Notes on London Theater

12/14/2012 12:47 pm ET | Updated Jul 18, 2013

Even with a highly satisfactory result to the 2012 presidential campaign, in which President Barack Obama was returned to office, like many Americans I was exhausted with the endlessness and ferocity of the campaign. I needed, badly, something completely different -- like two weeks in London and a deep draft of Culture, especially theater.

As a playwright, I relish the abundance of serious drama on offer in what many consider the theater capital of the world; I also admire how seriously Londoners take their theater. As it happened, although I was fleeing all things political, my favorite plays this visit were, unsurprisingly, political to a greater or lesser degree. And while it's important to take a play on its own terms, it's also natural to relate it to one's own time and place: I couldn't help but compare and contrast an action onstage with the action of our lives in post-9/11 America. I also pondered the drama of America at a hinge moment in its history, about which, more later.

But first, something light -- Constellations by Nick Payne (Royal Court at the Duke of York's Theatre): This 70-minute gem of a two-hander about how love ignites, or doesn't, is told in dozens of scenes that work variations on a move or gesture, with all -- all -- depending on the reaction. When an offer is put out there -- Want a drink? Want to go out? Want to come back to my place? -- the drama, and relationship, consists in getting to yes. Marianne gets the ball rolling, and reveals a larky character, by asking a stranger at a barbecue if he can lick his elbow; Roland, not interested at all, mentions a nonexistent wife. Marianne's "Oh, awkward" reaction sets us laughing, but we also see the poignancy of what might have been. Meanwhile, end of scene, on to the next one, on a totally different tilt.

In this play a relationship does take, bumpily: They get together, she gets cold feet, they have sex with others, they break up. Ominously, she breaks out now and then in gibberish, raising neurological red flags. Dramatically, the high point comes when Roland, considering everything including the neurological flags and Marianne's many eccentricities, "defiantly" proposes marriage, with a speech contrasting the elegance of bees (he's a beekeeper) with the messy world of humans, climaxing with the presentation of a ring on bended knee. In various reactions she accepts, she doesn't, she temporizes -- there are so many ways for love to founder rather than lift off.

The play has drawbacks. While this relationship does advance, the audience must mentally sort through the preceding scenes for the one that cast the hook into this one, while discarding the false information (the nonexistent wife, maybe the extra lovers), a process that lost some in the audience. And the low-key way they face her terminal brain cancer suggests the playwright knows serious illness only conceptually.

Still the acting, by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall, is of a high level and turns on a yes or a no, with two or three distinct reactions registered in as little as a minute; credit director Michael Longhurst for crack timing. As for the writing, it's no surprise a drama that says new things about love eternal was named "Best Play" by the London Evening Standard. But for those of us who found our true love quite by chance, this play's magic lies in dramatizing just how near a thing it really was. My God, what if we hadn't gone to that barbecue/party/concert where the stars aligned and we first met the great love meant just for us...?

This House by James Graham (National Theatre/Cottlesloe): Like the new Steven Spielberg film Lincoln which makes legislating dramatic, this play, skillfully directed by Jeremy Herrin, does the same for the parliamentary crisis in the House of Commons in the early 1970s, when Labour got into power but just barely. The Tories, bruised by their narrow loss, declare they have no interest in bipartisan cooperation and scheme to get back in power. With margins so close, there's never a mention made of the "common good," just the desperate quest to marshal enough votes for every bill. An American viewer will find the situation unsettlingly familiar; perhaps this is why this play was my favorite.

With the struggle for each and every vote being the focus, it follows that the main characters would be the whips of both major parties, tasked with securing pledges from their members and from the "odds and sods" from the minority parties (the Liberal party and members representing Ireland, Scotland, and Wales). Adding an element of farce, Labour's paper-thin majority is further undercut by an uncommon run of heart attacks and strokes, from the stress, requiring members be carried bodily onto the floor. A chalkboard tracking Labour's wavering daily majority is the main prop.

In this context, if a member switches or abstains, tempers flare red-hot. Worse, it's "betrayal" if one party fails to abide by the "pairing" custom, a gentleman's agreement whereby if a member can't be present to vote, the other side agrees to sideline one of its members. It was Labour's betrayal in this instance that moved the Tories to outright war, eventually forcing a vote of no confidence in the government, resulting in Labour's ouster. Waiting in the wings is "the Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher. Gridlock's perils couldn't be clearer, again a point an American can't miss.

Exposition of such complicated action is achieved by explaining to new members, mainly women, what's at stake and why it's urgent. Old hands opine on political truths: From the Tory point of view, Tories claim a natural right to rule, while the problem with Labour is they don't; Tories unite, while Labour falls to in-fighting -- all echoes of our Republican and Democratic parties. The British, though, may have the edge on wit and stereotype: Labour refers to Tory "aristo-twits," while Tories sneer at Labour's tendency to dress in "man-made fibers." It's funny -- until it's not. If only Congress could see this play!

