The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the Archive we have filed several National Theatre productions from 2001 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
All My Sons - Cloudstreet - Marriage Play - Finding the Sun - The Good Hope - Howard Katz - Jitney - Luther
All My Sons Lyttelton Theatre Summer-Autumn 2001
This revival of Arthur Miller's first successful play displays all of Miller's weaknesses and strengths.
Through most of his career he was driven by the compulsion to write plays that were About Something, virtually always a theatrical mistake. And here, whenever the characters address the play's Larger Issues, not only can you feel the dramatic energy plummeting, but you can actually hear the language go dead for a while.
But Miller's salvation was his ability, at his best, to clothe his Larger Issues in real, sympathetic human characters, and whenever he gets off his soapbox and lets his human drama happen, the play soars.
Set just after World War II, the play centres on Joe Keller, a former munitions manufacturer who, we quickly guess, let some faulty aeroplane parts go through during the war, resulting in the deaths of a lot of pilots. His own son was missing in action, and his wife is committed to the faith that he is still alive.
Now a second son wants to marry his older brother's sweetheart, forcing the family to face one truth and eventually others about their past.
(Actually, Miller makes it even more melodramatic than that. The sweetheart is the daughter of the man Joe framed for the criminal negligence, and the plot turns a bit too creakily on a carefully-timed slip of the tongue and a long-suppressed letter from the dead son. But the play survives these awkwardnesses.)
The play's Big Issue is Joe's commitment to providing for his family as his ultimate responsibility, set against the living son's (and Miller's) conviction that we all have an obligation to the larger human family hence the title, referring to the dead pilots.
But fortunately there's a real play that keeps pushing that aside: the stories of a man trying to believe that what he has always believed is right, of a wife and mother who knows that if she admits one truth about the past she will no longer be able to ignore the others, of a son who deeply loves his father and then discovers that he represents everything he hates, even of a girl determined to hold on to the man she loves, no matter what moral and emotional compromises she must make.
That's a real play, and the finest moments in All My Sons are all in the purely human drama that isn't concerned with right and wrong but just with pain and courage.
Director Howard Davies clearly know that, and rushes through the dead debates as quickly as possible. James Hazeldine is too much an English country gentleman to be fully believable as an uneducated, self-made American businessman, but Laurie Metcalf is very fine as his wife.
Metcalf has spent the past two decades playing the gawky second banana in TV sitcoms, so it is easy to forget that she was a founding member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, along with Malkovich and Sinese. She starts the play far too external and indicating, making us watch her in the process of acting too much, but she settles in and provides the play's deeply moving emotional spine.
Ben Daniels looks exactly right as the son, but never really inhabits the character, making you realize that for a young actor of today, 1940s America is as distant as the world of Shakespeare or Restoration comedy. William Dudley's set, building far too much on the play's reference to some willow trees, makes Miller's midwestern America look like Tennessee Williams' south.
Cloudstreet Olivier Theatre Autumn 2001
Run, do not walk, to the National Theatre, because Cloudstreet is only on until September 22, and it is a not-to-be-missed wonder, an unforgettable and deeply satisfying theatrical experience.
Part of the NT's ongoing programme of hosting outside productions, this 5-hour (including dinner break and a second long interval) epic comes from Sydney's Company B. Nick Enright and Justin Monjo have adapted Tim Winton's sprawling novel into an ever-engrossing, emotionally involving human drama the likes of which you will never have seen unless your memory goes back as far as the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby.
Cloud Street is the address of a large, rundown building that houses two families, the feckless Pickles and the devout and hard-working Lambs. It is, inevitably, the Lambs whom God strikes by leaving their young son Fish brain-damaged after a near-drowning, and the effects of that accident resonate through both families for 20 years. While Fish himself develops a mystic sensitivity to accompany his mental limits (in a powerful performance by Dan Wyllie that never lapses into cliche or show-off acting), his mother (Gillian Jones) struggles with the task of continuing to love a God who has allowed this and his father (John Gaden, quietly providing a solid spine to the play) just tries to get on with the business of being a good man.
