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By Glenn Loney, September 18, 2002

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] London Calling
[02] Tom Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia"
[03] "Vincent [Van Gogh] in Brixton"
[04] Irish Terrorists: "Lieutenant of Inishmore"
[05] "Golden Ass" at the Globe
[06] "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"
[07] D'Oyly Carte's New "Mikado"
[08] Festival Hall "Follies"
[09] "The Servant" as a Dance/Mime Drama

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In a brief week of London theatre-going—with no time to seek out press-tickets—I was fortunate enough to get seats for everything I wanted to see. Except the Andrew Lloyd Webber production of Bombay Dreams. This is not a new show by Lord Webber—it's only produced by him: Cats comes to Bollywood?

Actually, for New Yorkers, a stroll through the West End is an exercise in dejà vu. Most of the long-running shows are also long-running shows on Broadway. Nothing new there…

Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues is/are on view all over Europe, so it's good that you can see it in English in England, instead of in German in Berlin.

Among other London standards are Art, Blood Brothers, Chicago, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Full Monty, Grease, The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, Les Misérables, The Mousetrap [now and forever!], My Fair Lady, Noises Off, Phantom of the Opera, Sleuth, Stones in His Pockets, and The Woman in Black.

I missed the American stars Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan in On an Average Day at the Comedy. I feared it might actually be an average play.

Recent revivals include Michael Frayn's Benefactors, Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera. And, of course, Shakespeare Revivals: Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, & Twelfth Night.

Still—despite all the currently listed productions—New York theatre-regulars could probably see all the important new stagings in a week or so. If they plan and book ahead…

As I am packing for departure to Zimbabwe—Victoria Falls, not Harare—I can only list briefly what I especially enjoyed in London. No time for extended commentary.

The Tom Stoppard Trilogy
At the Royal National Theatre:


For once, Tom Stoppard has written an extremely interesting and very complex drama that is not also an ingeniously constructed mystery like Arcadia, cloaked in witty word-games and veiled allusions.

Actually, The Coast of Utopia, his first drama in five years is not one, but three, plays. Each is self-contained, but they are so inter-related that the greatest impact of the dramas can only be felt by seeing them seriatim on one day.

The trio of dramas—about leading 19th century Russian revolutionaries—requires a large cast of consummate actors, often doubling and tripling. As many of the characters are from wealthy backgrounds, the impressive period costumes are not from the National's costume-storage. And there are a lot of them, as the action moves over the years from Russia, to Paris, to London—where many of those who were on the run after the disastrously failed European Revolution of 1848 went into exile.

Even on a revolving stage—with William Dudley's brilliant use of large-scale video and still-projections on a series of seven panels semi-circling the Olivier stage—this is too complicated and costly a production to be imported to BAM. Or to have a run on Broadway. It could, of course, be done more simply, but that would probably slow down the pacing considerably.

It is not another Nicholas Nickleby. It is just too large a production. So, if you are interested in Stoppard's work—and this is his most distinguished achievement thus far—you may have to go to London to see it.

In the very best sense, The Coast of Utopia is Chekhovian—which is good, as Stoppard says he had always wanted to write a play in the vein of the Master, and about Russians.

Like Shaw's best dramas, the core all the dramas is about a War of Ideas. And the battle of words, programs, and strategies is fascinating, constantly mentally challenging. Attention Must Be Paid. No falling asleep. This is not All My Sons.

In this case, it is a battle of competing Utopian Visions—advanced by both the thoughtful and the rabid—conceived to improve the lives of Russian serfs and workers by reformers who had almost no knowledge or experience of the people for whom they willed these Utopias.

But, unlike Shaw—who customarily gives the best lines and the most striking explanations to the character who is his own mouthpiece for Fabian Socialism—Stoppard is fairly even-handed.

He has done his research—it must have taken all of those five years!—thoroughly, so he can present Michael Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, Vissarion Belinsky, the Hungarian Revolutionary Laos Kossuth, and even Karl Marx intellectually and emotionally fully frontal.

Herzen—who publishes an émigré Russian revolutionary magazine—is endlessly lending money and feeding the others at home and abroad. He seems almost the only level-headed leader of the lot, but, of course, he's not really a leader. And his vision of Socialist Reform for Russia has nothing to do with reality.

Finally, it is the Russian novelist, Turgenev—who often drops by Herzen's homes, as he follows his beloved opera-star, Pauline Viardot—who has the distance to see things as they are. He may be said to stand for Stoppard: an amused Voice of Reason, among such militant stridency.

