The London Theater Scene
Despite terrorists’ bombings, closed Tube stations, oppressive heat, crowds and sirens, London is as entrancing as ever. Past centuries lurk around every corner in the form of ubiquitous blue plaques, telling us that here lived Dame Edith Evans or Oscar Wilde, Lillie Langtry, Mozart, Sheridan, Shaw, Barrie or the infamous Nell Gwynne, the actress who started as a wench selling oranges in Drury Lane and ended up the mistress of King Charles II.
One of the city’s major lures, of course, is its lively theater scene. On my recent seven-day visit, I was reminded that theater needs but a plank, a passion and imagination -- just actors, words, feelings and an ability to communicate something universal.
So it was with “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s final masterwork and, to an extent, “Billy Elliot,” the emotional powerhouse of a musical. On the other hand, “Mary Poppins” and “The Woman in White” were loaded with cumbersome geegaws at odds with their premises. All three musicals are scheduled for Broadway productions.
“The Tempest” is at the reconstructed Globe Theater, the great “wooden O” on the South Bank, built near the spot where the original stood in Shakespeare’s day. It’s as fine a reproduction of the Bard’s playhouse as possible, complete with (fire-proofed) thatched roof. Half the audience sits in shallow galleries surrounding an open yard surfaced with hazelnut shells where the other half stands in the open air. In Shakespeare’s pre-deodorant time, the standees were called groundlings or stinkhogs.
Spearheaded by the late American actor Sam Wanamaker, the reconstructed Globe houses the world’s largest exhibition devoted to the Bard and his London. Here you can wallow in Elizabethan life, hear speeches delivered by great actors, even record your own scenes. From now through January, a special exhibition marks the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, with its conspiracy theories and possible government cover-ups. (Sound familiar?)
The stripped-down “Tempest” I saw had three actors assuming all the roles, supported by three dancers and a chorus of six in “the heavens,” that balcony above the stage. “On your imaginary forces work,” wrote Shakespeare, and so did I and 1,500 others.
This is art to enchant, as funny a rendering of any Shakespeare comedy as I’ve seen. True, the plot gets lost, but Mark Rylance as Prospero and Stephano, Edward Hogg as Miranda, Ariel and Trinculo and Alex Hassell as Caliban and Ferdinand are sleight-of-hand magicians in this delightful play about the interdependence of mind, emotions and spirit.
That same expanse of emotions and spirit filter through “Billy Elliot,” based on the successful 2000 British film. Taking place in northeastern England, the show opens with an impending coal miners’ strike to protest the Thatcher government’s desire to nationalize the mines. “We will always stand together / In the dark and through the sorrow,” sing the miners, a depressed lot whose lives lack “the old razzle dazzle.”
The story and theme of escape focus on Billy and his desire to make a life for himself, to pursue a dream he doesn’t yet know he has. When, by chance, Billy finds himself in a ballet class with all girls, he has to overcome a family that regards dancing as fit only for poofters (gays). It doesn’t help that his best friend, Michael, dresses up in women’s clothes and, in a smashing tap number, “Expressing Yourself,” gets Billy to do so also (along with dancing dresses on hangars). Peter Darling’s choreography is awash with brilliance.
Pulled this way and that by his loutish brother, his memory of his mother, a puzzled father, coppers and miners, British class consciousness and the conflict between the individual and the community, Billy must push his way out of the maze. Of course he does so and, in a thrilling scene, dances a spectacular ballet, partnered with a vision of his future self.
The outline isn’t particularly original: grow up, get out, leave the past behind. Nor does the Elton John/Lee Hall score stand out, although it’s ably integrated into the show’s concept. It’s all in the telling and the telling, thanks to Stephen Daldry’s gutsy direction, is terrific. Beautifully performed, with a smashing rendering of the acerbic ballet teacher by Haydn Gwynne, this is a memorable musical. I liked it so much that I saw it twice.
Which is more than I can say for “Mary Poppins,” based on stories by P.L.Travers and the 1964 Disney blockbuster film. The show has all the familiar, hummable tunes: “Chim Chim Cher Ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.”
New songs have been added and an effort has been made to darken the proceedings, but it’s that sugar that sticks in the craw. The introduction of a wicked witch nanny who would browbeat the kids into submission, a statues-come-to-life interlude and a Marat/Sade sequence featuring menacing toys compete with the evening’s most telling line: “No child profits from an excess of sentiment.”
The show might be more tolerable if it didn’t seem so at sixes and sevens, a problem even the distinguished director Richard Eyre can’t overcome. The dances, even though they’ve been choreographed by the unsurpassable Matthew Bourne, aren’t organic. Laura Michelle Kelly is a formidable Mary and Gavin Lee a cheerful Bert. But the lyric “Never need a reason / Never need a rhyme” seems to be the show’s guiding principle. There are delicious moments here – and imaginative sets by Bob Crowley. Mary flies, but the show doesn’t.
Even heavier is the equally expensive-looking “The Woman in White.” Its dubious claim to fame rests on music by the redoubtable Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by David Zippel and a book by Charlotte Jones from the famous Wilkie Collins 19th-century thriller about a lady falsely locked up in a madhouse by a husband who has his eyes on someone else’s fortune.
If you don’t get a headache from the oppressive story, you’re sure to get vertigo from William Dudley’s constantly whirring scenery. Round and round the film projections go, while walls go this way and that.
The lyrics tend toward “I believe my heart / It believes in you / It tells me the love I see / Is completely true.” Lloyd Webber, who specializes in tales of damsels in distress, has written a schmaltzy score that melds Giacomo Puccini with Richard Rodgers.
Weaving about is Anthony Andrews, once the sexy young man in “Brideshead Revisited,” here looking and sounding like Count Dracula. The heroine is played by the talented Ruthie Henshall. But it’s Andrews’ pet mouse who gives the best performance.
The first act is dullsville. The second picks up – at least more happens. But it’s still leaden and rather daft. Director Trevor Nunn tries to breathe life into it by having characters constantly rushing about. By the end, however, you may look upon a turn in an insane asylum as a relief.
-- David A. Rosenberg
July 31, 2005