TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

Power Trip

David Finkle checks out the London theater scene, where political works including Frost/Nixon, Rock 'n' Roll, and Evita are all the rage. logo
Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
(© Johan Persson)
There are those who say all art is political, but even they would admit that some art is more political than others. This tenet is being demonstrated stunningly in London, where two new plays, Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Warehouse and Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll at the Duke of York's Theatre, couldn't be much more political if they tried.

The mesmerizing Frost/Nixon takes as its subject the 1977 television talks between interviewer David Frost and Richard Nixon, a historic exchange at the end of which Nixon finally admits Watergate wrong-doing. While a brief description of the work could give the impression that what's on view are careful replicas of the televised sessions -- with Frank Langella delivering his best Tricky Dick impersonation and Michael Sheen slipping as craftily as he can into Frost's plummy cadences -- this turns out not to be the case. Both actors -- well directed by Michael Grandage -- give trenchant performances of prize-winning caliber.

As his work as the screenwriter of the upcoming films The Queen (about Elizabeth II) and The Last King of Scotland (about Idi Amin) attests, Morgan is clearly arrested by the often inscrutable behavior of people in high places. And one of the triumphs of this first-rate play about men and power -- which will be directed on film by Ron Howard -- is that he has found Shakespearean dimensions in the disgraced ex-President. Morgan, who admits in the published version to feeling "most comfortable thinking of this as a fiction," has wisely placed the interviews in the context of a lengthier face-off by two men fearful that the enormous might they once had in their separate arenas has slipped from them. The taped meetings are each man's chance to regain former glory: Nixon to impress the world with his continuing statesmanship, Frost to stage a reporting coup not guaranteed to coalesce.

As Morgan recreates the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the event -- and includes parts for Frost coach James Reston, Jr. (Elliot Cowan) and other Nixon and Frost associates -- he inserts observations about the Nixon White House that are relevant to the Bush White House. "I'm saying that when the President does it that means it's not illegal," Langella repeats. With set designer Christopher Oram's upstage wall of monitors broadcasting Langella's Nixon in excruciating close-up, Morgan also drives home points about the force that ultimately transcends both men: television.

"Culture is politics," Stoppard writes in the introduction to his published script to Rock 'n' Roll, in which the master playwright shows how pop music is an undeniable political statement. To do so, he calls for tracks by The Rolling Stones, The Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Plastic People of the Universe, and others to be blared between and sometimes during scenes that outline the public and private lives of a Prague dissident called Jan (Rufus Sewell) and an inflexible English Marxist called Max Morrow (played when I saw the show by Brian Cox, and now played by David Calder).

From the late 1960s to 1990, Jan analyzes the system through its attitude to the contemporary music he loves, all the while making decisions about the Communist tenets to which he can satisfyingly adhere. Eventually, he endures a destroyed record library and then short-term imprisonment. Concurrently, Max fights to keep his convictions intact as his wife Eleanor (Sinead Cusack) battles cancer and his flower-child daughter Esme (Alice Eve when young; Cusack when grown) builds her own relatively normal life.

It may be that when writing a play where rock and roll figures thematically, Stoppard was unconsciously thinking of the multiple tracks characteristic of studio recordings. He has done some multi-tracking of his own, layering much -- perhaps too much -- into the piece. With its many intellectual exchanges and its unflagging political fervor, this is very much a Stoppard play. Yet, in one major aspect it isn't; there's a lack of lighter-hearted conversational wit. Indeed, this work not only resonates more with the brilliant dramatist's Coast of Utopia trilogy concerning the build-up to the Russian revolution, it appears to be its companion piece.

Matt Rawle and Elena Roger in Evita
(© Johan Persson)
A convincing argument could be made that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita is the most cynical musical ever written about politics. The tuner's gravity and Tim Rice's prosaic but pungent words are undiminished in Michael Grandage's production at the Adelphi. It's dark and dramatic, as Che Guevara (the strong-voiced Matt Rawle) nastily narrates self-aggrandizing Eva Peron's rise and demise. In the long run, this treatment may be remembered most for Rob Ashford's abundant choreography, in which he uses the tango not only as a metaphor for sex but also for infighting among the country's armed forces. At present, however, the diminutive Argentinian actress Elena Roger is getting all the attention for her portrayal of the title role and deserves most of it. She acts "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" with passion and dances as if her shoes are aflame. But when she belts in her upper register, it's anybody's guess if she'll hit the right notes.

Religious politics are the stuff of Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo, which, by implication, is about the destructive effects of any brand of bombastic authority. The play, marked by often casually linked sequences, covers Galileo Galilei's solidifying understanding that Copernicus' theory about the earth's relationship to the sun is indisputable. Depicted as an energetic visionary and something of a con artist on his own behalf, Galileo promotes his findings, recants them, and consequently lives, as Brecht sees it, believing that his recantation marks him a failure. Howard Davies' gorgeous production at the National features Simon Russell Beale as the title character, and the plump actor -- who rarely seems obvious casting for whatever he's playing -- is fierce, furious, and mischievous. Nor is Beale limiting his National Theatre capering to Brecht's work. In repertory, he joins Alex Jennings and Lesley Manville as the delightful flim-flam trio in Ben Jonson's amusing, if rambling and repetitive The Alchemist, directed by Nicholas Hytner and co-starring Ian Richardson as the marvelously named Sir Epicure.

Alicia Witt and Kelly Reilly in Piano/Forte
(© Alastair Muir)
The political import of a couple other plays currently offered on London's stage is less immediately apparent. Terry Johnson, who wrote the clever Hitchcock Blonde, is clearly not finished with his Hitchcock fascination. Echoes of the master suspense purveyor's The Birds can be heard in the ultimately over-the-top psychological thriller Piano/Forte at the Royal Court.

Beautiful sisters Abigail (Alicia Witt) and Louise (Kelly Reilly) have matured differently since their concertizing mother Phoebe committed suicide. Abigail stutters and won't leave the mansion where the girls grew up, while Louise ricochets with abandon from town to town and bed to bed. She's only home to cause trouble for her former politician/talk-show host father (Oliver Cotton) when he weds seemingly dimwitted Dawn (Natalie Walter). Louise also hopes to knock some gumption into terrified-by-starlings Abigail. Or is Louise the one needing to shape up? (Or are they two sides of the same psyche?) The play is absolute hokum, but as performed on a high level by a slick cast, it's more forte than piano.

The politics of the music business, however, don't have much to do with Daddy Cool, a new musical at the Shaftesbury. This colorful show threads a storyline -- lifted clumsily from Romeo and Juliet by way of West Side Story -- through the songs of Bony M., a 1980s hip-hop group manufactured by songwriter Frank Farian that clicked in Europe but never cracked the American market. While the narrative is shop-worn, Farian's songs ("Baby Do You Wanna Bump" is one of them) aren't without bounce. Nor has Farian been shy about supplementing the score with some pop hits not of his devising, such as "Sunny" and "Can't Stand the Rain," sung grittily by Melanie La Barrie. If Daddy Cool clicks along, it's because choreographer Sean Cheesman has learned Toni Basil's lessons well and director Andy Goldberg (who directed the hilarious Bomb-itty of Errors, the hip-hop adaptation of Shakepeare's Comedy of Errors) has successfully called for order.

Tagged in this Story