Even London – bustling, international, global, centuries-olde London – can be a small town if one lives long enough. I was there in February for a mad round of theatre-going which was packed into a couple of wonderful weeks. One morning, toward the end of my stay there, I woke up thinking about my first trip to this remarkable city almost 40 years ago when my first mentor Henry Geldzahler, then the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the City of New York after being the Curator of 20th Century Art at the Met, who was there at the same time led me around the city with our mutual friend David Hockney as my introduction to it all. Barely in my 60s now – much older than Henry and David were back then when my first boyfriend Tor Seidler and I made our first trip together in the late 1970s as their guests – I have been feeling such tenderness for the Mississippi country boy I was who was then barely in his 20’s so ready for his new life to unfold full of culture and such men. It did unfold in such a way – this recent theatre-going trip was, in fact, such an unfolding – but it unfolded in other unexpected ways as well – AIDS arrived, my own HIV diagnosis, a writing career in which I became a stevedore of glamour, intermittent poverty, addiction, recovery, other friendships, other loves, and in the midst of it all an overarching solitude which itself kept me company those two lovely weeks of attending theatre all by myself in London.
In that solitude, I walked into Assouline House one afternoon on Piccadilly to have some dark chocolate opera cake and a double espresso on my meander from Bloomsbury, where I was staying at one of the city’s My Hotels, to Chelsea for my evening later at the jazz club Pheasantry to see the great British cabaret star Barb Junger reinterpret the songs of Sting as only she, a great actress as well, could do. As I was taking off my coat to settle in at Assouline, I spotted a photo above one of Yves Saint Laurent. It was of Andy Warhol, my old boss when I worked at Interview magazine as the Executive Editor in that bit of my unfolded past, and Henry Geldzahler masked as himself at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. I had felt Henry hovering over me a lot during the trip and there he was really hovering over me that afternoon.
I have so often since that first trip to London 40 years ago masked myself with an image of myself. This past year with the launch of his new online magazine, my move across the country from San Francisco to Hudson, New York, and all that has happened in my life to initiate such a move has been a kind of unmasking. I immediately felt a sense of home in Hudson. But the unmasking is my truer one. Hudson – and those two weeks in London – are all just a part of what has been hovering underneath myself. Home is the unfolding. Home is always here. Thank you, Henry. And thank you, London.
DOWNBEATS, DEADBEATS, AND ONE BEAT POET
The first night of my theatre trip to London was spent easing myself into my British environment by settling into a seat at the “Bob Dylan musical” set in depression-era Duluth, Minnesota, the 76-year-old Nobel Prize winner’s hometown, so that America itself seemed to be alighting too in the Noel Coward Theatre my initial few hours in London. Titled Girl from the North Country after one of Dylan’s songs about that boyhood environment of his, the show has been devised by playwright and director Conor McPherson and is now playing the Coward in the West End after its sold-out run at the Old Vic. A kind of Prairie Home Companion reconfigured so that its homespun Great Depression quality seems to have been woven on a loonier more lonely loom that could have also come up with one of Dylan’s own tatty black turtlenecks when he was first starting out and beating the Beats at their own game. At first I was rolling my eyes at the hoary, seemingly slapdash dramaturgy from McPherson whose work in the past has moved me – often in sneakily delicate ways – but it was, yes, this show’s threads of delicacy finally that sneaked up on me and moved me by the end. Dylan’s music has certainly never been more delicately and lovingly arranged. Simon Hale, the show’s musical supervisor, is the real star of the evening. His work weaving – that word again – the music with the extraordinary voices of the cast members is often piercingly beautiful.
The plot revolves around a boarding house in Duluth and all the lost, deadbeat souls who come through it. Think of an even sadder Saroyan or wilder Wilder. There are also notes of Steinbeck and Odets to go along with those of Dylan. The only slightly off-key quality of such a movingly sung show filled with some of Dylan’s most deeply felt and moving songs is the ersatz Americanism of it all. There does seem a bit of overcompensation in its sense-of-place as if McPherson knows what he does not know and tries to cover that up with a bit of purple poetic Americana. And, forgive me Nobel committee, but in that he perhaps was taking his cue from Dylan himself whose own pissed-off purpleness can be passed off as mystery or even genius.
