By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
London did its lovely usual (improved by perfect weather!), and although this was an awkward week for theatre (many shows will be opening in September), there was still more to choose from than I had time to fit in; surprisingly and disappointingly, much of it was not at the level of brilliance I’ve come to expect from London theatre. Here, in brief, is what I saw in descending order of interest:
HENRY VI at Shakespeare’s Globe
All summer the Globe has been presenting this new, wonderfully playable version of Shakespeare’s rarely performed trilogy, Henry VI. Some of the performances have been outdoors, on legendary battlefields throughout England, the battlefields that made the history that made the plays. But for one excellent day they performed all three plays at the Globe in London, adding up to 7 ½ hours of drama with hour-long meal breaks in between. If you think it was exhausting (and exhilarating) to watch, imagine the stamina of the cast who had done the entire trilogy just the day before. The show continues through September, and if you can’t see it live, there’s this news just in:
We are delighted that The Space, the digital arts service from Arts Council England, in partnership with the BBC will be filming and live streaming our final battlefield performance of Henry VI at Monken Hadley Common, Barnet on Saturday 24 August. The event will be captured from multiple viewpoints, with aerial cameras taking in the stage, audience and landscape from above. After the live broadcast, edited films of the three plays will become available on demand on The Space’s website.
The plots of these history plays are ridiculously complicated, even in the streamlined version directed by Nick Bagnall. Seeing all three in one day was like binging on a boxed set of an engrossing TV series: you get to know the characters as the excitement and the tension build, and, unlike TV, the actors reveal their strengths as they play multiple roles. It was an astounding day in the theatre.
The play begins with the funeral procession of Henry V as the coffin is carried through the mass of groundlings (the standing audience). Henry VI, still a little child, played by the superb Graham Butler throughout the trilogy, huddles in the corner of the throne, and will, for a while, just watch, with growing horror and fear, the mayhem that is medieval English history.
The war with the French, led by Joan of Arc (Beatriz Romilly) who is here seen as a witch not a saint ends in temporary triumph over the wishy-washy French dauphin (Simon Harrison who will thrillingly transform himself into the crippled and vicious Richard, later to become Richard III).
International war presages civil war as the War of the Roses commences: the House of Lancaster and the House of York will plot and murder and betray each other as the English throne changes hands. As a way of signifying that all war is civil war—man against man—Bagnall has the same actors play the French soldiers as played the English soldiers: they merely switch uniforms before our eyes.
Another important anti-war theme is that of fathers and sons; in the course of the trilogy we will see two grief-stricken fathers lament over their dead sons on the battlefield: “My Icarus. My blossom” This Icarus motif—doom-laden and heartbreaking—recurs in the third play, as does the horror of a son who has unwittingly slain his father.
The leader of the House of York is Richard Plantagenet (the powerful Brendan O’Hea who will later transform himself into the hilariously effeminate King of France). The Duke of Suffolk (Roger Evans), a major player in these political sweepstakes falls in love with Margaret (Mary Doherty) and arranges a marriage between her and the weak and often bewildered Henry VI so that he can control the throne. Margaret will later become, like Joan, another of Shakespeare’s warrior women, extending and complicating the gender-bending theme: when kings fail, the women go to war.
The Houses of York and Lancaster
Henry VI has now become a sweet and shy king, dithering and ineffectual; all he wants to be is a pious shepherd but chaotic and murderous events overtake him. The lineage that would determine who has the right to the throne is explained when Richard Plantagenet provides a jawdropping monologue, a complex list of names and relationships, provoking delighted applause from the audience. It all leads to betrayals and accusations and poisonings and madness and executions and beheadings. “Oh, war, thou son of Hell.”
Compounding the civil war, there is a peasant rebellion led by Jack Cade, depicted by Shakespeare as vulgar and ambitious ruffian, literally rabble-rousing. He will kill anyone who can write (“First, we kill all the lawyers”). And then, as if to show there’s no end to the violence, the Irish revolt begins.
