Critic's Notebook: London's Preening in a Rearview Mirror
by Peter Gill
Review by Ben Brantley, New York Times, 7 February 2002
The advice, offered by a well-dressed thug to his drunken employer, is brisk, peremptory and unlikely to be heeded: "Don't look back."
The words come toward the end of the first act of the crackling revival of Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" at the Royal National Theater. The counsel is, in immediate terms, solid and practical. The inebriated old fellow, stumbling toward his bedroom, can barely walk.
But in England, according to Mr. Pinter, who directed this crisp new production starring Corin Redgrave and John Wood in top form, looking back is a conditioned reflex that no one overcomes.
So the old men in armchairs, first portrayed nearly 30 years ago by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, are again tossing back their whiskeys and regurgitating their pasts. Which of course assume all manner of contradictory forms.
I saw "No Man's Land" midway through a late-January orgy of theatergoing in London, where one can still binge on plays without indigestion, and it has become a touchstone for everything else I witnessed. The view from "No Man's Land," squinting backward over one's shoulder, is the general view from central London these days, where the 20th century (remember the 20th century?) is all the rage.
While major museums here are pondering the epoch-shaping influence of the city of Paris (at the Royal Academy) and of Andy Warhol (at the Tate Modern), the British theater is considering everything from the midcentury American musical ("My Fair Lady," "South Pacific") to the decadent clubland of the 1980's ("Taboo," a new show from -- gasp -- Boy George).
The sun setting on the British empire illuminates the terrific revival of Peter Nichols's sardonic musical frolic "Privates on Parade," which takes place in postwar Singapore. Noel Coward, of early and late vintage, is represented in the West End by "Private Lives" (1930) and "Star Quality" (1967).
The New York theater world of the 1920's is lampooned in Peter Hall's starry, shrill revival of Kaufman and Ferber's "Royal Family," which has the dubious distinction of making the commanding Dame Judi Dench look totally at sea. And Athol Fugard's drama of South African prison life, "The Island," has set off far-reaching echoes by returning to London with its original cast of 1974.
Peter Gill's sleeper, "The York Realist," at the Royal Court Theater, looks back with infinite gentleness at the era when working-class drama was in the ascendant at the Royal Court, which gave the world "Look Back in Anger." And the delicious silliness of Morecambe and Wise, England's most beloved comedy team, has been resurrected to convulsive appreciation in the West End in "The Play What I Wrote."
The post-colonial British, of course, do nostalgia like nobody else, mixing treacly wistfulness with rue and recrimination. This perspective can sometimes transform history into the equivalent of a soggy Kleenex; in other cases, the past becomes so vital it seems to redefine and even eclipse the present.
As a character in "No Man's Land" says, insisting on the reality of his idyllic heyday: "It was solid. The people in it were solid, while transformed by light." The current theater season in London offers a fascinating study in the ways such light keeps shifting.
There would seem to be little new to do with "Private Lives," for example, which long ago became a campy war horse to be ridden vigorously by stars of a certain age (Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, etc.). But Howard Davies's new production at the Albery gives fresh sting and tingle to Coward's classic comedy of romantic bliss and savagery.
This latest incarnation has the unqualified blessing of Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan as Elyot and Amanda, roles created by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman, you may recall, proved themselves masters of sexual war games in Christopher Hampton's "Liaisons Dangereuses" (1985), also directed by Mr. Davies and which came to Broadway.
Memories of that spirited teaming enrich the pair's performances here as noisy erotic sparring partners who have not been quieted by age. The production has the requisite Deco gloss, and its comic machinery clicks along beautifully.
But the show is also steeped in a brooding awareness of the destructive effects of passion, recalling an entry from Coward's diary on Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh: "It is depressing to reflect that two such talented and enchanting people should torture each other so."
It's not hard to convey the stylish surface affinities of Elyot and Amanda. What Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman achieve is the suggestion of a darker, dangerously compelling bond beneath the wit and whimsy. Mr. Rickman's assumed drollness brings to mind heterosexual men who say forlornly they would probably have been happier gay, while Ms. Duncan's ravishing Amanda has a hard, bright self-assurance that keeps preciousness at bay.
Mr. Davies shifts efficiently into a laughs-by-numbers approach for the show's concluding confrontations. Still, you feel a subliminal shiver of recognition when Amanda says, "I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives."
Sex appeal is also rampant in, of all things, the joyous smash revival of "My Fair Lady," a National production now at the Drury Lane. Much of this has to do with Jonathan Pryce, who has triumphantly redefined Prof. Henry Higgins, a role that seemed indelibly stamped with the dapper arrogance of Rex Harrison. Mr. Pryce is more of a singer than Harrison was, and the great Lerner and Loewe songs have been reworked to allow him to soliloquize in melody rather than spoken patter.
This brings out a softer, more lyrical quality in the domineering professor, as well as a boyish unease. Joanna Riding, who has taken over as Eliza from the cockney pop star Martine McCutcheon, provides a welcome combative grittiness that doesn't disappear when her character becomes a lady.
