London Theater: Worth the Trip Britain's Version of Broadway Pumps out Provocative New Plays And

By Tony Vellela, | The Christian Science Monitor, May 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

London Theater: Worth the Trip Britain's Version of Broadway Pumps out Provocative New Plays And


Tony Vellela,, The Christian Science Monitor


London's influence on American theater is no longer confined to the classics. In the past three years, Broadway's Tony Awards nominations have been dominated by London imports such as "Beauty Queen of Leenane," "Art," "A Doll's House," and "The Chairs" sweeping most of the drama categories. So this year's London offerings may offer some clues to what's ahead in the United States.

New plays, old musicals, and the venerable Mr. Shakespeare all contribute to a fine 1999 season. A cerebral drama and a philosophical musical top the list. "Candide" has had a history as complex as the tale its original Voltaire novel tells. Its troubled original Broadway run was in 1956, and it's seen no less than seven reworkings by composer Leonard Bernstein and various writers, including Hugh Wheeler, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Stephen Sondheim. Finally, the Royal National Theatre has stripped away the extra layers of labored text, extravagant scenery, and plot-halting numbers to reveal a glistening jewel. In a new rewrite by director John Caird and lyricist Richard Wilbur, Candide opens with one large black trunk onstage. Quickly, characters extract a smaller one, then a smaller one, Chinese box-style, until seven are arrayed within the grand circle that outlines the perimeter of the Olivier Theatre.

Supplemented only by colored fabric swaths, those seven trunks become everything from tables, beds, and altars to horses, canoes, and drums. This clean design sets the tone for a bold lyrical, involving three-plus hours that never lags, accented by the soaring voice of Alex Kelly as Cungonde; Daniel Evans as Candide; and a jaunty, steamroller turn by Simon Russell Beale as Dr. Pangloss. Tracing the young hero's journey to prove his mentor's philosophy that "everything happens for the best," and find his lost love, Bernstein's solos, duets, trios, choral numbers, and full-company ensembles bounce from Bavaria, Paris, and Vienna to Paraguay, Uruguay, and Suriname. Each stop is peppered with spicy songs, clever dialogue, and an eagerness to wrap satire in an entertaining package. London's other unqualified hit, the drama Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn, also employs a stripped-down production technique - three chairs, three people - to tell a complex story. Shifting from the 1920s, until the 1950s, this provocative piece charts the student-teacher relationship between pioneering theoretical physicist Niels Bohr and his brilliant pupil Werner Heisenberg. When Bohr found his country, Denmark, occupied by Heisenberg's Germany during World War II, each man had to weigh moral, political, and personal choices: Should they offer, withhold, or limit the sharing of their knowledge with the Germans, which could lead to the development of the atom bomb? Michael Blakemore's ever-fluid direction turns dialogue into action, allowing ideas to stimulate, challenge, and confront our deepest views on guilt and responsibility. The two-page history in the play's program is all you need to know to find yourself caught up in this story of strained loyalties, faulty memories, and the role of conscience in the struggle between the quest for scientific discoveries and their consequences. Also set during World War II and the decade preceding it, C.P. Taylor's Good, at the Donmar Warehouse theater, approaches some of the same subjects with a decidedly more theatrical approach. The rise of the Nazis at first seems of little interest to Holder, a professor trapped in an unhappy marriage, tending an infirm mother, and plagued by hallucinations that include some sort of musical accompaniment. The arrival of a romantically inclined student, and the equally disturbing calls to conscience from a Jewish colleague, begin his slow, tortured progression from a settled, passive intellectual to a man living with a mistress and accepting a post as an officer in the German SS. Taylor's mission, to reveal the subjectivity of what one may define as "good" or "evil," culminates in a chilling final scene. …

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