First stop is the Royal National Theatre, where director Trevor Nunn has Tom Stoppard's new trilogy, The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck, a big-cast epic about romantics and revolutionaries set in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. The company also presents Vincent in Brixton, a fictional account of Vincent van Gogh's real-life stay in London as a young aspiring artist. The most chilling offering is the aptly named Frozen, a three-character play about the mother of a murdered young girl and the serial killer who committed the crime. Like many new plays, Frozen centers on a straight-from-the-headlines story; unlike many others, it goes deep in exploring its painful subject. Another controversial play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, is running in the West End. It's a dark (very dark) comedy about terrorism that received glowing reviews when produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company last year. The story is focused on the Irish Troubles, but its implications and its matter-of-fact mélange of offhand humor and cruelty might hit close to home for jittery post-9/11 audiences.
London has its fair share of safer fare, of course, from grand-scale musicals to Shakespeare and other classics. In the former category, the biggest hit is a smashing My Fair Lady, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. This revival, also directed by Nunn, is notable for its fluid staging -- some musical numbers move from one full set to another to yet another in an effortless glide. Since the theater is two blocks from Covent Garden, where much of the story takes place, the theatrical design neatly echoes the real world just outside the door. The production is also notable for its fidelity to George Bernard Shaw's original play Pygmalion: As in Shaw's version, this Henry Higgins is not so likable. Nunn also highlights the issues of the post-World War I era, including women's suffrage and labor/class conflicts. All in all, the show is a theatrical triumph and a popular one.
Another crowd-pleaser is Riverdance, the Celtic dance and music spectacle that has been reworked to include some flamenco, Cossack dancing, and African-American jazz. The result is entertaining, but the new, expressive dance additions only tend to emphasize the limitations of traditional Irish jigs. Unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool Celtophile, two hours of this is one hour too much. Other hits include the ubiquitous Mamma Mia!, an Abba songfest that has already visited South Florida with a touring production; and a kid-friendly musical version of the one Ian Fleming book that did not feature James Bond, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The classics are also rife on U.K. stages but with decidedly mixed results. Peter Hall's production of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan was dismissed as stiff and static by many critics, though Vanessa Redgrave received good notices in the title role. The Royal Shakespeare Company has been going through some turbulent times, abruptly ending its long-term tenancy at the Barbican, then announcing the end of Adrian Noble's contentious directorship. But the company has something interesting going on at its Stratford theater, staging some rarely seen plays from contemporaries of Shakespeare; one of those is John Fletcher's The Island Princess, an adventure tale of kidnap, rescue, and revenge set in seventeenth-century Indonesia. The production features live gamelan music and a simple but expressive production design but is marred by histrionic, hammy acting. Shakespeare himself is played everywhere, from the battlefield of Hastings on the English Channel to at least a dozen plays staged in London at any given time. The results are uneven: Two productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream both fail, lacking inspiration and emotional commitment. The U.K. certainly has more than its share of bad (and, what's worse, boring) acting and directing.
Perhaps the best choice for Shakespeare is a remarkable Twelfth Night at the rebuilt Globe Theatre, replete with the thatched roof and elaborate carved decorations of the original (or as close as researchers can ascertain from contemporary drawings and descriptions). The sightlines and acoustics are excellent, and the detailed, ornate reconstruction transports the event back to Shakespeare's time. Tim Carroll's production commemorates the 400th anniversary of this lovely, bittersweet comedy by employing "original practices," meaning that the production adheres to stage techniques and technology available to the original production. No recorded music is used; instead, a nimble ensemble of onstage musicians plays period instruments. The production is performed in daylight for matinees, and the evening shows use general lighting, not contemporary theatrical lighting instruments. Even the costumes are in step: No modern zippers, snaps, or laces are used, even on undergarments.
Most important, "original practices" means an all-male cast. The result is a rather startling, fresh theatrical event. The all-male casting might be considered a gimmick concept, but in performance it actually enhances and clarifies the text, as the gender confusion is given the real focus and weight it deserves. This production, a rare, remarkable fusion of scholarship and stagecraft, brings emotional commitment and textual clarity, mining many levels of meaning -- social, sexual, and comedic nuances are clear and entertaining, a far cry from the generalized, unconvincing acting usually encountered in Shakespearean productions. A standout in this company is its artistic director, Mark Rylance, who gives a thoroughly charming and plausible performance as Countess Olivia. Rylance is spectacular as the flustered, love-addled lady, with a wide range of emotional subtext as well as a spot-on comedic sense: This Olivia brings down the house with a simple "Oh ..." This is a far cry from Rylance's recent turn as Jay, the sex-hungry tough guy in Patrice Chereau's film Intimacy, which briefly played South Florida this spring.
And speaking of Intimacy, a stage version of same receives its world premiere this summer at the Theatre Royal in the city of Bath, part of an exciting season indeed. Bath has been a resort city since the Roman times; more than a few plays have premiered at the Theatre Royal. Along with Intimacy, season highlights include The Distance From Here, a world premiere by American whiz kid Neil LaBute; Damsels in Distress, a new comic trilogy from Alan Ayckbourn; and a revival of Abigail's Party, a 1977 play by Mike Leigh, who has since found acclaim as a writer and director of films (Life Is Sweet, Topsy Turvy).
Comparisons of this rich theatrical banquet to our own South Florida scene might seem both few and unfair. London is old and filled with traditions; Florida is young and has very few. But comparing the robust health of London theater with the spindly condition of the local scene engenders an obvious if difficult question: How do we bring what we have up toward the level of theatrical success seen in London? Are there lessons to be learned that might be applied to the performing arts in Florida? Indeed there are; I'll be addressing them in a future column.