The director Trevor Nunn, the choreographer Matthew Bourne and the designer Anthony Ward keep the production in constant, liquid motion, physically evoking a world of shifting class boundaries and social flux and thoroughly rejuvenating what seemed like a cast-iron classic.
Mssrs. Nunn and Bourne fail to create the same chemistry in the National's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific." The evening begins promisingly enough, with a calisthenic interpretation of "Nothing Like a Dame." But from then on, both energy and conviction ebb.
Hammerstein's score is still gorgeous. But what made the show topical in 1949 is what makes it stale today: the wartime melodrama and the social polemics.
This might perhaps be transcended if the casting had been more idiosyncratic. But Mr. Nunn seems to have gone for the generic in almost every case. (Lauren Kennedy's Nellie Forbush evokes the antiseptic sensuality of Britney Spears.) Designed by John Napier in a hyper-real style that embraces period documentary footage, the show itself starts to seem like an old colorized military education film.
"South Pacific" may be a snooze, but at least it's not the dentist's drill that "The Royal Family" is. The play was notoriously inspired by the self-dramatizing antics of the Barrymore clan. But Peter Hall and his cast, led by Ms. Dench and Harriet Walter, seem to be under the impression that they're in the hyperkinetic, gangland Chicago of the newspaper comedy "The Front Page."
Nearly all the performers talk at a rat-a-tat clip and often at the same time, in a harsh nasal twang. (Toby Stephens, in the John Barrymore role, perversely conjures the young James Cagney.) The Barrymores may have been Americans, but they were utterly trans-Atlantic in their hearts, their poses and their vowels.
There is far more pleasure, even for uninitiated Americans, in the purely British anarchy of "The Play What I Wrote," created by its stars, Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, with Eddie Braben. Mr. Braben spent 14 years writing for Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, the team that revitalized music hall sketch comedy for the age of television.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh (yes, that one), Mr. Foley, Mr. McColl and a third actor, Toby Jones, give the Morecambe and Wise material their own dizzy spin in a play that is nominally about a play. It's really about the futility of resisting an antic comic tradition that seems destined to outlast the royal family.
Plans to bring the show to Broadway seem quixotic, given that few New Yorkers will know Morecambe and Wise. On the other hand, the performers' brilliant body language is universal. And a surprise celebrity guest is enlisted for the second act. On the night I saw the show, an endearingly game Jerry Hall demonstrated just how contagious this brand of inanity can be.
Variations on men behaving badly, a favorite British spectator sport, are as evident on London stages as on soccer fields. There are the cross dressers and cocaine snorters of "Taboo," the bizarrely bland new musical with songs by Boy George.
While brazenly featuring characters inspired by real people (including Boy George), the show turns the raunchy London pop world of the 1980's into a pious soap opera a la "Blood Brothers." Its morals: drugs are bad for you, and a boy's best friend is his mother.
At the National, there's not only the bracing "No Man's Land," but the affable "Wonder of Sex" as well. Like "The Play What I Wrote," "Wonder" trades on the precisely rendered ineptitude of its male stars, Patrick Barlow and John Ramm, who embody centuries of sexual icons (Lady Chatterly, Rasputin) while remaining fully clothed and frankly asexual.
The two men at the center of "The York Realist," directed by its author, Peter Gill, also keep their clothes on, but they still generate sensual heat. Set in Yorkshire in the early 1960's, Mr. Gill's drama portrays the unlikely love affair between an aspiring director (Richard Coyle) and a farmer (the excellent Lloyd Owen), who meet through a community theater production.
"The York Realist" is an old-fashioned memory play, carved in regret and affection. But it also becomes a touching valentine to a whole tradition of working-class theater, from secular miracle plays to Mr. Pinter's world of weighted pauses and monosyllables.
As for the angry young men who became the stock-in-trade of the Royal Court in the era in which "Realist" is set, they're still around, as explosive, nihilistic and exasperated as ever. But the chilling difference is that while Jimmy Porter, of Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," and his ilk were merely emotional terrorists, their latter-day equivalents are natural-born killers.
Both Peter Morris's "Age of Consent," at the Bush, and Gregory Burke's "Gagarin Way," at the National, present characters who murder offhandedly. Timmy (Ben Silverstone), the teenage monologist of "The Age of Consent," randomly killed a toddler when he was himself a child. For Eddie (Michael Nardone), the Scottish factory worker of "Gagarin Way," the motive is ostensibly political.
But in truth, he cheerfully admits, he just likes violence. While overly didactic, both plays have a hypnotic tautness. They also let two gifted young actors create nerve-pricking studies in moral numbness shaped by an all-consuming sense of futility.
These fellows, for the record, aren't above looking backward to the generations before them. Listen to young Timmy's childhood recollection of looking at rusty machinery in the abandoned factories near his home: "It's not modern. That's part of what's beautiful about it. It's not the future. It's like . . . a past that has always been ruined; before you were even born it still wasn't working."
In the English theater, even remembered hopelessness has its own poetry of nostalgia.Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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