So I suppose it is predictable of me to reject the West End in favor of the Tricycle but if there is any real theatre going on in London it's in Kilburn or Hammersmith or Battersea, in other words, of course, the fringe. The seven hour marathon of 12 short plays by 12 playwrights about Afghanistan set from 1842 to the present put on earlier this year by the Tricycle is risky and ambitious and has evidently paid off. The production is back by popular demand for a short run this summer and I caught Part II. The four 1/2 hour plays I saw covered the years 1979-1996, and was subtitled "Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban." The pieces were all excellent and uniquely imagined, covering various aspects of Russia's failure in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban with American support via the Pakistanis. It made for some pretty vital theatre, an animated history lesson. Especially, when the New York Times headlines the next morning declared that leaked classified US government documents from the most recent war in that beleagured country confirmed the production's predominant message: history repeats itself with impunity. The Pakistanis are still supporting the Taliban, the Americans and Nato never really stood a chance. But was I transported? I was certainly very interested, and thought the writing and the acting above average. Blatantly agenda driven theatre does not generally turn me on. I appreciate but don't love, say, George Bernard Shaw or Eve Ensler. And there was certainly an element here of preaching to the converted: the CIA is bad, the Taliban is worse, the human spirit will abide. Nevertheless, if I weren't about to leave town and lived a little closer to Kilburn I would be heading back there for parts I and III. Edifying and entertaining for £12 a ticket. You can't go wrong.
I had promised myself that I wasn't going to see another West End production but then my theatre buddy Paola said someone (who?!) had told her Howard Davies' revivial of his revival (red flags flying) ten years ago at the National of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" was worth the journey and the price tag, and really was as good as all the critics' raves. I knew in my heart it wasn't going to be true but I relented because I always relent, but also because I'll go see anything with Paola just to be with her she's that great. Besides, I cajoled myself, the West End production of "The Crucible" a few years ago was mind-bogglingly good so I thought maybe the Brits get Miller better than we do. Well, you know where I'm going. It was terrible, yes, terrible, well not that bad, but disappointing for sure. The level of acting was only slightly above regional summer fare, all declarative self-consciousness. I hate watching actors act when exposing the mechanics is not intended. And these guys--Zoe Wannamaker (not a fan--she screamed all the way through "Electra" and totally overdid Serafina in "The Rose Tattoo" at the National) and David Suchet--are veterans! Stephen Campbell Moore's performance as the brother who survived the war and wants to marry his dead brother's girlfriend was, however, fine and layered. Of course, the play itself is just not a great play. It's a good play, an early play, a test run for Death of a Salesman. It's the work of a young genius who is ambitiously trying to imitate and compete with his fathers--Ibsen and Chekov (including the requisite gun shot), George Bernard Shaw (grand dicourses on the evils of moral compromise), and Tennessee Williams (but here only a weak attempt to grapple with the oddities of human sexuality). The set was fabulous, but had more of a southern than midwestern feel--as did some of the accents. Supposedly, this play has been making grown men in the audience soak their handkerchiefs with tears. Paola's comment, "Give me Toy Story III for emotional content over this any day."
Yesterday, upon seeing the Globe production of Henry IV, Part 1, under Dominic Dromgoole's direction (luckily his talent is up to his name), it became, at least for a good 24 hours my favorite of Shakespeare's plays. After the blush of such a rollicking performance began to fade, I remembered The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, As You Like It--but it certainly remains in my top five. I am just always so amazed at how funny Shakespeare is, even in the Histories and Tragedies. I have seen two other productions of Henry IV, Part 1 in the past few years--Nick Hytner's at the National with Michael Gambon as a woozy Falstaff and the RSC/Michael Boyd production as part of the phenomenal Histories Cycle at the Roundhouse, but I can easily say I laughed the longest and the loudest at the Globe and Roger Allam's Falstaff was perfection itself. Jamie Parker's Prince Hal was equally impressive (I found myself wondering if he was on his way to becoming the next Kenneth Branagh and then prematurely mourning his loss to egomania) and the chemistry between the prince and his unlikely consort was a phenomenon to behold. Oliver Cotton's King is superb, and the conflict with his rebellious son finely played. Sam Crane's Hotspur was a force of nature (I'm not sure why I didn't have the Kenneth Branagh wonderment with him, but could be I marked the wrong man). Even the scenes with the wives--which I can find irksome--were pulled off with aplomb. It was one of those rare experiences--including a lager afterwards in the courtyard of The King George--that makes London great.
I was told by many trusted theatregoing friends and family members not to see this latest effort from Sam Mendez's The Bridge Project but I went anyway and it really wasn't that bad. Bland, blah, lacking imagination, yes, but viable. There was decidely no magic to this production which is rather a shame in a play essentially about the vicissitudes of magic. Christian Camargo played Ariel more as a vampire than a sprite. Juliet Rylance's Miranda would have been outstanding if this were an amateur production. Prospero was appropriately brooding but couldn't seem to muster much more. The innovations here were unhappy. The slide show depicting scenes from Miranda's childhood, though admirable in its ambition, did not work at all and nor did the dire marriage dance. Ariel's metallic wing contraption was intriguing though incongruous, as if he had borrowed the thing from a sadomasochistic Icarus who happened to be trudging by. I wish Ariel had stayed in his mermaid evening dress for the entire play. His dark suit with no shirt made me think he was on his way to a rave straight after the play. And the mishmash of accents could have been interesting but was just annoying. Still, I was glad I saw it because though the production was devoid of pizzazz, bereft of animation, the actors did admirable justice to Shakespeare's words in this most excellent play--perhaps my favorite. Doubt I'll go to another Bridge Project production though. I bet this is their last year in any case.