A riot of revivals

Something extraordinary is happening on the London stage this summer. A few of the most resonant new plays also happen to be antiques.

By CHARLES MCNULTY
July 27, 2011 21:01
Chicken soup with barley

Chicken soup with barley311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

OK, “new” is probably not the most accurate way to describe Friedrich Schiller’s late-18th-century domestic tragedy Luise Miller, superlatively brought to life at the Donmar Warehouse. Nor is there anything contemporary about Henrik Ibsen’s epic closet drama Emperor and Galilean, bravely being assayed at the National Theater, where a powerhouse hit has improbably sprung from Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, reworked by Richard Bean into the British romp One Man, Two Guvnors.

But these offerings from the neglected repertory have an undeniable freshness, especially for an American who has grown tired of the familiar parade of pseudo classics (from Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy to some of the more recent David Mamet retreads). It’s hard to imagine any of our local artistic directors having faith that postwar British playwright Arnold Wesker’s 1958 state-of-the-nation play, Chicken Soup With Barley, fervently under examination at the Royal Court Theater, could speak so directly to the political dilemmas of our own country in 2011. But then a full blood-and-guts engagement with the theatrical past hasn’t exactly been a top priority for those busily planning their Broadway knockoff seasons.

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To be utterly frank, I wasn’t running to my matinee of Luise Miller with the greatest alacrity. Schiller is a writer I’m all too ready to consign to his corner of the canon. The curious thing is that whenever I read or see his work, I’m struck by the masterful way he interweaves political, philosophical and psychological observations. Still, I expected a first-rate Donmar Warehouse production of an outmoded play.

I was wrong. Not about Michael Grandage’s pitch perfect staging, but about Luise Miller, which has been adapted by Mike Poulton from Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love being the title that Schiller was persuaded to adopt for box office reasons). The play comes from a very different theatrical era, but it can still evidently thrive under the right conditions in our own.

This is Grandage’s final year as artistic director of the modest-sized Covent Garden theater, which has disproportionately brought work to Broadway (including the Tony-winning drama Red, Hamlet with Jude Law, and Frost/Nixon). And his handling of Luise Miller clarifies his great strength as a director – the ability to focus the action around the play’s central conflict. This might seem rather rudimentary, but Grandag’s keen interpretive skills, as witnessed this spring in the Derek Jacobi-led King Lear at BAM, have a way of laying bare the essence of a work while revving up its narrative momentum.

The play revolves around the ill-fated romance between Luise Miller, daughter of a humble court musician, and Ferdinand, son of the chancellor, one of the most feared statesmen in the land. Their love is obstructed, just as Luise’s father feared it might be, by political necessity. The chancellor demands that Ferdinand marry the prince’s mistress to cover up the impropriety of this royal infidelity.

Grandage has cast his play as impeccably as he has understood it. Felicity Jones (a radiant young presence destined for stardom) captures the limpid tone of Luise’s innocence. Better still, there’s an otherworldly gravity to her ardor that presages her eventual doom.

Max Bennett makes a princely Ferdinand, a white knight prepared to do battle against Ben Daniels’ suavely malevolent chancellor.

DIRECTOR JONATHAN Kent has a more formidable challenge at the National Theater in mounting Emperor and Galilean, a play that was written to be read rather than produced. Ibsen, who somewhat perversely considered this his “most important work,” was liberating himself from the technical limits of the 19th-century stage, an exercise that proved exceptionally useful as he went on to foment a revolution in realism with the great domestic prose plays that followed this unwieldy though not unworthy epic.

The first task is whittling down the text to a manageable length. Ben Power’s new version streamlines the two-part behemoth to a manageable three hours, not including intermission. There’s nothing to be done, however, about the play’s fundamental dramatic problem – that for much of this study of Julian the Apostate, the 4th-century Roman emperor who rejected the Christianity on which he was weaned, character isn’t so much action as reaction.

At once scenically striking and efficient, the production, which stars Andrew Scott as an anguished, present- tense Julian, has a cumulative impact. It combines the tragedy of an overreaching hero who sets himself up as an imperialist god (purging Christians in a bloodbath along the way) and a “world-historical” drama about the hazards of religious intolerance and fanaticism that sadly haven’t dated in the least.

Nothing ages faster than comedy, but Bean’s update of Goldoni’s classic into One Man, Two Guvnors had the packed house of the National’s Lyttelton Theater overdosing on mirth. Credit the deft, improvisational clowning of James Corden, who plays Francis, a chubby, twinkly eyed mischief-maker slyly serving two “guvnors” (one a woman disguised as her dead twin gangster brother, the other an upper class twit who’s in love with her). Francis succeeds for some time in keeping his bosses ignorant of each other, but the only master he ever satisfies is his own insatiable appetite.

Bean’s play, set in swinging 1963 in Brighton, is hardly a masterpiece of comic engineering, but it does bridge the gap between Italian commedia and British humor, supplying endless opportunities for gags and routines that the ensemble, under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, has a field day with. There’s one bit involving Tom Edden as a newly hired octogenarian waiter with shaking hands and an assisted-living gait that had grown men crying with laughter.

But the production belongs to Corden, a more genial Chris Farley with a face that constantly registers the thought, “I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself.”

One might think that the political concerns at the heart of Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley – about the promise of socialism in prewar Britain and its disappointing postwar reality – would have rendered the play obsolete for an age in which “socialism” has become a taunting epithet. But as Dominic Cooke’s revival at the Royal Court demonstrates, there’s nothing passe about the issues that keep the Kahns, an East End Jewish family caught up in the struggle for a more level economic playing field, arguing from 1936 to 1956 as though their lives depended on finding the right answers.

Influenced as much by Clifford Odets as by George Bernard Shaw, Wesker’s play, the first part of a trilogy, has the outward appearance of a kitchen sink drama but the inward structure of a dialectical debate.

Cooke doesn’t bury the scenes in realism. He keeps his ensemble, led by Samantha Spiro, who plays Sarah, the indefatigable matriarch of the activist Kahn household, focused on questions of idealism in an all too real world.

Progress, as the play reminds us, is partial, and backsliding means there's always more work to be done.

Wesker wonders how it is possible to keep the crusading fires burning after exhaustion and disillusionment have set in. Odd that I would have to travel all the way to London for a diagnosis of my current political state of mind. But then the English theater is being unusually resourceful this summer in turning to the past for guidance. – LA Times/MCT


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