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New era at Britain's National Theatre

DIRECTOR Peter Hall was one of the pillars of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company back when ``Les Mis'erables'' was just a book and the RSC a tiny troupe churning through the Bard's canon up in Stratford-upon-Avon. During his eight-year tenure, Sir Peter powered the company into becoming Britain's premier theatrical institution. Then he assumed the mantle of leadership at the Royal Shakespeare's nearest rival - the then-nascent National Theatre.

For 15 years, Hall piloted the National on an even more ambitious course, weathering the turbulent pre-Thatcher years to mold Britain's largest government-subsidized theater - the three-stage company with a $25 million-plus budget - whose home dominates London's South Bank.

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Now, Hall has moved boldly on again - this time to the Haymarket Theatre in the commercial West End. While London waits to see how the temperamental director, best known for his opera and classical drama productions, takes to this nonsubsidized venture, the National is moving into its own new era.

The company's former associate director, Richard Eyre, whose reign officially begins tonight with the opening of his revival of Ben Jonson's sprawling ``Bartholomew Fair,'' is the National's third artistic director in its 25 years. Mr. Eyre (see interview below) promises no major changes in the company's somewhat amorphous artistic agenda. (Unlike the Royal Shakespeare, the National received no official mandate with its funding.) His lineup for the year is ambitious and eclectic, retaining Hall's emphasis on classical and modern drama but mixing in more foreign work.

Highlights of Eyre's inaugural season include world premi`eres by David Hare and Harold Pinter; the British debuts of David Mamet's Broadway hit, ``Speed-the-Plow''; and Irish writer Brian Friel's latest play, ``Making History.'' Revivals include a ``Hamlet'' coming up, starring art-film heartthrob Daniel Day Lewis, plus restagings of Sean O'Casey's ``Dublin'' trilogy and Moli`ere's comedy ``Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.'' New productions of ``Celestina,'' by Spanish dramatist Fernando de Rojas, and ``Ghetto,'' by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, are also scheduled.

Meanwhile, the theater is planting one foot, at least temporarily, in the past. Hall's ambitious adieu to the National - concurrent productions of three Shakespeare romances, ``The Winter's Tale,'' ``The Tempest,'' and ``Cymbeline'' - which opened to glowing reviews in the tiny Cottosloe Theatre this summer, have moved into the cavernous Olivier Theatre for an extended fall run. These three productions, plus an Eyre-directed version of the Jacobean tragedy ``The Changeling,'' which opened earlier this year, and a preview performance of David Hare's new drama, ``The Secret Rapture,'' provided this writer with a telling look at the National's old and new regna.

Hall's production of ``Antony and Cleopatra'' last season was a triumph of linguistic clarity, and it embodied an emotional maturity rarely found in that early tragedy. So it was with some anticipation that one awaited Hall's version of the Bard's late romances. With their oxymoronic mix of psychological profundity and deus ex machina surprises, these are difficult plays in both concept and execution.

A look at all three in succession reveals Hall to be on less sure ground here than in the past. Certainly he maintains his usual reverence for the text, and it is a delight not to suffer Illustrated Shakespeare dialogue. An impressive corps of actors, including Tim Piggot-Smith, Geraldine James, Eileen Atkins, and Michael Bryant, gives some excellent performances.

But none of this masks a strain also apparent in each production. Partly it springs from texts that try to pluck emotional plausibility from thin air. Partly it is the vastness of the Olivier Theatre, which stretches both the productions and several of the performances beyond what must have been their original intent. Mr. Piggot-Smith, who is unexpectedly hilarious as Trinculo (``Tempest'') and Iachimo (``Cymbeline''), is regrettably overdone as the jealousy racked Leontes (``Winter's Tale''). The set by Alison Chitty, who has often worked with Hall, is problematic: A giant circular platform distractingly unfolds like a vast Murphy bed, revealing a variety of playing surfaces - sand, wood planking, AstroTurf. Ms. Chitty is more successful with the plays' masque scenes, where she uses a ``Phantom of the Opera''-inspired Venetian theme.

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What stands out? Tim Piggot-Smith's wildly varying performances. Ms. Atkins's ability to look regal and exude reasonableness, no matter what character she plays. Mr. Bryant's tendency toward grandfatherly sagacity, no matter whether playing Prospero in ``The Tempest'' or the Old Shepherd in ``Winter's Tale.'' In other words, the resonances of repertory are the strength of these productions, together with Hall's letting the text speak for itself, whatever its flaws.

Meanwhile, in the Lyttelton Theatre, Eyre conjures a far different mood for Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's 16th-century tragedy of sexual jealousy, ``The Changeling.'' Eyre, who in the past has demonstrated a flair for large-scale and highly visual productions (his ``Guys and Dolls'' was a success in 1982), flounders here. The details are all right: the post-Colonial updating, complemented by a shimmering golden-Iberian set by William Dudley; the often discarded subplot, kept intact here and given its own fluorescent-lit playing space. But the overall effect is all wrong, because of failures of both casting and performance. Miranda Richardson as Beatrice and George Harris as De Flores look the perfect partners in crime - she a luminous, golden beauty, he a snarling man of linebacker proportions. But both fail to conjure the play's necessary atmosphere of fatal lust, and the production falls flat.

In the National's world premi`ere of ``The Secret Rapture,'' one of England's leading modern dramatists, David Hare, returns to the familiar territory of his earlier plays - ``Knuckle,'' ``A Map of the World,'' ``Pravda,'' and ``Plenty'' - taking well-aimed swipes at what is seen as Britain's spiritual malaise.

In ``The Secret Rapture,'' which is being hailed by local critics as one of the year's major theatrical events, Mr. Hare skewers a soulless Tory England, this time through an examination of an emotionally disintegrating family. If the preview seen by this reviewer was any indication, the drama is suitably Chekhovian, wrung dry, however, by heavy-handed moralizing.

The machinations of the Glass family are a tragicomic indictment of Thatcher's England, but underlying all the political and psychological maneuvering is an extended Christ metaphor that strains credulity, despite Howard Davies's controlled direction and excellent performances from Jill Baker, Paul Shelley, Clare Higgins, and Penelope Wilton.

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