Sex inThe City
There is something wonderfully shabby about London’s theatre scene and when stepping into the Donmar Warehouse, one of London’s fine but diminutive theatres, there was a healthy dose of peeling paint and a slightly mouldy air in the bar area. This is, after all, where many actors from Hollywood have been flocking of late to remind themselves of the reality of theatre. Theatre is not extravagant riders, blue M&M’s and white towels in fancy dressing rooms. Theatre is smelly, rough, no one washes backstage and this is where actors can feel what first drew them to the stage all those years ago. God knows who started it – but London’s slightly seedy Soho and the West End (which isn’t even west of much) has hosted a lot of big names these last few years. And having compared London and New York and Moscow, you can see the small joke. London is as the Brits are, the city can’t quite believe its luck; stylish and supposedly now, but without the props to show it.
London is unashamedly real, not over, not under and never more so in than its theatreland. So who have we had? Let’s indulge the Cosmopolitan magazine in us all: Nicole Kidman, the Sexy one from Sex in the City, and Jerry Hall got naked on stage – and when you see the stages you can see why this was an issue – very small, very tight space, not the best lighting in the world and no, panstick make-up can do nothing when you are sitting a metre at most from someone’s privacy.
More recently Brooke Shields and Linda Carter aka Superwoman have played leads in the fantastic musical Chicago. Among the menfolk – Christian Slater and more recently our dearest Ewan McGregor the most inexplicable heartthrob known to this world in the musical Guys and Dolls.
But who is the one, the one who with rose petals and blonde cheerleaders played the most wellknown recent mid-life crisis – among other great roles. When Kevin Spacey came to London and not just for a recent rip-your-clothes-off but for a full-on lifetime of theatre – he permanently, or so we hope, exiled himself to the Old Vic theatre. Now that was a coup. And it was Kevin himself who hit the stage only last night in a modern production of Richard II at the Old Vic. Spacey has also been instrumental in bringing some huge names to the Old Vic. If you go to a production there this Christmas in London – you will find Aladdin starring Ian McKellen, with music by Elton John and running after Arthur Miller’s final work, completed only a month before he died, Resurrection Blues, directed by Robert Altman.
Recently there has been a stunning array of things to go see: The heady theatre of Mary Stuart that was so successful that it has just transferred to the West End and Kristin Scott Thomas in As You Desire Me, a role once played by Greta Garbo, as an Italian aristocrat found singing in a Berlin nightclub. For someone that had not been to the theatre for a long time it was all a reminder of why you should from time to time eschew the cinema and get out there and jostle among many for the immediacy of the stage.
Mary Stuart had universally fantastic reviews. Schiller’s exploration of the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I was taut and beautiful. Originally written in 1800 it has been adapted by Peter Oswald, a playwright who has also adapted Lorca, Sophocles and others to the modern stage. Oswald’s great ability lies in keeping so much of the original flavour of the text and the intrigue within parliament, the fawning courtiers caught between two powerful leading ladies, remained a picture both of then and now.
The stage setting was minimal: water, concrete and haunting lighting and director Phyllida Lloyd used contemporary costume – a device that can look tired and has been used again and again of late. In this particular production all male actors wore bored pinstripe; and Mary and Elizabeth alone in swathes of brocade only heightened the drama surrounding the two leads.
For me the highlight of this season was far and away Christopher Hampton’s the Philanthropist at the Donmar Warehouse. Mainly for the presence of Simon Russell Beale, said to be one of the finest actors of his generation and paunchy, wrinkly and squidgy – the antithesis to Hollywood bronzed heroes. His depiction of middle-aged lecturer Philip lost in the world, flirting with suicide and losing an attractive fiancÎe by bedding by mistake someone else entirely – was captivating.
In the West End - Guys and Dolls feat. Ewan McGregor
Piccadilly Theatre, Denman St
Metro: Piccadilly Circus
Hours: Mon-Sat 7.30pm,
Wed & Sat Mats 2.30pm
Date: Until March 4 2006
As You Desire Me
Hours: All week 7.30pm, matinees wed/sat/sun at 3pm
Date: Until 22 January 2006
Currently playing at the Old Vic Theatre
Richard II feat. Kevin Spacey
Xmas period: Aladdin with Ian
McKellen and Arthur Miller’s Resurrection
Blues dir. Robert Altman
Hours: Mon-Sat 7.30pm,
Wed & Sat Matinees 2.30pm
Prices: £10-£42.50, Sat matinee, £20 Wed matinee from 12pm on day of show, £7.50 standing
Date: Richard II until Nov 27.
Others running till end Jan.
Currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse
Sam Shepherd’s The God of Hell
“a transfixing parable of contemporary America”
Metro: Covent Garden
Yes, in the plot not a lot happens but this is its strength – you do not want Helen of Troy on stage, you do not want to be reminded every minute that yes, you are in a theatre, watching a bit of make-believe, instead you have an immaculate study of a man, of an Everyman, and his attempts to fit in, the stupid games we all play around every dinner table in every household with friends and colleagues practising scoring points – and what happens when you fail to score or in fact fail to realise the importance of bothering at all – it was heartbreaking at every turn. Here is an actor that can, as one reviewer remarked, convey everything, even with his back to the audience at length.
Bullied by his fiancee, colleagues and neighbours who are so much larger in life than he and his subject can be - his character eventually is the only reality on stage, the one who really understands, listens and touches people – getting people’s stories, raising anger in everyone he meets.
An exercise in beige, the play shows the endless social charade from dinner party to intellectual spars – as each character beautifully dressed in seventies garb runs around a tiny stage. And if from the opening of the first scene you expect a quiet night when the lights come up in a traditional academic setting, the next second the shock begins as a student blows his brains out on Philip’s pristine wall.
The play is full of people we have all met – a great camp writer in top to toe purple velvet, who brings a cauliflower as a gift as he cannot find any flowers at the market. He then drinks as much whisky as he can and attempts to seduce everyone at dinner and it is this wonderful sense of familiarity, of conversations we have all had, that makes the play so intimate.
Alongside this are explosions as the world enters the quiet of Oxford – from the blood dripping down the study wall in the first act, to the incidental remark that the Prime Minister and cabinet have been assassinated, a fact that had escaped Philip entirely.
Packed with humour and pathos, our five characters do little and talk a lot, in a moment of clarity an academic remarks “unless you are a scientist it is more important that a theory be shapely rather than true”. When the words die down at last and Philip ponders the next twenty years of a very similar existence there is an immense sadness and this is what I absolutely loved about this piece of theatre; full of wit and laughter but one also feels that this carefully crafted picture on stage contains an immensely real treatment of what it is to justify your career and your life.