But it is Fish's brother Quick who gradually moves to the centre of the play, struggling all his life with a combination of survivor guilt and a need to wrest back control of their fates. First overly-protective of his brother, then forced to flee from the unbearable pressure, then drawn to the police force in a quixotic compulsion to fight all the evil in the world, finally able to find peace only in love and the start of his own family, Quick's adventure is a never-preachy but deeply resonant enactment of the most basic and complex human and moral dilemmas. Christopher Pitman gives a performance all the more powerful for being constantly self-effacing, raising Quick to heroic stature precisely by keeping him ordinary.
Counterpointed with this moral tale throughout are the generally lighter adventures of the Pickles family, father Sam (Roy Billing) ever reliant on a luck that comes and goes, mother Dolly (Kris McQuade) retaining sympathy and dignity despite forays into alcohol and adultery, and daughter Rose (Claire Jones) surviving the experience of being the only grownup in the family to become, miraculously, a loving and healthy grownup.
Whatever hints of soap opera or melodrama there may be in the plot are overcome, not just by the engaging performances all around, but by a theatrically imaginative production that fully translates fiction into drama. I have rarely seen the enormous Olivier stage used more effectively (especially remarkable when you realise that the show comes from a 350-seat theatre in Australia), as director Neil Armfield moves his performers around (there are seven other members of the cast, and almost everyone plays two or three roles as well as taking turns giving Nickleby-type narration) and changes settings in a constantly fluid and frequently witty way.
So imaginative and allusive is the staging that magical moments from the novel, like a night on the river when the stars nearly touch the water, are fully captured, while a string of actors running across the stage, without the slightest hint of animal impersonation, evokes the vision of a band of kangaroos. And the story's occasional brief forays into the mystical and supernatural are not only captured but absorbed seamlessly into the play's reality.
To be honest, the creative imagination and energy do flag a bit in the last act, and judicious cutting of a half-hour or so would not have harmed the whole in any way. But the strongest recommendation I can give is that I have to go back to Nicholas Nickleby to remember the last time I so resented the intervals because they pulled me away from a reality I wanted to remain immersed in. Do not let indolence or procrastination deny you the same exquisite pleasure.
Marriage Play / Finding The Sun Cottesloe Theatre Spring-Summer 2001
After Edward Albee's spectacular debut and successes of the 1960s, a series of critical failures led him to withdraw from the spotlight in the 1980s, continuing to write, but allowing his plays very limited release. The revival of his career that began with Three Tall Women in 1993 reawakened interest in the semi-dark period, and now the National Theatre is giving these two one-act plays their belated British premieres. Both prove essential viewing for the Albee fan, though perhaps of limited interest to others.
In Marriage Play (1987), an affluent middle-aged man (Bill Paterson) announces to his wife of thirty years (Sheila Gish) that he is leaving her, and her response begins a duel of words and ironic attitudes that only Albee could imagine. She so completely refuses to play any of the roles he had imagined that he is repeatedly driven to going out and coming in again for a fresh start. Meanwhile, his blinkered concentration on his own midlife crisis makes him unable to recognize her (as presumably he never has) as anything but a projection of his needs.
What makes this unmistakeably Albee's work is the way both habitually hide their emotions behind a dry irony and intellectual distance. Faced with what should be the shocking news that she has kept a diary of every one of their sexual acts over the years, his only reaction to excerpts she reads are that they sound like poor imitations of Hemingway or James or Lawrence. Both are likely to pause in the middle of a passionate or intensely self-exposing speech for a pedantic correction of their own grammar, and both speak in a convoluted syntax and baroque vocabulary that will remind Albee fans of Agnes in A Delicate Balance.