Now, if the only Revolutions you know are the American one of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, you may have missed the fact that Les Misérables deals with the failed revolution between 1789 and 1848.

The Revolutions of 1848 failed so dismally that many detested European Monarchies ended even more firmly entrenched. And prepared to crush future uprisings. So Richard Wagner had to run from Dresden for his life: A price was on his head!

If Central and European History is not your thing, don't despair. Stoppard's trilogy is so brilliantly constructed, so witty, engaging, and human, so handsomely staged, that you will still have an unforgettable experience in the theatre.

You may also learn something about the Roots of Communism, in the process.

Stoppard's first drama in the trio, Voyage, opens on the family estate of the later rabid, almost mindless Revolutionary, Michael Bakunin—who ended interested only in destroying existing tyrannies, with no real program for what would replace them.

Michael [Douglas Henshall] is a handsome young man, infatuated with each new German philosophy he discovers. He is adored by his indulgent parents and idolized by his sisters, whose lives he manages to damage.

These four girls long to go to Moscow, to escape the provincialism of Premuhkino, the large family estate. This is, in effect, Stoppard's homage to Chekhov: The Four Sisters, if you will.

Interestingly, Stoppard shows how little interest or compassion the Bakunins show for their serfs, even though Michael, intellectually at least, wants to better their lot.

As the fortunes—and misfortunes—of Michael, his parents, his sisters, and his friends develop from 1833 to 1844, the seeds of the failures of 1848 can already be seen.

But that's only the first act on the great country estate. The second act's 14 scenes intersect with the 9 scenes of Act I, but at this point the audience sees some of the same characters in Moscow and Petersburg, where there is a great deal more going on.

A constant complaint among all the would-be reformers—often more important than making life better for Russia's People—is the cultural and social backwardness of Mother Russia. "Europe" is referred to as some place to the West. Russia isn't part of that continent. Not yet…

Shipwreck, the second play, deals with the prelude and postlude to the failed 1848 uprisings. From 1846 to 1852, the action ranges from a rural estate near Moscow to Salzbrunn and Dresden, Paris, and Nice. The Revolutionaries are on the run, looking for safe-havens. But not giving up.

The final drama, Salvage, finds the survivors in London—still hitting Herzen for loans and free meals—trying to salvage something from the wreckage of their Utopian Dreams. And, of course, still unable to make any compromises with the Utopias of their friends, colleagues, or enemies.

Only Karl Marx seems to have a handle on the problem. But then, only the now-pathetic Michael Bakunin is as bloody-minded as Marx. And Bakunin has never been able to discipline himself, let alone lead a Revolution.

This is a brilliant conception, amazing in execution, and breath-taking in production. Trevor Nunn directed, but he has a more interesting revolutionary material here than he did with Les Misérables.

To list the entire cast would make me miss my malaria-shots for South Africa. So… Take plane to London. See this tripartite wonder for yourself!

From the National Theatre
To West End Wyndham's

Vincent in Brixton [****]

Yes, Vincent Van Gogh could speak English. And, yes, he did rent a room in Brixton while he was working for Goupil & Co—an international art-dealer—in London. At this time, however, he had no idea that he would himself become an artist.

He wrote some very interesting letters home, especially to brother Theo. His eye for details in nature and in people, as described in his missives, suggests a painter's awareness.

Nicholas Wright has used the letters and researches about Vincent's two visits to London to create a most unusual drama. Strongly staged by Richard Eyre, it has transferred from the Royal National Theatre to Wyndham's in the West End.

As Van Gogh's mother was to blame his later mental state on his stay with the Loyer Family in Brixton, Wright has imagined what might have happened there.

In the drama, Vincent [Jochum Ten Haaf] falls almost instantly in love with his new landlady's daughter, Eugenie [Alice Patten]. But she is already promised to Mrs. Loyer's star-lodger, Sam [Paul Nichols], a former orphan lad who she hopes will prove himself a real artist.

The embarrassingly awkward Vincent transfers his affections—and loneliness—to the older woman, Ursula Loyer [Clare Higgins]. There is a momentary epiphany, coldly squelched when Vincent's cleanliness-obsessed sister Anna [Emma Handy] comes over to London to reclaim him for Christ and Family.

