Shows close; that’s life and death upon the wicked stage. But do shows open in the hot weather? Not ever. No, never. (Well, hardly ever. “Hairspray” came to town two Augusts ago and has done nicely.) So if you’re in search of innovative, often inspiring theater instead of Broadway’s summer reruns, get thee to London. I did, a while back, and had an exalting time. Though all the plays I saw were set in the past, many had a modern relevance
Britannia once ruled (dude); it amassed the largest empire in world history. Now it runs alongside the American limo, as its Labour government does our military and political bidding. Whether from moral outrage or sour grapes, British playwrights have made attacking the Bush-U.S. worldview, and the Blair-U.K. subsidiary role in it, a top priority. “Guantanamo,” the documentary play about British citizens detained at the U.S. base in Cuba for years without being charged, has transferred from a successful run in London to New York’s off-Broadway. In a kind of Equity trade, the West End gets Tim Robbins’ play “Embedded,” after lengthy stints in Los Angeles and New York.
Last year I wrote about “The Madness of George W.,” a ragged farce that took potshots at the Bush Administration and bragged that it was “kept bang-up-to-the-minute with daily re-writes churned out at a furious pace by the writer.” This week at the National Theatre, David Hare’s play “Stuff Happens” begins previews. It’s about George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, whose quote (“Stuff happens… and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”) inspired the play’s title. Like “The Madness,” Hare’s work “will accommodate events as they occur.” It runs till November 6, the Saturday after Americans go to the polls. Oh to be in England, now the election’s near!
To see the havoc caused by small men with greatly misguided schemes is to pine for liberal giants like Willy Brandt, the focal figure of Michael Frayn’s play “Democracy,” which has been running in London for nearly a year. Brandt, who left Germany for Norway in 1933 and helped resistance leaders in the fruitless attempts to overthrow Hitler, gave a human face to a national long tainted by Nazism. Calling for “a fatherland of love and justice” and pursuing the doctrine of detente with the Soviet bloc Ostpolitik Brandt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. Three years later he was brought down, as other leaders have been, by a spy scandal and a sex scandal. (Oddly, he didn’t fabricate a war on a weak and unthreatening country. That tactic doesn’t get you impeached; it may get you a second term.)
Frayn’s new play is the story of that spy, Gunther Guillaume, who made himself indispensible to Brandt and became one of his three secretaries, vetting all the Chancellor’s papers after sending copies to his bosses in East Berlin. Conleth Hill (who amused Broadway audiences as one of the two actors playing dozens of roles in “Stones in My Pockets” three years back) incarnates Guillaume as a piggy-faced toady who can’t help admiring his victim. “He listens, that’s his trick,” he says of Brandt. The Chancellor, impersonated by Roger Allam (the original Javert in the musical “Les Miserables”) with a puffed-out chest that shows awareness of his charismatic statesmanship, relishes danger, even the threat of a spy in his bosom: “The merest possibility that Gunther is not what he seems makes him infinitely more tolerable.”
Michael Blakemore’s direction gives the piece a racing pulse, as if to underline that this is a comedy of duplicity. As Frayn’s classic farce “Noises Off” showed the performance of a play on stage, then from backstage, “Democracy” reveals the public face of Brandt’s Ostpolitik and the inner scheming of Guillaume and the other top staffers, who are loyal but scarcely more likable. The you-break-my-neck-I’ll-break-yours pace stirs suspicions that the play is more bustling than profound. I prefer Alan Bennett’s two one-acters, “An Englishman Abroad” (about Brit superspy Guy Burgess, who fled to Moscow after passing secrets to the Reds) and “A Question of Attribution” (about Burgess’ comrade in duplicity, Anthony Blunt, an art historian who daringly stayed in Britain and became caretaker of “the Queen’s pictures”) But “Democracy” certainly provides an intelligently entertaining evening of mistaken-identity, multiple-identity spy comedy.