The play's discovery, that there never has been any real marriage here for the husband's announcement to destroy, is a powerful one, and Paterson and Gish make all they can of it. It is, however, a long time coming, and the 100-minute play could easily have lost 20 per cent of its length to advantage. (While writing this review I have repeatedly made the curious slip of typing in Sondheim when I meant Albee - one reason may be that the composer said very much the same thing in one song in Follies.)
In Finding the Sun (1983) eight characters gather on a beach. At their centre are two young couples: the men (Patrick Baladi and Demetri Goritsas) are lovers who have nonetheless both married, their wives (Pauline Lynch and Polly Walker) coping with the situation in differing ways. There are also a 16-year-old boy (Edward Hughes), and three members of an older generation (Sheila Gish, Sheila Burrell, Edward de Souza).
As the various groups intermingle, impertinent questions are asked or personal stories volunteered, so that soon everyone knows everyone else's business. There is a lot of humour, particularly in the shock or sang-froid with which listeners respond to revelations, but there is also a lot of sadness onstage.
Eventually there is one attempted suicide, one actual death and one disappearance; and we are left with the realization that everyone in the play is getting just a little bit less out of life than they want, and that that small gap is destroying them with despair. Once again it's a small revelation, and this play is just a bit more elliptical than it really has to be (that disappearance I mentioned is superfluous). But, like Marriage Play, this is clearly the work of a real writer, though one at not quite the top of his form.
The past 40 years have proven that the high energy and exuberant inventiveness of such early Albee plays as The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf were in fact uncharacteristic, and that his real subject has been the coolly intellectual dissection of desiccated lives. Anyone who admires Albee's work will be fascinated by the ways these two plays fit onto the arc of his career. For others, however, they are likely to seem undoubtedly well-written but unengaging curiosities.
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The Good Hope Cottesloe Theatre Winter 2001-02
Herman Heijermans' 1900 play was set in Holland, but Lee Hall's new adaptation moves it to the Yorkshire coast. In either case it tells the familiar tragic story best known from the early plays of Synge: fishermen go to sea and drown, while women stay home and grieve.
In this case, it is widow Kitty (Frances de la Tour) who loses her two remaining sons, fledgeling socialist James (Steve Nicolson) and unwilling sailor Ben (Iain Robertson) when the ship that owner Makepeace (Tom Georgeson) probably knew to be unsafe goes down. The town has other grievers, including pregnant brides-to-be Jo (Diane Beck) and Mary (Emma Bird), while Makepeace's daughter Clementine (Charlotte Emmerson) faces the moral turmoil of knowing her father's guilt.
It is a powerful story, always worth the retelling, though Heijermans' version is not the strongest of the genre. One problem, perhaps suggested in that brief summary, is that he (or adaptor Hall) is not quite sure which play he's writing. Unlike Synge, his emphasis is not wholly on the noble tragedy of grieving women. There are also the undeveloped stories of James' socialism and Ben's fear of the sea, and the complex moral picture of Makepeace, who is not an evil man and in fact has a strong sense of duty to his employees and community, but who makes one fatal business decision (Arthur Miller would later write that play, and call it All My Sons).
Meanwhile, the whole moral question is muddied by stressing that the ship went down in a once-in-a-lifetime terrible storm, so that Makepeace's venality may be irrelevant, a complicating thought underlined by a long and powerful speech by an old sailor (John Normington) on the inevitability and arbitrariness of death. And there's a lot of time devoted to scene- and atmosphere-setting, establishing the community and culture in a rather leisurely way, with time for lovely but essentially irrelevant musical interludes.
And so the play, wandering off in these different directions, takes considerably more time than it really needs to make its central point, that men die and women grieve, and loses much of its effectiveness in the process. It is not especially helped by Bill Bryden's direction, which has actors too often just shouting at each other like amateurs trying ineptly to be heard at the back. Nicolson and the usually reliable de la Tour are particularly guilty of this, while Normington and Sheila Reid as a lusty widow fall back too easily on stock performances.
