History and Homosexuality

What’s scoring big in London’s West End this late summer season

Just back from across the pond and you’ll never believe what is packing them in.

The History Boys” by Alan Bennett at the National Theatre is the toast of London—a play about the tension between educating high school students to the test versus for the love of learning. An integral subplot has the opposing male teachers (played by Richard Griffiths and James Corden) each dealing with his homosexuality in a unique way. These portrayals are full of complexity, humor and intelligence, as are the depictions of the 17- and 18-year old boys themselves, notably Samuel Barnett’s poignant gay Posner and Dominic Cooper’s hunky and sly Dakin.

Thoughtful, timely and entertaining productions such as this are few and far between in New York and are even becoming less extant in London.

Nick Hytner, the out gay artistic director of the National, directed.

Frances de la Tour, the grand dame of English theater, plays a history teacher at the boys’ school, accomplishing more with a turn of the head than most performers can with several pages of dialogue. The day after I saw her performance, she said over tea with me—and 99 white-haired ladies—at the National that British theater and education are dying and needed to be rescued, but you wouldn’t know it to see her show nor most of the nine other offerings I took in the week of August 7-15. Even when they fail, there is at least the sense that the artists are trying to expand what can happen on a stage.

Four Stars

So, by all mean see “History Boys,” whose run has been extended at the National until January 15, may transfer to another house, and is being talked about for a Broadway run.

Also at the top is Conor McPherson’s “Shining City,” just closed at the Royal Court, but with a good chance of duplicating his New York success with “The Weir.”

“Shining City” shows us that ghosts are real—dead people who haunt us, “ended” relationships that haven’t in fact come to a close. Stanley Townsend’s wounded Dublin businessman, John, reaches out to Michael McElharton’s skittish therapist, Ian, who in turn reaches out to a literally wounded (low) rent boy, while trying to leave his female partner and child. There is no escape.

It is McPherson’s uncanny ear for the rhythms of life and speech that most amaze, letting us feel as if we’re eavesdropping behind closed doors instead of watching a play. And watch out for that last door!

At “Measure for Measure” at Shakespeare’s Globe, I partook of the full groundling experience, standing in the yard in this temple of the bard. This production, in Elizabethan dress and starring its outstanding artistic director Mark Rylance as the Duke of Vienna, could not be timelier to an American gay person living through the holy war in our politics over homosexuality.

Here, the good Duke, leaves his government in the hands of a moralist, Angelo, who takes the law to extremes and condemns a young adulterer to death. How refreshing to see the Duke tie up everything at play’s end by having everyone marry—the good, the bad and himself. His liberal solution left the audience cheering, even those who had been standing for three hours. Running through September 24.

Nothing beats “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed under the stars at the Open Air Regents Park. Ian Talbot’s production might or might not prove a hit inside a Broadway house, but on a cool Saturday night it was magical, even if the faeries looked like they’d just escaped from a cancer hospice. Russ Abbott, a veteran performer in his first Shakespeare, stole the show. Hee haw! Unfortunately, this production closes September 11.

Three Stars

You can forget your troubles at “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the National’s big house, the Olivier . It is sheer fun, especially Desmond Barritt as the slave Pseudolus and Sam Kelly as Senex, the lecherous father of Hero. This may be Stephen Sondheim at his most superficial, but credit his enormous talent—and that of Larry Gelbart and Burt Shrevelove—for rigging up a comedy that entertains as much as this one does more than 40 years on. Through November 2.

“Iphegenia at Aulis” has been translated for our times—or at least pre-World War II Britain—in Katie Mitchell’s startling re-imagining of Euripides’s drama about sacrificing our children to war. Whether we cut our daughter’s throat to appease the gods or send our kids to Iraq to please the neo-cons, human sacrifice is involved and it is hard to watch. The despair of Clytemnestra (Kate Duchêne) at the loss of her Iphegenia (Hattie Morahan) echoes down the centuries to the Midwestern mom in “Fahrenheit 9/11” collapsing across from the White House over the death of her son in Bush’s war.

A caveat: Yes, we all know Achilles (Justin Salinger) is homosexual. But he was a great warrior. Why go for the easy comic relief of making him a character out of “Are You Being Served?” It is cheap and lazy. This show closes September 7.

“Guantanamo: ‘Honour Bound to Defend Freedom’” is already in New York while continuing at the New Ambassador’s in London, though only until September 4, after breaking out of the fringe Tricycle Theatre. This searing docudrama about British citizens wrongfully ensnared in the roundup of alleged terrorists makes a great and dangerous addition to the shows being offered to the delegates and protesters at the Republican National Convention, now at the 45 Bleecker Street Theater (with tickets available at TicketMaster.com).

“Old Times” at the Donmar Warehouse is Harold Pinter at his most Pintery, an hour and 30 minutes of silence, explosive hostility and resignation—all exchanged by a husband and wife and her friend who she has not seen in 20 years and all performed behind a mesh screen. Jeremy Northam is a bundle of nerves instead his usual suave leading man. Gina McKee as his laconic wife and Helen McGrory as her outgoing friend balance the proceedings perfectly. Again, this show closes September 4.

Two Stars

I saw a Tom Stoppard at the National’s Cottesloe, too, but it was unfortunately the great man himself in the audience, not represented on the stage. Rebecca Lenkiewicz is an accomplished actress, but “The Night Season,” her second play, is a deeply undramatic story of a modern Irish family steeped in chaos, loaded with gratuitous obscenity and somewhat redeemed by a few amusing gags, but no poetry and little ear for Irish speech that Conor McPherson captures so well. The acting, however, is uniformly fine. This play runs through November 17.

Give the National Theatre credit for reviving Marivaux’s 17th century “The False Servant,” a tale of cross-dressing and intrigue in love among some minor nobility. But even in Martin Crimp’s new translation at the Cottesloe, it still sounds more like a treatise than a play. Good to see Charlotte Rampling back on stage as the Duchess, but as good an actress as Nancy Carroll is, her Chevalier is about as convincing as a man as Julie Andrews was in “Victor/Victoria.” A stunning mirrored set by Paul Brown is a saving grace. The show runs through September 15.

Still Going and Coming Up

“Democracy,” Michael Frayn’s absorbing drama of Willy Brandt is going strong at Wyndham’s until October 9.

“Journey’s End,” R.C. Sherriff’s elegiac one-set 1929 play about male bonding in the trenches of World War I is taking bookings through April.

The prolific David Hare takes on Bush and Rumsfeld in “Stuff Happens” at the National’s Olivier through November 6—another one that would do more good running in swing states before the U.S. election.

If you missed the terrific “Bat Boy: the Musical” in New York in 2001, it is in the West End at the Shaftsbury in previews now and running until October 30.

And Elton John’s much anticipated musical of “Billy Elliot,” about a young working class ballet dancer, is set to open March 24 and run through September of next year. Stephen Daldry, director of the movie, will helm this show, too, with his ex-partner Ian McNeil as lighting designer.

For more information, go to londontheatre.co.uk.

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