Nothing particularly revelatory here. I had the opportunity to see The Play that Goes Wrong while I was in London. It’s a fun show. It’s a very fun show. I have nothing to add to what seems to be commonplace knowledge. If you want a show where you can turn off your brain and just laugh, this is the one. I would argue that it is better than Noises Off, which peaks in the second act with a third act that just doesn’t quite deliver the same oomph. I’m just happy that a show that started as fringe theatre has had so much success on both sides of the Atlantic. And kudos too to Seán Carey, who understudied for Leonard Cook the night I saw it. I didn’t notice until later that he was not a regular performer.
[Note: I had the opportunity to travel to London in July. What follows is one in an occasional series to report on the theatre productions I attended while there.]
As much as I love New York City theatre, I love London theatre more. It saddens me to report, then, that I found the most recent theatrical season there — at least based upon my own experiences — to be wanting. Angels in America by Tony Kushner at The National exemplifies this state of affairs.
While there, I could only manage to swing tickets for Millennium Approaches (I will have to see Perestroika via NT Live at my local cinema). I love this play. I saw soon after it transferred from the Public Theater back in the 1990’s. I believe it to be one of the most important American plays ever; it is also certainly a recent classic of the world stage. It powerful, resonant, funny, poignant, and painful. The HBO adaptation directed by Mike Nicholas was a rare transfer to the screen that did the original justice. On a bad day, The National does good work; on a great day, it shoots for the stars. The National knows this play. It provided an important foundational production before it even came to New York. So that this production was lackadaisical is both surprising and deeply disappointing.
Director Marianne Elliott comes to this production on the heels of her work on War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. As a consequence of only seeing Millennium, I could only glimpse at the angel effects that would receive greater play in Perestroika. The first part of the play, which offers the growing struggle between the realism and the magical of magical realism, felt extremely claustrophobic. I was unclear why the powers that be chose to perform the play on the Lyttelton stage and not the Olivier (which is unconstrained by a proscenium and allows for a more epic and less naturalistic scope). I understood that Elliott was slowly opening up her space as the evening went on, but I found the choice to constrain the energy of the show rather than setting free.
On a personal note, I came to New York City to attend university in September 1985 and lived in the city that Kushner describes. Elliott here too does not capture the feel of the time or place. The rawness and grit of New York pre-Bloomberg is missing; the set reflects the gentrification of the 21st century and so the danger and the counter-cultural excitement is missing.
It is with the acting that the production most lagged. James McCardle fails to capture the hyperkinetic energy and driving guilt of Louis. Nathan Lane has been pursuing more serious roles of late (such as his recent portrayal of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh), but I found him an unconvincing Roy Cohn. After all, Cohn is a man Donald Trump counts as a mentor, and the cold reptilian nature of the man (both as historical figure as Kushner character) should be front and center. Lane let too much heart leak through. That he shines in the small comic role of the ghost Prior simply reinforced how out-of-place he is as Cohn. I am all for actors getting out of their comfort zones and working muscles they do not normally use, but the casting choice here upset the balance of the play. And then there is Andrew Garfield. I wanted to like him. I was rooting for him. I enjoy most of his non-Spiderman film work. I do not pretend to understand his comments about his sexual identity while working on this production, but he just did not “get” Prior. He was indicating his way through the part, obviously putting on a fey voice rather than organically incorporating it into the character. There is a moment late in the evening when Prior is being examined and we get to witness the full extent of the damages to his body. With both Stephen Spinella and Justin Kirk, this is a moment of horror. Here, it was more on the order of “well, Garfield is really fit”.
As Joe Pitt, Russell Tovey really hits it out of the park. He poured confusion, pain, and conflicting priorities into his character. I don’t know why, but I am also surprised by the depth and nuance Tovey brings to his stage work from History Boys to A View from the Bridge. I should just realize he’s a great stage actor. And he had in Denise Gough as Harper an able scene partner who could match him complexity for complexity. Again, though, when Joe and Harper Pitt occupy the core of your emotional heartbreak, your Angels in America is in trouble.
I want this production of Angels of America to be good because I want all productions of Angels in America to be good. So perhaps I am being ridiculously optimistic that this is just a slow windup to a fantastic Perestroika. I am not holding my breath.
As a teenager newly discovering theatre, I thought Tennessee Williams was, as the kids say, the bomb. I enjoyed the psychologically compelling dramas, the larger-than-life Southern characters, and baroque poetry of it all. The film adaptations of his work helped sell the package. When you have a Marlon Brando or a Paul Newman portraying your protagonists, you must be doing something right. But as I got older, I drifted away from Williams. The psychology started to feel forced, the characters more Southern fried, and the language a little too precious. Eugene O’Neill became more prominent in my pantheon. And I started to find British playwrights tackling grittier, more dangerous, more political material. Williams, it seemed to me, belonged in a museum.