In short, while the basic story of the play is strong and true enough to be effective even in an imperfect telling, those familiar with other dramatisations are likely to find this one disappointing.
Howard Katz Cottesloe Theatre Summer-Autumn 2001
There is much to be said for the fidget factor as a barometer of theatrical criticism. The evening before seeing Patrick Marber's latest play at the National Theatre I sat through five hours of Cloudstreet in the same building with less sensation of cramping legs and sore butt, less yearning for the release of the interval, than I felt in the hour-long first act of Howard Katz.
And it isn't just that the seats in the Cottesloe are less comfortable than those in the Olivier. I've sat unfidgeting through plenty of shows in the smaller theatre. It is that Marber's play never seizes your attention from the start, and then inexorably loosens what little grasp it has on it minute by minute.
Howard Katz is a 50-year-old theatrical agent to whom some bad things happen. He has a midlife crisis. He loses some clients and eventually his job. He quarrels with his wife, and she throws him out. He quarrels with his father, and the older man dies before they can be reconciled. And so on - in short, a rather banal list of banal crises, a list from which virtually everyone in the audience could claim one or two items for themselves. Yet Marber presents this as a tragedy of King Lear proportions, and it just isn't.
If anything, the play resembles David Mamet's Edmond in the hero's almost perverse lust for disappointment and degradation. He looks for revolutionary brotherhood in the bellboy of a posh hotel and for warmth and comfort in a massage parlour hooker, and is shocked when they're not there. He barges in on his ex-wife and her new man and is surprised that they won't let him live there for a while. The brother he has always treated as a jerk turns out to be a jerk, and he's amazed. He tries to get his job back and isn't prepared for the show biz slimeballs he worked for to still be slimeballs.
Meanwhile, we have to listen to lines like "I don't know how to be," and "You never believed anything so you don't know who you are. I say this with love," all delivered without the slightest hint of irony or the author's awareness of their banality.
The only reason to see Howard Katz is one more in a long line of solid performances by Ron Cook, one of those insufficiently appreciated but always reliable actors who are the backbone of the English theatre. I've watched Cook since he was a spear carrier at the RSC, and he has never given less than an admirable performance, and he is as good here as he has ever been. But be prepared to fidget.
Jitney Lyttelton Theatre Autumn 2001
Go see this. It's only at the National Theatre for a month, so go see it. Now. You'll thank me.
August Wilson is the African-American playwright who has taken it on himself to chronicle the experience of black Americans in the Twentieth Century, with a play set in each decade. The project has already produced such award-winners as Fences, The Piano Lesson and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. But Jitney is by far his best play, and the one that raises him unquestionably into the very first rank of American dramatists.
Set in a Pittsburgh minicab office in the 1970s, the play seems at first a simple slice-of-life picture of the men who work part- or full-time driving for residents of black neighbourhoods the licensed cabs won't serve. We meet the ambitious young man (Russell Andrews), the interfering gossip (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the older peacemaker (Barry Shabaka Henley), the kindly boss (Roger Robinson) and others, and quickly get into the believable and attractive rhythm of their day.
If the whole play just went on presenting this plotless picture, it would be totally satisfying, so fully do Wilson, his cast, and director Marion McClinton create and sustain the warm reality. But they're just luring us in so that the play's real poetic and emotional power will hit us more fully.
There's not much plot, but midway through the first act, the boss's adult son returns from 20 years in prison for a youthful murder, and Wilson lets loose. The two men meet quietly and awkwardly, both unsure of their emotions, but gradually they find the words. The father painfully and passionately pours out his love, his hopes and his disappointment in the son who so violated all his values, while the son must try to explain the behaviour of the young hothead who he no longer is.
They talk across each other, barely making contact, inspired to eloquence by the sheer need to communicate, and we can only sit there as wave upon wave of passion and poetry overwhelm us.
The raw emotion, more powerful because understated, combined with a mastery of stage language that I haven't encountered since Tennessee Williams at his best, makes this scene overpowering. Compare it to the somewhat similar second act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or to the last act of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, and you will see what very exalted company Wilson has joined.
