Renaissance of the National Theatre
Green, Laurence, Contemporary Review
In 1914 Harley Granville Barker appealed to a thousand Londoners to pledge [pounds]25 each towards the foundation of a National Theatre. In the present building his dream, after many decades, was made a reality - and Britain finally had a national theatre to live up to its name. In 1963, when the National Theatre was founded, Laurence Olivier, its first director, said that the aim of the National was to become 'the finest in the world', and over the last thirty-four years the National has achieved this goal. But in recent past seasons the high standards the theatre had set seemed to be slipping with a number of lacklustre productions. Now, though, ironically in the year that Richard Eyre - one of the best directors the National has had - is stepping down from the hot seat, the theatre has made a triumphant return to form.
Following an outstanding production of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman with Paul Scofield in the title role, the National revived its hit production of Guys and Dolls (Olivier Theatre) with a new cast. This brassy humdinger of a show was as good, if not better than the original production. Described as 'a musical fable of Broadway', the show is based on a story and characters of Damon Runyon. The story concerns a gambler who wages that he can take a Salvation Army lass to Cuba and back in twenty four hours and although this seems a daunting prospect, he manages to accomplish this task - and love blossoms in the bargain. The characters here are sharply drawn, the satire witty and thought-provoking, the music and lyrics by Frank Loesser excellent, and the two central performances by Clarke Peters and Joanna Riding stunning. Under Ronald Eyre's expert direction this exhilarating musical showed it fully deserved its status as a classic. If ever a show merited a West End transfer this was it.
It is now thirty years since Harold Pinter's The Homecoming was first premiered on the London stage but this surrealistic black comedy has lost none of its power to provoke or shock a nineties audience, judging by Roger Michell's current revival at the Lyttleton Theatre. Basically an essay in class and intellectual isolation, this unnerving play exposes the repressed violence that lurks under the surface of family life. Teddy (Keith Allen), a lecturer at an American university, unexpectedly returns home with his wife, Ruth (Lindsay Duncan), introducing her into the all-male household of his father (David Bradley), chauffeur uncle (Sam Kelly) and two brothers, Joey (Eddie Marsalan), a would-be boxer, and Lenny (Michael Sheen), who dabbles in property. This is a household where 'family life' has soured since the death of the mother several years earlier and which is ruled over by the crippled, embittered father, a bully and a tyrant (possibly modelled after Pinter's own paterfamilias), who waves his stick at his sons in a mood of defiance and threat and chides his sixty-year-old brother for never getting married. Ruth soon becomes the dramatic focus of the conflict which ensues and changes the lives of these characters - all of whom could be regarded as 'emotional cripples' - forever.
Although there are longueurs - the production would have benefited from being sharper and tighter - the play has a bitter, acid humour which is still as funny today as it was in the sixties. This play has been criticised for being misogynist but I think it is Pinter's aim here to show what he thinks the English male's preconceived view of women to be either mothers or whores. 'Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don't have any kids yourself', wrote Philip Larkin in 1971.
Lear presents one of the greatest challenges to any actor - how to make a man of royal birth whose journey from imperious rage, through madness and humiliation to painful self-knowledge and a wiser and more humane individual in the process, relevant and sympathetic without appearing irritating and remote. Ian Holm manages to bring off this task magnificently in Ronald Eyre's impressive new production of King Lear (Cottesloe Theatre) by stripping Shakespeare's tragic hero naked both in appearance (in one key scene) and character. Eyre sees Lear not as epic drama about a victim of a cruel, uncaring world but as an intimate, domestic study in family rivalries and jealousies, played out on a long, narrow, traverse stage with a minimum of props.
In this production the parallel is clearly drawn between Lear's folly in disowning the daughter he loves most for refusing to pay lip service to him which he views as a lack of loyalty and settling his estate on the daughters he loves least, and their subsequent rejection of him when, after coming to stay with them, he runs their house as if it were his own, and the plight of Gloucester who, mistakenly believes his bastard son's claim that his other son is plotting to kill him, resulting in the young man being exiled from home and father and Gloucester being blinded by those he trusted. What is tragic in the play, as in life, is the way the characters will their own destruction without intending to.
Eyre elicits the best from his actors - there are first-rate performances from Paul Rhys as Edgar who, cast out by his father, becomes Lear's surrogate son, Finbar Lynch as Gloucester's bastard son, Timothy West, who remains dignified in adversity, as the Earl of Gloucester, Anne-Marie Duff as Cordelia, Lear's youngest - and spurned - offspring, Barbara Flynn and Amanda Redman as his older daughters, and Michael Bryant as Lear's yokel Fool. But dominating the whole production is Holm's towering Lear, an authoritarian whose impetuous fury brings disaster but who is redeemed by grief, suffering and a capacity for selfless love. Indeed in his debut performance in the role for the National Holm turns in one of the most affecting portrayals of this flawed character that I have ever seen on stage.
