New York Arts in London

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Andy Nyman and David Morrissey in Hangmen at Wyndhams Theatre. Photo Tristram Kenton.

After a stunning stretch of plays set in the West Country of Ireland, the playwright Martin McDonagh found himself saddled with literary freight. Could he—or did he even want to—extend the legacy of Irish drama into unforeseeable territory? From Yeats onward, the audience for Irish drama had quaffed a brew of poverty and poetry, blarney and eloquence, myth and the kitchen sink. Suddenly, like the young Sam Shepard and his equally meteoric rise, McDonagh found a style no one anticipated, as viscerally violent as Shepard’s, as psychologically edgy, and as recklessly antagonistic toward the audience’s comfort zone.

Husbands and Sons by D. H. Lawrence, National Theatre, London—until Feb. 10

Julia Ford & Lloyd Hutchinson. Photo Manuel Harlan.

Down in the pit. The misery of being a woman in Nottinghamshire back when coal was king forms the preoccupation of Husbands and Sons, a composite of three one-act plays by D. H. Lawrence. Before they were rediscovered and staged, Lawrence’s dramas were an obscure part of his output, and now they risk being too dated to be vital. Like early Eugene O’Neill, the stage-minded Lawrence of 1911 to 1913, when these plays were written, aimed at naked social realism. The women trapped by brutal husbands working in the colliery stand on the brink of ruination from mining accidents, impending strikes, the cruel work hours that destroyed men’s bodies, and always the shadow of poverty.

Rattle leads the Berlin Philharmonic through Sibelius’s symphonies at the Barbican

The best part of a love affair, wrote Georges Clémenceau some hundred years ago, is the moment you are climbing the stairs. It was, one hopes, not a cynical remark but a commentary on the pleasures of anticipation. I thought of this last month as I negotiated stairs at London’s Barbican Centre. A visit by the Berlin Philharmonic is always, if not a love affair, then certainly a thrill. But the otherwise admirable and much used Barbican is a windowless maze, and climbing the various levels can make for the seeming triumph of cluelessness over romance.

Richard Long, Heaven and Earth, at the Tate Britain, 3 June – 6 September 2009

Richard Long, Dusty Boots Line, 1988

A curious map hangs in the second room of Heaven and Earth, the new Richard Long exhibit at the Tate Britain in London, which opened on June 3. From afar, the map of Dartmoor Forest in southwest England resembles strategic battle map, with four concentric circles drawn atop a specific area, perhaps suggesting a target. The map, however, exists as a simple record, a history, of a walk Richard Long took thirty-seven years ago. “A Walk of Four Hours and Four Circles, England, 1972,” the caption reads. Each of the circles on the map represents Long’s self-imposed paths for his walk and do not necessarily symbolize dominion.

King Lear at the National Theatre, London

Simon Russell Beale in the National Theatre's King Lear – King Lear. Photo by Mark Douet.

One of the odd and unique interesting qualities of King Lear is its fantastic and vague setting in prehistoric Britain, that Shakespeare chose a tale of a king you couldn’t find in a list of the Kings and Queens of England, even while he gave the play something of a history play shape, with British Kings and princes, crises of succession and fighting with each other and France. But it isn’t a history play, it’s based on a britannic myth that was already a myth in the middle ages, and the play is set around about some time in the misty, undocumented bog before Ethelwulf, Egbert and Offa, and after Arthur, but perhaps not, maybe it predates the Romans, maybe even the Celts? It’s in a parallel timeline no doubt.

Sir Donald Sinden’s Enchanted Tour of the Great West End Theatres: the First Installment

Sir Donald takes a gander through the viewfinder.

Of all the places frequented by humankind, the theater must surely be the one where we are most vital. Forget playing fields, museums, churches, mountain tops, bedrooms, and all that. One might say the proof is that they are so often inhabited by ghosts, as Sir Donald Sinden is always careful to note in the delightful series of documentaries about the theatres of London’s West End he and his son Marc are in the process of creating. (Ten have been finished so far. There will be forty in all.) The thing is that even if there is no haunting, one should take due note and make some attempt to identify the personage—usually an actor or manager, or both in one. Or perhaps all we need to do is be aware of how we feel, body and soul, after a truly excellent performance on stage. Never have I felt more alive than after a great evening or afternoon in the theatre. There words, gestures, and humanity become lifeblood.

Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II in London

David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Being a little out of touch with mainstream movies and TV nowadays, I came to the RSC’s new production of Richard II without the usual expectations associated with a famous face (from the screen) in the lead, and this feels like an advantage to me. It is easier to enjoy a play expecting a rounder cast, or indeed expecting nothing in the way of faces and mannerisms. I had forgotten about the new Doctor Whos and that David Tennant had been one, and avoided the Harry Potter films, so the squeals and the mad applause were a surprise. But even so, in reality, it was a balanced cast, and fame doesn’t mean a thing, especially to Shakespeare.

Wozzeck at the ENO; Othello at the National Theatre

Othello at the National Theatre: Olivia Vinall as Desdemona, Adrian Lester as Othello. Photo Johan Persson.

A recent visit to London offered interestingly comparable back-to-back performances: Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck at the English National Opera, London Coliseum, Saturday evening, May 25th; and the next afternoon Shakespeare’s Othello at the National Theatre. Both works center on a military man, mad from the start or driven mad as things progress, who comes to kill his lover (female) out of sexual jealousy, and then kills himself. Comparison of the two works (the Berg opera, of course, based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck) can lead one into interesting thoughts on the nature of tragedy, modern tragedy versus classical tragedy, the function of character and fate in such dramas, and so on. But remarkably, these two London productions were given the same setting: the military world of the recent Iraq and current Afghanistan wars—thereby making a particular and strong point about the nature of experiential and environmental pressures upon such characters as we see.

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