And I felt that way for a long time. This summer has changed my thinking for the better. First, I saw Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic in London. This production was fairly straightforward. But it wasn’t clunky. It felt vital and relevant and, well, not tired. Kim Catrall was a good Alexandra Del Lago. Her reading was a bit too modern perhaps, and, Geraldine Page is a hard act to follow. But Seth Numrich hit it out of the park as Chance Wayne. I had seen Numrich in New York earlier in the year in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy. Numrich is fast earning a reputation as THE next Broadway dramatic leading man, and it is a well-deserved reputation. In both plays, he made the material alive, vital, dangerous while still remaining true to the intentions of the material.
The second part of this journey stands as the most important. I caught an early preview of The Glass Menagerie now on Broadway (it had started at A.R.T. in Boston). This production is one of those transformative ones you see in your life. I had a very similar experience when I saw Jason Robards perform as Hickey in the 1986 The Iceman Cometh. Director John Tiffany fully invested in what the idea of a memory play means. We feel these characters are disconnected from the world, a notion ably assisted by a fantastic design concept that has the Wingfield family floating both at sea and amongst the stars.
When I was younger and directed this play back at university, I always imagined Tom as the hero. Perhaps it is because I am now middle-aged, but Cherry Jones established Amanda as the hero of this piece. Past Amandas had always been a little too Blanche DuBois, a little too flighty and flakey and too in love with the grand charms of a now extinct South. Here, Jones puts on the Southern coquette as a mask; it is part of a long game she plays to get Amanda married. And for the first time I could hear, really hear, certain lines that had always been there. Amanda, at the end of the day, is a very practical individual. She either wants Laura to get a job OR to get married. The either/or is important here. It is only when the job path no longer becomes viable that she puts all of her attention on marriage. Nor does she flirt with Jim, the Gentleman Caller. There are many reasons to go see this production. If you only have to pick one, then Cherry Jones is it.
The rest of the cast do fine work as well. Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as Jim invest their scene — the play’s longest — with both whimsy and dread. The audience cannot help but feel fully in the moment. Keenan-Bolger and Zachary Quinto as Tom give a full back story to the sibling relationship that is often missing. Quinto too shines. Williams’s sexuality is well-documented, and Quinto has been quite candid in public about his own. Quinto and the production team seemed to own Tom Wingfield’s sexuality rather than try to play a game of three-card monty. This move added new layers of depth to his feeling of being trapped and give new dimension to when he disappears at night.
These two productions, the second in particular, gave me a new lease on Williams’s world. It has been a long time since I have wandered the plantations and New Orleans neighborhoods of his work. I am glad to be back.
During my recent trip to London, I had the opportunity to see James Baldwin’s Amen Corner at the Royal National Theatre (best theatre in the world, in my humble opinion). I had been familiar with Baldwin’s novels and essays but never his work for the stage. So this was an opportunity to dive into what was for me an unknown corner of the Baldwin canon.
Benefitting a show at the National, the production was magnificent. Both the gospel choir and jazz trumpet provided texture as well as counterpoint to the drama enacted on stage. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (of Secrets and Lies fame) was a revelation as Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a corner church up in Harlem in the 1950’s. Director Rufus Norris recreated Harlem of that era magnificently.
But what I went for was the play. And did I get a play. Written in 1954 after the author had completed his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, Amen Corner distinguishes itself for the beauty of its language (this is Baldwin after all) and the complexity of emotions that inform that language. There isn’t a Caucasian character on stage and white America is rarely mentioned, but the audience can feel its presence. Those who attend and lead the church are, for the most part, domestics and servants. Church provides for them an escape but also an opportunity, even if one day a week or late at night, to take charge of their destinies. At the center of the drama are four very strong women who to one degree or another must negotiate the city and life on their own. There are no clear heroes or villains here. Even Sister Moore as she tries to undermine Margaret’s authority is often more tolerant of other people’s life choices than her pastor is.
Margaret is faced with a series of crises in the play. Her wayward husband, Luke (a jazz musician), returns home after a number of years. He is the opposite of everything Margaret in her role as pastor stands for. Luke, however, is dying and wishes to spend his final days with his family. Her son, David, does not wish to continue playing piano for the church, but instead wishes to be a jazz musician like his father. And then there is the rebellion led by Sister Boxer and Sister Moore. What unfolds are the myriad reasons — personal, emotional, intellectual, spontaneous, revelatory — that brought Margaret to a life serving God. Baldwin expertly intertwines all of these reasons to create a full-blooded three-dimensional character. If at that end, we still cannot fully embrace Margaret, we have a thorough understanding and respect of her. We know from Baldwin’s biography that he had a difficult time with organized religion, but he has the compassion to compose a thoughtful and well-balanced portrait.
Of course, as I sat in the theatre in London, I could not help but ask myself, “Why isn’t this play being done in America?” This is an important and vital work — more alive and less musty than other plays from this period we venerate — and tells an important story, like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, about both the African-American experience and women’s experiences. So, theatre producers, find a way to put this provocative important beautiful play on stage here in the States. It deserves to be seen.
