Tag Archives: Royal National Theatre

Millenium Retreats

[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.

Amen Baldwin

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 MountainAmen 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.

Beware the Green Eyed Monster

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.