The aftermath—on Vincent's last visit to London—is both sad and almost ludicrous. He is spouting a pious Dutch Evangelical vision of The Christian Life which would delight the Rev. Jerry Falwell. It certainly does not fall well on poor Mrs. Loyer's ears.

His self-centered self-righteousness—and almost total insensitivity to others—makes it difficult to imagine that this is the man who wrote such sensitive letters and painted such marvelous pictures of Nature and People.

Is this a play and a production for Broadway? Perhaps not, if audiences are only interested in Van Gogh's Sunflowers. But this is a drama which must be seen here, so perhaps the Manhattan Theatre Club will do the honors? Or Lincoln Center?

From the Royal Shakespeare in Stratford:

The Lieutenant of Inishmore [****]

If you thought The Beauty Queen of Leenane was a bit off-the-map in its depiction of spiritually and physically poverty-stricken rural Irish, you are in for a really bloody—but also hilarious—shocker with Martin McDonagh's new Black Comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Its Anti-Hero, Padraig, cannot be in the IRA because he's way too crazy and violent. Even as a lieutenant in the INLA, he creates his own splinter-group. He thinks nothing of blowing up a chips-shop full of people, but he goes ballistic when he comes home to discover his mangy old black cat, Wee Thomas, has been run over in the road.

At one point, he turns on his comrades and guns them down. The second act begins as his old Dad and a neighbor chum are hacking and sawing up the bodies for disposal. This looks like a scene from that long-departed Parisian theatre-genre, the Grand Guignol.

But the graphically recreated and re-enacted murders and atrocities of the French Guignol were only devised to shock the audience. They concealed no social or aesthetic agendas.

McDonagh is, in effect, hacking up the libertarian pretensions of the IRA with his funny/horrible satire. He goes far beyond the parodic outrages of Joe Orton.

At the Garrick, the production—directed by Wilson Milam for the RSC/Stratford—features Elaine Cassidy, Glenn Chapman, Trevor Cooper, Domhnall Gleason, and Peter Gowan, among others.

The play arrives at an opportune time. Since 9/11, little has been heard about the exploits of IRA Terrorists, supposedly fighting for a Free Ireland. Or to sock it to the hated British… Their time—and their popularity in US Irish pubs—may have passed.

At Sam Wanamaker's Globe Theatre III:

Apuleius/Oswald's The Golden Ass [****]

Mark Rylance is charming as a lustful young man—eager for sexual adventures and mastery of magic—in the Globe' Theatre's expert adaptation of Lucius Apuleius's classic transformation tale, The Golden Ass.

Rylance is even more delightful as a much-abused donkey—transformed by a witch's magic ointment—who discovers that he still has a man's feelings for women, although he now has the equipment of an almost emblematically endowed animal. He also discovers how painful it is to be a "dumb beast," always being kicked and starved.

As with Ovid's Metamorphoses, Lucius' picaresque & episodic adventures include a number of famous legends from antiquity. The forbidden love of Cupid and Psyche is one of these, presented with great style and humor on the Bankside Globe Theatre stage.

Considering the recent Broadway success of Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of the tales from Ovid, Peter Oswald's London stage-version of Apuleius might also find a large audience in Manhattan. It has original music, marvelous costumes, unusual props, and almost unbelievable stories of gods and men.

A tale of a gang of thieves—which suggests the Ali Baba sequence in The Arabian Nights—is presented as a gang of cowboy-outlaws in the Old West. Puppets, Vaudevillians, Acrobats—you name it: have all been enlisted to help Rylance on his mythic journey.

It comes to a glorious conclusion when Lucius undergoes an ancient secret cult initiation—rather like the Eleusinian Mysteries—which makes him an acolyte of the Earth Mother, Isis. And frees him from the donkey's ears, body, and prodigious member.

The color, energy, humor, and ingenuity of this production would make it an excellent candidate for the New Victory Theatre's 42nd Street program of innovative productions which often have classical roots.

But the X-rated nature of many of the tales in The Golden Ass—and the riotous way in which they are acted out in the Globe production—puts them off-limits for youth-audiences. Maybe high-school classes would be OK with this? College students should love it!

The Globe acting-ensemble is a total delight, almost everyone playing two or three different characters. Tim Carroll, as Master of Play, staged, with Laura Hopkins providing colorful costumes and props.

For once, a London theatre program was well worth the price. The mythic roots of the play, the significance of rituals of Life, Death, and Rebirth, the mysteries of transformations are all discussed in interesting essays.