The London debut of Lady in the Dark, a musical play by Moss Hart with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by Kurt Weill, first staged in 1941, is a highlight of the current repertoire at the Lyttleton Theatre.
Workaholic fashion magazine editor Liza Elliott, a woman struggling to balance her career and personal life, visits a psychiatrist in an effort to resolve her feelings of indecision and to explain the extraordinary dreams she's been having about the three men in her life: Kendall Nesbitt, her lover and professional patron, Randy Curtis, a glamorous but shallow movie star (both make proposals of marriage so who should she choose, if any?), and Charley Johnson, a cantankerous advertising manager.
A witty and inventive, if at times ponderous, production, the play skilfully interweaves the music (attractive but unmemorable) into the drama. In fact the music structures the drama by being restricted to the dream sequences that articulate the subconscious of the patient's psyche. Music is also at the centre of the plot: the key to the protagonist's neurosis is to recollect a childhood song of which a fragment recurs in her nightmares.
Maria Freedman gives a winning performance as Liza and she is ably supported by Hugh Ross as her psychoanalyst, Paul Shelley as Kendall Nesbitt, Steven Edward Moore as Randy Curtis and Adrian Dunbar as Charley Johnson.
The stunning set by Adrianne Lobel serves as Liza's office at Allure magazine, Dr. Brook's office and the focus of Liza's childhood dreams, as well as providing an evocative pastiche of the Hollywood musical comedies of the thirties and forties. A flawed but entertaining work.
The loner has always held an important place in Irish drama and Martin McDonagh's new play (his last was the multi-award-winning Beauty Queen of Leenane) for the National The Cripple of Inishmaan (Lyttleton Theatre) follows in this tradition.
Set on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland in 1934, the play centres on eighteen-year-old 'Cripple Billy', an orphan whose parents drowned in mysterious circumstances on a boating trip and who now lives with his two twittering aunts. The butt of cruel jokes and sniggers, he is ostracised by many of the islanders, and suffers bouts of wheezing and coughing.
When word arrives on Inishmaan that the Hollywood director Robert Flaherty is coming to the neighbouring island of Inishmore to film Man of Aran nobody wants to be in the film more than Billy. So he persuades the local boatman, whose wife died of TB, to take him with other 'hopefuls' to Inishmore by saying the letter he is carrying from his doctor states that he, too, has tuberculosis. When Billy fails to return his aunts get frantic. But their worry is short-lived for they learn that Billy has landed a part in Flaherty's film and has gone to America. 'I've heard Hollywood is full of pretty girls. It is crippled fellas they are crying out for', says one islander. In reality, though, Billy is not enjoying fame and fortune but is living in poverty in a sleazy motel, suffering ill health and talking to his dead mother.
This caustic comedy, which manages to be funny and touching in turn, deals with the insularity of the spirit and the lure of illusion. McDonagh vividly evokes the narrow, limited lives of the inhabitants where the daily routine consists of collecting eggs, killing a goose or just gossiping about others' misfortunes. His characters are skilfully drawn - the 'news' man whose reports about strange animals bore most people rigid and whose elderly mother is addicted to drink, the gangling local girl whose sharp tongue conceals a gentler, more likeable personality, and the embittered boatman who hides a terrible secret about the death of Billy's parents.
Under Nicholas Hytner's expert direction the cast shine, with particularly fine performances from Anita Reeves, Dearbhla Molloy, Aisling O' Sullivan and Doreen Hepburn. For me, though, the play was made by the wonderful performance by Ruaidhri Conroy as Billy, with whom we have total empathy.
It is indeed a healthy sign that at a time when the commercial theatre is rather reluctant to stage new works the National has three new plays in its current repertoire. In addition to Inishmaan there is Amy's View (Lyttleton Theatre) by David Hare. Set in 1979 it centres on Esme Allen (Judi Dench), a well known actress at just the moment when the west end is ceasing to offer actors a regular way of life. The visit of her daughter, Amy (Samantha Bond), with a new boyfriend, sets in train a series of events which only find their shape eighteen years later. This play about the long-term straggle between a strong mother and her loving daughter mixes love, death, and the theatre in a heady and original way. The other new production is Closer (Cottesloe) by Patrick Marber, of Dealer's Choice fame. Both a romantic comedy and brutal anatomy of modem love, it is set in contemporary London and is a story of four strangers who meet and fall in love. Sally Dexter and Ciaran Hands lead the cast. The National is certainly enjoying one of its strongest seasons.
Laurence Green is an arts writer who contributes to many international publications.…
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Publication information: Article title: Renaissance of the National Theatre. Contributors: Green, Laurence - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 271. Issue: 1578 Publication date: July 1997. Page number: 16+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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