Well, the West End can officially breathe easily again. All the grossly exaggerated press stories of ongoing crisis have been blown away by the excitement of a show that takes £800,000 in advance bookings in the first two days after opening, with – wonder of wonders! – actual queues outside the actual box office of the actual theatre. In short, The Producers worked. The hacks even got to dust off the old Betty Grable story by revealing that Leigh Zimmerman’s amazing legs (which, as a friend of mine would say, go all the way up to Tufnell Park) have been insured for $1 million. (Only a million? Sixty-one years of inflation would have raised Miss Grable’s million and a quarter pins to over $13.5 million, as far as I can ascertain.)
If anything, it’s the show’s portrayal of gay characters that’s problematic. The Springtime For Hitler element is clearly always intended to be pushing at the boundaries of taste – that’s the point of the story, that it be a musical that can’t possibly succeed – and so always carries the germ of its own forgiveness. However, as Alastair Macaulay notes, a third of a century on, Mel Brooks still seems to find homosexuality funny per se, and flatly equivalent to being a screaming queen who can’t wait to get into a spangly frock (although, as you can see on the back cover, Conleth Hill looks stunning in that gown). Dressing up several chorus hoofers as mid-’70s gay disco icons The Village People only serves to underline how outdated such caricatures are now. As, indeed, does a glance immediately to Hill’s right, at Nathan Lane.
I also have to admit that, when watching the show, this didn’t matter a jot to me. It’s an immensely enjoyable evening, if overlong. The (mercifully few) criticisms of Lee Evans’ performance as Leo Bloom strike me as similar to those of his Clov in Matthew Warchus’ revival of Beckett’s Endgame this spring. It’s easy to see the simian mugging and Norman Wisdom clowning as being all there is to his portrayal. But he is successfully affecting as a… well, I suppose one would have to call him an unusually mature romantic ingénue. Mark my words, between the Beckett and the Brooks, Evans will pick up some major awards. (Mind you, I said with equal certainty that Bat Boy would close before Hallowe’en.) Nice, too, to gather yet more material for my unfinished thesis on James Joyce, as the musical’s script makes a knowing hint which the 1968 movie did not: that Evans’ character is the namesake of the Everyman protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses. And did I imagine it, or in the Springtime For Hitler number itself, is that supporting player lip-synching the couplet “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party” to a recording of Brooks’ own voice?
One can infer from Lane’s performance what was probably missing from that of departed leading man Richard Dreyfuss. It’s not just that the actor playing Max Bialystock does need to be able to dance and most definitely to sing: Max also needs a considerable rumpled charm to be able to pull off his scams. It’s not a matter of being plausibly sexy to work all those elderly women as a gigolo to get funds for his no-hope stage shows, but of being plausibly attractive, which is another matter. Not saying that Dreyfuss isn’t attractive, but one suspects that his Max would have had too much of the huckster and not enough of the big ol’ teddy bear, in need of a good wash to be sure, but only because he’s been so well hugged. Of course, the press are still trying to have their cake and eat it, by speculating on how the show will fare once Lane’s limited engagement ends, and who will be cast as his replacement. Ian Herbert has an intriguing suggestion that director Susan Stroman should make an internal promotion, if Conleth Hill can be persuaded to give up the spangles.
Building ’em up to knock ’em down is a press ritual, at least in Britain. Also in this fortnight, London saw a trio of productions of classics, each of which stood or fell by its attitude towards ritual and formality of performance. (I know that’s a contrived and tenuous link, but you try coming up with this stuff issue after issue…)
Yukio Ninagawa is rightly fêted as a master of stage imagery. It has to be said, though, that his occasional English-language productions reveal an odd timidity with respect to characterisation and performance. It may be a matter of lack of confidence with the language in rehearsal, or of an approach which doesn’t translate well between theatrical cultures. At any rate, in such productions we seldom get a detailed sense of the connection between characters’ inner lives and the words they utter. His Hamlet at the Barbican is a case in point. A starkly elegant set consists principally of a spinney of vertical strands of barbed wire. Tamotsu Harada’s superlative lighting design plots shattered mazes with beams of light (I was reminded of the windows in Daniel Libeskind’s Holocaust Museum in Berlin) or sets bare bulbs swinging unsettlingly above the actors. But there it stops, by and large. We can find no illumination (ha!) as to why characters are dressed in a range from western-nondescript to full Japanese pomp for both the Ghost and the player-villain. We glean little depth to the main narrative thrust, which is rattled through in three hours of playing time. Above all, we derive little sense of who Hamlet really is. Michael Maloney’s not the ostentatious kind of technician of his rival Hamlet Toby Stephens, but I do always feel that I can see him pulling the levers for any given effect. So, here, we clearly see what he’s feeling from moment to moment, but seldom grasp why, especially as he generally delivers his lines in a rapid mutter. His closet scene with Gertrude (Frances Tomelty, a year older than Maloney and playing his mother!) is utterly devoid of sexual or violent tension: even the stylised stabbing of Polonius seems an afterthought. And as for Peter Egan’s Ghost, I’d love to see him encounter Greg Hicks’ version down a dark alley. The problem throughout seems to be that Ninagawa has an excessive respect for staging this text in its homeland. One can see that he has ideas, but he is far too timid in seeing them through, crippled instead by the sense of paying his respects at the altar of Hamlet.
