Magazine article The Spectator

Attack on Chauvinism

Magazine article The Spectator

Attack on Chauvinism

Article excerpt

Theatre 2 The King and I

(Battersea Arts Centre) Killing Rasputin (Bridewell) The Snow Palace (Tricycle)

As Oklahoma! continues to make its Royal National progress into the West End (Lyceum from 20 January), and then doubtless on to Broadway, I am still having trouble with the much-advertised notion of its 'rediscovery'. True, the choreography is all new, but nothing else in Trevor Nunn's award-winning production strikes me as remotely new, least of all the idea that Poor Jud has somehow been revitalised and darkened; Rod Steiger was doing all of that and much better in the 1955 movie by Fred Zinnemann.

If, however, you want to see what a real Rodgers-and-Hammerstein rediscovery looks like this Christmas, go over the river to the Battersea Arts Centre where Phil Willmott has, until 10 January, a breathtaking small-stage King and I. Often undercast, hopelessly underfinanced in a set looking like the back room of a Thai takeaway restaurant, this is nevertheless a brilliant reminder of how it all started, with a book of memoirs and then a non-musical film called Anna and the King of Siam. Now, stripped of its widescreen glitz and the haunting presence of Yul Brynner, you suddenly see why the show remains banned in Thailand, where they have recently also refused to allow the movie remake; Thai beer firms in London have even declined to be involved here as sponsors.

Why? Because, seen once again but for the first time in half a century as a play with music, this King and emerges as a bitter attack by Oscar Hammerstein on Siam/Thailand's age-old chauvinism and all-powerful monarchy. While the rest of the world treats the Rodgers-Hammerstein score as harmless and now dated showbiz, Thailand's rulers recognise it for the ageless time-bomb it remains.

I was only ten where Gertrude Lawrence created the first King and I on Broadway in 1951 with Yul Brynner way down below the title; but from all I have learnt and researched of that production, I believe that 50 years later Willmott has, maybe inadvertently in a no-cash situation, got us back to first base. This is a radical, angry story about a savage autocrat and a rebellious nanny (Rodgers and Hammerstein were to write it again ten years later as The Sound of Music), and although I have seen many richer and some better productions of The King and I, I have never seen one so ultimately heartbreaking or true to its roots.

Willmott (well self-cast as the supercilious British envoy who was Anna's first love) stages the death of the King at unusual dramatic length, and ensures that our final memory is not the customary `Shall We Dance' but instead the moment when Anna effectively kills her King by denying his right to horsewhip a rebellious subject. We also get the full measure of the King's handover of his powers to a faintly more liberal son, while the usually turgid Uncle Tom ballet is acted rather than danced, now much after the fashion of the play in Hamlet, giving us the full foretaste of what is to come in the rest of the story.

Lindsey Danvers is a fine, feisty Anna, and Alan Mosley seizes the chance to play her King as a full tragic hero rather than the usual bald despot; now tell me, in the light of this, precisely how Oklahoma! thinks it has been realigned.

From old American to new British; if we are to have any kind of a local musical theatre into and beyond the millennium, then we may have to do something more encouraging and pro-active than sit around awaiting the next Lloyd Webber or Boublil/Schonberg on their roughly five-year cycle, while casting nervous eyes across the Atlantic to see what missile Sondheim plans to hurl at us next. …

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