And when you float through the interval, high on the sheer poetry, you return to have Wilson hit you again, with an equally powerful encounter between the young driver and his girlfriend (Yvette Ganier). Trying to reach each other through a misunderstanding, they search for words they don't have, to express feelings they're only half-conscious of. And we strain with them until the scene bursts into exquisite (and yet totally believable) eloquence.
Don't get me wrong. This is not a two-scene play. As I said, even if those masterful moments weren't there, the rest of the play would be totally successful on its own terms. But they do lift it from first-rate to truly great, making Jitney unquestionably the finest American play in almost 40 years.
Go see it. You'll thank me.
Luther Olivier Theatre Autumn 2001
Osborne's 1961 play about Martin Luther was seen at the time as part of
the playwright's 'Angry Young Man' persona, presenting the historical
figure as a flawed, contemporary young rebel, whose bitterness was
caused to a great extent by his chronic constipation (a historical
fact, as Luther's frequent fasting fouled up his digestive system).
Those parts of the play - the fairly heavy-handed attempts to define Luther as a jeans-clad revolutionary pitted against the Establishment, the arch use of excremental imagery, even the pop psychology that explains Luther's search for an intimate connection to God as a product of his cold and disapproving father - have all dated rather badly.
it is very much to the credit of director Peter Gill and star Rufus
Sewell that they have found another play within, in the quiet but
deeply moving story of a man desperate to find a loving and forgiving
God when all he can see is his own unworthiness.
And that makes it frustrating that director Gill seems to do all he can to hide this intimate portrait in an overblown production that misses no opportunity for the flashy and ceremonial.
meet Luther as he joins a German monastery and quickly spot him as
deeply troubled when a semi-comic scene contrasts the other monks'
trivial confessions with his torments of spiritual inadequacy. We watch
him develop a name for himself as a biblical scholar and fiery
preacher, with his attacks on the Church's selling of indulgences and
his breaks with its teachings inevitably leading to trouble.
The play gets a bit confusing (for those who don't know their religious history in detail) in the second half, rushing through Luther's schism with the Church (or its with him) and the religious-political-military repercussions that followed, but it ends with him finding the loving God he was searching for.
One almost wishes the play had been done in the smaller Cottesloe Theatre, as the expanse of the Olivier forces Peter Gill to fill the stage with hymn-singing monks, colourful papal guards, elaborate settings and grand effects at every turn - even the nailing of the theses to the church door is amplified to resonate into the interval.
All this flash and filigree is not only irrelevant to Osborne's play, but actively fights the human, personal story Rufus Sewell works so hard to keep in our minds.
is very good, showing us the reality of Luther's deeply-felt search for
grace from the start, so that even the character's excesses of zeal,
egotism and self-righteousness don't lose our empathy with him.
supporting cast is virtually a Who's Who of always reliable character
actors. Geoffrey Hutchings is Luther's hard-boiled but basically decent
father, while Pip Donaghy and Timothy West are two understanding and
guiding elder monks.
Richard Griffiths (who is currently about the size of Bulgaria) is a bit too tentative as the indulgence-selling conman, though he does get to be the target of one of Luther's best lines, "You've had your thirty pieces of silver; why don't you go and betray someone," and Malcolm Sinclair plays a cardinal with all the suave, self-confident menace of a British colonial governor.
I can recommend this revival as a reminder that, under his Angry Young Man label (which he never asked for), John Osborne was a sensitive explorer of real human pain and the search for comfort. But keep your eyes on Rufus Sewell, and try not to be distracted by the play's dated elements or the production's flashy excesses.
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Review - All My Sons - National 2001 Review - Cloudstreet - National 2001 Review - Marriage Play / Finding the Sun - National 2001 Review - The Good Hope - National 2001 Review - Howard Katz - National 2001 Review - Jitney - National 2001 Review - Luther - National 2001