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky by Nick Dark (Almeida Theatre): This play, along with several recent biographies, aims to resuscitate the name of English poet Edward Thomas, whose earlier renown rested on the 140 poems he wrote before his death in World War I at age 39. Encouraged in his art by his good friend Robert Frost, this play weaves scenes showing their mutual influence on each other's work.

More problematic, the play is premised on the model of the "solipsistic" artist (the term used by noted director Richard Eyre in a pre-show talk), a model that excuses all sorts of human damage inflicted in the name of Art. Here, it's Thomas' wife Helen who suffers -- and screeches at length about it. But she has good cause: Rather than commune with her, Thomas communes with Nature and an alter-ego he names "The Other Man"; without consulting her, he signs up for a war that's chewing up recruits; she raises their three children on his paltry income from journalism, alone. Yet, she loves him desperately, as do Frost and a woman writer friend. Out of pain, after Thomas' death Helen excoriates both Frost and the friend. Frost in turn excoriates her memoir of life with Thomas, which he claims damaged Thomas as "a man," yet Helen's own damage as human being goes unremarked by the great poet.

Thomas himself was damaged by a father who scorned his "nancy" poet son, and he may have had a death wish, as his commanding officer speculates when Thomas asks to be relieved of a safe mapmaking billet and sent "up the line" to certain death. Yet it's hard to square all this damage for any poetry, of which the playwright tells far more than shows. With his charisma, resonant voice, and total commitment to Thomas' seriousness of purpose, Pip Carter rivets in a role that could have gotten lost in solipsism's dark hole. Still, it's a purpose tragic for all the suffering it causes.

The Promise, updated by Penelope Skinner (Donmar at Trafalgar Studios): I should disclose a bias up front: As a playwright who's dramatized a historical event, I believe said event should remain central or at the least not be reduced to backdrop for a relationship play. But this is the case with Penelope Skinner's update of The Promise, a play written by Soviet playwright Aleksei Arbuzov in the 1960s.

Enormous richness lies in the original premise: Three young people, two men and a woman, survive Hitler's cruel siege of Leningrad in 1942, vowing -- making "the promise" -- that after the war they will make of their suffering a better world. Presumably, to make a better world entails addressing recent history: Are we survivors or victors? Do we forget our past suffering or mine it for meaning? But these powerful dramatic questions, raised fleetingly, are sacked in Act Two for little more than the Soviet version of Noel Coward's Design for Living, a comedy about two men in love with the same woman, only this time without the comedy or, as noted here, the rich context. How can a photo of Stalin be removed in a scene change, without the characters even noting the millions of their fellow citizens Stalin killed? Whether the fault lies with Arbuzov (I do not know his play) or Skinner, it's disappointing to see a drama dedicated to "promise" miss out on its own.

Love's Comedy by Henrik Ibsen (Orange Tree Theatre): Ibsen, even early Ibsen always delivers -- personal drama with social critique, big ideas delivered with big emotions. Ibsen's target was his repressive Norwegian society, in which convention and the church ruled and from which he sought to liberate his characters. I've been an Ibsenite since high school, when I first read of Dr. Stockmann blowing the whistle on corruption and Nora fleeing a doll's house.

This play's title, Love's Comedy, signals its subject and, initially, its style: Acts One and Two portray love as comedy, almost farce, but in Act Three, goes deeper. To open, the poet Falk, aptly named for the falcon, flies into a household declaring revolution on all society's institutions, notably marriage, which he claims kills love, a position forcing the married and engaged couples present into vigorous defense. Of course for all his revolution, Falk is desperately in love with Swanhild, daughter of the house, and pleads with her to run away with him. Act Three shows the reaction to Falk: One by one, society's pillars plead their case to him for love, marriage, and convention in general, first the pastor (who once was young like Falk and now has twelve children), then the government lawyer (whose wavering love for his fiancée and upcoming financial obligations make him emphatic about convention), and lastly the businessman, who reveals himself also a suitor for Swanhild's hand. Swanhild, the play's only woman of independent mind, has the most dramatic arc: first rejecting Falk's plea to be his muse, then embracing his plea to be his peer, then sobering to consider the businessman's offer. Chillingly, her mother notes of the businessman, "He has money..." The production ends with the spotlight on Swanhild and her choice.

All this self-pleading could have been played as satire, but as ably directed by actor David Antrobus, the comedy is kept in a human key. This choice pays off especially with the businessman's offer of marriage, which could be played as a nouveau riche landing a young trophy wife, but instead is played as a human being offering companionship and comfort. In this splendid production at Orange Tree Theatre, the entire ensemble is excellent, especially Mark Arends in the difficult role of Falk.

Today's theater-goer might dismiss this "well-made" play, with its large cast making exits and entrances timed to the central action. In our modern atomized life, few are the occasions where such large, various groups assemble. Yet, now as in Ibsen's day, powerful social forces impinge upon us, whether we recognize them or not. Ibsen made those forces vividly recognizable, which is why we need him as much as ever.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (Apollo Theatre): This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, with its complicated couplings, long-lost siblings, and the antics of the drunkards, Sirs Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek -- and this slack production didn't convert me. What was compelling was the performance of two-time Tony Award winner Mark Rylance, playing (in drag) Olivia, who, mourning for her dead brother, feels the flutter of new love. The other draw was comic Stephen Fry as Malvolio, he of the famous yellow stockings and inappropriate laughter. The comic gave and got his laugh.

