We saw five theater performances while we were in London.
The day we arrived, August 4, we caught a 3:00 p.m. matinee performance of Simon Gray’s “Butley” and a 7:30 p.m. evening performance of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal”.
“Butley”, at the Duchess Theatre, was directed by Lindsay Posner and featured Dominic West in the title role.
Gray’s first hit, “Butley” presents—in real time—the collapsing world of a British academic on a single unfortunate afternoon, an afternoon in which the academic loses first his wife, then his boyfriend—and, most lasting of all, his career. The play is a biting and witty tale of a caustic (and not particularly sympathetic) intellectual with a willful streak of self-destruction.
“Butley” is a good play, and has been revived with some frequency since its 1971 premiere. Gray was a literate playwright, writing 20th-Century versions of drawing-room comedies peopled by intelligent persons who have interesting—if not profound—things to say. I had never previously seen a production of “Butley”, although I had studied the text, which “reads” very well.
The current West End production is not good.
West was miscast. He lacked the range necessary to bring Butley to life, although he certainly caught the character’s nastiness and seediness. Of charm there was none—and if Butley does not have a modicum of charm, the play is pointless—and of intellectual depth there was not the slightest suggestion. West’s was a proletarian portrayal of an academic, borrowed from the insufferable proletarian soap operas that thrive on British television.
Without an incandescent actor in the title part, “Butley” does not work. The play becomes little more than a series of recitations of nasty barbs orbiting around a vacant center.
Alan Bates was the original Butley. Many persons believe that Butley was Bates’s greatest role.
My father saw the original production of “Butley” when it transferred from London to New York in 1972. He recalls the production as “thrilling”—and, ever after, he never missed an opportunity to catch Bates onstage. Alas, according to my father, Bates was never able to recapture the magic of Butley in any other role.
Harold Pinter directed the original production of “Butley”. Indeed, Pinter directed ten plays by Gray, including a 2004 production of “The Old Masters”, a play about Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson, which my brother and I caught at the Comedy Theatre in London that year.
The 2004 “The Old Masters” was the last Gray play that Pinter directed. Both men were to die from cancer in 2008.
My brother and I saw Pinter outside the stage door of the Comedy Theatre the night we attended “The Old Masters”.
We were reminded of that fact this year, because it was at the Comedy Theatre that we saw Pinter’s “Betrayal” a couple of hours after attending the matinee “Butley”. (My brother and I had also attended a performance at the Comedy Theatre in 2005, when we had seen a staging of “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?”, a Peter Hall production starring Kim Cattrall and Janet Suzman.)
Many knowledgeable persons believe that “Betrayal” is Pinter’s finest—and only enduring—play. Presented in reverse chronology, “Betrayal” depicts the nine-year affair of a married woman—who has taken up with her husband’s best friend.
I dislike “Betrayal”. Although some skill has been exercised in creating the tale, “Betrayal” is a very nihilistic play about three self-centered and ungenerous and nihilistic persons, none of whom possesses a single admirable quality. “Betrayal” is based upon episodes and personages from Pinter’s life, and the persons portrayed onstage are as vapid and unpleasant as Pinter himself.
The current London production does the work no favors. It was a weak and tepid “Betrayal” we encountered at the Comedy Theatre.
The chief fault with the production was Kristin Scott Thomas, who brought nothing to the central role. Thomas had no range, no magnetism, no projection, no profile. Watching Thomas in a stage role was like watching a television actress undertake, for the first time, a complex, multi-faceted role from the classics—and come entirely to grief. “Betrayal” requires an accomplished actress in the central role for the play to register, and Thomas was nothing more than a pipsqueak. Hers was an embarrassing performance.
The director of “Betrayal” was Ian Rickson.
On our second day in London, August 5, we attended an evening performance of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Haymarket Theatre (“Theatre Royal Haymarket”, owned by the crown). Four years ago, we had seen “The Last Confession” at Theatre Royal Haymarket. The director of “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” was Trevor Nunn.
The Stoppard play was the worst thing we saw in London. The production was simply a mess from start to finish, miscast, misdirected, unable to settle upon a tone, unable to acquire a rhythm, unable to develop momentum. The production was aimless, lacking concentration and propulsion. If one did not already know the text, one would assume that Stoppard’s play was a vast failure, a confused exercise in mere cleverness. Nunn’s “Rosencrantz” was the most listless staging of a Stoppard play I have ever witnessed. It was a trial for us to sit through all three acts.
The following day, August 6, we attended two theater performances: we caught a matinee performance of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” at the Garrick Theatre; and we caught an evening performance of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at The National Theatre.
“Pygmalion” is a very good play, and we enjoyed the performance very much, even though we were cognizant—throughout the afternoon—that we were not witnessing an exceptional production.
