Despite an initial drop in attendance in the uncertain aftermath of September 11, and the changing of the guard at three major institutions, the London theater scene has rebounded with determination. Across the Thames at the Royal National Theatre, there’s a bracing revival of Harold Pinter’s chilling No Man’s Land. Considered his most enigmatic work (playwright Patrick Marber calls the play “unknowable”), it’s the one that is least revived among his many celebrated plays (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming). In fact, Peter Hall’s original production of No Man’s Land in 1975 at the National, starring Ralph Richardson as Hirst and John Gielgud as Spooner, was so widely praised that only Pinter himself ventured to take on the role of Hirst thereafter.
Today, after twenty-six years, this darkly powerful play returns to the RNT under the author’s direction, and the moonscape of Pinterland has never seemed starker. Critics have hailed its masterful cast, with Corin Redgrave and John Wood giving tour de force performances as Hirst, the debauched writer, and Spooner, the destitute poet he’s met in a pub on Hampstead Heath and taken home to his elegant digs in a desperate search for companionship. There, Spooner is imprisoned in Hirst’s sepulchral study by a pair of sinister servants, where Hirst invites him into an elaborate fantasy that they were once Oxford schoolmates. The scene of outrageous self-delusion–with Redgrave delivering one of Pinter’s most mesmerizing monologues–is hilarious. But ultimately, No Man’s Land is a harrowing portrait of failure, loss of memory and the past–a Lear and his Fool on yet another heath, suffering the terrors of loneliness and old age. It’s also about the inability to write, a fear that plagued Pinter himself in the early 1970s. This is a landmark production of an elusive masterpiece, a haunting, menacing piece of theater that Marber (director of the 2000 revival of The Caretaker, starring Michael Gambon) describes as “clear and lucid as a dream, and like a dream it resists our need to know its meaning…. I’m not entirely sure I know what’s going on in No Man’s Land. But I’m not sure I want to know.”
The writer’s fear is a theme of another revival in London’s season as well–Faith Healer, by the Irish poet-playwright Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come!; Dancing at Lughnasa), which premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1980 and is now being given a luminous production at the Almeida Theatre. This gentle, elegiac play features four monologues by three characters–Frank, an Irish faith healer, part charlatan, part artist, played with self-deprecating charm by Ken Stott (award-winning star of Yazmina Reza’s Art); Grace, his ruined wife, played by Geraldine James (of the BBC’s epic Jewel in the Crown); and Teddy, the seedy talent agent who loves them both, in a remarkable performance by Ian McDiarmid, Almeida’s joint artistic director. These three characters narrate the story, Rashomon-style, of the faith healer’s return to Ireland after years of fruitless one-night stands in Scotland and Wales (he once allegedly healed a group of ten), where he attempts to restore his faltering powers. There he meets his tragic end. Under the delicate direction of Jonathan Kent, a tattered curtain sweeps across an empty stage and works theatrical magic, wiping away one monologue, revealing the next, as these stories interweave into a tapestry of three lives touched by tragedy. Like the faith healer whose powers are fleeting (and, eventually, self-destructive), so too Friel raises questions about the unpredictability of the writer’s gift. In the end, only the gift of faith itself (whether miracles happen or not) and steadfast love abide, as the powers that can heal lives and artists.
In the midst of these distinguished revivals, a combustible new work on stage at the RNT’s Cottesloe Theatre has exploded like a stick of dynamite. Gagarin Way is the first play of a 32-year-old Scottish writer named Gregory Burke, introducing a raw new world to the English-speaking stage and placing new Scottish theater at the table alongside the Irish and the impressive young voices of Conor McPherson (The Weir) and Martin McDonagh (Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Newly arrived from the Traverse Theatre, where it was the hit of the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, Gagarin Way is a fierce black comedy set in the storeroom of a high-tech computer factory in the industrial Scottish county of Fife. A frustrated factory worker, Eddie, and a hapless security guard, Tom, await the arrival of Eddie’s accomplice, Gary, who is executing a scheme to kidnap a visiting multinational executive. Gary arrives with their prey, who is bound and hooded, and as the would-be thugs ponder his fate, they enter into an outrageous philosophical debate on existentialism, globalization, Marxism, anarchy and nihilism to express their disillusionment. The opening discussion on the relationship between Sartre and Genet is especially memorable: “The last thing you need after a hard day’s gibbering pish on the Left Bank about how we’re all subjects among objects is finding out you’re a subject among no as many objects now you’ve got fucking Jean Genet out ay the jail.”