SLEEPY TIME IN THE ATHENIAN WOODS--Pyjamas for Globe Theatre's "Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2002.

This is the one London show for which I was generously given the press-privilege. But then I was helping Sam Wanamaker from the first on the Globe Project by reporting its progress each summer. And my own stone—with GLENN LONEY incised upon it—stands right inside Door Three of the new Globe.

Also on view during the current Globe season are an all-male—just as Shakespeare would have had to cast it—Twelfth Night. And an attractive contemporary Midsummer Night's Dream with some of the cast in PJs.

Among the many Shakespeare-related souvenirs on sale in the Globe shop, there are now original copies of plays and other books from Shakespeare's own times. The famous London booksellers, Quaritch, has its own corner with some handsome volumes for sale. An incomplete copy of the Shakespeare Folio seemed a bargain, if you didn't mind missing the title-page.

Musicals Old & New—

At the Palladium:

FLYING AUTO AT THE PALLADIUM--"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" triumphs. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2002.

Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [****]

If you saw and loved the film, you will have to see the stage-musical version of Ian Fleming's charmingly fey Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This should be an all-time smasheroo of a Broadway hit. If New York producers can afford to mount this outrageously excessive staging as it is now being presented at the London Palladium…

With the most beautifully made three-dimensional set-props you have ever seen—including a great windmill with immense rotating blades and several remarkable Rube Goldberg machines—this has to be one of the most costly musical stagings ever.

Even if the fantastic events in the turbulent plot seem to defy any kind of logic—including dramatic probability—there is still a traditional Disney-like framework and, of course, a rousing Happy Ending. And the many songs also will seem familiar, even to those who never saw the movie.

But, along the way, it often seems that the Inventor-Daddy, Caractacus, is not going to survive. Let alone save his children from baddies, who are surely Pre-Axis of Evil.

As with The Producers on Broadway, just when you think they have spent all their budget for lavish costumes, fantastic props, and dazzling scenery, an amazing new production-number suddenly unfolds across the stage.

The Politically Correct may be appalled to discover that the villains are the dictatorial ruler and his cohorts of a small Balkan nation which rhymes with Bulgaria. Even their outrageous costumes are Vulgarian!

Even with the talents of Michael Ball, Anton Rodgers, Brian Blessed, and Richard O'Brien, the real star of the show is the remarkable flying automobile. Once it spreads its wings, it even flies out OVER THE AUDIENCE!

Adrian Noble—who earned his directorial spurs at the RSC—has created something wonderful with this show. Jeremy Sams adapted the film for the stage, with Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman providing music and lyrics.

At the Art Deco Savoy Theatre:

GILBERT & SULLIVAN AT THE SAVOY THEATRE--D'Oyly Carte mounts fresh new "Mikado." Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2002.

D'Oyly Carte's Bright New Mikado[****]

Any longtime Gilbert & Sullivan fan—at least those who remember broadcasts of Isadore Godfrey and the New Promenade Orchestra—can still respect the faithful stewardship of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company over the long decades in keeping the G & S operettas alive.

But it was a great strain to have to watch some of the sadly shop-worn and routinely performed D'Oyly Carte productions in the Old Days.

So the idea of seeing the D'Oyly Carte's Mikado in the beautiful Art Deco Savoy Theatre at first seemed a bottom-of-the-list choice. Still, I do love that theatre—not so long ago damaged by fire—and, of course, the music for the show.

What a wonderful surprise! This new Mikado production is fresh and bright, wonderfully sung, hilariously acted. Director Ian Judge has devised new actions, interactions, and reactions which make the show a new experience after all.

With its mixture in costumes of Edwardian and traditional Japanese, it suggests the West's unwanted economic/political invasion of Japan at the end of the 19th century. But the settings have a very stylish Post-Modernist quality to them.

Obviously, some of the clever visual ideas and witty character traits from Jonathan Miller's brilliant staging of The Mikado for the English National Opera have found their way onto the Savoy stage. They look right at home.

Brit comic Jasper Carrott isn't really a singer, but—as Ko Ko, the Lord High Executioner—he knows how to point a funny line and hold the entire production in focus. Fortunately, as the evening progressed, his voice became stronger and more secure.

With brand-new Gilbert & Sullivan stagings like this one, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company could begin international touring again. Not to Zimbabwe, but perhaps New York, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco?

