Sunday, August 31, 2014

Inside the London Theatre - Week Two


Playwright Beth Steel was our guest Monday morning. Like Tim Schutt, she is 30. Her background should have put her in the most unlikely to be a playwright category—she wasn’t exposed to any of the arts in the coal mining town where she was raised, dropped out of school at 16, and never set foot in a theatre until she was 21. After a couple of years of going to see every play she could, when they returned to London, she went to see David Harrower’s Blackbird and left wanting to be a writer. Wonderland took four years from conception to stage.  Her father was her touchstone for this script. He accompanied her on a trip down into the mines. She spoke with refreshing candor about theatre dramaturges who questioned her play’s lack of a protagonist when she was, “creating a bloody world,” and the challenges of finding a home for her second play that required a huge cast and the re-creation of a pit.

That night, we saw another play that examined the Thatcher years. During the 11 years of Thatcher’s tenure, Handbagged lightheartedly imagines the private weekly conversations between the two most powerful women in England, the Queen and Prime Minister. There are two Queens, and two Thatchers. The older Queen (Marion Bailey), looks back on, and does not always agree, with the younger (Lucy, Robinson); just as the older PM (Stella Gonet) looks back, sometimes disapprovingly, on her younger self (Fenella Woolgar). Two male actors complete the ensemble, playing a variety of roles ranging from Dennis Thatcher to Nancy Regan. One of the members of our group summed up this production perfectly, comedy with serious relief. The standouts in the cast were the younger PM, Fenella Woolgar, and the older Queen, Marion Bailey who was this production’s guest.

Ms. Bailey talked with us about process—the challenges of communicating the emotions of someone who has to exhibit ultimate control in public situations. Her choice, to exhibit the Queen’s dissatisfaction through facial twitches and small hand movements, was inspired—they were little oops that slip past her self-control. Our critic in residence, Matt Wolf, expects Marion’s role as Sophia Booth in the upcoming film Mr. Turner will generate Oscar buzz.

That night we saw Ben Power’s new version of Euripides’ Medea at the National, one of the UK’s publicly funded theatres. This updated version, set in modern times, features Helen McCrory, wife of Damian Lewis of Homeland fame, in the title role. McCrory opens the door to Medea’s subconscious. She does not create a monster but a woman, both formidable and vulnerable, trapped in a situation where her only means of asserting herself is to commit an unconscionable act. Like the chorus of Corinthian women, we don’t condone what she does but we understand. The chorus, under Carrie Crackwell’s direction, is sometimes the townswomen, sometimes—through staccato dance movements and monotone, mechanical voices—the reflection of Medea’s inner turmoil. I thought both of the men were weak, especially Danny Sapani’s Jason. He lacked magnetism. I didn’t believe a woman would murder her brother for a man like this. There were moments when I didn’t believe him. His assertion that he married the king’s daughter, Kreusa, to protect Medea and his sons felt like a lie. Danny was our guest the next morning. He was much more commanding in person than I found him to be on stage the previous night.

The National performs in repertory. The following night we returned to see a different production, a revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business. Ayckbourn’s farce is a morality play, illustrating how minor compromises can lead to moral disaster. The small family business is a furniture store. The play begins with hero Jack McCracken’s appointment as its managing director. Jack an umbra-moral man, who doesn’t know that the entire family is robbing the business, promises a regime of honesty. After the party to celebrate his appointment, he makes his first moral compromise—he hires a slimy detective to prevent him from reporting his daughter to the police for shoplifting. One compromise leads to another, each to protect someone in his family, and by the end of the play he has covered up a murder that obligates him to use the family firm for drug distribution. It’s masterfully plotted but I didn’t buy it, that a man who was railing against the theft of something as small as a paperclip could degenerate to covering up murder and distributing drugs. But the performances were superb, notably Alice Sykes the taciturn Goth daughter, Matthew Cottle the furtively lecherous private eye, and Nigel Lindsay the hero who slides into moral ruin. Nigel was our guest the next day.

Nigel was as charismatic in person as he was on stage. After graduating from university, he worked for three years as a financial analyst and hated it. Then he performed in a friend's charity production, quit his job and enrolled at the Webber Douglas Academy. Immediately after completing this two year course, he began getting stage work. He talked about balancing his career between commercial pieces like Shrek the Musical, he played the title role in London, and less lucrative ventures like plays at the National. Jokingly he tells us his wife and agent let him know when it’s time to take another money-making job. Like the other two British actors we’ve met (Marion Bailey and Danny Sapani), Nigel moves seamlessly between film, television and stage/commercial and non-commercial projects. After Beth Steel, he was my favorite guest.

Our final play was The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall, a stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s fictionalized, multi-award winning biography. Wolf Hall documents the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. I’d read this book, couldn’t imagine that this 600-page novel with scads of characters and locations could be tailored for the stage. Mike Poulton, who wrote the play, and director Jeremy Herrin do a masterful job. Poulton compresses Mantel’s mass of subplots and secondary characters into mini-scenes and vignettes extracted from the novel’s most important bits, cutting or consolidating everything else. There’s too much story for scene changes, the action unfolds on a stark rectilinear grey set. Minimal set pieces appear and are removed as needed to move us from palace to prison to country garden. Stunning costumes and lighting provide the atmosphere. Director Herrin moves the narrative forward with amazing economy—the widowing of Cromwell is staged in seconds, so rapidly that an inattentive audience member could miss it. The standouts in the cast were Paul Jesson, who added comic overtones to Cardinal Wolsey, Nathaniel Parker as a romantically na├»ve King Henry, Lucy Briers as the zealous and dignified Queen Katherine and Ben Miles as Cromwell. Not the villainous Cromwell we’ve seen in earlier movies and plays but a principled man and loyal friend. Wolf Hall was the perfect finale to our eight-play theatre blitz. I was sorry that I didn’t see the Bring Down the Bodies, the play based on Mantel’s second Cromwell novel.

Ben Miles, our final guest the next day, was late. I was leaving early to meet Teia and missed part of our conversation him. Miles talked about the collaboration with Hilary Mantel to develop the script that is still evolving. Hilary, who was ecstatic that The Royal Shakespeare Company wanted to stage her books, was an integral part of the play’s development and major contributor to the its success. Ms. Mantel is completing her third book in this trilogy and the BBC is producing a six-part television series of the first two books that will air next year.

That afternoon I met Teia at the Tate Modern, in South Bank, to see the Matisse cut-outs, an extensive exhibit of the final chapter in his career. Teia and I walked along the Thames, had a leisurely late lunch, browsed through her favorite bookstore and had a final drink before I returned to College Hall to pack and she headed back to Bromley.

In between the morning lectures, the plays and the nightly discussion, I got a see a little bit of London—the British Museum and the Portrait Galley, a marvelous exhibition on contemporary UK male style, Return of the Rude Boy, an afternoon at Chelsea Market. London didn’t captivate me during my first visit but I loved it this time. I’ll be back.

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