End of the World All Over the Stage

London’s West End offers high points this season, as well as predictability

Last week in London the weather was dismal, the tabloids screamed that the British capital would be Al Qaeda’s target after Madrid, and the pound weighed in at $1.85.

But there were some very bright spots indeed in West End theaters, even if a recurring theme was the apocalypse.

Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame ” at the Albery, directed by Matthew Warchus––who did the last “Follies” on Broadway––is a pure vision of the end of time, wrenching and funny at once. The great Michael Gambon is the imperious Hamm, a raging, overbearing dependent. The casting of the accomplished physical comedian Lee Evans as his helper and possible son, Clov, is a revelation. Together, they capture Beckett’s vaudevillian heart when dealing with last things. Fine, too, are Hamm’s ashcan-bound parents, Liz Smith (Nell) and Geoffrey Hutchings (Nagg). This is a definitive production of this work.

“All’s Well That Ends Well,” Gregory Doran’s dark vision of the Bard’s comedy, has Dame Judi Dench (Countess of Rossillion) as the draw––and she does not disappoint––and also an outstanding cast from the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Gielgud Theatre. Standouts include Claudie Balekely as Helena and Guy Henry as the foolish Parolles. Shakespeare may have tied things up at the end of his comedies, but Doran builds to a bittersweet and memorable curtain.

Many individuals’ worlds ended in deadly commuter “accidents” in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of the British railroad system, separating those who ran the trains from those who kept up the rails and leaving no one responsible for safety. David Hare makes us confront the victims and survivors in “The Permanent Way” at the National, using techniques similar to those Moises Kaufman used in examining Oscar Wilde’s trial and the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder. Hare indicts deregulation fever and its attendant political and corporate corruption. This is an issue we know about––from the Enron collapse to this summer’s blackout—but not something we would be inclined to pay $75 and sit still for three hours in order to understand. Pity. This is a moving and inventive evening of theater.

Michael Frayn, who debated nuclear ethics in “Copenhagen,” turns his keen eye on “Democracy” at the National on the rise and fall of late 1960s West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (Roger Allam), the charismatic leftist undone by indiscreet affairs and the revelation that one of his closest aides, Günther Guillaume (Conleth Hill), had been spying for East Germany for years. Frayn is not only adept at dramatizing Brandt’s personal and political story, but in weaving in sharp insights into the nature of power in a democracy. For those of us desperate for deliverance from the Bush regime, this is a sobering reminder that getting what we want––while better than not getting it––can crush us nonetheless.

The National’s “Play Without Words” is touring the UK now and we can only pray it comes here. Matthew Bourne, who so brilliantly re-imagined “Swan Lake,” this time gives us an illumination of Dirk Bogarde’s 1961 film “The Servant.” Instead of just dancing the movie, each character is choreographed in 3-D by three dancer/actors. Yes, there is no dialogue. But a richness of communication is developed not just among those on stage, but between them and the audience. Dazzling.

Also at the National (and headed for New York eventually) is Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” centered on an interrogation of suspected child murders in a totalitarian state, but really about the awful power of storytelling. Academy award winner Jim Broadbent (for “Iris”) is chilling yet hilarious as the detective, Nigel Lindsay creepier as his aide, David Tennant amazing as the sorry writer who is the accused, and Adam Godley frightening yet goofy as his disabled brother. I avoided buying a ticket for this show until I got to London because of my squeamishness and McDonagh’s reputation for shocking stage violence, but John Crowley’s production was rewarding artistically and thematically.

We don’t have to imagine how it is to be trapped in a mad war with images coming back from Iraq on a constant basis, but in 1929 R.C. Sherriff’s “Journey’s End,” directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive (who would later team up for “Frankenstein”) broke new ground for its unflinching account of trench life in World War I, even if it only focused on the plight of officers. By playing it straight, director David Grindley has made the play compelling and affecting in 2004, with an all-male ensemble where all contribute equally to limning themes of honor, male bonding, and the futility of the Great War. A melodrama to be sure, but one that left a lump in my throat.

The world almost comes to an end three times in “The Skin of Our Teeth” at the Young Vic. The saga of the Antrobus Family through ice, flood, and war is more cartoon than drama and was popular with the many teens on hand. The liveliest things in David Lan’s production of Thornton Wilder’s second most famous play are Richard Hudson’s collapsing sets and the scenes when the actors break out of character to invoke events such as the war in Iraq and the atrocity in Madrid that very day. Bette Bourne of “Bloolips” fame has a supporting role as the Fortune Teller.

As a big fan of Tom Stoppard and Simon Russell Beale, I’m sad to report that “Jumpers,” though headed for New York, is a revival of lesser Stoppard and a miscast Beale. The jokes have worn thin, but three cheers for the “jumpers” themselves––acrobats who enliven the goings on and distract from the play’s shortcomings.

I wish I could recommend “Calico” at the Duke of York’s about the James Joyce household in Paris in 1928 when Beckett became the great man’s secretary and his daughter Lucia went mad. But Michael Hastings’ play is grave robbing more than it is an illumination of these literary geniuses, despite a game and solid performance by Imelda Staunton as Nora, Joyce’s consort. If you love Joyce and Beckett (as I do), reread “Ulysses” and see “Endgame.”

“Round the Horne (Revisited)” at The Venue reproduces a 1960s BBC radio comedy show that was racy in its day, but mostly offensive today. More than half the material, originated by comedians like Marty Feldman, consists of lewd skits about women or fag jokes centered on the Kenneth Williams character. The cast is able and the audience of suburban 50- and 60-something Brits thoroughly enjoyed their permission to laugh at the dirty old jokes. See it if you’re under the illusion that gays are making progress.

If your trip to England comes later in the spring, you can look forward to gay playwright Alan Bennett opening “The History Boys” at the National on May 8, directed by Nick Hytner and starring Frances De La Tour in a story of scheming adolescent schoolboys. Diana Rigg will do Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly Last Summer” at the Albery starting May 6. If you missed Albee’s “Goat,” Jonathan Pryce headlines it at the Apollo April 13. For more information, go to LondonTheatre.co.uk

Aside from the stage, other London highlights this season include a Vuillard exhibit at the Royal Academy that runs until April 18 and the Philip Guston exhibit there until April 12. There’s a £9 fee for those, but they’ve just opened the refurbished Madejski Fine Rooms replete with Academy artists from Gainsborough to Hockney for free. The National Portrait Gallery has a quirky exhibit of a thousand postcards of ordinary people––including men with men and women with women––collected by Tom Phillips that is free and an exhibit of Cecil Beaton portraits (£7).

Amidst my fervent play going, I did find time to eat as well. At St. John Restaurant in Smithfield, I sampled “kid faggot,” and wasn’t violating the age-of-consent law. These big meatballs of goat and innards went well with a bone marrow salad at this hot British establishment. Right on Old Compton St., the gay main drag in Soho, is Café España, popular with theater folk. In Hampstead, La Gaffe on Heath St. at the hotel of the same name (judged the town’s “best value” at £65/night) has a £12.50 set lunch that will more than fortify you for a jaunt through the Heath itself. HK Diner on Wardour St. brings some modern style to Chinatown. And for good museum eating, there’s the café at the Royal Academy where the tarte tatin proved worth ditching the low carb diet.

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