And yet, as I said, by the end of the evening – like at the end of one of Dylan’s songs that we are seduced into hearing anew in Girl from the North Country – I found myself mysteriously moved. That is the genius, I guess, of Dylan after all. And of McPherson. And of theatre itself.
O’NEILL ALSO ANEW
I have seen several productions of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. When I was still a teenager in Jackson, Mississippi, Geraldine Fitzgerald arrived at New Stage Theatre, where Eudora Welty served on the board, to play Mary Tyrone with a local cast. I was still too young to understand the depths of the play, but I loved seeing the man I had a crush on and with whom I was sleeping play the older son Jamie so stunningly. I was less impressed with Fitzgerald who seemed a bit too mannered to me in the role that can so easily slip into the imagined mannerisms of a morphine addict. I next saw the brilliant Vanessa Redgrave play the role on Broadway and felt as claustrophobic in the theatre holed up there with the massiveness of her talent as she, playing the morphine-addled Mary, felt in that tatty seaside home of the Tyrones. I think I remember her literally attempting to climb a wall at one point. I most recently saw Jessica Lange’s larger-than-life lurch at the role that was so lovely in so many moments and so lurid in others and so very, very sad. I missed the great Colleen Dewhurst in the part but I can imagine her playing how finally indestructible the woman is. Katharine Hepburn in the film version? I don’t count her because she’s just always played different kinds of Katharines.
Lesley Manville now playing the role on the West End in London is in a category by herself. Maybe, since I didn’t bring my own expectations to her essaying the role because she is not a star like the other actresses I have mentioned, I was free to experience the role anew. She doesn’t play “the play,” as all the other actresses did, which is understandable because O’Neill’s masterpiece is considered The Great American Play. (It is certainly the greatest play ever written about addiction.) Manville instead plays the woman and the addict lost not to wander around in a great piece of literature but in an unmoored marriage and life. She is giving a nuanced yet knowing performance for this is not just a play about addiction but also about alcoholism. Mary is quite aware that she is surrounded by alcoholics and Manville made me understand not only what it was like to be lost in the fog of her addiction but also to be surrounded by such men who, like the characters’s father, are as besotted by The Drink as she is by her memories of what life was like before she was old enough to realize she was surrounded by such a life, by such men, by such alcoholics. Hell, I’d shoot up too if I had to put up with their judgment while getting so high themselves.
Jeremy Irons – whose wan swanning can so often be as mannered as any morphine-riddled Mary – has found the ex-matinee-idol, actor-without-a-stage-in-the-summer, the sorrow-addled man married to such a Mary, at the deeply frustrated center of his brokenhearted character of James. Indeed, Irons makes you feel that heartbreak inherent in such a man better than any actor I’ve ever seen play the role. And he downplays the Irish Catholic gruffness and makes you believe that this man has reinvented himself as the most actorly of actors with all the affectations that he has settled into in order to comfort himself against the disappointments in his life: his wife’s addiction, his compromised career, his sorry sons, his own alcoholism. Irons is the star of this production. And he is giving a star turn playing a man who became known for giving a star turn. It is a layered performance that matches Manville in its nuance and knowingness.
As the two sons, Rory Keenan as Jamie and Matthew Beard as Edmund, could not be more different and don’t appear to be brothers at all while at the same time appearing – disconcertingly so – to be the son of each respective parent. Keenan resembles Manville in both appearance and performance. He is, as the role is written for him to be, the grit in the grace of O’Neill’s writerly presence that hovers over the play like the real fog through which Mary and the drunken men foggily forage about. Beard, extremely tall and extremely thin and extremely pretty, can swan as wanly as Irons. I kept recalling Redgrave as I watched the two of them in their long scene in the second half of the play – if she had been combined with Tony Perkins. There is also a pronounced queer quality to Beard’s Edmund which gave the play an added layer I had never considered before. And as a queer myself with a rather mournful poetic take on life, I was deeply moved by this new thread in the worn fabric of this play.