At the Royal Festival Hall:

FESTIVAL HALL "FOLLIES"--Gray skies outside: Dynamic Sondheim staging inside. Photo: ©Glenn Loney/2002.

Sondheim's Follies Revisited [****]

With only one performance-slot left, I thought I should do my duty and see the revival of The Constant Wife. True, I had dallied with the idea of crossing the Thames on the new Hungerford Footbridge to see Follies at the Festival Hall. But…

But the Royal Festival Hall isn't very royal, after all. And it is a great big barn, not a musical theatre.

In fact, it's essentially a concert-stage with a lot of seats out front. How could they do Follies justice, even though it was advertised as "fully staged"?

Then I remembered interviewing Hal Prince as he was in rehearsal with Follies. He noted that Boris Aronson's setting was nothing more than some stairs and platforms, flanked by the battered walls of an old theatre being demolished.

In the event, that worked very well on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre. In fact, it could work very well even in a bare room.

On the great concert stage of the Festival Hall—with painted drops on a forest of scaffolding and a grand staircase which could be moved about in sections—this production seemed even more grand than the original.

Except for the Loveland Sequence, which at the Festival Hall had to be suggested with glamorous costumes, rather than fantastic scenery descending from the flies.

The entire show was wonderful, a sweet/sad experience, with Sondheim's magical music and haunting lyrics. And there were the old stars strutting their stuff again.

Featured were Kathryn Evans, Louise Gold, Diane Langton, and Clarke Peters. And no less a personality than Henry Goodman—who had briefly been seen in New York not so long ago. Paul Kerryson staged, with Paul Farnsworth designing.

Unfortunately, if you are planning an Autumn theatre-week in London, this was the final performance before the fall concert season. But they will have Peter Pan on stage for Panto Season!

I never did get to see Constant Wife, but then there's no musical score. Maybe Steve Sondheim might explore this or another Somerset Maugham play for a new musical?

Other Entertainments—

Transformation at the National Theatre—

Matthew Bourne's New Choreographed Drama:
Play Without Words/the Housewarming [*****]

The Transformation season at the Royal National Theatre was not about shows such as the Golden Ass/Metamorphoses. This has been a May-September series featuring "New Theatres, New Writing, New Prices."

"A five-month season presenting thirteen world premieres in two theatres—one transformed and one entirely new," said the brochure.

The entire program looked very impressive, drawing on the talents of the likes of Deborah Warner, Fiona Shaw, Simon Bent, Gary Owen, Simon Bowen, Kathryn Hunter, and, oh yes, Aristophanes!

Unfortunately, the Lyttleton Theatre had been transformed, with scaffolding closing off the rear reaches of its orchestra. The lower section had been conformed into a broad narrow arc, possibly to make the audience feel more involved?

What this really looked like, however, was a large theatre that the management can no longer manage to fill with spectators. Either because the prices were previously too high. Or the productions did not draw.

Matthew Bourne's fascinating Play Without Words/the Housewarming in fact did not draw very well the matinée that I saw it. But this was summer midweek, and only old folks had come out to take advantage of the Senior Concession.

Nonetheless, this is such a dazzling, sexually suggestive show that it could draw audiences on Broadway. Just as Bourne's all-male Swan Lake did some seasons ago.

Collaborating with designer Lez Brotherston—who also worked with him on his Car Man/Carmen revision—Bourne has obviously been influenced by that now classic Joseph Losey film, The Servant, in which a sinister Dirk Bogarde gradually came to dominate his weak-willed employer.

Against a London skyline cut-out, a revolving stair-unit served very well for a house-core, setting scenes and facilitating movement.

The Master [Anthony] and the Servant [Prentice] were triple-cast, with all three dancer/mimes on view, revealing various aspects of the characters. The Master's fiancée, Glenda, was also revealed in three versions, though the new maid, Shiela—a tart picked up on the street—was only double-cast.

All the performers are trained dancers, as well as capable actors. And the narrative and character movement Bourne has devised for them—developed in rehearsal with their input as well—certainly qualifies as choreographic-acting.

Both hetero and homo-sexuality were smartly, seductively, even sinisterly suggested. And the company are all very sexy performers. A production of Matthew Bourne's ensemble, New Adventures, this is a powerful visual adventure which should soon be seen in New York.

In fact, it is more interesting and challenging than any one of the three segments of the prize-winning Contact. And it has the advantage of Terry Davies' live score, rather than recorded accompaniment. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2002. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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