Sunday, July 11, 2010

London's National Theatre

After a couple of weeks in London and Oxford, I found myself thinking about the question of support of the arts, particularly in terms of the theater. We stayed in a hotel near the Hungerford Walk Bridge, looking out toward the London Eye and the South Bank Concert Center, and spent most of our time on the South Bank, where people massed in great numbers to take part in the cultural life of the nation.

The restaurants and cafes were lively and packed, with lines at dinner and lunch time. People were enthusiastic, multi-lingual, patient and apparently quite happy. The majority were young, well coifed and sophisticated. A few fast-food vans and ice-cream vans filled out the choices.

We ate often in the cafĂ© at the National Theatre, where we enjoyed concerts and people watching. The Bookshop is filled with the texts of the plays we expected to see as well as stocked thoroughly with historical material on the theater, recent anthologies, and such items as Simon Callow’s awaited autobiography, volume one. With the suggestions of the knowledgeable people behind the counter, we got a range of reviews of the offerings for the week and we made some careful and good choices.

Moira Ruffini’s Welcome to Thebes was the hot new ticket, which we caught on opening night. It was dazzling, a cast of possibly 20, on the huge stage of the Olivier, performing a subtle riff on Greek tragedy. The ostensible action was the arrival of the leader of Athens ready to introduce his version of democracy to the woman-run desolate state of Thebes, which had suffered decades of internal warfare. While it is obvious that the play points to the current situation in the middle east, it also offers some thoughtful insight into the great Greek tragedies, such as Antigone, which underlies some of this drama.  In addition, it is a wild, intense, threatening piece of work.

Tennessee Williams’ first play, Spring Storm, at the Cottesloe was slight in some ways – although deeply significant for him personally – and extremely well done.

The Lyttleton Theatre showed Terence Rattigan’s 1939 After the Dance, again, beautifully produced with a cast of 18. It is an indictment of the “bright young things” of the period between the wars, who frittered their lives away in drink and parties, losing the most precious thing of all, their love for life. This play was a success until the war began, early in its run, when it was put away and not performed again until this year.

The commercial theater in London also had virtually all of the plays available on Broadway today, but only the National Theatre had the quality of straight drama that I most respect – excluding, of course, Shakespeare, whose Henry IV, 1, was at the Globe. Is it only through government support that such quality can be sustained, such performances staged, such seriousness approached?

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