The enormity of the event that gave rise to the situation is barely touched upon: "I mean, those buildings are just, like, gone," is about as articulate as the play gets. But Sinead Cusack and John Hannah are utterly selfless in their completely selfish roles, fully communicating the characters' emotional isolation.

Also in Islington, the belated London premiere of Terrence McNally's 1989 Off-Broadway hit The Lisbon Traviata (at the King's Head pub theater) has the hilarious David Bamber and Marcus d'Amico (best remembered as Michael Tolliver from the first season of Tales of the City) as friends bound by a mutual obsession for the late opera diva Maria Callas. During the course of the play, the eight-year relationship between d'Amico's character and his partner (played by Tristan Gemmill, a beefy television actor) implodes. The play intentionally tips into operatic melodrama, yet it's as heartfelt as it is funny. One only wishes that director Stephen Henry and his cast would pay more attention to the correct pronunciation of names.

Back on Shaftesbury Avenue, Arthur Miller's 1968 Broadway play The Price has been rivetingly revived. The piece treats the familiar Miller theme of how the present is very much haunted by the past; its title refers to what an appraiser (the scene-stealing Warren Mitchell) offers for the detritus of a New York home and, more crucially, to the price that has been paid by the adult sons of the man who lived there in their respective devotion to and rejection of him. This culminates in a searingly powerful verbal duel between Larry Lamb and Des McAleer.

Helen Baxendale, Kelly Reilly, and
Richard Coyle of After Miss Julie
(Photo © Hugo Glendinning)
There's more thrilling, not-to-be-missed acting at the Donmar Warehouse in Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie, based on Strindberg's play. As the dangerously unstable, aristocratic Miss Julie, up-and-coming star Kelly Reilly alternates between poise and panic as she goes "below stairs" to have an affair with her father's chauffeur. As the object of her desire, Richard Coyle is darkly and handsomely persuasive. Both of these young actors exhibit a simmering sexuality, while Helen Baxendale as the chauffeur's fiancée has a steely, no-nonsense practicality.

Far less successful is Stephen Poliakoff's dense canvas of contemporary city life, Sweet Panic. Originally seen on the fringe in 1996, the play takes on a mood of alienation and dislocation all of its own in a new production that struggles to resonate on the larger stage of the Duke of York's Theatre. Striving to be both an edgy psychological drama and a sharp social documentary, Sweet Panic tells the story of a mother stalking her young son's psychologist. Even the best efforts of Victoria Hamilton (Tony-nominated for the Broadway production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg) as the psychologist and Jane Horrocks (best known as Bubble on television's Absolutely Fabulous) as the avenging mother-from-hell cannot make the piece credible.

Nor has director-writer Ben Elton been able to make a convincing book musical of Tonight's the Night, a bunch of Rod Stewart hits hopelessly strung together. At least this spawn of Mamma Mia! delivers Stewart's songs with some degree of musical conviction, and cute young Tim Howar is much more pleasant to look at than grizzled old Rod. (It's certainly not his fault that the size of his "rod" is endlessly alluded to in the puerile book.)

Finally, theater makes the news in Justifying War, a stage recreation of the recent public enquiry that was held into the death of a government scientist, Dr. David Kelly, who was revealed as the source of a BBC news story that the U.K. government's dossier on "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction" was flawed. Although the enquiry was not broadcast, full transcripts of what was said and documentary evidence that was shown may be accessed by visiting an official website. Alternatively, one could visit North London's Tricycle Theatre, where Justifying War digests some of what was said by 12 of the witnesses. Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor has edited the transcripts and Nicolas Kent has staged them in a way that is theatrically compelling and emotionally devastating.

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