LONDON — In the West End, marquees were alight and vintage playhouses, tiered like fancy wedding cakes, were booked to capacity. At its Southbank arts complex, just off the Waterloo Bridge, the Royal National Theater’s three auditoriums were buzzing.
At Hammersmith’s funky Riverside Studios, upscale Sloane Square’s ever-trendy Royal Court Theatre and other bastions of modern drama throughout London, the theater scene felt as fast-paced and prolific as in my last visit to London in 2009.
But on my weeklong journey to England last month, one change was evident to an American theater-lover: ticket prices were markedly higher.
The dollar is fluctuating against the British pound, and Great Britain is still in what one pundit termed a “post-recession torpor.” Also, the Tory government has cut back sharply on arts funding (especially for smaller and regional companies).
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So, heads up: London theater is no longer the bargain it was, especially for splashy West End musicals or plays with major stars of the realm — like Judi Dench and Helen Mirren (in two current hits I caught). In fact, the bigger hits are reaching $100+ per seat — more like Broadway prices.
But what of the quality of London theater? Does it still hit the sterling standard the city has maintained for centuries and merit the cost?
The matter is complicated somewhat by the trend of many West End and National hits spinning off into Broadway runs, or being filmed live and shown in U.S. movie houses, including the NT Live series, screened in Seattle by SIFF Cinema.
Yet there is still nothing like being at a London show that unfolds before you in real time with in-the-moment acting, unintended surprises, unexpected reactions. The place is still a mecca for the living, spoken word.
The Judi and Helen show
There are, arguably, no more popular British thespians these days than two great dames, 78-year-old Judi Dench and 67-year old Helen Mirren, both Oscar winners, bona fide film stars — and theater thoroughbreds. Age has not dimmed their radiance and power onstage, even in middling plays.
Mirren is holding forth currently in a West End hit, “The Audience,” an affectionate, if simplistic, study of Queen Elizabeth II written by Peter Morgan — screenwriter of “The Queen,” for which Mirren won an Oscar as the same beloved British monarch. (A filmed version will screen at SIFF in June).
“The Audience” cleverly tracks Elizabeth’s reign by depicting Her Majesty’s tete-a-tetes with the prime ministers (from Winston Churchill to David Cameron) who have ruled her nation since she was crowned 60 years ago.
These weekly “audiences” are strictly private, yet since the Queen’s power is largely ceremonial, they presumably have had little if any influence on British policy. Morgan imagines them (with help from gossip and hearsay) entertainingly, as a testimony to HRH’s steadfast presence and as reflections of the personalities and political fortunes of a depressed Gordon Brown; a weepy John Major; a down-home, jocular Harold Wilson (allegedly her majesty’s favorite).
With seamless changes of matronly pastel dresses and sensible handbags and subtle shifts of bearing and voice, Mirren ages backward and forward, poignant as the young, pious Elizabeth facing the daunting burdens and restrictions of her office, witty and aware as the older monarch, solid, correct yet appealingly human.
It is a rosy, comforting view of a queen even anti-monarchical Britons admire. But it allows for just one flash of aristocratic passion: when Elizabeth lets a brusque Margaret Thatcher know she doesn’t suffer Maggie’s pro-apartheid and anti-miner-union stances lightly. Reality — or wishful thinking?
In John Logan’s “Peter and Alice,” Dench plays lesser-known real-life figure Alice Liddell Hargreaves, as a child the model for the plucky heroine of “Alice in Wonderland.” We first meet her at 80, during a 1932 encounter with Peter Llewelyn Davies (played with superb restraint by Ben Whishaw), then in his 30s, and himself an inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
This unlikely pair has something fascinating and painful in common: Both had mystifying childhood relationships with the deeply attentive, sexually ambiguous authors who immortalized them.
How have their lives differed from the eternal symbols of blithe, puckish innocence they inspired? Were they scarred by abuse, physical or emotional, from the doting Barrie or the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll)?
Logan’s script, alternately poetic and overly literal, meanders through time and space, and ends on the obvious note that neither fame nor innocence shield against war, aging and loss. And Whishaw’s haunted Peter (whose family tragedies were appallingly numerous) comes out the worse.
Michael Grandage’s staging rises to enchantment in the Victorian storybook settings (by Christopher Oram), and in Dench’s exhilarating flights of adolescence, and tender melancholy as the elderly Alice. She has gone public about losing her eyesight, but onstage she is as sure-footed and incandescent as the legendary lovely Juliet of her own youth.
“This House” and “The Low Road”
Political theater is a given in Britain, where a play like the National Theatre’s “This House,” by John Graham — a crackling blow-by-blow account of backroom politicking in Parliament in the mid-1970s — is roundly welcomed.
Could you imagine a frank, funny docudrama about wheeling and dealing in the U.S. Congress in the Nixon or Ford era?
Not a bad idea, but the Brits have both the wherewithal for such a thing (the cast is a who’s who of ace BBC character actors), and the appetite. The eroding base of the Labour Party, the overconfident Tories, the coups and alliances, the struggles for women and challenges of a seesawing two-party system of great imperfection, were intriguing — even to a Yank who could barely make out some of the regional accents.
And keeping the political machinery moving to the chime of Big Ben (until it breaks down) and a live band playing David Bowie tunes? That rocks. (SIFF will screen a filmed version in June.)
An American’s attempt to get to the bottom of what ails our own nation was at the bottom of “The Low Road,” a new work by Bruce Norris at the Royal Court.
A departure in style from Norris’ touted socio-comedy “Clybourne Park,” this Henry Fielding-esque scan of cannibalistic capitalism is narrated, no less, by Adam Smith (the great Scottish actor Bill Paterson), an early apostle of unfettered free-marketism.
In his vivacious historical pageant of rampaging racism, greed and hypocrisy, Norris savages a deregulated financial creed that has led to a near-collapse of the modern global economy, through the picturesque, bloody saga of a ruthless self-made Everyman, Jim (Brad Pitt look-alike Johnny Flynn).
What gives this battering morality lesson its oomph are the resources of the English stage: 20 actors romping through 50 roles, in a whirligig mounting by Dominic Cooke — resources few U.S. companies could, or might care, to marshal for a spirited but bombastic manifesto.
My visit to Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios for “Mies Julie,”
a stunning, shattering adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” by director-playwright Yael Farber and a galvanic three-member cast, was a highlight.
The dynamic between a wealthy landowner’s rebellious daughter and an attractive male servant she longs to seduce and control has been transplanted to many stratified societies since its 19th-century debut in Sweden.
It especially suits this version’s post-apartheid setting in South Africa, where the seemingly liberated black workers are celebrating their Freedom Day on a farm still embedded with the bones of their slaughtered ancestors, in a nation still rived with racial and economic fault lines.
This is, by far, the most nakedly sensuous and disturbing battle I’ve witnessed between the fatally interlocked Miss Julie and resistant/vulnerable John (played here with preternatural intensity and candor by the tough-fragile Hilda Cronje, and strapping, wary Bongile Mantsai), with the role of Christine (in Strindberg, John’s fiancee) recast as John’s anxious, worn mother (played by the heart-piercing Thoko Ntshinga).
This incendiary exploration of the fateful inextricability of white Afrikaners and black South Africans has implications far beyond the borders of that nation.
“Mies Julie” has also traveled to the Edinburgh Festival and, briefly, to New York’s St. Anne’s Warehouse. If there is one production from my London week that I would hope to see in Seattle at some point, it is this one.
Misha Berson: email@example.com