Theater: Stage view

In London, Theater that mirrors today’s Britain. By Frank Rich

The first thing that a theatergoer notices at the London theater this season is the empty seats. Although I’ve sat with my share of sparse audiences over years of London theatergoing, I don’t recall ever having previously seen the best-received Royal Shakespeare Company productions play to less than half-occupied houses. This plunge in attendance, attributed to the absence of American visitors, baffles the English. On a local replica of the “Today” program one May morning, Albert Finney, the star of the West End “Orphans,” rued the fact that “the cream” of his play’s audience had fled. One could only pity his fellow guest, the American actress Jane Curtin, whose routine promotional interview was soon ambushed by questions asking her to account for the entire falloff in American tourism.

But if the “cream” of the warm-weather ticket-buying crowds has evaporated in London for now, an English audience does remain. According to The Economist, an astounding one-third of Great Britain’s adults see a play or more a year. For both better and worse, that audience seems to be getting a theater that reflects its tastes and self-doubts. The current London season, at least as this observer sampled it night and day for two weeks, reveals a theatrical culture at one with Mrs Thatcher’s majority middle-class constituency.

The most representative example – and perhaps the most entertaining play in town – is the R.S.C.’s Merry Wives of Windsor. The director, Bill Alexander, has transported Shakespeare’s most trivial comedy – a play that demands invention to ward off rigor mortis – to the late 1950s. This is the materialistic, fast-changing progenitor of today’s England: it’s the booming society of which then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, “Most of our people have never had it so good.” Even the production’s program comes in the form of a yellowed back issue of a home-furnishings magazine, complete with adds for ugly television consoles and dinette sets.

In the staging itself, giddy nostalgic humor reigns. Falstaff is a tweedy golf-club boor, and the merry wives plot against him while sitting under hair dryers in the local beauty salon. (When the knight lands in a laundry basket, the escapade could be a Lucy and Ethel stunt from I Love Lucy.) The ingénues, Anne Page and Fenton, are an aspiring Annette Funicello and black-leather-jacketed Jack Kerouac; the Dr. Caius sounds like Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau. The mock Henry Mancini score recalls the period’s Hollwood and Ealing film comedies, and the curtain call is a joyous sock hop.

Just the same, there’s an unsettling edge to the merriment of this Merrry Wives. The Technicolor hues of William Dudley’s inspired set seem to curdle; a once-quaint village landscape is overrun by consumer products and crowned by a logo for Shell Oil. The play is too slight to support much polemical weight, but the staging is implicitly skeptical, rather than purely celebratory, of the self-satisfied bourgeoisie of the second Elizabethan England. Are these people really having it so good, or are they bored and glutted?

That skepticism is also to be found in the best new play I saw in London, A Chorus Of Disapproval. The author is the prolific Alan Ayckbourn, whose comedies of English middle-class life keep growing in depth. In Chorus, we watch a provincial operatic society’s calamity-ridden rehearsals of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. While the amateur theatrics are hilarious – “I’ve seen rougher trade on a health food counter,” says the exasperated director (Colin Blakely) of his production’s “prissy little madam” – Mr Ayckbourn also takes us backstage in the company’s disappointed private lives. The cotemporary England he uncovers is populated by middle-aged couples stuck in lonely marriages and tedious white-collar jobs, drifting and alienated young adults, and the discarded elderly. One aged man wanders around listening through a Walkman to a BBC tape emblematically tilted “Vanishing Sounds of Great Britain.”

Mr Ayckbourn’s play has just moved from the National Theater to the West End, where the most popular revival is J. B. Priestley’s 1938 comedy about pre-World War I middle-class provincials, When We Are Married. The prosperous smug and emotionally straightened characters – English Babbitts all – are the ancestors of Mr Ayckbourn’s sad present-day villagers. The modern urban middle-class, meanwhile, is represented in Anthony Minghella’s Made In Bangkok, a West End comedy about English entrepreneurs who exploit cheap labor and sex in the third world. Still, the steamy Bangkok – like Merry Wives, Chorus and Married – is as much a slick entertainment for its bourgeois audience as an attack on it.

What’s missing from the new-play scene in London right now are the more provocative theatrical voices, a Shepard or Mamet or Shawn, that, as John Lahr titled his Joe Orton biography, “prick up your ears.” To be sure, some intelligent current plays are of a thematic piece with the more piercing English dramas of recent seasons. Following David Hare’s Plenty, Michael Frayn’s Benefactors and Doug Lucie’s Progress, such works as Dusty Hughes’s Futurists and Trevor Griffiths’s Real Dreams investigate the failure or betrayal of idealistic programs of social change. But Futurists, which dramatizes writers such as Gorky and Mayakovsky (the mesmerizing Daniel Day Lewis) in the Petrograd of 1921, and Real Dreams, which tells of collegiate radicals in the United States of 1969, seem blunted in passion. Is it because the authors dramatize their issues from a geographical and chronological remove? In this becalmed context, a modest but immediate American play like Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart, now in the West End, strikes the English as an incendiary novelty.