Indeed, I reconsidered the whole play during my walk back to Bloomsbury and my hotel after its opening night on the West End. Because director Richard Eyre stripped away “the greatness” that almost always overlays the play – yet more fog for us to get through, in its way – the play for the first time to me seemed truly and finally great. It is that kind of refracted consideration that was also been manifested in the translucent walls and ceiling of the production’s set which has been brilliantly considered by Rob Howell; at moments the home surrounding this heartbroken American family began to reflect the action on the stage in myriad images and I was seeing three or four Marys and Jameses and Jamies and Edmunds just as O’Neill had layered them into his play.
It is a great production that you will be able to see at BAM in New York from May 8 – 27 and in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Center from June 18 – 29. Don’t miss it.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
On my first Wednesday, I attended a kind of theatrical double-feature by heading to the matinee at the Young Vic and then strolling afterwards a few blocks away to make an evening performance at The National. The experiences were vastly different on many levels. Here are some of those differences.
I had never been to the Young Vic but even before the afternoon performance of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size began I was appreciative of the, yes, theatrical energy that both confronted and challenged me as I approached the theatre which had displayed both a banner proclaiming BLACK LIVES MATTER as well as a gay rainbow flag above its entrance to the box-office. Inside, the cafe was abuzz with chatter and anticipation that seemed to have nothing to do with caffeine being consumed but instead the theatre about to be absorbed. Once in my seat, I surveyed the audience and was moved by the cross-section of its demographic makeup. There were all ethnicities and ages and seemingly socioeconomic strata. And they were all there to see a play spoken in Louisiana African-American patois overlaid with Yoruba African mythology.
There was an earthy, heavenly magic to the production directed by Bijan Sheibani which was brilliantly acted by its three-man cast, Sope Dirisu as the older brother Ogun (named for the African god of hard work), Jonathan Ajayi as the younger brother Oshoosi (named after the African god most associated with the struggles of humanity), and Anthony Welsh as Elegba (named after the trickster god). The story – enacted as well as acted, for the actors even say the stage directions aloud so that it the whole thing takes on the heightened aspect of ritual – involves the younger brother coming back home from a stay in prison and how he inadvertently gets into trouble again and has to leave home on his older brother’s wounded wings. The story delves into the same narrative issues of the film Moonlight, for which queer black writer McCraney won his screenwriting Oscar: black masculinity, queer sensuality, the fable-like quality that one can attach to the African American experience even as one rigorously roots it in reality.
The action takes place within a chalk circle that is drawn by one of the actors at the beginning of the play. One thinks – I thought – of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle which is itself a heightened ritual-like parable about a young peasant. McCraney’s The Brother Size is about poor African American young men trapped inside a a different kind of chalk circle with which caucasians capture them, one that such men find themselves imprisoned within even when not in prison. It was a stirring, troubling, exhilarating experience.
Later over at The National, now under the direction of Rufus Norris, I encountered a larger audience milling about its cafes and its bookstore, a more polite one perhaps but one still energized by sensing that it was a part of the theatrical experience by its being on the premises. London audiences can seem a bit more passive – even polite – than American audiences in the way they engage with a performance afterward – i.e. standing ovations seem de rigueur in America as audiences so often spring to their feet in an attempt to convince themselves that the money their tickets cost them were worth the price whereas London audiences (where tickets are, yes, for the most part less expensive) are more exacting about giving shows a standing ovation yet in other ways seem much more expansively engaged with the theatre-going experience as part of their lives. There is not a nonchalance about attending the theatre, but there is a deeper kind of seriousness – at least by those who attend The National and its neighbor The Young Vic – which is also more relaxed because the experience is more known to them. And speaking of politeness, there is an announcement at The National at one point asking those who are eating and in its cafes and not planning to attend one of the performances that evening to make way for those who are. People actually do begin to get up and make way. It is all so very civilized and part of the theatrical ebb and flow of the human traffic at The National as if an unknown director has orchestrated the movement of bodies about the complex.