NOT TUH BE
Political times make everything political. So when Trevor Nunn unveiled his modern-dress production of “Hamlet” this spring, a few picked at Nunn’s presumed avoidance of a political context. “Hamlet is a political play rife with plotting, intrigue and spying,” Sue Jones wrote in the Socialist Review. “There is something rotten in Shakespeare’s Denmark, and we see Norway waiting in the wings to invade the state, which is collapsing through the weight of its own corruption. At one point Hamlet speaks of his distress at the ease with which thousands of soldiers are sent to their deaths. In the present political climate it seems particularly strange that Nunn chooses to virtually ignore this aspect of the play.”
That seems a bit blinkered, since Nunn has Claudius (Tom Mannion) announce his marriage to Gertrude (Imogen Stubbs) at a political rally. And, really, who needs the text, or a new production, to see “Hamlet” as a mirror of modern politics? Long before the war, commentators noted how Bush felt obliged to revenge the bungled attempt on his Presidential father’s life by Saddam Hussein’s agents. Anyone who uses a 21st century glass to refract Denmark in the 12th century as seen by Shakespeare at the beginning of the 17th can easily find political analogies.
Try this one: George W. Bush (Claudius) killed the spirit of liberal America (Hamlet’s father) and usurped the U.S. in a stolen election (seized the throne); now John Kerry (Hamlet) has to decide whether to fight Bush with the gloves off or to play by the rules and, perhaps, lose the soul of the kingdom. Or Hamlet’s father is the conscience of Britain’s Labour Party, dismayed that Bush (Claudius) has seduced and dazzled Tony Blair (Gertrude); and, I guess, Hamlet is Iraq, not sure how it should act under the new occupation. Or Hamlet’s father is George Bush 41, who urges Bush 43 (Hamlet) to heed the relative moderation and international coalition-building of his own reign and throw over Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon faction (Claudius) that have usurped the kingdom. This game can be played till metaphorical exhaustion, or November 2nd, whichever comes first.
Other than the political quibbles, London critics were mostly rapturous about this modern-dress revival. “Go and see Trevor Nunn’s ‘Hamlet’,” one wrote. “In forty years’ time you will be able to tell the grandchildren that you saw Ben Whishaw’s first great role.” In black garb, with a thin white face, his crimson lips the only color in his array, Whishaw does attract attention. He gets vamped by every woman from his flirtatious mom to Ophelia (Samantha Whittaker), dressed in schoolgirl plaids and played as a sexually precocious teeny-bopper who needs Hamlet as much as he needs his own onanistic misery. He stretches in his chair like a Catalan death puppet, and often holds his head as if it would split from shame or rage. He might implode to suicide or explode into fury. He is, in other words, your basic melancholy teen, believing that no adult can comprehend the misery he is undergoing just by being alive. He can be found anywhere from Liverpool. England, to Littleton, Colorado.
For all the raves, I found Whishaw’s melancholy teen annoying. He summoned not the shades of Olivier, O’Toole and other famous Hamlets but an adolescent, anorectic Michael Crawford. He has Crawford’s thin, whiny voice, too, ill suited to poetic verse. He begins his big monologue, I swear, by declaring, “Tuh be or not tuh be.” (It’s “to,” mate. Rhymes with screw and you.) The performance gets wetter: tears on his cheek, snot peeking out of his nostrils, spume on his lips whenever he pronounces a word beginning with “p” and there are lots of them in the soliloquy. Whishaw continues in his mewling way for the extent of the production’s three hours and 40 minutes. But he lost me at “tuh.”
OUT AND ABOUT
A lovely thing about London theater is that there’s so blooming much of it; a frustrating thing is that many plays bloom briefly, then fade after a limited engagement. Some shows run for ages that shouldn’t: the stodgy “Blood Brothers” has run for 16 years; and Nunn’s rendition of the Cole Porter musical “Anything Goes,” which moved successfully from the National to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, looked simultaneously stiff and frantic when I caught it. All right, the good die young. Here are notes on a few plays you can’t see, and I’ll have trouble forgetting.