October 8, 2008

3 Classics Revamped With Modernity and Verve

By Matt Wolf

It's not just Pirandello's six characters who famously make searching their career. So, too, does the London theater in its approach to the classics in a city that runs toward time-honored plays just as New York often seems to recoil from them (unless, of course, that particular classic happens to have originated in London). Even the new work in London can have a canonical source: the most vigorously original play of the year so far, Roy Williams's long-departed "Days of Significance," seen at the Tricycle Theatre last spring, has its origins in "Much Ado About Nothing," Shakespeare's battling lovers here displaced and updated to Britain's binge drinking culture and the Iraq war.

If fresh voices are going to draw for inspiration from the theatrical well, why shouldn't the vast repertoire from across the centuries in turn reveal itself anew? On the one hand, you could lament a current season where the "new" work consists mostly of inept retreads of films or the books that spawned them: first "Rain Man," now "Girl With A Pearl Earring," the latter adapted by David Joss Buckley from Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel with what is barely even a tin ear: "You paint to live," the artist Johannes Vermeer is told in the sort of breathless remark that could well make a Dutch master consider retraining as a plumber. (Joe Dowling's clunky production was drafted into the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, to cover the gap left by the flop musical, "Marguerite," but is itself only on view for two more weeks.)

And yet, one can't get too annoyed with such failures of the imagination at a time when all manner of potentially musty titles are seen to have renewed bite. To see "Six Characters in Search of an Author,""Creditors," and "Waste" within a single week is to be reminded of the excitement that results from an ongoing and very fruitful tension between playwrights who can no longer answer for themselves and directors and actors more than able to argue those writers' cases for them.

That's especially true of "Six Characters," the Pirandello mainstay that is running through Nov. 8 at the Gielgud Theatre, following rave reviews over the summer at the Chichester Festival Theatre, south of London. The exact same trajectory was followed a season or two ago by an earlier production from the same director, Rupert Goold: "Macbeth," with Patrick Stewart, which ended up on Broadway. By rights, this one should travel westward, as well, and not just because its star, Ian McDiarmid, gives a scorching, quietly bravura performance to match his Tony-winning turn in New York in Brian Friel's "Faith Healer" two years ago.

Though its premiere nearly led to a riot in Rome in 1921, "Six Characters" in this go-round could lay substantial claim to being a new play, given the wizardly number that has been done on the text by Goold and his co-author, Ben Power. The modern setting is a clinically appointed office in Denmark where a British television producer is working through a documentary about a 14-year-old Danish boy's assisted suicide. Scarcely has the filmmaker called for "chaos, energy, pain" before she is visited by the wandering sextet of the title, who arrive clad in black and eager to find someone to give shape to the tragic tale they carry within them. "Capture our story, I beg of you," entreats the paterfamilias of the group, who is played by McDiarmid with a sinuous charm that can turn sinister in an instant.

The play asks the big questions - "Who are you? What are you? What is truth?" demands the father, tossing out three such queries at once - and has devilish fun along the way, with references to "Being John Malkovich," the current Royal Shakespeare Company "Hamlet," and British television executives thickening a modernist, mixed-media stew that at one point finds the increasingly agitated producer scurrying backstage to "Les Miserables" next door.

Those who found Goold's "Macbeth" an exercise in directorial grandstanding may well think the same here; others, myself among them, will marvel at the director's gift for animating a seminal slab of theatrical existentialism with wit and real pathos. It's giving very little away to reveal that the arc of the piece ranges across sudden outbursts of opera to land the producer (an impressively urgent Noma Dumezweni) in much the same position as the hapless subject of her film. At that moment, what could merely have been a wild and wacky head trip suddenly acquires real feeling in a "Six Characters" that speaks unabashedly to the intellect before delivering itself up to the heart.

I'm not sure the heart was of much interest to the Swedish writer August Strindberg, whose 1888 play "Creditors" continues a strong season at the Donmar Warehouse, where it opened last week in a new version by the Scottish writer David Greig. A study in destruction, the actor-turned-director Alan Rickman's production charts the steady decline of the crippled, anemic Adolph (Tom Burke) at the hands of an apparent stranger, Owen Teale's coolly ominous Gustav, who in fact is much more fully acquainted with Adolph's wife, Tekla (Anna Chancellor), than he lets on. The play proceeds as a series of shifting duologues that build to the sort of reveling in psychic chaos for which this writer remains well-known. "Help us," cries Chancellor's at once haunted and hunted wife in a superbly bewitching performance, any and all prospects for solace and salvation by that point long gone.

Strindberg's world pays little heed to consequences: as Gustav explains to Tekla, "Suddenly, I wanted to hurt you; I just felt like it." Harley Granville Barker's monumental play "Waste," by contrast, offers up a clubbish, chappish English society in which misdeeds come brutally home to roost. London is lucky to get a defining production of this century-old play about once a decade; the last was from Sir Peter Hall at the Old Vic 11 years ago. But it's been some time since I've seen as sustainedly intense a piece of theater as the second act of the director Samuel West's latest production at the Almeida Theatre. The first half may on occasion feel like heavy lifting; after the intermission, the entire evening lands, and more.

In part, that's down to the blistering pairing of Will Keen, playing a politician who has an affair with a married woman that ends in her death, and Phoebe Nicholls as the same man's spinster sister: Sonya, as it were, to the Uncle Vanya that is Henry Trebell. (Granville Barker knew his theater, and the play is rife with echoes of both Chekhov and Ibsen.) The play is good on national characteristics: the political gamesmanship here is at once collegial and cutthroat in a singularly English way. It's even better on the price paid for folly, as is clear from the title. "I'm stunned, but I'll come round," the sister tells us near the end. And she could be speaking for an audience that greets the play's mournful final sequence in utterly stunned silence before coming round with applause that by rights is ringing out still.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

(c) 2008 International Herald Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.