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. …