The falloff in new English plays this season may be a cyclical aberration. Some of the big guns have been silent of late. Harold Pinter has been directing American stars (Lauren Bacall, Faye Dunaway) in scripts by others; there’s been no new Tom Stoppard play since The Real Thing (1982), although he’s now represented at the National with Dalliance, a precious but affecting version of Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebebei. Mr Frayn has also devoted himself to adaptation (Wild Honey) and, like Mr Pinter (Turtle Diary) and Mr Stoppard (Brazil), has worked on a screenplay (Clockwise, with John Cleese). While Peter Shaffer has produced his first new work since Amadeus, a strained Old Testament parable titled Yonadab, he has already declared that he’ll rewrite it for any subsequent productions.

If the shortage of new plays is uncharacteristic of London, the proliferation of new English musicals is even more unexpected. The West End, perhaps determined not to lose its hold on its bedrock audience as Broadway has, now surpasses Broadway as a manufacturer of musical extravaganzas. What’s more, a distinctive London musical-theater style has emerged – one that consolidates and coarsens the Disneyland-ride format of Cats. As with that commercial smash, English musicals now tend to be deafening soft-rock operettas, in which lavish environmental sets (often designed by John Napier, of Cats, and usually replicated in an elaborate line of merchandised knickknacks) take precedence over story, dancing or characters. Thus does the sci-fi musical Time rely on a firmament of floating planets, Starlight Express on roller-skating tracks and the latest arrival, Chess, on an enormous tilting chess board.

Only Chess, whose wan London reception will likely mandate improvements for a New York edition, resembles a Broadway product; not unlike Big Deal, it is a splashy collection of theatrical elements in search of a show. Yet Chess is idiosyncratically English in its political bent. What its author, Tim Rice, did for the Perons in Evita, he now tries to do for the Soviets. The musical’s one likable character is a Soviet chess champion so dashing that even a Hungarian refugee of 1956 leaves her American lover for him. The same hugs-and-kisses fantasy of détente turns up in the latest play, Interpreters, by Ronald Harwood, the author of The Dresser : The interpreters, Maggie Smith (for Whitehall) and Edward Fox (for the Kremlin), reach a temporary ideological rapprochement between the sheets.

Although the director Trevor Nunn’s name is in the credits of Chess and Starlight Express, he’s given his soul to the warmer Les Misérables – and no wonder, as it’s the only hit West End musical about people rather than things. Indeed, this unabashedly schmaltzy epic is the most powerful musical I’ve ever seen in the West End. Mr Nunn and his co-director, John Caird, treat Hugo much as they did Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby – but this time the adaptors (Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg) have preserved the original novel’s moral outrage without feeling compelled to retain every letter of its 19th-century narrative. Les Misérables originated at the R.S.C., and the company continues to be the most impressive originator of every variety of English drama. In two cities and five theaters (including the new, intimate, Elizabethan-styled Swan in Stratford), it continues to mix inventive Shakespeare productions, new plays and a rarely seen classics (among them, Mr Caird’s dynamic stagings of Gorky’s Philistines and of Ben Jonson’s trying Every Man in His Humour).

Not everything the R.S.C. does is perfect – witness the gifted Terry Hands’s pro forma Winter’s Tale in Stratford, with Jeremy Irons’s surprisingly lightweight Leontes – but its best work is hard to beat. In repertory with Merry Wives in London is a startling Troilus and Cressida, directed by Howard Davies and set in a crumbling 19th-century mansion designed by Ralph Koltai, that turns the Trojan War into a subliminal presentiment of England’s self-destructive plunge into the World War I trenches. The production’s tone, as fetid and decadent as a Visconti film, is set by its Thersites, a bespectacled Oh, What A Lovely War soldier who bitterly spews his condemnation of man’s abiding hunger for “wars and lechery.” The role is played by Alun Armstrong, who was the evil schoolmaster Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby, and who, on Troilus off nights, is an equally electrifying song-and-dance Thénardier in Les Misérables.

Mr Armstrong is one of the many exceptional London actors still little known to American audiences. Among the others are Bill Fraser (of When We Are Married), Colm Wilkinson (Les Misérables), Felicity Kendal (Bangkok), Lindsay Duncan (Merry Wives) and Fiona Shaw (Philistines). With such vast resources of talent and its loyal audience for classics, there will always be an English theater. But the current season reveals that missing playwrights, if not missing Americans, take a toll on that theater’s vitality. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought I detected a note of longing when a character in one of the few new London plays (Futurists) delivered the line, “I’m told the theater is very, very good in New York.” Transcribed for ABBA World

The New York Times · Sunday, 15 June 1986 (Page B1:5)

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