The Arabian Nights, adapted by Mary Zimmerman (Tricycle Theatre): If you're looking for the Mary Zimmerman of the subversive wit, you may be disappointed in this adaptation of the Scheherazade tale, another of the mythic works to which she has brought her powerful theatrical vision. The wit I find enchanting abounds in her adaptation of The Odyssey, which she recast (as I recall) from Penelope's point of view, who asks husband Ulysses, "Where the heck were you all these years?" -- with the Sirens being the most alluring of the lures explaining his absence, who coo to Ulysses in lines recast by Zimmerman, "You are wonnnderful, you are marvelous," a revelation guaranteed to prompt howls of laughter from women in the audience, and men too.

But with The Arabian Nights, Zimmerman accepts the tale's premise as is: that a king who's been cuckolded not only kills his wife and her lover but avenges himself on woman's wickedness by taking a virgin a night and killing her in the morning. Scheherazade famously avoids this fate by telling stories but never finishing them, allowing her to live another day. While ultimately the king's heart is warmed and he asks her to stay by his side, still the premise of woman's wickedness is a shocker and prompts howls of protest in women of today, and men too. Zimmerman wrote this work in 1994 and so perhaps was not inclined to do a radical make-over. Still, Mary Zimmerman, of all people, knows that some myths deserve to be blown up.

Scenes From an Execution by Howard Barker (National Theatre/Lyttelton): If you're looking for a strong, independent-minded woman as central character, the painter Galactia, a fictional powerhouse portrayed by the peerless Fiona Shaw, fits the bill in this stunning National Theatre production directed by Tom Cairns.

Set in 16th-century Venice, the play opens with Galactia at work on the commission of a lifetime, awarded her by the doge, to paint the Battle of Lepanto, the biggest and bloodiest sea battle til then, in which the Venetians decisively defeated the Turks and secured Europe for Europe. In making his protagonist a woman, the playwright heightens the drama: While Galactia grapples with the creation of Art, she must also deal with jealous daughters and a needy lover ("You don't think about me enough!"), artists all. Galactia gibes her lover about his many versions of Christ and his flock.

But feminist politics aside, this play is about the artistic representation of historical events -- another kind of battle -- and it fascinates. Galactia is determined to paint the truth of war, to put the viewer "there"; in preparation, she hires a veteran of Lepanto who's still got an arrow in his skull and wears a vest to contain his internal organs. This, however, isn't the vision of the doge: He needs Venice shown as all-powerful or else his enemies will agitate against him; thus his brother, the victorious admiral, needs to be more prominent than Galactia has sketched. And the cardinal: Galactia's bloody reality would be a problem for public morals. Of course the critic also has theories to share. On top of all that, Galactia's lover maneuvers to take the commission away from her, because, as he testifies to the doge, she's a little mad.

One fears the "execution" of the title will be the penalty Galactia pays for killing any of the above antagonists. Instead (spoiler alert), there's a happy ending (which one doesn't expect from Barker, who in the program declares tragedy the truest form): While Galactia goes to prison for defying the doge, she is released (the critic interceded on her behalf) and ends up dining with him -- wearing, in a witty touch, a little black dress. In retrospect, we see "execution" refers to the execution of a work of Art, the battle required not only to paint a "Guernica" but get it up before the public. Fiona Shaw portrays this battle brilliantly -- the arrogance even to attempt Art -- while also showing the price she pays to render truth. We believe her when she says, "I've never been at peace."

I may disagree with Barker's view that the artist is the only truth-seeker; I know too many truth-seekers in the general public, while too many artists obviously seek only ego gratification. But I am all admiration for Barker's brilliant dramatic writing -- its hyper-real imagery and its clarity of motivation. In a word: well-executed -- very.

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A parting thought about Drama in general, as I leave London: I return home, exhausted from theater-going, yes, but also energized about America. Ever since 9/11, I have seen in my mind's eye an ancient amphitheatre, on whose stage the fate of America is playing itself out. For too long we did not acquit ourselves well -- waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, descending to torture, succumbing to fear -- all signs of a nation in decline. But as of late we have improved: In 2008 we chose the candidate of hope and in 2012, with a matured hope, we returned him to office.

Have we arrested our decline? It's too soon to tell, but certainly we are at a hinge moment in our history, and hinge moments are inherently dramatic. It's my hope that as we play out our drama, we can act on our can-do American spirit (we're not fatalists yet) to rewrite the axioms of Drama -- that not all ends in tragedy, that tragedy is not the highest form (and averting tragedy is), that not all politics is corrupting. It's an enormous, possibly impossible challenge. To get there, we'll need more Ibsenites among our artists, those who can give us a social critique along with the personal drama. But if we manage it, America will have produced a New Day -- and a New Drama.

Carla Seaquist is a playwright. Her recently-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka." Her book of commentary is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character."