Report from London

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London Theater
London ? American reports from the London theater tend to fall victim to one of two excesses: fawning praise or towering contempt. The former is just an extension of the shadow p.r. that passes everywhere as criticism nowadays, exacerbated by unacknowledged colonialist awe. The latter is simply the flip side of the awe?the higher the expectations, remember, the bigger the fall?exacerbated by the exorbitant cost of everything in Britain, if you happen to earn money in dollars. (Most London theater is actually comparably priced to New York theater and not, as many think, much cheaper.) The unsensational truth is, theatrical excellence is exactly as common in the British capital as it is here?no more and certainly no less.

All that was to be expected. What really irritates in this show is the crass pandering, the sheer lazy-minded shallowness, of Johnson's script, which leaves even the cast's capable actors struggling to hang recognizably human ornaments on strings of cliches. Johnson's utter unambitiousness also demeans the film. Complex Mrs. Robinson explained away as a secretly committed mom trying to goad her too-dutiful daughter into rebelling; hapless Benjamin, her inappropriate lover, reduced to literally clueless and sexless boyishness; both fathers and Ben's mom reduced to 50s-sitcom stencils: it's as if the whole project were driven by some cockeyed obsession with portraying Americans as phony idiots. And lest you smile and quip that that's probably the key to its British popularity, I'm delighted to report that the Gielgud Theatre was only about half full the night I attended, notwithstanding the "sold out" sign at the box office.

Beating a hasty retreat to the more rarefied air on the south bank, I saw two productions at the new Globe Theatre, a magnificent historical reconstruction that ought to be seen by everyone interested in Shakespeare and his era, whether attending a show there or not. Richard Brome's The Antipodes, a city comedy from 1638 that (according to the program) hasn't been performed since its own time, unfortunately comes off as a curatorial curiosity, despite the cast's exemplary efforts to pump it full of low-comic fun. Gerald Freedman is the director. The plot is built on a Jonsonian-style hoax (Brome was Ben Jonson's protege and, for a time, his manservant) in which the "melancholy madness" of a young man is "cured" by a proto-psychiatric "doctor" and a company of actors who convince him he has spent eight months at sea and traveled to "anti-London." In this all too foreign city (which is actually across the street), London customs and mores are turned on their heads, making it easier for everyone to see both their folly and their wisdom. The details of the hoax are tedious and hard to follow by turns, despite Brome's clever premise and Freedman's no doubt necessary heavy cutting of the original. The production ultimately makes a stronger case for the play's modern adaptation than for its frequent production as written.

The major star-draw of the new Globe season (whose theme is "theater about theater") is The Tempest, with Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, directed by Lenka Udovicki. This was the show I looked forward to most, since the idea of a female Prospero was just preposterous enough to be potentially wonderful, especially with a crusty old hand like Redgrave. As it happens, the star of the evening is Caliban, played by Jasper Britton.

Genuinely repellent with ugly, weird knobs and seashells on his head, caked mud everywhere and an astonishing repertoire of lascivious postures, Britton nevertheless acts the role with a certain uncouth charm and intelligence that turns such gags as spitting fish into the house and ineptly imitating Prospero's baton-twirling into effective and endearing moments of complicity with the audience. His crude speech has a rough elegance that lends fascinating disingenuousness to his claim that "You taught me language, and my profit on't/Is, I know how to curse." And his wild dance just before intermission, while chanting, "Freedom, freedom!" and swiping loose pieces of clothing from front-row groundlings, is more memorable than any of the play's famous speeches.

With Redgrave, the problems start early, with low energy, and blossom into genial apathy (exacerbated, no doubt, by her knowledge that most of her performance isn't working). At only two points does her femaleness cast interesting new light on the action: in the Act I exposition with Miranda (where her motherly nagging?"Dost thou attend me?"?makes it seem more plausible that she raised a daughter from infancy on a forsaken island than that any male Prospero did); and in the Act V confrontation of her enemies in the charmed circle (where she strides around in a long brown-leather coat after shedding her unserious magician's motley, reluctantly "acting" the practical "man among men" again). Apart from these moments, she is all wan tolerance and weary accuracy, using Scottish-accented bluster to suggest enthusiasm for magic she doesn't really have, and showing more spunk during her hopping curtain call than in the whole rest of the show.