The True Tragedy of the Duke of York
The plays grow more exciting as the climax builds in this third play.Margaret is now a bloodthirsty general, “a tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide,” and Richard Plantagenet’s five sons battle within their own family as one of the brothers becomes King Edward IV. His brother, Richard, grows more and more “discontent” and vicious and there is much language that anticipates his “glorious” speeches early in Richard III, especially with the son/sun wordplay. There is a breathtaking moment when, at the end of the entire performance, he first kisses then tosses aside the first of the “little princes” in swaddling clothes. The choreography of his murder of Henry VI is spectacular. His simian walk and his “smile and murder whilst I smile” is both thrilling and chilling.
The themes of fathers and sons, of inheritance and disinheritance, the results of fantastic treacheries and gory goings-on, makes these plays rich and wildly engrossing, and this superb production is a virtual master class in how to do it.
CHIMERICA at the Harold Pinter Theatre
It seems likely that this smart and deeply intriguing play by Lucy Kirkwood—it seems to have been written about ten minutes ago—will come to New York, so if you can’t get to see it in London, keep an eye out for it nearer by. It was so successful and admired at the Almeida Theatre (a famous avant-garde theatre company, part of London’s version of Off-Broadway) that it transferred to the West End (London’s Broadway).
The title “Chimerica” doesn’t refer to the mythical monster but rather the monster of global economics, particularly the exploitative development of the China/America relationship laced with envy, greed and ignorance.
The main characters are Joe, an American photojournalist (Stephen Campbell Moore) who says wryly of himself, “Kodak ergo sum.” There is a wise but hardened Hemingwayesque journalist (Sean Gilder), their gruff editor (Trevor Cooper) trapped between devotion to a free press as the bedrock of democracy and the fact that a Chinese billionaire is a major investor in the newspaper. Tessa (Claudie Blakley) is a brittle British marketer whose specialty is explaining the psychodynamics of Chinese-American investment and who becomes Joe’s lover. The man who will turn out to be the main character, Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), is haunted by his young wife who was killed at Tiananmen Square.
The pivot of the plot is The Tank Man, the subject of the iconic photograph of a man standing alone in front of a line of tanks, who became one of the anonymous heroes of 20th century political protest. Twenty-three years after the fact, Joe, the fictitious photographer who took the real picture, goes in search of that man who disappeared. In the course of his self-aggrandizing quest, he will do much harm. One of the many complex issues Chimerica takes up is the moral responsibility of journalists—both to the world as we depend on their reportage and to the people they photograph. The plot is filled with mysteries created and solved; the shocks don’t end until the play does.
Lyndsey Turner’s direction is subtle and clever, especially considering that so much of the underlying theme of the play is about communication: she has the Chinese characters speak to each other when presumably they’re speaking Mandarin in the actors’ own British accents; when they’re speaking to English-speakers, American and British, they speak w/ American accents w/ Chinese overtones. The set, designed by Es Devlin, is a revolving cube on which projections shift the action from New York to Beijing.
Chimerica is a remarkable contribution to serious political theater as well as a troubling provocation to thought.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN at the Noel Coward Theatre
The Cripple of Inishmaan is one of Martin McDonagh’s terrific plays set in the Aran Islands, and it is filled with quirky, sad, dangerous and funny characters leading lives so boring that they spend hours staring at cows and talking to stones. Into this hermetically sealed world—complete with a slutty beauty, a local gossip, his ancient alcoholic mother and the two wonderful old ladies who raised Cripple Billy—comes the news that a Hollywood film company has arrived looking for local talent.
Daniel Radcliffe (known in his former, younger life as Harry Potter) turns in a sweet performance as Cripple Billy. He plays him as grotesquely crippled in a physically difficult performance, but his accent isn’t quite rural enough, and his Billy seems too muted, too straightforward to be sufficiently interesting in this world of bizarre folks. McDonagh’s characters should always be destabilizing exaggerations, but this production edges toward caricature, showcasing performances as comic turns rather than creating a sense of community, the kind of texture created by the brilliant ensemble acting that the Druid Theatre, under Garry Hynes’ direction, brought to this same play.
