London—Perhaps it’s the luck of the draw. Perhaps it isn’t. But just about everything on offer at theaters here that this reviewer set out to see is well worth the money and time spent. For instance:
Young Marx – Bridge Theatre: When you picture Karl Marx, the one thing you undoubtedly don’t do is see him in your mind’s eye as anything but a generously bearded older man, possibly as sculpted on his imposing Highgate cemetery tombstone. That’s not the Karl that frequent writing partners Richard Bean and Clive Coleman cannonade out in Young Marx. This is the sometimes thieving, habitually impoverished Karl Marx (Rory Kinnear), who cheated on wife. Baroness Jenny von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll), with family friend Helene “Nym” Demuth (Laura Elphinstone) and the scamp who carried on a love-hate relationship with well-heeled Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris). Bean and Coleman show their problematic hero during a time when he lived on Dean Street and should have been writing Das Kapital during visits to the British Library reading-room but was up to too many other questionable escapades around town. Kinnear has a high time playing in the dramedy that skips amusingly from one rogue-ish episode to another—and that includes a wonderful reading-room brawl that Kate Waters stages. Who would have imagined that the young(er) Karl Marx would prove to be a lovable scoundrel? Bean and Coleman would have and did. Nicholas Hytner, whose Balancing Acts memoir about his hugely successful National Theatre days is just published, directs with continuing flare at the handsome new Haworth-Thompkins showcase built to accommodate the impresario’s post-National company. (Young Marx will be HD-screened December 7. Check ntlive.com for locations and other dates.)
Saint George and the Dragon – National Theatre (Olivier): The Saint George cross hangs over many a Great Britain building in honor of the mythic dragon slayer and founder of the cherished isle. But can the revered figure slay the metaphorical dragons that crop up from age to age in the now Brexit-plagued nation? Rory Mullarkey has asked himself that question and has answered with a two-act allegory in which George (John Heffernan) handily beheads the dragon in man’s form (Julian Bleach) back in when-knighthood-was-in-flower days. Our Saint George encounters increasing difficulties as the centuries roll on, however, and Elsa (Amaka Okafor), the damsel in distress to whom he’s engaged, changes with the times while he remains the same dragon-slaying young buck. Mullarkey has looked at England today and decided that matters have become too complex for simple solutions like loping off a dragon’s head—or his three heads. Director Lyndsey Turner has commandeered a large cast and crafty designers to show the land as it’s changed from age to age. The actors shift increasingly modern Rae Smith-designed buildings around like so many toy blocks. Throughout, Heffernan stays the earnest lad and man-dragon Bleach the sinister foe, and the rest of the cast, including venerable Gawn Grainger as Elsa’s dad, transforms from age to age. Anyone the least bit sentient who’s spending time here these days can’t fail to sense the prevailing discontent (annual GNP is is expected to be down significantly). Mullarkey has absorbed the anxiety-ridden malarkey and turned it into a likable, as well as thoughtful, entertainment.
A Woman of No Importance – Vaudeville: Nicholas Hytner isn’t the only director who’s left one established company to start his own. Dominic Dromgoole exited Shakespeare’s Globe to form the Classic Spring Theatre Company and is introducing it with two seasons of Oscar Wilde works. The first is the Wilde play seen less often than the others (all right, perhaps no less often than Salomé), and the nothing-less-than-perfect revival is revelatory. Yes, dated it may be in its depiction of a fallen woman, but it has much to say about Wilde’s presumed determination to shock the bourgeoisie. The figure presumed to be Wilde’s major shock provider here—the one turning the societally complacent crowd upside down—is Lord Illingworth (Dominic Rowan). He’s indubitably the one with the best lines. (He gets to describe fox hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible,” although that insult isn’t the only time it crops up, pun intended, in Wilde.) But despite his reputation, Wilde doesn’t stay long on Illingworth’s side during the manor house weekend he’s spending. For Illingworth ran out years earlier on the woman now calling herself Mrs. Arbuthnot (Eve Best) and their illegitimate son, now 21-year-old son Gerald (Harry Lister Smith), and the Illingworth-Arbuthnot surprise meeting results in his losing the upper hand to propriety. In other words, in A Woman of No Importance, Wilde exposes himself as a conventional moralist—and all the more commendable for it. What Wilde and director Dromgoole do have cracking good fun with is the upper-class members in quiet play at the stunningly Jonathan Fensom-designed home of Lady Hunstanton (Anne Reid) where swells like Lady Caroline Pontefract (Eleanor Bron), Mrs. Allonby (Emma Fielding), Lady Stutfield (Phoebe Fildes) and visiting young American Miss Hester Worsley (Crystal Clarke) have gathered. To cover scene changes, Reid and friends emerge from behind the curtain to sing old tunes that obliquely pertain to the prickly goings-on.
Glengarry Glen Ross – Playhouse: David Mamet’s best piece—possibly the outstanding American play of the 1980s—is revived in London, where it received its first important showing. And this outing, directed with clicking authority by Sam Yates, is a doozy. Once again the conniving real estate brokers at a middle-scale firm are desperately haggling over leads with which to dupe innocent home hunters. Mamet plunks them down first in a Chinese restaurant where they sit on red banquettes and con each other and/or prospective buyers. Then he shoves them into their nearby office (Chiara Stephenson is the adroit set and costume designer), which has just been burglarized for those valuable leads. In the upended workplace they attempt to ply their dicey wares while a policeman pulls them in, one by one, for grilling. The slickest of the vultures is Ricky Roma (Christian Slater, doing a truly marvelous job of conjuring James Cagney). The most distressed is Shelly Levene (Stanley Townsend, in an award-teasing performance). The other end-of-tether salesmen are expertly played by Kris Marshall, Robert Glenister and Don Warrington. Daniel Ryan is the scared dupe James Lingk, and Oliver Ryan grilling cop Baylen—both fine, too. When he wrote his taut masterwork, Mamet—who of late has not been turning them out as masterfully—zeroed in on a strain of American moral erosion that was disturbingly cogent then and, sad to note, even more pertinent now.