Going on a theatre binge in a city other than the one in which you reside provides, inevitably, an imbalanced view of that city’s theatrical ecology. Unless you have unlimited time and an unlimited budget, you can barely scratch the surface of all that’s going on, with the possible exception of an intricately strategized Edinburgh visit in August.
For a variety of reasons, both professional and personal (plus free accommodations), I’ve taken to “helicoptering” into London a couple of times a year in an effort to see more than just the work that makes it to U.S. shores, and I’m just back from my spring visit. While it’s undoubtedly by accident, or perhaps a reflection of my own psyche, I was struck on this trip by how seven shows – only one musical; works new and revived; by British and American authors – managed to explore remarkably similar themes. My week was one that focused on looking into the past and the role that honor and integrity plays in our lives.
Most obviously, Alan Bennett’s paired one-acts, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks (joined as Untold Stories in a West End transfer from The National Theatre), are autobiography with a decidedly rueful tone. In both cases, Bennett himself (embodied by Alex Jennings) recalls and interacts with his past, focusing on his relationship to music and his father in the former, and his growing intellectual disconnection from his parents in the latter. While Bennett has directly drawn on his own life in the past (he was a key character in his own The Lady In The Van years back), these short plays , written 11 years apart, show him as both reflective and perhaps regretful, a son considering his parents from a vantage point older than they were in the anecdotes on display.
The two most biographical plays (in commercial West End runs), though almost wholly fiction, were Peter Morgan’s The Audience and John Logan’s Peter And Alice. While both are rooted in historical events and real people: the former constructed from the framework of Queen Elizabeth’s weekly audience with the Prime Minister; the latter imagined from a one-time meeting of Peter Llewelyn Davis, the model for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the template for Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. P&A takes meta to the max, as the adult role models grapple both with the men who gave them potentially eternal life, as well as the characters that bear their name, layering the mortality of humans alongside literary perpetuity, and their memories of their younger selves. The Audience, rather than simply being a highlights reel of postwar British history, uses the weekly audiences instead to address the burden and commitment of being the queen and Logan even allows Her Majesty to interact with her younger self, long since locked away.
Just as Queen Elizabeth is bound by the duty of her role, the young man who is at the center of Terence Rattigan’s classic The Winslow Boy (at The Old Vic) is potentially disgraced after an accusation of theft, breaching his family’s honor in the mind of his determined father. Though decades old (it debuted a few years before the Queen was placed in her regal straitjacket), its portrayal of a small cog being tossed aside without due process by a large and ostensibly honor-bound institution has any number of resonances in any era; the senior Winslow, hell-bent on clearing his son’s name, pronounces any number of sentiments that would be welcomed by Occupy Wall Street and veterans’ rights advocates alike. The more obviously political This House (at The National Theatre), set entirely in Britain’s Parliament between 1974 and 1979, though fascinated with the machinations of governing, also turns on tradition and honor, as the legislative body grapples with the place of long-standing practices in the face of political necessity; like The Audience, it takes its framework from history but roots itself in the humanity that manages to stay alive amid conflict that affects an entire country.
Going further back into history Bruce Norris’ The Low Road (at the Royal Court) posits an amoral antihero plying his capitalist trade in colonial America. With readily apparent parallels to recent economic crises worldwide, Norris deploys as his lead character an apotheosis of financial rapaciousness, looking backwards in order to damn practices of the present day and all too recent past. In this tale, the lack of honor makes the greatest argument for it. The one musical of my visit was a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along (a West End transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory), the backwards treading story of three friends irrevocably broken apart at the beginning of the show, only to flash ever backward to the key points of their relationship, like a film run backward as they move from missteps to success to first meetings, and as their superficial, damaged lives are restored to their youthful integrity and dreams.
So here’s the question: is London theatre consumed by these issues, or do I unwittingly choose shows which embody certain themes? Do I build my own theatrical inkblot? Honestly, I knew little of either the Bennett plays or The Low Road; I saw them because of my interest in those authors. I knew something of the premises of The Audience, This House and Peter And Alice, but no details; I was drawn by the praise of others and by the Helen Mirren and Judi Dench to two of those shows. What if I hadn’t been able to get a ticket to several of these shows? I had only purchased three before arriving in London. What if I had moved beyond the West End and the major subsidized houses into fringe venues, deciding what to see with even less foreknowledge? Perhaps I had curated my own version of PBS’s Masterpiece, cherry picking only the very best of what was on offer and leaving riskier, but perhaps even more compelling and diverse, prospects alone.
Whatever the motivations, intentional or otherwise, I created a week that was informative and reflective, and startlingly consistent in theme even if divergent in style. And for perhaps the only time I can remember, I saw seven consecutive shows and was pleased to have seen each and every one, no mean feat for any avid theatergoer.
But I do wonder: what if I had spiced things up with Viva Forever, or tapped into Top Hat? I would have come away with a markedly different vision of the English stage and its present-day themes. Hmmmm.