The last show I had the chance to see while in London was Footsbarn Theatre’s Indian-style production of The Tempest at the Globe Theatre. In other words, a French company dedicated to employing circus and clown techniques was performing a Shakespeare play (at the theatre that recreates the Bard’s working space) utilizing Indian performance style while speaking in Hindi, English, French, and Dutch. If all that sounds quite dizzying or should at least qualify audience members for posts at UNESCO, you’d be quite right. But this Tempest — referred to by The Globe as The Indian Tempest — is a magical evening of theatre. If Footsbarn should call at your community, take time to see their production (whatever it is).
It is difficult to know how audience members not familiar with the play would react to this production. But as someone who is quite familiar with Shakespeare’s last text, I found it mesmerizing. The experience of seeing something at The Globe too certainly added to my enjoyment. We were groundlings that night, the air was cool, and St. Paul’s across the Thames was lit in splendor.
Reghoothaman Domodaran Pillai, speaking in a mix of Hindi and English, dominated as Prospero. He found the appropriate balance between sternness and softness. Gopalakrishnan Kundamkumarath as Ariel had the same language blend, and I often thought that he was more Puck than Ariel. But his very physical performance helped convey his character’s motivations if the mix of languages could not.
Footsbarn punctuated the evening with sitar music performed live on stage. The company recreated — by necessity, quite abbreviated — an Indian marriage ceremony for the wedding of Ferdinand (who, by the way, spoke French exclusively) and Miranda. Indian design dominated throughout.
Going in, I have to admit that I was a little hesitant about these choices. Frantz Fanon and Edward Said have both pointed to the importance of this play in the post-colonial canon. In brief, by using this lens, the Tempest dramatizes the colonizer/colonized dynamic as represented by Prospero, the European interloper, and Ariel and Caliban, the native residents. Footsbarn, though, nicely turned that relationship on its head. Here, an Indian Prospero was the master, and an English Caliban (played in cockney glory by Paddy Hayter) was the servant. A production can reveal a great deal about a play — especially a familiar one — by upending the world it depicts. And in doing so, this was the one Tempest that did what no other production has ever done for me — it brought the island alive, it became a character too. It was specific, mysterious — glorious.
The wonderful thing about theatre is (and what drives producers mad) — that a great theatrical evening comes together due to a very unique set of circumstances that are near impossible to recreate. So to write a review of Footsbarn’s production of The Tempest at the Globe may be a bit of a fool’s errand. But given the production, the performance, and the place, I had an evening of enchantment.
I am just back from London where I had the opportunity to see Othello at the Royal National Theatre (my favorite theatre in the world). Adrian Lester, whom I first assay the role of Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s exemplary production of As You Like It almost 20 years ago, played the Moor. And because he’s Adrian Lester he was excellent. But the standpoint in the production is Rory Kinnear (Tanner in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall) as Iago. Of course, Iago is the stealth lead of the play — he has more lines than Othello and the role is active while that of his commander is mostly reactive — but Kinnear has a unique take that places him as the Iago for our generation.
As with most RNT Shakespeare productions, this Othello is given a contemporary setting. Shakespeare sets most of the play in a Cyprus recently “liberated” from the Ottoman Empire by Venetian forces. So it was not a difficult conceptual leap for director Nicholas Hytner (on top of his game as always) to re-imagine the setting as a base camp for an expeditionary force stationed in a Middle East nation for one of the US/UK’s numerous military adventures in that part of the world. The frequent call to prayer by a muezzin in the distance cements the feeling of isolation of those stationed in the camp.
Othello and Iago are both officers in desert camo. Iago targets Othello not because of racism or the latter’s preferment of Cassio or for perceived advances on his wife. Iago does it because he’s bored! He stirs the pot because he has nothing else to do. Modern war fiction has often chronicled one of the greatest dangers of soldiers in the field: boredom. Hytner and Kinnear pick up on this rich seam and have used it to give motivation to Iago. And it works. It gives Iago breadth and depth.
A number of years ago I saw a production at the Delacorte with Raul Julia as Othello and Christopher Walken as Iago; you would think it would have been great — it wasn’t. Walken did his usual schtick, which wore out quickly. His Iago was this monster with blood dripping from his teeth in the vein of Richard III. That simply doesn’t work. Kinnear’s portrayal, however, is a revelation. Iago is just a bloke. He likes hanging out with the other soldiers, sharing a smoke or a bottle. Rather than being the paragon of evil, he manifests the banality of evil. He sets this all in motion simply because, well, he can. And that makes him more frightening.
In this production, racism — other than in the person of Brabantio — is not a factor. Othello’s command is multicultural. The person who sticks out like a sore thumb here is Desdemona. Once we are in Act II, almost everyone is dressed in uniform except for her; even Emilia is career military (which fits in with the production’s conception of Iago). That she is the only civilian isolates her and provides a reason for Othello to distrust her — especially since Cassio alone among the soldiers pays any attention to her.
Othello is often a difficult play to direct because once the Moor hits angry/jealous mode, it is difficult to find a new place to take him while Iago’s motivations are often difficult to nail down. The current production at the National, though, is lively, provocative, and unique while remaining true to the script. A must see.