Report from the Capital

Hear ye, hear ye! I come with word from the mainland!

London, that is. New York might flatter itself the center of the universe, but it’s the British First City that can lay true claim to that most exclusive of titles: Play Capitol.

A certain kind of play, that is – one that’s smart, sharp, political, thorough, current, historical (or at least aspires to be), and comes served in plummy, accented tones which cover all manner of sins.

The most exciting, anglophilia-inducing entrée of my recent trip to England was “London Road,” a new, verbatim musical playing the National’s Cottesloe Theatre. Its subject – the murder of five prostitutes – is conventional enough stuff (!), but it’s the telling of this tale that elicits those wonderful shivers signifying the arrival of the New.

The creative team (Alecky Blythe, Adam Cork, and Rufus Norris) has set real-life interviews to music: London Road-ers talk about the fear, the press, and the redemption that comes from their town’s shocking events. But nothing’s been ironed out in the name of clarity: Every “um,” “like,” “y’know;” every repetition, stall, stop and go; essentially, every marker of real human speech gets equal, beautifully orchestrated stage time. The resultant score follows the pitch, tone, speed and patter of real life, and transforms it into something bordering brilliant. A recording is apparently in the works; be on the lookout. This revolutionary musical is the first in an exciting, new theatrical genre.

Classics, however, are London’s real bread and butter—or, I should say, “biscuits and clotted cream.” “Betrayal,” early in previews on the West End, gives renewed evidence that Kristin Scott Thomas is some sort of deity disguised as a beautiful, bilingual star. Douglas Henshall and Ben Miles carry equal weight in Harold Pinter’s tale of marital indiscretion told in reverse. That the story moves forward as time retreats proves Pinter’s storytelling genius. (That sort of thing can win you a Nobel Prize, I’m told.)

Also in revival, “Cause Célèbre” (at the Old Vic) arrives amidst renewed interest in British playwright Terence Rattigan. (Critics gave him the cold shoulder in the 1950’s when edgier playwrights like John Osborne – one of the famous “Angry Young Men” – appeared on the scene.) Anne-Marie Duff and company prove that torrid courtroom scandals need not cower in the depths of cable TV reapeat-dom: long before “Law & Order” they were taking up space at the theatre. A critique of England’s prurience in the face of a woman’s sexual incaution, the play makes America look maniacally puritanical by comparison.

It’s a certain Bill Shakespeare, however, who runs the revival circuit in Londontown. (The guy must have some agent – he’s got two productions of “All’s Well That Ends Well” running within twenty minutes of each other. Now that’s star power.) I caught “All’s Well” at the Globe Theatre, a recreation of the Bard’s famous, open-air house. More Renaissance fair than living theater, the production sets the (New York) Public’s soon-to-open Central Park production up for comparative brilliance.

Somewhere between classic and premier is the oh-so-Englishly titled “One Man, Two Guvnors.” A reappropriation of “The Servant of Two Masters,” “Guvnor” makes fresh hay out of creaky British comedy convention, all to the unmitigated delight of its audience. (I myself was a bit befuddled, rather like a Brit at a Dixie Chicks concert.) However, universal gold is mined in this National Theatre production when a woefully stage-frightened audience member gets taken for a flaming, waterlogged, and pratfall-stuffed ride. (Much to my surprise, this woman was a planted actress. Her onstage discomfort, however, was so convincing that you’d never have known.)

Any stab at divining the State of the Theautah from this hodgepodge is a woe-begotten endeavor. But it is true that the Brits suffer not from a play dearth, and more than earn their Play Capitol crown. Barring the birth of an American Shakespeare, or the systematic kidnapping of the Republican Party (die subsidies die!), London’s spot is secure. But that’s ok: London’s just great and (sorry Snapple) succeeds in making some of “the best stuff on Earth.”

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