London Theater Lights Up with Female Stars Four Actresses Give Standout Performances in Shows from `Sweeney Todd' to `Piaf' Series: London Theatre. Part 2 of a 2-Part Series

By Daniel Selznick, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 30, 1994 | Go to article overview

London Theater Lights Up with Female Stars Four Actresses Give Standout Performances in Shows from `Sweeney Todd' to `Piaf' Series: London Theatre. Part 2 of a 2-Part Series


Daniel Selznick, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


WHILE superb actors are almost always appearing on stage in the United Kingdom, there is a quartet of exceptional performances by actresses presently on view in London.

Any one of these would be - as a Michelin Guide might put it - "worth a detour." The sum total make a trip to England this spring virtually mandatory for serious students of acting.

At the top of the list, one would have to place former Olivier prize-winner Kathryn Hunter in Caryl Churchill's The Skriker at the National Theatre. This dark allegory is written in a kind of half-prose, half-poetry style that is unlike anything Churchill has attempted before.

The author and her director, Les Waters, have conjured up a mercurial creature that is both old and young, short and tall, male and female, human and beast. Sound impossible? You haven't met Hunter.

When the lights go up in the Cottlesloe, the National's smallest stage, we discern an ominous shape in the darkness, a fat toad with peacock feathers and a deep, resonant voice.

IN the next scene, the character has changed into a normal-looking hospital patient, played by a pint-sized actress with large dark-brown eyes and an exceptionally expressive smile. She becomes, in turn, a drunk American woman, then a derelict, then a child. In a triumph of costume and make-up design, she is never the same size or shape - or sex.

Playing a character fiendishly eager to cast spells, "The Skriker" fixates on two young English women - one who has just given birth and the other who is about to - and delights in her ability to fool them (and us) with her disguises. She's frightening and memorable.

In contrast to the diminutive Hunter, Irish-born Fiona Shaw is a luminous and greatly admired beacon of intensity. Tall, broad-shouldered, and blessed with a magnificent speaking voice, she is without question the most exciting talent to illuminate the British stage since Vanessa Redgrave. She doesn't just put on the clothes of a character, she inhabits the character entirely.

In the National Theatre revival of an American play called Machinal, written by the late Sophie Treadwell in 1928, she brings her unusual presence and fierce concentration to a role one wouldn't at first have thought worthy of her.

This neo-Expressionist drama chronicles the step-by-step dehumanization of a secretary in a large factory who reluctantly marries her boss and, after a brief extramarital affair, returns home and murders him.

Last year, by coincidence, the Public Theatre in New York mounted the same play, directed by the talented Michael Greif, with an escalating tension that was harrowing. The National Theatre production is a more visual and aural collaboration - so stunning, in fact, that it almost buries the play in its machinery.

London's new theater Wunderkind, Stephen Daltry, (whose memorable production of "An Inspector Calls" arrives next month on Broadway) isn't just showing off, though. He's decided to create a living, breathing environment that is far more monster than any husband: a hypocritical, uncaring society that suffocates and traps his heroine, then sentences her to die.

Shaw more than matches the scale of this concept with a minutely detailed portrait of a shy, ungainly virgin who feels undeserving of happiness. Her slow transformation from intimidated daughter to uncomfortable wife to terrified electric-chair victim is, in a word, awesome.

Also in the not-to-be-missed category is the living rag-doll portrayal of Stephen Sondheim specialist Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Lovett in the new National Theatre revival of Sweeney Todd. It's directed by Declan Donnelan, who did such an impressive job here with "Angels in America." Unfortunately, no one else in the cast compares to McKenzie's musicality.

I HADN'T yet seen Elaine Paige. I missed both "Evita" and "Anything Goes" here. Thus, I wasn't exactly prepared for the power, raw edge, and deep feeling she brings to her impersonation of Edith Piaf in the West End play Piaf (evenings only, with an alternate appearing in the matinees). …

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