I had two memorable experiences at The National in my theatre-going life. Early on, I saw The National’s original production of David Hare’s Plenty in 1978 which starred Kate Nelligan in a performance that still haunts me with its brittle, bracing brilliance that built and built and built in the play’s 12 episodic scenes. I jumped to my American feet that night among the staid Brits who brought their own histories to Hare’s rather scathing indictment of their country’s mid-20th century one. In 2004, I got up early and stood in line for same-day front-row seats to see The History Boys, The National’s big hit that season. That, too, was one of my great theatre-going experiences. Even this year as part of its National Theater Live cinema series, I was mesmerized and moved anew by its production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, directed by Marianne Elliott, which has now transferred to Broadway. I also longed to see its stage adaptation of Network reimagined by director Ivo van Hove but it was not playing while I was in London. The musical of Pinocchio was instead ensconced in the Lyttelton Theatre where Network is scheduled to play in rotation with it until March 24th.
My own nose would grow a few inches if I said I loved the stage adaptation of this Disney musical with a book by Dennis Kelly. I appreciated the stagecraft of its director John Tiffany – whose work in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has received hosannas and will also be seen soon on Broadway – as well as Pinocchio’s set and costume designer Bob Crowley who was the co-designer of the show’s puppetry. I have also loved Tiffany’s work in the past with the directorial wonders he achieved with Once and Black Watch. But I was never truly moved by Pinocchio even though I was bemused by its concept of having the puppets in the story played by humans and the humans played by puppets. After putting so much focus on the magic of the stagecraft, the creators of this frustratingly promising premise of a stage musical forgot to imbue the show with a soul. And since it is a story about a puppet with such a thing, the irony was both perplexing and finally more heartbreaking to me than the show itself.
I also saw the production of Amadeus that received almost unanimous raves from the critics when it was first produced at The National in 2016. It has returned to the Olivier Theatre by popular demand. I was really looking forward to it. Alas, I am an outlier. I found it infuriatingly tedious in its rethinking by its director Michael Longhurst which points up all the weaknesses in Peter Shaffer’s script. Longhurst’s having the young members of the Southbank Sinfonia as part of the stage action, dressed in their modern black clothes, just gave the whole thing an air of a university production at some mid-level liberal arts college in the midlands.
Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that Shaffer’s most popular plays (Equus, Amadeus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun) , which are all the same play told with different narrative devices, just don’t hold up very well. They are about a person with a more refined sense of the world feeling inferior to those who have a rougher more passionate one and thus through such roughness a more direct line to God and creation. Something like that. It’s all sort of highfalutin hooey repackaged in finery for the middlebrow who fancy themselves more refined for being accused by Shaffer of identifying with the frustration and protestations of each show’s protagonist who, each time, turns out to be a bit of poseur. It is a kind of theatrical accusation against those on whom the theatre itself depends as its audience. There is an anger embedded in those plays about middlebrow audiences even as the plays themselves are middlebrow in expressing it. It is a kind of theatrical roundelay all its own. I wonder if someone could write a Shaffer-like play about a fuddy-duddy dandy of a playwright – a rather nice chap though a frustrated one – who writes such plays being in love with a shaggy-haired Sam Shepard-like lad who shags everything in sight except the fuddy-duddy.
But back to Amadeus. Having played Alan Strang opposite Tony Perkins in Shaffer’s Equus when I was a young actor, I was asked to audition for the title role of Mozart in the original production of Amadeus on Broadway. After I did my monologue, Shaffer sauntered down the aisle of the darkened theatre and beckoned me to the lip of the stage. “Let’s try that one more time, dear boy,” he whispered. “You don’t have to gild the lily so much. I’ve already gilded it for you.” I thought of Peter’s bit of direction while watching Adam Gillen’s exhaustingly gilded performance of Mozart. Lucian Msamati fares better with the role that is the stand-in for the playwright, one which is therefore invested with more thought and eloquence. He made me feel the haughtiness of Mozart’s rival, Salieri, and his frustration but never his spiteful tragic heart. Yet it is a fine line that any actor has to walk in playing Salieri – the heartlessness at the core of his very full heart.