This is a ferociously funny satire of terrorism and its bungling misguidedness (they kidnap the wrong person; Gary refuses to buy bullets as a cost-saving measure)–which takes a sudden, horrific turn and ends in heart-stopping violence. Written in colorful (and profane) Scottish dialect, and directed at dangerous speed by John Tiffany, Gagarin Way is a riotous, unpredictable and ultimately frightening ninety-minute ride of powerful, provocative theater.
An interview in the Daily Telegraph described Burke as a “barely literate dishwasher from the back end of post-industrial Scotland who had never written so much as a postcard, and who had to have ‘who Harold Pinter was’ explained to him when they ran into each other during rehearsals.” This makes the accomplishment of this young, self-educated, first-time playwright all the more striking. Burke comes from a corner of Scotland that was staunchly communist in the 1960s, where streets in the village of Lumphinnans were named after heroes like Yuri Gagarin (hence, the play’s title)–a region that took its politics seriously, with its coal-miner strikes in the 1980s and struggles against multinationals in the 1990s. A “prolapsed Catholic,” as he describes himself, Burke dropped out of Stirling University after two years and “fulfilled a variety of vital roles in the minimum-wage economy,” washing factory floors, working on assembly lines, etc. “I wanted to write a play about economics, it being the dominant (only?) theme in modern politics, and the source of real power in our increasingly globalised times. And I wanted to write about men and our infinite capacity for self-delusion.” An inveterate humorist and storyteller, a keen observer of human behavior and an astute political thinker, Burke–who wrote his play well before September 11–offers terrifying and timely insights into the psychosis of terrorism and obsessive political ideology. His is a new and unique voice, for unique times. A tempest has blown down from Scotland onto the London stage, reminding us that the theater can be a place of prescience and prophesy as well as entertainment.
For those who prefer dry martinis at the theater rather than Molotov cocktails, there’s a sparkling revival of Private Lives at the Albery Theatre on Charing Cross Road. This delectable drawing-room comedy by Noel Coward, crown prince of the genre, premiered in the West End in 1930, starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and then went on to Broadway in 1931. It was one of his most popular and widely produced plays; Coward attributed its lasting success to “irreverent allusions to copulation…causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office.” This comedic gem (written, legend goes, in four feverish days holed up in a Shanghai hotel) is celebrated for its insights into marital manners and mores, as well as its scintillating dialogue (“Don’t quibble, Sybil”) and unparalleled wit (playwright Christopher Hampton praises its portrayal of “bickering as sex pursued by other means”). Currently, it is enjoying a sleek revival with the sophisticated duet of Allan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, under the smart direction of Howard Davies.
Another revival from that glittering era also graces the West End. Director Peter Hall has resurrected The Royal Family, the George Kaufman/Edna Ferber valentine to New York’s roaring theatrical twenties. This delicious old chestnut evokes all the glamour of Broadway’s famed 1927-28 season when it premiered, which also included Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi), the Gershwins’ Funny Face (featuring Fred and Adele Astaire), Rodgers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee, O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Helen Hayes in Coquette, Mae West in Diamond Lil and the Hammerstein/Kern Show Boat. Sir Peter’s revival of The Royal Family is its first London production since Noel Coward’s in 1930, when Laurence Olivier starred as the flamboyant Tony Cavendish. The Cavendishes are of course meant to be the Barrymores, the First Family of the American Theater, with its gifted siblings Ethel, John and Lionel (Drew, Hollywood’s current Barrymore, is John’s granddaughter). The colorful Cavendishes are played by members of Britain’s own theatrical royalty–including the charismatic young Toby Stephens (son of Dame Maggie Smith) and the commanding Dame Judi Dench (whose performance in the newly released film Iris confirms her regal reputation). The star of this showbiz revival, however, is a golden era in the Broadway theater. There is also a bouquet of musicals, including the elaborate (if controversial) South Pacific at the RNT, directed by Trevor Nunn, in commemoration of the centennial of Richard Rodgers’s birth. In the West End, there is the RNT’s pleasing My Fair Lady starring Jonathan Pryce, and Peter Nichols’s irreverent Privates on Parade (a musical satire on the postwar British military in the Far East) is diverting audiences at the cozy Donmar Warehouse (where the current Cabaret now playing in New York was born).
Challenging, moving or simply entertaining, it’s a season of healing and faith in the theater.