I didn't leave this production impatient to see another female Prospero, but the truth is, Udovicki missed major opportunities to pursue the implications of the concept. (Lee Breuer's infamous 1990 Lear starring Ruth Maleczech came often to mind because, although it acknowledged many more gender questions than this Tempest, it also ultimately took refuge in cartoonish sloppiness rather than clear thinking.) What does it mean for a female "father" to tell his daughter, "Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and/She said thou wast my daughter"? How is that daughter's subsequent claim that "I do not know/One of my sex" to be understood? And why doesn't omnivorous and rapacious Caliban, who dreams of "peopl[ing] the isle with Calibans," lust after not only Miranda but also this Prospero, with her still feminine figure and long gray hair? Udovicki pays no attention to any of this. In the "know-nothing" school of theater direction, such questions are considered the province and problem of sticks-in-the-mud who listen and watch too closely.

The hot ticket(s) at the Royal National Theatre these days is for House and Garden, a pair of linked plays by Alan Ayckbourn performed simultaneously on different stages (one above the other) by the same cast, who spend the evening running back and forth. This sounds more delightfully madcap than it is. Directed by the author, both plays feel needlessly padded out to accommodate each other's activity, and the whole game comes off in the end as primarily a marketing gimmick: you have to buy two tickets to feel as if you've gotten the whole story.

Ayckbourn is one of those moderately clever writers whose reputation the Brits have inflated so ridiculously that his modest achievements are all clouded by hype that he himself has apparently started to believe. At the core of House is a perfectly respectable, if thoroughly innocuous, farce of infidelity that this author (recall Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests) was perfectly capable of writing tightly had he not been distracted by the conceit of simultaneity. The show?about the rich, loutish, philandering scion of a venerable British political family, who makes a fool of himself when he's asked to run for Parliament?features a terrific, old-world-elegant set design by Roger Glossop and numerous fine actors (chiefly David Haig as Teddy the lout, Jane Asher as his patiently fed-up wife Trish and Charlie Hayes as their precocious daughter Sally) who find impressive variety in the redundant gags.

The redundancy and padding are glaring, though, with scene after scene built on the same shtick of Trish not speaking to Teddy and Teddy continuing to talk when she (or someone else) has left the room. It's never plausible that a woman as lovely and level-headed as she would put up with Teddy's crap for even the duration of a farce. Worse, Garden is so windy and stuffed with tedious and meandering talk about extraneous and trivial matters that it seems like a compilation of notes and jettisoned pages from the writing of House. No one who saw Garden first would want to return for House, and anyone who saw Garden second would recognize the double-drama as an excuse for sloppy construction. If you don't already know it, look up Maria Irene Fornes' 1977 play Fefu and Her Friends sometime for a splendid model of dramatic efficiency whose scenes are simultaneously played for real artistic reasons.

The show I most enjoyed in London happens to be the one most likely to come to New York: Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets, which recently moved from the New Ambassadors to the Duke of York's Theatre. New Yorkers may remember Jones as the author of the one-man play A Night in November, which ran at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater in 1998 and dealt with a Protestant welfare clerk from Belfast who suddenly awakens to his bigotry while watching a World Cup soccer match. That play, like Stones in His Pockets, was conceived as a vehicle for tour-de-force acting but was unfortunately weakened by simplistic politics and a poor storytelling structure. Stones, a two-man show directed by Ian McElhinney, has loose story-ends too, but one hardly notices them because the situation is lucid and interesting and the acting consistently astonishing.

The actors Conleth Hill and Sean Campion will almost certainly be lionized by the New York hype machine when their run here is certain. Meanwhile, they deserve admiration for their energy, passion and perceptiveness in playing more than a dozen different characters in a small County Kerry village where a Hollywood movie is being shot. Starting out as lowly extras named Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn, they impersonate the others from that dogsbody point of view?the film's vain American starlet, for instance, its aloof English director and its obsequious a.d.?switching frequently back and forth, sometimes in the space of a single footstep.

The appeal of this work isn't entirely straightforward. It has a pat and shallow climax built on an exaggerated tiff between Charlie and Jake, and its title comes from the supposedly heartbreaking story of a suicide about whom way too little is explained. Both the acting and the writing nevertheless rise after a point to another plane. Stones' real subject isn't Ireland but rather Irish cliches, not the actuality but the representation of the culture. The play is thus a sort of subtly prideful act of reclamation. Who has the right to exploit which heritage? Who will make what money from which icons? The Irish, in Jones' refreshing view, get the last laugh.

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