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A CurtainUp In London

A Brief View from London's South Bank: The Old Vic and the New
By Joseph B. Green


List of Topics
(to move back to the top from any part of the document, press CTRL+HOME key)
The Old Vic
Waiting for Godot
The Sea Gull
Other 1997 Productions At the Old Vic and How to Get There
The New Globe, Generally Speaking
Henry the 5th
Other 1997 Productions At the New Globe and How to Get There
Other London Theaters


On a recent and quick trip through London on the way back to Canada from Spain and Morocco (a review of the bullfights in Barcelona would make for an interesting read... but that's another story), three plays on the South Bank of the Thames River caught my fancy. Two were part of Peter Hall's rep season at the renowned Old Vic Theatre on Waterloo Road: his revival of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, the English language premiere of which he did in 1955, and his production of Tom Stoppard's new translation of Chekhov's The Seagull. The third was Henry 5th at the recently opened New Globe Theatre at the foot of Southwark Bridge -- Sam Wanamaker's incredible revival project that he never lived to see.

The Old Vic. Generally Speaking
David Mirvish, owner of the Old Vic for over a decade now, has brought the Peter Hall company into his theatre for a gutsy rep season (Mirvish some years ago invited Jonathan Miller in for a similar season). Totally without subsidy, Mirvish and Hall are trying to demonstrate the viability of a commercial repertory season. It's a tough slog but a very impressive undertaking. Some eight plays in rotating rep with a company that would make any publicly funded theatre director drool with envy.

To be Specific: 1. Waiting for Godot
Hall's Waiting For Godot was of special interest for two reasons: first, he mounted the premiere production of it (at least a year before the late Alan Schneider opened the play at the Coconut Grove in Florida), and second, it featured the powerhouse team of Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard as Gogo and Didi respectively. What a disappointment, then, to see this classic of the modern theatre played almost totally for its comedic values. Despite the profound talents of Messrs Kingsley and Howard, and largely attributable to Hall's directoral take on the piece, this Godot failed utterly to capture the dark pain that Beckett has so marvellously interwoven with the music-hall comedy of his two clown-like central figures.

Beckett's strong suggestion of growing despair in Gogo's responses (stated as simple "Ah"s in the text) to Didi's "We're waiting . . . for Godot" failed to take shape through Kingsley's reading, garnering laughter without pain from an audience too comfortable for the play's good. Likewise, Didi's business with his hat and Gogo's with his boots (top to bottom?) failed to realize the undertones of desperation in favour of unfocussed staging and easy laughs -- empty metaphors.

More compelling was the native mimetic strength of the two principal actors and, especially, the close to terrifying rendering of Lucky's speech by Greg Hicks. This moment -- in some ways the emotional climax of the play, although it comes too early in the evening to serve as the structural zenith -- helped rescue the production from its easy accessibility. Indeed, Hicks' rendering of Lucky came close to what this reviewer believes the plays wants to do: to create a discomfiting tension in the audience between laughter and anguish. That Denis Quilly's Pozzo never rose to such height (or fell to such depth) was a serious disappointment, further diminishing the tension of the production.

John Gunter's neutral box set (really!) on a slightly raked stage floor painted in wood strips was most confusing until it came clear at the subsequent production of The Seagull that this was a unit-set approach for cost savings. But post-production understanding did not justify a scenic environment that ran counter to the "blasted heath" tone that Godot demands and deserves. The costumes, the rock and the tree were adequate.

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To be Specific: 2. The Seagull
Immeasurably more successful was Sir Peter's production of the new Tom Stoppard translation of Chekhov's The Seagull. Gunter's box set here made infinitely more sense, especially since the play's several locations were successfully set within the box through the use of well designed and elegantly placed stage props. The thorough realism of this play was so much more comfortable than Godot's intrusion into the same space. And Mark Henderson's lighting worked seamlessly with Hall's generally fluid production.

The Peter Hall Company, led here by Felicity Kendall (Irina) and Michael Pennington (Trigorin), rose effortlessly to the colloquial and witty heights of Stoppard's adaptation. Ms. Kendall's propensity for going "over the top" was too much in evidence here, although it was nicely offset by Mr. Pennington's understated performance. Indeed, the contrast worked to great effect as the pair moved through the developing action (or, in the sense of Beckett, non-action).

Of course, the spark that ignites the play's smouldering flame is the character of Nina, most effectively revealed by Victoria Hamilton, a young performer from whom much will be expected and very likely delivered. Ms. Hamilton (who will also play Cordelia in King Lear later this season) brings to the pivotal role of Nina both strength and charm, two qualities which effectively complement the more seasoned portrayals of Ms. Kendall (also appearing as Amy O'Connell in the Vic's production of Harley Granville Barker's Waste) and Mr. Pennington (Henry Trebell in Waste and Sir John Brute in The Provok'd Wife).

