That Old Feeling: London Bridges the World

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“Henry IV.” This is the Pirandello play about a modern Italian nobleman (Ian McDiarmid) who, after a fall, proclaims himself Henry, the medieval German emperor. Is he mad or just feigning, to confound his glamorous wife (Francesca Annis) and her sycophantic, baffled retinue? In Tom Stoppard’s new version the game of seeming and being becomes meta-Pirandellian — scary, creepy fun. Annis, gorgeous and sexy at 60 (if IMDb has the age right), magnetizes all eyes. But she and the rest of the company are there as an audience for McDiarmid, known to “Star Wars” fans as Emperor Palatine (aka Darth Sidious). With his beautiful voice he thunders and whispers his way through the Pirandello-Stoppard labyrinth. It’s a voice, a mind and a play to get happily lost in.

“Suddenly, Last Summer.” Tennessee Williams’ 1958 psychodrama, which transformed the wretched experience of his sister’s institutionalizing and lobotomy into the story of a grasping mother, grieving over Sebastian, the dead son she idolized, and the young woman who was with him on his last tour of low life. You may have seen the 1959 film version, with Katharine Hepburn as the broken, indomitable Mrs. Venable. Diana Rigg surely had. Her playing conjured up the tremulous voice and imperious manner without quite replacing it. Victoria Hamilton, however, was a wonder in the role of Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor in the film). She seizes command of the stage in this short play’s final 25 mins., lending hurt, majesty and sheer storytelling magnetism to her long monologue. Hamilton, seen mainly on BBC (she was the young Queen in the 2001 “Victoria and Albert”), joins my short list of must-see young English stars, right up there with Jennifer Eyle.

...and Natalia Tena. To see her in “Gone to Earth” at the Lyric Hammersmith, you’d need a two-zone underground ticket and a time machine, but it would be worth the effort to see Tena (who was the schoolgirl Hugh Grant’s young charge had a crush on in “About a Boy”) in all her dark beauty. In Helen Edmunson’s adaptation of the Mary Webb novel, Tena is Hazel Woodus, the sylvan sprite with an otherworldly appeal. She is both a divine primitive, Lilith in Eden, and a beacon of honest innocence; the novel says “she was of a race that will come in the far future.” Hazel attracts the love, lust and other corrosive emotions of two men: a vicar who wants to save her and a desolute lord who wants to ravish her and, perhaps, save himself.

Nancy Meckler’s production for the Shared Experience company puts Hazel in a stark, pre-Industrial Age environment. The stage is a large chain-link cage, some chairs and stools hung from the bars. The company puts these few props to splendid effect, creating a home, a church, a squalid manor, the forest mostly through the power of suggestion, the incantatory melodies of composer Olly Fox and a mesmerizing simplicity of style. All the actors are superb, but Tena is the chief beguiler. “Gone to Earth” should travel to America, its cast intact, its spell unbroken.


Alan Bennett has an otherworldly side too. Indeed, it's a wonder the modern world can find a place for him. In an age of braying, he speaks softly. In a pop culture consecrated to Don Juan, he seems the grayish professor — a wan don. He says he “once thought to become a vicar for no better reason than that I looked like one.” A half century on, he still looks like one, and his writing has the vernacular polish and subtlety of a Sunday sermon that winds its way from anecdote to gentle homily. Bennett’s plays, for stage and TV, are subtle comedies about daft people (“The Madness of George III,” “The Lady in the Van”) or lost ones (“An Englishman Abroad,” “Talking Heads”). His method is understatement, indirection, irony. In his 1977 play “The Old Country,” a Bennett character declares: "In England, we never entirely mean what we say, do we? Do I mean that? Not entirely."

Yet an argument can be made (though never, never by Bennett himself) that he is the foremost English playwright. Certainly the most English playwright, if by that we mean the dramatist who observes the manners and rancor of the quiet middle class and alchemizes them into delicious and troubling comedy. He's been at it since 1960, when, at 26, he and three other Oxbridge wits wrote and performed the satirical revue “Beyond the Fringe.” Bennett turned 70 in May, and marked the milestone with a grand new play — his longest (at nearly three hours) and funniest — called “The History Boys.” Opening to critical raves, it has been a sold-out hit at the National Theatre, where it will play into next year, and has already been set for a Broadway production. By Bennett standards, that's almost gaudy.

In a British grammar school, perhaps 20 years ago, eight bright lads have passed their A-level exams and are now studying for tests that will determine which university they attend. Oxford or Cambridge would be lovely, the school's headmaster (Clive Merrison) believes. To help get his sixth-formers into one of the posh places, he hires Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a clever young man who seems to know the tricks that will impress the examination markers or the inquisitors at an interview session. Say the unexpected, he tells them; nurture the odd fact, such as that at the time of the Reformation "14 foreskins of Christ" had been preserved. Don't just be right; all bright boys have the right answers. Be different. Make an impression!

Hector (Richard Griffiths), the boys' huge, studiously eccentric English teacher, doesn't care where they end up, doesn't believe in the utility of literature. "Useless Knowledge," that's his passion, "the department of Why Bother?" The boys know Larkin's and Hardy's poems by heart. But they also know Laurel and Hardy silent comedy routines. Hector encourages them to sing Gracie Fields songs, to enact scenes from '40s film romances and, in a hilarious set piece, to polish their French by improvising an encounter in a brothel. Hector has his peccadilloes — like the occasional grope when he takes them for a ride on his motorbike — but the boys cherish him. He has given them the vocation, the job and the joy of "breaking bread with the dead"; to be infused by the culture handed down to them. "Mr. Hector's stuff's not meant for the exam, sir," one of the boys tells Irwin. "It's to make us more rounded human beings."

Put that way, it sounds sappy. But Bennett wants us to consider what we learn and why we learn it. He believes that millennia of poetry, plays, history can be as fulfilling as everything we think we need to know from right now. Bennett is defiantly anachronistic, like the more enlightened headmaster in his first stage play, “Forty Years On.” Told his standards are out-of-date, the headmaster snaps, "Standards are always out-of-date. That's what makes them standards."

Bennett loves the old standards; by now he is one — a cultural conservative with a liberal message. At times, he stoops to editorializing. To underline Irwin's seductive malevolence, Bennett begins the play in the present, where Irwin is now instructing politicians how to lie — to defend a severe new law by telling constituents that "loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom." So Irwin’s the villain of the piece, for elevating dirty tricks over the “rounded” life? It seems that way. Yet when Bennett, in a program note, recollects his own school days, he writes that “somebody ought to have taught me ... that there was a journalistic side to answering an examination question and that going for the wrong end of the stick was more attention-grabbing than a more conventional approach, however balanced.” As a college instructor he taught his pupils “the techniques of answering essay questions and the strategy for passing examinations.”

At the end, the playwright piles on the codas, explaining (in faux-documentary or “American Graffiti” style) what became of the lads. He even provides a violent death. That's an odd exclamation point to a Bennett sentence that should end in ellipses. It's as if he feared his students in the audience were too dull to get the point.

Bennett can be forgiven the polemic, for he has brought to brilliant life a dozen original characters: four adults — including Frances de la Tour as a teacher who says with practiced sourness that history is the record of "centuries of male ineptitude" and "women behind them, with a bucket" — and the eight boys, each smartly defined, each bright, each needy or greedy. On stage, the evening belongs to gargantuanly charming Griffiths, as a pied piper of "useless" culture. But the mind behind it is Bennett's, as wry and sly as ever. “The History Boys” shows that a buoyant comedy can provide a splendid education, on either side of the Atlantic. And do we mean that? Entirely.

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