I said in my review of Hamlet that Maloney makes one understand why critics sometimes speak of an actor “giving a reading” of a part: he gives an intelligent essay on Hamlet, a sedulous demonstration of Hamletness, but never seems to inhabit the part. Yet how much more true is this, as Alastair Macaulay again observes, of most of the actors in Declan Donnellan’s Cheek By Jowl Othello. Donnellan’s presentational style is often formal and ritualised, but here it’s almost “holy” in an alternative sense: liturgically rarefied. The near-inaudibility of a number of actors, for instance, seems to have been a deliberate decision to play in a kind of cathedral undertone; the use of tableaux during soliloquies, and of actors as “street furniture” during night scenes, doesn’t comment upon the spatial relationships of any given scene so much as destroy them.
I think there’s a lot to praise on the production, in particular Nonso Anonzie’s performance in the title role: unlike a number of reviewers, I found his very lack of musicality a welcome change. Anonzie locates Othello very definitely as a soldier, and a soldier of iron self-control until the iron is corroded by Iago’s acid, at which point we begin to see him literally reel, drunken with unaccustomed passions. (This notion of unsteadiness on the feet is taken too far, however, with Caroline Martin’s hitherto refreshingly self-possessed Desdemona called upon to repeatedly totter backwards under the force of Othello’s castigations of her.) Donnellan’s ritualistic approach can work to magnificent effect, as in his version of Corneille's Le Cid in 1998, when the text in question speaks of a world of protocols, codes of conduct and expectations. However, Othello is about the removal of precisely these things; it is their absence, the whirling void in their place, that Shakespeare anatomises.
Then walk a few hundred yards through Hammersmith from the Riverside to the Lyric, and see exactly what can be achieved by taking a ritual form and selectively trashing it. Kneehigh’s The Bacchae is such a success because it recognises the value of formality without treating it as a kind of aspic in which to preserve Euripides’ work. It can look as if the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater, but the company’s electrifying modulation into the final murderous phase of the play refutes all such suspicions.
However, the most important play of the issue – and, I maintain, the
most important political play of the year, more so than Guantánamo
or Stuff Happens – opened not in the West End nor at the National
Theatre, but at the intimate in-the-round space of the Orange Tree. Its
author is not British but Australian. And it is likely to engage feelings
in fierce opposition; I cannot, for instance, imagine it being produced
anywhere in the United States outside the three main cities, if even there.
The title of Stephen Sewell's play gives enough indication: Myth, Propaganda
And Disaster In Nazi Germany And Contemporary America.
Where Stuff Happens deals with what is already political history, and Guantánamo with what is hidden behind razor-wire, Sewell's subject is immediate: the effect of the Patriot Act on freedom of thought and expression in the United States. The title is slightly sensationalist: it represents not the author's view but that of his protagonist, an outspoken college lecturer who finds himself the subject of unwanted attentions by an inquisitor with a lapel pin and a penchant for pistol-whipping. But this, too, is almost a metaphor; as Sewell chronicles the disintegration of Talbot Finch and the reactions of his family, friends, colleagues and students, it grows clear that what is under indictment is not principally the legislation, but the cultural climate that it has helped to foster. It's easy, the play suggests, to dismiss those who worry about such abuses as being paranoid, or even as being intent on destabilisation themselves. It's also hard to resist falling into patterns of self-censorship.
The play is by no means perfect as a piece of drama. It’s at times overwritten or clunky, too diffuse or too ready to fall back on easy laughter, and certainly too eager with a slew of literary and dramatic allusions from Kafka and Orwell to Mamet and Albee. However, for the reasons explained, it adroitly forestalls criticism by hinting that writing it off as flawed and overdone would in itself be a testimony to the reality of the cultural and political climate it depicts. Although the case it examines is entirely fictional, I am loath to describe it as a fable. It feels like a cause célèbre play, merely one without an individual, documented cause. It is loud, and angry, and self-conscious, and patchy, and to many no doubt outrageous. It is also vital.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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