July 16, 2008

While Some Dramas Travel Well, Others Leave Something Behind

By Matt Wolf

Does it matter where a play is played? Very often it does, as more and more productions these days make plain.

The playwright Michael Frayn certainly knows a thing or two about context: his last two plays, "Copenhagen" and "Democracy," both transferred from the National Theatre and then to the West End and on to New York - most successfully so in the case of "Copenhagen," not at all happily as regards "Democracy."

Now comes the National Theatre premiere in the Lyttelton auditorium of "Afterlife," Frayn's third consecutive piece focusing our attention on a perhaps surprising figure from the past century. The Englishman's topic here is Max Reinhardt, the Austrian director and impresario who emigrated to the United States in 1938, five years before his death. The play compels attention, and Roger Allam, an alumnus of 'Democracy,' is gravely witty in the leading role. But its problem is one of scale: for all that's oracular, even operatic, about a production from Michael Blakemore that takes its cue from Peter Davison's outsized set, the play simply isn't epic enough to do justice to a theatrical visionary who didn't like things pint- sized when he could render them big and proud.

Frayn locates his protagonist in a very deliberate limbo, moving toward and away from the medieval morality tale, "Everyman," that was Reinhardt's signature staging, and in and out of the twilit world of reality and dreaming that is any creator's artistic home. The result lifts a veil on someone about whom one wishes to know very much more (Reinhardt's relation to his own Judaism, for instance, would seem to demand greater discussion) while at the same time insisting on a grandeur that the writing itself doesn't fully share. Whereas Frayn's last two historical forays fanned out to points beyond, the potential afterlife of "Afterlife" looks, sadly, to be somewhat less secure.

"Free Outgoing" is one of several recent London openings that have been seen before, in this case last November at the Royal Court's tiny Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, which seats 85. Anupama Chandrasekhar's play has since shifted downstairs for a limited run through Saturday on the Court's main stage, an auditorium that is larger by some 300 seats. What's gone missing in the move: the intimacy accompanying the story of a widowed mother named Malini living in modern-day Chennai whose sense of self is seriously undermined by the sexual indiscretions of her underage daughter, Deepa.

The teenager has been filmed having sex on a cellphone, a clip that has made the rounds to the delight of the men in the community and to Malini's gathering shame. Upstairs at the Court, it felt as if the audience were itself complicit in the voyeurism that Chandrasekhar goes on to anatomize, the play's very spectators acting as the (unseen) crowd who all but chase Malini and her children from their apartment. In a bigger space, it takes more time for Indhu Rubasingham's production to gather the power that seemed a given before, and it's fascinating to clock the altered tone of a key player, Raj Ghatak as Ramesh, Malini's colleague and would-be friend. Last autumn, Ghatak seemed authentically goofy as he helped Malini test the Super Sparkler metal polish that is this part-time saleswoman's stock in trade. This go-round, the same performer comes across as decidedly creepy, rather like one of those characters out of an Ibsen play who, for all their apparent generosity, portend ill. (Think of him as an Indian Judge Brack.)

If the 80-minute play no longer has the same hurtling force, it still boasts a blazing star performance from Lolita Chakrabarti, playing a reluctant accessory to the same media circus that she would like to erase from her life. The startling final scene finds Malini on camera, facing an all too prurient nation to explain what has gone on even as an ever-mysterious Deepa waits in the wings. (Chandrasekhar's treatment of her play's actual catalyst is exceedingly clever.) How does an actress visibly age in front of our eyes? I have no idea, though Chakrabarti manages that and more in a closing sequence that is as draining to watch as it must be to perform. At such moments, the larger house only benefits this brilliant performer's portrait of a lioness who has been bruisingly tamed. Now, more than ever, you feel the ache as she ceases to roar.

"Black Watch," at the Barbican Theatre through July 26, has also had a previous British outing, though in this case at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival prior to an international tour that has at last brought to London Gregory Burke's fine play - and John Tiffany's even finer production. (Among the unexpected stops on this play's global route: a 10,000-seat ice hockey arena in Norfolk, Virginia.) I saw the show in its debut incarnation north of the border, where its time-honored view of the Scottish regiment known as the Black Watch rang out thrillingly as performed in a vast drill hall that had been made over for the occasion. The festival's nightly "tattoo" - a military maneuver fashioned for the tourist market - provided an ironic counterpoint to Burke's explosive portrait of the young Scottish recruits' deployment in Iraq, since which time this particular, much-lauded sector of the British Army has been disbanded.

For a while, it wasn't clear whether London would be able to find a home for the specific spatial demands of a highly aggressive piece of physical theater, which takes place in a high-ceilinged, rectangular playing area with the audience seated on both sides. (Running nearly two hours, the show has no intermission.) All credit, then, to bite08, the Barbican's ongoing arts jamboree, for turning the cultural center's 1,160-seat main stage into a traverse theater that holds 365. While the London audience at one performance was far quieter than their Scottish kin, as if an English public wasn't sure how much direct response would be appropriate, the piece continues to astonish in its mixture of celebration and lamentation, at once tribute and requiem.

How will "Black Watch" play years from now? That's as difficult a question to answer as it is to gauge what the script would look like divorced from the directorial ingenuity of Tiffany, who sends his all-male cast tumbling onto the stage through a pool table and around video screens, between life back home at a pub in Fife and combat in Iraq. The production as a whole packs a cumulative punch.

Our last image of the soldiers shows them not in conversation but engaged in a fierce militaristic drill from which no one puts a muscle wrong. In the same way, "Black Watch" muscularly honors these singular men of action while signaling the end of the community, and camaraderie, that was their life.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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