The play has been West Ended-up, and directed by Michael Grandage as a crowd-pleaser—and the crowd is well pleased; the scenes change in a revolving set with time and music between them to allow time for applause after each one.
THE SAME DEEP WATER AS ME at the Donmar Warehouse
Nick Payne’s Mamet weak knock-off is about two small-time lawyers in England who are rapidly becoming smaller-time as the recession worsens and they creep toward the edge of the fiscal cliff. Central to this drama is a law referred to as “no-win-no-fee” that legalizes the abusive idea of the little guy’s hiring a lawyer to sue a big company for damages. Not only does the lawyer get a percentage of the award if he wins the case, but a “success fee” on top of that. Making matters sleazier is the car insurance add-on called “before the event” insurance to pay lawyers’ fees if you’re in an accident. Obvious opportunities for lucrative scams arise, and The Same Deep Water as Me follows one such swindle from initial plan through the courtroom to the verdict.
Payne’s play is an indictment of these litigious times and these vulgar and corrupt practices, recognizable to anyone who has seen the ads on TV or on billboards for personal injury lawyers. A large cast has been assembled for no particular point other than to resemble a reality TV show; the actors are adept at saying “fuck” seventeen times in each sentence, and in fistfights.
The temptation here is to borrow the famous line from above-mentioned Henry VI: “First, we kill all the lawyers” and then, second, Payne would seem to add, we should move on to their clients.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME at the Apollo Theatre
This popular National Theatre production transferred to the West End and is still bringing audiences to their feet (a rare event in London, although this may be due to the enormous number of tourists going to the theatre in the summertime). The play is an adaptation by Simon Stephens of Mark Haddon’s novel of the same title—a book that has become required reading in schools around the world primarily because it takes up the issue of how “normal” people view people with disabilities. The disability in this case is the kind of autism called Asperger Syndrome, and the play tries to show and tell us what it feels like to be a person with AS, as it is called.
Christopher (Luke Treadaway) is the point-of-view character; he is fifteen, a mathematical wizard and cannot tolerate being touched. His beleaguered father understands Christopher better than his mother who is portrayed as both overwhelmed and selfish; she has run off with the next-door neighbor whose dog has been killed in the night-time with a pitchfork. This gruesome discovery is the plot’s trigger, and Christopher sets out to find out who did it.
All the stage effects—lighting, sound, the black-and-white grid of the set—are intended to create for us what it feels like to be someone with AS trying to cope with the world. There is always a certain degree of fraudulence in such attempts to dramatize what is essentially separated from us not only by experience but by the fourth wall: we are looking at these effects, not immersed in them. Our main access to his mind is a journal Christopher writes that is read to us by his teacher (Niamh Cusack) who embarrassingly over-emotes, while Treadaway’s performance is a bit too fey and charming and actorish. All this becomes pretty cloying and repetitious; long after we get it, they go on with it. The play wants to earn its credentials by spoon-feeding us Big Ideas: chaos theory, prime numbers, etc. but it merely panders to our wish to be intellectually flattered.
LIOLA at the National Theatre
Liola is a Pirandello play I had never seen nor read; in fact, I’d never even heard of it. And it was being directed by the legendary Richard Eyre. So it was a considerable disappointment to sit through what is really a 20-minute sketch stretched to tedious 95 minutes by annoying faux folksy singing and dancing. Using rural Irish accents to represent Sicilian peasants (which tells you more about the way the English view the Irish than any theatrical necessity), the plot is country cliché: a village with a rich but infertile old man, a lady-killing, baby-making young man, and a bunch of near-hysterical women.
Unlike Pirandello’s most famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Liola is pretty much idea-free; no philosophy, no blurring of the lines between art and reality, well, no nothin’.