JULIUS CAESAR PLAYS ITS TRUMP CARD
Nicholas Hytner, who, before Rufus Norris, was the Director of the National Theatre and directed that production of The History Boys I loved so much, is now, along with Nick Starr, the co-founder of London’s the Bridge Theatre. He has also directed the remarkably visceral, modern-dress, rock’n’roll infused, production of Julius Caesar playing there until April 15th which revs up its populist overtones. In an essay for The Guardian, Hytner wrote, “Over the years, I’ve staged plays by Shakespeare that seemed to speak about the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis, and the power of the surveillance state, among many other contemporary preoccupations. I’ve never before staged a play that has said so much about our present, or warned of such a terrible future. It addresses directly the failure of dismayed liberals (count me as one of them) to understand and overcome the appeal of populism. It exposes the manipulative half-truths and outright falsehoods that are the populists’ stock in trade. It is unsentimental about the gullibility of the multitude: if Caesar had stabbed their mothers, says one of the establishment, they would have forgiven him.”
Or if he had shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Indeed, this Caesar enters wearing a red baseball cap before tossing it into the throng that populates the floor of the Bridge although one can also choose, as I did, to sit in the seats ringing the arena where the action takes place in a beautifully cinematic blending of scenes as platforms rise and lower and the throng of theatergoers, who become the Romans of the play, roam the arena floor gracefully herded to and fro not only by the plays action and rhetoric but also by an expert theatre crew there on the floor who meld them into the production just as the throng melds into the Shakespearean action of the play.
It is a visceral production full of vibrant but brainy performances – especially by one of my favorite actors Ben Whishaw who portrays Brutus as both brutal and bookish, an at-times bespectacled even bemused intellectual who ends up being befuddled by the more gut-level acumen of Mark Antony, portrayed with just the right amount of “gut” by David Morrissey. David Calder as Caesar, after throwing that cap into the crowd, later sits on a garishly vulgar gold-gilt throne that could be but an extra chair in some ugly room where Melania hides out when her husband’s Viagra kicks in. Calder is cunningly cagey in his portrayal. The production is “gender-fluid” and Cassius has been cast as a female. The night I saw it Michelle Fairley, who has been cast as that conspirator – she is so great in Game of Thrones as Catelyn Stark – was out but her understudy Hannah Stokely stoked the production with a frisson of tension, another layer of suspense added to the proceedings as we watched to see whether she could pull it off or not. Most of her scenes were with Whishaw who was even more present and focused, it seemed, as both Brutus and as an actor. The statuesque Stokely gave the role, to me, a bit of a Sapphic spin even as she played up her handsome feminine allure to give the scenes with Brutus the subtext one assumes Hytner – like Shakespeare’s description of Antony, “a shrewd contriver” – directed the scenes to have. I also liked Adjoa Andoh who steals every scene she’s in as Casca.
An aside: the loos at the Bridge are trans-friendly and gender-fluid themselves and there are, I hear, 30 stalls in the Ladies’ rooms. Moreover, the smell of madeleines straight from the oven after the performance in its cafe fills one’s nostrils with Proustian wonder to match the Shakespearean sort now on display as most of the audience stays behind after the performance in this beautiful space under the London Bridge to mill about, swan over the madeleines, and even perhaps discuss the play they’ve just seen (and current politics) while getting a phone number or two.