It was illuminating to see Greg Hicks' comic Medvenkenko (the rural school teacher so in love with and finally but ruefully married to Masha) in effective contrast to his Lucky in Godot. Would that King Lear were on, so as to have been able to see Hicks as Edgar. What a rich variety of roles for this talented performer.

Not to be neglected is the performance of Dominic West (who is also performing in Waste and in Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 this season) as Konstantin, son of Irina and suitor to Nina, putative playwright and an easy match to the histrionics of his mother. His success in creating a believable tormented and boxed-in young writer who ultimately takes his life (shades of Hedda Gabler!) was no mean feat.

In the hands of this rich company, The Seagull was delivered with vigour and charm, making rich its complex layering of the comic and laconic so typical of Chekovian "comedy". Only the unresolved final action of the play rang false -- an unfortunate close to an otherwise organically well wrought production.

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Other 1997 Productions at the Old Vic and How to Get There
Harley Granville Barker's Waste (currently playing)
Sebastion Barry's Prayers of Sherkin (from 18 May)
Sir John Vanbrugh's The Provok'd Wife (currently playing)
Shakespeare's King Lear (from 25 August)
Samuel Adamson's Grace Note (currently playing)
April de Angelis' Playhouse creatures (from 14 September)
Roy MacGregor's snake in the Grass (from 12 October)
Chris Hannon's Shining Souls (from 9 November)
Getting to the Old Vic: Northern Line to Waterloo Station and walk south.


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The New Globe. . .Generally Speaking
A few kilometres west of the Old Vic and somewhat closer to the south bank of the Thames is the site of the recently opened Shakespeare Globe Centre which consists of three enterprises: the theatre company based at the Globe Theatre running a summer season of plays (this summer is its inaugural season), an education department which works with students of all ages exploring Shakespeare's scripts in relation to the stage for which they were written, and a developing exhibition centre devoted to Shakespeare and his contemporaries which seeks "to inform, inspire and fascinate visitors...."

While the supporting physical and programmatic infrastructure is still in development, the Globe Theatre is complete -- it is up and running. Following what the Centre calls its Prologue Season (in 1996, The Two Gentlemen Of Verona was presented on a makeshift stage to test the stage design), the Opening Theatre Season was launched in May of this year with Henry 5th and The Winter's Tale. (See our review of another Shakespeare Company's production of this Winter's Tale at Shakespeare & Co. ). In August, Thomas Middleton's A Chaste maid In Cheapside and Beaumont & Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy will join the repertory season.

The new Globe Theatre has been built a mere 200 yards from the site of the original and stands a few steps from the banks of the river. From Southwark Bridge (the easiest approach to the site which is not to say a simple task), one can just see the familiar half-timbered structure. Unfortunately, it is rather severely crowded by surrounding industrial buildings and further enclosed by the very contemporary building which will house the administrative and support services of the Centre. The mind's eye view of seeing the old/new Globe standing tall and unencumbered on Bankside is never realized -- something the American actor Sam Wanamaker expected to find when he first sought it out in 1949 and something he dreamt of recreating from the time he established the Globe Playhouse Trust in 1970. But he was not to see the fruits of his prodigious labour -- Sam Wanamaker died in 1993 just as the twelfth of the fifteen auditorium bays had been erected and a few months before the plaster work and the roof thatching were to begin.

The Playhouse holds (notice that I don't say "seats") close to 1500 people -- 500 "groundlings" who stand in the open courtyard before the thrust stage (what a contemporary description of a covered platform that gave rise to the very word!) with the remainder seated on three levels in the "wooden O" that comprises the auditorium. It is just before 7 pm on a beautiful London summer eve. The crowd begins to gather for the 7:30 sold-out performance of Henry 5th . A line-up (or sit down) of some twenty theatre-goers que for returns. People stroll along Bankside, taxis arrive amongst dust-bins and works hoardings in the street so narrow that turning around is impossible and a mini-traffic jam ensues as empties try to get away in the face of new arrivals -- a comic scene outside the theatre. Picture it: computer-printed tickets (from &#pound5 for standing in the pit to 20 for seats so close to the platform stage that being seen is perhaps more important than seeing), glossy souvenir programs (5) and in the courtyard modest wine in plastic splits, bagels with lox and cream cheese, as well as 1 cushion rentals for tender tushies about to sit for three plus hours on backless wooden benches.

But never mind. We are here to experience Henry 5th as the Lord Admiral's Company might have presented it in the early years of the 17th century.

The sight inside the wooden O is truly impressive. It is 7:25 and some 500 theatre-goers are standing in the pit, anticipating the opening Prologue as a steadily growing drum beat calls stragglers from the courtyard. The 15 seating bays are full and ushers are busy shooing standees from sitting on the wooden aisle steps (a modern fire regulation made necessary perhaps by the great London fire some three centuries ago -- which also led to the ban of thatched roofs in London, an obstacle overcome by the Globe Centre only by installing a very effective sprinkler system on this roof -- very comforting).

