Wednesday, October 20, 2010

LETTER FROM LONDON: A LITTLE THEATRE

We've just returned from London. Eight days of theater, art, dining, and enjoying some of the best eight days of London weather in memory–pleasant temperatures, not a drop of rain. Were we really in London? Is this what climate change is all about -- extreme pleasantness? The eight days included six theater performances, a dinner at the British Museum with trustees, dignitaries, and American friends of the Museum, and a 35th wedding anniversary party at Annabel's.  It was my first time back to Annabel's in a couple of decades, and little has changed. Well, one thing had changed. Men no longer need neckties.

Getting to London from New York wasn't half the fun, as the old Cunard ad used to promise, but it wasn't bad.  In fact, I'm about to do something unusual -- praise an airline other than one that flies to an emirate or to Singapore. We took a relatively new service of British Airways that has made flying to Europe about as painless as it gets nowadays. It was on a 32-passenger, all business-class, fully-flat-seat Airbus 318 that lands at London City Airport. Much closer to center of town, London City Airport is the un-Heathrow. No crowds, no waits, no unpleasantness – it's almost like flying into a private airport.


But the most unusual aspect of the round-trip was the return flight, which left from London City Airport. An hour after departure, the aircraft stops in Shannon, Ireland, for a 45-minute refueling (the departing runway is too short to allow the aircraft to take off with a full fuel load). Now that sounds like a downer, doesn't it --  landing just after you take off? However, there's a silver lining. During the interval on the ground, passengers go through US customs, thus permitting landing at JFK at the domestic terminal.  No unpleasant the JFK customs experience, and no long waits for baggage (with only 32 passengers).


Passion -- Donmar Warehouse -- 2010
PASSION  Though we went to the theater six times, we saw just five different shows. The theatrical highlight of the trip, and the show we had to see again, was Passion. First produced on Broadway in 1994, this musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James LaPine (book and direction) won Tony awards that year for best musical, score, book, and actress (Donna Murphy). It was based on an 1869 book, "Fosca," by the Italian writer Uginio Ugo Tarchetti, and a 1981 movie,"Passione d'Amore," by Ettore Scola.


Taking place in mid-19th-century Italy, Passion traces Giorgio as he gradually and improbably shifts his love from Clara, his gorgeous, voluptuous, married mistress, to the sepulchral, sick and obsessive Fosca.  Unlikely?  Absolutely.  But through the magic of the music, lyrics and book, the improbable becomes possible.  Giorgio realizes that the only true love is one that is unconditional. Thus he breaks off his romance with the beautiful Clara, who has put conditions on continuing their relationship. Georgio asks Clara





You think that this is love?
Love isn't so convenient.
Love isn't something scheduled in advance,
Not something guaranteed you need
For fear it may pass you by.
You have to take a chance,
You can't just try it out.
What's love unless it's unconditional?

And Fosca asks Georgio

Would Clara give her life for you?
...I would live,
And I would die for you.


And Giorgio, in realization of Fosca's love, tells her


No one has ever loved me
As deeply as you.
No one has truly shown me
What love could be like until now.



We and the rest of the audience watch for an uninterrupted hour forty-five minutes in rapt concentration. No one stirs.


In addition to the terrific cast (Elena Roger, David Thaxton and  Scarlett Strallen) and direction (Jamie Lloyd), the emotional impact of the evening is heightened by the fact that this small musical is being performed in the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse, in effect a chamber show in a chamber theater. A perfect match. Sitting a few feet away from the actors, who perform with no microphones and no amplification, the viewer gets a completely different experience from that in the typical large theater, sitting a distance from the stage, and listening to voices emanate from loudspeakers.


Seeing it once just wasn't enough. We changed our plans. Five days later we returned, enjoying it even more the second time.


DEATHTRAP  This comedy thriller was written by Ira Levin, a New Yorker whose previous works included the films Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives. On Broadway, Deathtrap ran for 1,793 performances and starred Michael Caine in the leading role. It was also a successful movie.  Our main reason for seeing this otherwise modest show was to marvel in the performance of one of the consummate stage actors of our time, Simon Russell Beale. He is a force of nature.


HOUSE OF GAMES  Originally a movie by David Mamet, one of our favorite playwrights, screenwriters and directors, this stage version at the Almeida Theatre was only moderately entertaining. But I happen to like plays and movies that involve cons and stings, so I probably enjoyed this more than the work itself or the acting would merit.


LOWER NINTH  A short, three-person drama that is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Played in a tiny theater off-off-West End, the entire action takes place on the roof of a flooded house in the lower ninth ward just days after the storm. It had a short run in New York off-off-Broadway a couple of years ago. Fine acting, emotional, worth seeing.  


YES, PRIME MINISTER  Based on the very funny 1980s television series, this spoof on British governance was amusing. Yet an hour later, it was out of mind.  A pleasant trifle. Perhaps it works better as a half-hour British television series than as a two-hour-plus West End production.


What we didn't catch and wish we had:  We saw Hamlet on Broadway last year with Jude Law, and recently re-watched both the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh films.  As a result, we're Hamlet-satiated.  So we passed on seeing this new National Theatre modern-dress production of the melancholy Dane. But what we heard from a friend in the theater who saw it last week: "The first act was the finest theater I've seen in 50 years.” Next trip, perhaps.

36 comments:

  1. Wait a minute. In June your wrote you had just completed your semi-annual London theatre visit. Now in October you're back. Is this some kind of apps truncated digital calendar?
    Mel Opotowsky

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  2. I love reading these theater posts! I feel like I can enjoy all these plays vicariously, without having to SIT for hours... and I am always entertained and enlightened by your comments.
    I liked hearing about the British Airways business flight, as well. Early US customs processing -- how cool is that?
    I've missed reading your posts. Nice to have you back.

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  3. Mel, it was a semi-accurate remark about our semi-annual trips to London. Glad to see you won't let me get by with nothin' You must have been a journalist once.

    Deborah, thx for comment.

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