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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at various venues


  Tim Pigott-Smith/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

A funny thing happened to the British theater during 2009 in a cultural capital that thrives on reinventing the old. Suddenly, it was all about the new, as one original play after another charged out of the starting gate, embarked on a journey that (in some cases, anyway) already looks set to include Broadway and even film. The end-of-year awards derby tended to pit Lucy Prebble's Enron against Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem in a competition that played itself several times over with the latter winning for play and actor (Mark Rylance in the performance of a lifetime) and Prebble's English vaudevillian take on an American economic scandal scoring for Rupert Goold's direction. In fact, I would be tempted to put numerous other trophies Jerusalem's way, very much starting with the director Ian Rickson for masterfully orchestrating a long and tonally varied text like the superb straight-play conductor that he is, and for Ultz's design: a rural retreat whose apparently idyllic status exists to go snap.
Jerusalem marked the defining achievement of Butterworth's career to date, the Cambridge-educated writer, signaling a new authorial voice at welcome odds with the cunning pastiche that marked out his earlier work, starting with the wildly successful Mojo. Just how enduringly fine a play Jerusalem may turn out to be was thrown into relief by the appearance during the year of a top-class revival of Tom Stoppard's 1993 Arcadia, its director, David Leveaux, balancing both time periods of that play with a deftness I'd not seen before. (All credit there to the scintillating double-act of Samantha Bond's literary sleuth, Hannah Jarvis, and the emotionally and intellectually impassioned Valentine of Ed Stoppard, the playwright's son, in affectingly evident sympathy with his father's text.) Suddenly, there was a parlor game worth playing, and not just because Rickson and Butterworth had preceded their Jerusalem achievement with the rather more cryptic if beautifully acted Almeida Theatre premiere of Parlour Song. Was Jerusalem the best British play since Arcadia 16 years before – two scripts that couldn't be more different beyond being the product of questing, exhilaratingly enquiring minds? Time will answer that one, even if it's already evident that Rylance's wild-man reprobate, Johnny Byron, marks the kind of star performance destined to be spoken of alongside Brando's Stanley Kowalski or Olivier in The Entertainer.
I'd love to join in the chorus of acclaim for Enron, which, after one viewing at least, nonetheless seems like a flat, sometimes wearyingly facetious script dressed to the nines by a staging from Goold that isn't quite as high-adrenalin as it probably thinks it is. I actually far preferred this same director's work on Turandot for the ENO, a revisionist approach to Puccini's abidingly nasty opera – is there a cooler heroine out there than the ice maiden for whom the opera is named? – that was received with unthinking brickbats by most of my opera world brethren. Deborah Warner made a comparable crossover between theater and opera, coming up against critical hostility both times. In fact, her Mother Courage unleashed an unthinkably sexy Fiona Shaw in a Tony Kushner adaptation (first seen in New York's Central Park) that quite rightly put money at the forefront of this deeply moral play, while her ENO Messiah seemed to make religious zealots out of those commentators at odds with Warner's poignantly secular re-imagining of Handel. As a piece of stagecraft, the production was in fact quite beautiful, barring a hospital scene for the evening's soprano that marked one bit of directorial derring-do too far.
Mother Courage was one of the high points of an unusually halting year for the National that reached a new low with Nation, a United Colors of Benetton ad that at the second press night contained the most people belting at the intermission that I have ever seen in London. Pains of Youth, an Austrian play adapted by Martin Crimp as a vehicle for the director Katie Mitchell, kept spectators rooted to their seats, if only so they could clock just how distancing and lacking in affect the production could turn out to be (short answer: a lot.) Mitchell returned in lighter mode with a sweet daytime stage adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, presumably undertaken so as to please the director's young daughter – and to give many of her ad hoc retinue of thespian regulars a chance to have some fun, which Angus Wright as the eponymous feline most evidently is. (A shame there was so much over-the-top "goofball acting" happening elsewhere.)
Still, only a playhouse like the National could have produced Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art, not least because this endearingly diffuse, highly personal play takes place at the NT itself: the capacious Bob Crowley set replicates one of the building's rehearsal rooms, here capped with a grand piano. Of course, the ample, baby-faced Richard Griffiths in a million years would never be sensible casting for the craggy-faced, severe-looking W H Auden (a role originally earmarked for Michael Gambon, who dropped out early in rehearsals). But Nicholas Hytner's production met this absurdity head on with a theatrical relish that extended across the play as a whole, not least in a climactic paean to the very fact of theater – and of theater at the National – delivered by the incomparable Frances de la Tour, who, unusually, seems to be getting more glamorous the older she gets. In the Olivier, the composer Andre Previn's singular 1977 cross cultural collaboration with, yes, Tom Stoppard was refreshed in the form of a somewhat scaled-down Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, the South Bank Sinfonia here containing within its ranks a handful of movement artists who helped tilt the evening from harmony towards dissonance – a word that sounds (vintage Stoppard here) not that different from the other word, dissonance, that is the play's most overt subject.


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