Volume 80, Number 35 | January 27 - February 2, 2011
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Theatre

A riot of revivals in London
Jacobi’s “Lear” tops list — and is New York-bound

BY ANDY HUMM

What’s old is new on the London stage. I saw a lot of revivals among nine plays at Yuletide in the West End, most of which were like fine wines –– a 1603 Shakespeare, an 1895 Wilde, a 1938 J.B. Priestly and a 1980 Aykbourn, along with a few new plays. I even saw Sheridan’s “The Rivals” (1775) at the very Theatre Royal Haymarket where it was revived in 1821 to open the “new” building of what started as the “Little Theatre in the Hay” in 1721.

The oldest and greatest in the lot, “King Lear,” made my trip to “Frozen Britain” –– as the BBC blared for days –– worth it. Seeing “Lear” in the intimate, 250-seat Donmar Warehouse (to February 5; donmarwarehouse.com/pl114.html) was like having a volcanic domestic dispute erupt in a living room. With a furious and riveting Derek Jacobi in the lead, a splendid supporting cast and brisk direction by Michael Grandage, it was almost too much to bear witnessing –– the true test of a great “Lear.” (A very good recent vintage Lear, Sir Ian McKellen, was in the audience.) Grandage, the artistic director of the Donmar who gave us the Tony-winning “Red” last season, continues his run of excellence.

This dark tale is brightly lit on a bare stage surrounded by sloppily whitewashed walls. The kingdom is in transition and the bad relations are moving in.

The intensity and truth with which these players interacted and drove the story forward made me forget that I was watching a 17th-century tragedy in verse. It felt as if it were really happening, not just being declaimed — though the incomparable Shakespeare poetry comes through. And I was blown away by the unique and subtle way of handling the storm scene. I’ll let that be a surprise because there are ways you can see it soon.

This production is being telecast worldwide as part of the NT Live series (nationaltheatre.org.uk/61172/venues-amp-booking/usa-venues.html#list) around the world, including NYU’s Skirball on February 3. This cast will appear in the flesh at BAM (bam.org/view.aspx?pid=2653) from April 28 to June 5.

How Jacobi’s ferocious performance will play on a flat screen and in the larger BAM Harvey Theater time will tell, but he’s the best Lear I’ve ever seen. Gina McKee’s oily Goneril, Gwilym Lee’s tender Edgar, and the Earl of Gloucester of Paul Jesson (who played the bluff dad of a gay son in “Cock” at the Royal Court last season) were exceptionally fine, but there wasn’t a wrong note in a taut three hours.

Still another tale of a screwed-up family gets a new twist in Matthew Bourne’s “Cinderella,” his dance version at Sadler’s Wells (to Jan. 19; sadlerswells.com/show/Matthew-Bourne-Cinderella) set in the London blitz of 70 years ago. Bourne first produced this show in 1997, but it is said to be substantially revised.

While I’m partial to his “Swan Lake,” just revived in New York, and “Play without Words,” “Cinderella” brings out all the darkness, humor and joy he’s famous for in this fairy tale choreographed to Prokofiev’s magnificent score.

Kerry Biggin as Cinderella and Sam Archer as her RAF ace beloved shine, as do Lez Brotherston’s breathtaking sets and costumes. There are even several sweet tributes to gays in the military. This show should become a perennial.

Written in 1938 and set 30 years earlier, J.B. Priestly’s “When We Are Married” (at the Garrick to February 26; whenwearemarried.com) concerns three upright, uptight, upper middle class couples on the verge of celebrating their mutual 25th anniversaries in small-town England. But instead of cutesy nostalgia, the characters get twisted in hilarious knots by the revelation that unknowingly they may never have been legally married.

Under Christopher Luscombe’s direction, it’s a fun send-up of marriage with a great ensemble including Michele Dotrice, Maureen Lipman and Rosemary Ashe as the wives and comic great Sam Kelly as one of the husbands.

Marriage is also center stage in Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” getting a worthy revival at the Vaudeville (to February 26; vaudeville-theatre.co.uk) directed by Lindsay Posner, with sumptuous sets by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Alexander Hanson, so good as Frederick Egerman, the male lead in the Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music,” is equally fine as Sir Robert Chiltern, whose successful life in business and politics is upended by a shady request from Mrs. Chevely (Samantha Bond, in a deliciously malevolent turn), his own past and being put on a pedestal by his noble wife (Rachel Stirling).

The drama is compelling, the comedy a bit less so, as Wilde’s aphorisms were not landing with the shock and laughter they ought to. Not sure if that’s due to Elliot Cowan — who is an able actor — as the Wilde stand-in Lord Goring, to the direction or to the fact that the play is more than a century old.

I had never seen Sheridan’s “The Rivals” (at the Royal Haymarket to February 26; theatre-royal-haymarket.com) and was happy to be introduced to it by this stellar production led by the delightful Penelope Keith (as Mrs. Malaprop) and Peter Bowles (as Sir Anthony Absolute), who were co-stars of the old popular BBC comedy “To the Manor Born.” Directed by the legendary Peter Hall, “Rivals” has lavish sets by Simon Hughes. Heterosexual romance has been touted as normative for centuries, but Sheridan makes us see how difficult it can be to negotiate. Tam Williams also shines as Absolute’s son Jack, who tries to win the woman for whom he is intended by pretending to be someone else so that she will really love him. It’s complicated, as they say on Facebook.

Finally, the Tricycle Theatre took a break from the trenchant political theater for which it is known and staged “Midsummer (a play with songs)” (to January 29; tricycle.co.uk), a two-hander about unlikely early middle-aged lovers, written by David Grieg and Gordon McIntyre and performed amiably by Cora Bissett as Helena and Matthew Pidgeon as Bob. It was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival and has considerable charms, yet could do with some judicious trimming –– but please not the priceless chat Bob has with his penis!

Coming up in the West End: For those of you planning trips to London later in the year, here are a few noteworthy productions coming up. You can read more about them and others at londontheatre.co.uk.

Penelope Wilton is in Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” at the Almeida (May 5-July 2);

Danny Boyle is directing “Frankenstein” at the National (February 5-April 17), with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating as the doctor and the monster and choreography by Bill T. Jones, whose “Fela!” opens there January 13 (both will be telecast in New York by NT Live);

Peter Hall is directing “Twelfth Night,” with Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch and Rebecca Hall as Viola at the National’s Cottesloe (January 11-March 2);

Ian Rickson is reviving “The Children’s Hour” at the Comedy Theatre (January 22-April 2), with Keira Knightley, Elizabeth Moss, Ellen Burstyn and Carol Kane;

“The Lord of the Flies” is set for the Open Air in Regent’s Park (May 19-June 18);

Shakespeare’s Globe is offering “All’s Well that Ends Well,” “Much Ado about Nothing,” “Doctor Faustus” and “Anne Boleyn,” among others, including a cover-to-cover reading of the King James Bible for its 400th anniversary!

“War Horse,” which I saw in 2009 and loved, is still running at the New London Theatre and is finally coming to Lincoln Center on March 15. Not to be missed.

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