7:30. The all male company appears with drums and staves in what we are assured in the program are authentic reconstructions of neutral working garments of the period and Mark Rylance, the Company's artistic director and tonight its Henry, steps forward to deliver what is perhaps the most famous of the Bard's prologues in which we hear "Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?" -- a prologue well remembered not only from our study on the play in school but from the film versions of Olivier and Branagh.

What we saw was a very impressive demonstration of what it might have been like to see Henry 5th HENRY V at the start of the 17th century -- an open air cockpit with a highly decorated 'tiring house and an all-male company playing somewhat shamelessly to the groundlings.

To Be Specific: Henry 5th
The staging and delivery of the play in this environment were crisp and, for the most part, highly intelligible and intelligent. The major exceptions to this generally satisfying approach were the readings of those base "Irregular Humorists", Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly and the Boy. Thick cockney accents and rapid fire delivery conspired to blur all but a few of their highly anticipated verbal shenanigans.

Of particular note was Mark Rylance as Henry, who wisely chose not to emulate either Olivier or Branagh. With a much lighter voice and more delicate physique, Mr. Rylance sought to heighten Henry's humanity and humour -- but not at the expense of the young king's strength and determination.

Equally successful on the English side was Matthew Scurfield's Duke of Exeter, an effective and weighty contrast to Rylance's Henry. On the French side, Toby Cockerell brought humour and even delicacy to the role of Katherine, daughter of King Charles and sister to the Dauphin. Mr. Cockerell's Katherine was especially when being courted by the former Prince Hal in that highly improbable but very delightful penultimate scene of the play.

With flags flying and drums sounding, with armour and costumes laid over the working undergarments, with effective use of the trap door and the inner-above balcony, and with many entrances through the groundlings standing in the pit, this Henry 5th provided the kind of spectacle that most viewers had come to see. That the production lacked the subtlety and nuance of more contemporary interpretations in no way diminished the excitement and sense of adventure that was palpable in the wooden O.
One minor caveat: the unabashed though often enjoyable playing to the audience was too often grounded in what might be interpreted as a national if not racial bias: the English were cheered whenever they appeared and the French were roundly booed. Not unlike the playing of 19th century melodrama in such venues as the Virginia City, Montana, Palyhouse where the audience was encouraged to boo the villain, the same technique used here seemed out of place and more than a little embarrassing -- at least to a North American.

Whether or not any of the 500 or so standees would ever return to stand at another performance at the Globe would be hard to guess. Many seemed strained though still rapt with attention as the play progressed. And Henry's major speeches about his love of country did indeed play to an audience solidly in the actor's hands.

Certainly a worthwhile trip to London's South Bank -- only beware rainy days, as the pit is as in Shakespeare's day uncovered and there are no rain checks.

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Other 1997 Productions at the Old Globe and How to Get There
Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (currently playing)
Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid In Cheapside (opens in August)
Beaumont & Taylor's The Maid's Tragedy (opens in August)
Getting to the Globe: District or Central Lines to Mansion House Station, walk south to right on Queen Street and thence to Southwark Bridge.


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Other London Theaters This Season
(aside from the mega-musicals, all of which are playing)


Olivier Theatre -- Guys and Dolls (all summer), Ibsen's An enemy of the People (from 12 September), Barrie's, Peter Pan (from 8 December)

Littleton Theatre -- The Lady in the Dark, Book by Moss Hart, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, music by Kurt Weill (to 2 August), Martin McDonagh's Cripple of Inishmaan (to 19 August), david hare's amy's view (currently playing), Arnold Wesker's Chips With Everything (from 29 August), Marivaux's Les Fausses Confidences (from 30 Sept thru 4 Oct), Patrick Marber's Closer (opens Mid October), Noel Coward's Private Lives (from 21 November)

The Cottesloe Theatre -- Shakespeare's King Lear (to 10 September), Othello (From 1 August), Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love (from 25 September), Ken Campbell's Theatre Stories (from 16 October), Frank McGuinness' Mutabilitie (from 14 November)

The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican -- closed for renovations, but playing at Stratford-upon-Avon in the heart of the Cottswold country:
Royal Shakespeare Theatre -- Hamlet, Cymbeline, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V (interesting to see in contrast to the Globe production)

Swan Theatre -- Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Tennessee Williams' Camino Real, Ibsen's Little Eyolf, Shakespeare's Henry VIII

The Other Place -- The mysteries, Everyman

And so much more that it is best to check in at the WWW site of the London Theatre Guide Online, a really useful listing of ALL London theatres (West End and Fringe): http://www.londontheatre.co.uk

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© July 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from esommer@pipeline.com