Rupert Everett portrayed Higgins. He was not particularly good, but he was not as bad as I had feared. His Higgins was a very odd man, odder even than the script suggests, but I suspect a focus upon Higgins’s oddness was the only way for Everett to get through the part.
The Eliza was a young television actress. She was attractive, and carried some innate appeal, but she was not a natural stage actress, and was convincing neither as guttersnipe nor as lady. She probably had been cast because she is a known quantity to BBC viewers.
The primary pleasures in the production came from the fine stage design and costume design as well as the fine supporting cast, which was genuinely top-notch. Every subsidiary part had been expertly cast, and the supporting crew was immeasurably better than the Higgins and Eliza. Diana Rigg played Mrs. Higgins, and she was delightful. We wished her part had been larger.
The director of “Pygmalion” was Philip Prowse.
“Pygmalion” received its first performance in Vienna, in German translation, at what is now the Burgtheater. The first English-language production was in New York. London was the third city to see Shaw’s play (Shaw himself directed the first London production).
Shaw’s most-performed play in the English-speaking world, “Pygmalion” is the only Shaw play that has entered the repertory in non-English-speaking countries. France, Germany and Russia, all countries with rich theatrical histories and cultures, have witnessed countless productions of “Pygmalion” in the last hundred years.
The evening performance of “The Cherry Orchard” was the London production we had most wanted to see—and, and as a result, we had deliberately made “The Cherry Orchard” our final theater performance.
“The Cherry Orchard” was presented at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre’s venue with the thrust stage. The production was directed by Howard Davies. The staging had received great acclaim, and had sold out all performances, and we were very keen to see it. In fact, we had purchased our tickets the very hour August performances had gone on sale via The National Theatre website—and, had we waited a few hours, we would not have been able to obtain tickets.
The production was fascinating, but much over-praised.
A new translation had been commissioned, and the translation was very poor. The translation was packed with preposterous contemporary references and phrases, and instantly became jarring. People in Russia in 1904 did not converse like Londoners in 2011, and it was a grave error for the translator to have couched Chekhov’s tale in the kind of contemporary dialogue one might hear at a London coffee shop. The excellent Michael Frayn translation should have been used instead (The National has used the Frayn translation in the past).
The cast was good, but the cast members were unable to evoke anything remotely Russian in their performances. This was a very, very British staging—with more than a whiff of British provincial theater permeating the production—and the acting styles onstage were more apt for a dreary domestic drama examining Britain’s lower classes, such as John Osborne’s “The Entertainer”, than a Chekhov play.
Zoe Wanamaker’s Madame Ranevskaya was portrayed, above all, as an irritating figure. In the last fifteen years, it has become a widespread practice in British theater for main characters in classic dramas to be portrayed as deliberately irritating. This practice, I believe, is intended to add “complexity” to characterizations of roles over-familiar to audiences—but the practice is, at bottom, a boneheaded idea as well as an idea bereft of genuine thought. An actress or director that must transform Madame Ranevskaya into an irritant in order to lend the portrayal a degree of “depth” has not thought long enough and hard enough about the role or the play.
Given how gruesome was the translation, and given how un-Russian was the staging, “The Cherry Orchard” was, largely, engrossing. However, the script was played as pure domestic drama, with little exploration of other important issues raised in the text. Such a constricted, small-scale interpretation of “The Cherry Orchard” reduces the power and range of Chekhov’s greatest play.
Oddly, Joshua and I had seen a truer vision of Chekhov’s final play two years ago, when we had attended a performance of “The Cherry Orchard” in Baltimore. That production had been presented by tiny Everyman Theater, the smaller of Baltimore’s two professional repertory theater companies.
Everyman Theater did not have a cast as talented as that onstage in London, nor was it able to employ a fraction of the design budget available to The National Theater. Nonetheless, the Baltimore “Cherry Orchard” had been twenty times more affecting than the current London staging—and the Baltimore production had enjoyed a vastly superior Madame Ranevskaya in Deborah Hazlett, who had given a truly remarkable performance (Josh wrote about Hazlett and that “Cherry Orchard” in April 2009). Hazlett had been a glowing Madame Ranevskaya; in comparison, Wanamaker was a mere bundle of nerves, having wandered in off the set of “East Enders”.
We last had attended a performance at The National Theatre in 2008, when we had endured a matinee performance of Michael Frayn’s “Afterlife”, an unsuccessful play about Max Reinhardt.
The National Theatre continues to deteriorate.
The interiors sport more grime with each return visit, the carpets and furnishings become still more tatty, and the unattractive warren-like public spaces evince a grim, prison-like atmosphere. The building is an eyesore, inside and out, one of the great architectural disasters of the 1970s. Constructed from the very cheapest materials, the building looks as if it had been intended for a very brief lifespan.
The building is now thirty-five years old. It is time for the structure to be replaced.