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``Richard II.'' Derek Jacobi blazes onto the London stage in the title role in Shakespeare's penetrating study of flawed kingship. Rather than giving the standard interpretation that depicts the doomed monarch as a wimpish aesthete, Jacobi suffuses the part with coruscating wit, brutish bearing, and tyrannical fury, and the split-second shifts of mood which the role demands but are rarely achieved. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is little more than unobtrusively competent. Still, it's worth seeing the play for Jacobi alone. Catch it now or when it returns to the repertory next month. At the Phoenix Theatre. ``Orpheus Descending.'' In his first stage production since relinquishing the helm at the National Theatre, Sir Peter Hall does not disappoint. Blessed with Vanessa Redgrave as Lady Torrance, the Latin-blooded shop owner in a small, Southern cauldron of a town, director Hall has crafted a haunting version of Tennessee Williams's uneven early work. From the first moments, muted light and menacing sounds rivetingly set the surreal mood of this tale of mean-mindedness and bigotry. Despite an unnecessarily thick accent, Redgrave gives a luminous performance. At the Haymarket Theatre Royal.

``The Secret Rapture.'' This new play by David Hare is surely the best to emerge from the British stage in some time. Set in the present, it focuses on two sisters - one a no-nonsense Tory politician, the other an idealistic artist running an unambitious but fulfilling design business. The many tributaries of the story add up to a strikingly thought-provoking allegory of the comparatively humanistic Britain of the recent past, which has given way, as Mr. Hare sees it, to the more monetaristic, Thatcherite Britain of the '80s. Superb ensemble acting makes this a production of the highest order. In repertory at the National Theatre.

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