SANDS THROUGH THE OUR GLASS
Another production that summoned the word “visceral” while I was experiencing it is director Sam Mendes’s The Ferryman. It was so visceral, in fact, that it was practically a kind of marauding presence there on the stage of the John Gielgud Theatre, an ironic venue named for the plumy, carefully pleasing actor who maybe would not know what to make of the this show’s hyper-reality which is used to ground its more fanciful dramatic moments. Hell, it was a visceral experience just standing in line on an early frigid London morning to get a same-day discount ticket. I am glad I did. I was on row F right in the center for only 12 pounds sterling for this remarkable production. Be warned about same-day tickets, however, for Beginning, the hit two-hander about a modern-day couple displaying a bit of modern-day coupling, over at The Ambassadors Theatre where it has moved from The National. I got a cheaper same-day front row seat for that and the stage was so elevated that it was like watching a puppet show most of the time and I saw none of the action whatsoveer when it moved even slightly upstage.
Back to the more pleasant experience at the Gielgud. I was a big fan of playwright Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and this production of The Ferryman sealed the deal for me: I’m now a dyed-in-the-Irish-sheep’s-wool fan. The play is set to close in the West End on May 19th before its transfer to Broadway. Set in 1981 in Armagh, one of the six counties that form Northern Ireland, while Bobby Sands and other IRA members are on hunger strike, The Ferryman is a portrait of a rollicking, ribald cross-generational family, politically and poetically engaged, which inhabits an old farmhouse haunted by familial sagas even as new ones are being played out before us. The work is deeply magical in its earthy appeal in the way the Irish have of being grubby and grounded as they so gracefully take their un-fancy flights of fancy; the play is pungent with soiled souls as well as the Irish soil itself that is so fertile with folly and courage and confession. There is room in this expansive, three-hour play for two matriarchal aunts on this farm – one dotty with faerie-fodder and lost love and the other with the fodder of radicalism and hatred for Thatcher that is lost on no one. The Ferryman is rambling. It is robust. It is shocking. And it sure-as-hell is a great piece of theatre. Afterward, I was reminded of the W. B. Yeats quote: “They must go out of the theatre with the strength they live by strengthened from looking upon some passion that could, whatever its chosen way of life, strike down an enemy …”
YET ANOTHER DRAG QUEEN, BUT NOT ANOTHER DRAG
Down Shaftesbury a bit from The Ferryman is the hit musical, Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, a delightful entertainment directed by Jonathan Butterell with music by Dan Gillespie Sells and book and lyrics by Tom MacRae. It is a based on a. true story of a teenager in Sheffield who not only is brazenly gay but also comes out as a drag queen. The older drag queens who pad out the show – much like their own bumpy padding in their tacky gowns – are a bit hoary for my tastes. But that aside, the whole thing is a joyous couple of hours. And there are three stand-out performances. In the title role of Jamie, John McCrea is giving a real star turn. He is smashingly good. But the two women in his life are given the two big numbers in this musical. Lucie Shorthouse as Pritti Pasha – Jamie’s hijab-wearing Muslim best friend – gives a truly different spin to a character who herself could be a bit hoary: the age-old “fag hag.” She is tremendous and endearing and her number “It Means Beautiful” is a standout. The creators have smartly made Jamie’s mother a real dramatic avenue in the narrative by which the parents of all the teens in the audience can become invested in its story as well. Josie Walker, as the boy’s mother Margaret, is the rock-solid center of this hit show and almost steals the whole thing with her 11:00 o’clock number proclaiming “He’s My Boy.” Everybody Is Talking About Jamie is a combination of Kinky Boots and Spring Awakening with a heartbeat all its own.
Another show about a mother – and one that, yes, everyone was talking about while I was there – is Girls & Boys, Dennis Kelly’s one-woman extended one-act directed by Lindsey Turner at The Royal Court. This show is everything that Kelly’s book for Pinocchio is not: stringent and clear-eyed yet deeply soulful. It stars Carey Mulligan as the woman who tells us the story of her courtship and marriage and parenthood and the aftermath of it all. Mulligan, who can be a bit cold and calculating as an actress but one that is always compelling, is magnificent in the role. She is hilarious and even kind of cold and calculatingly mean when called upon and deeply heartbreaking when it all becomes clear as to what she is bearing almost unbearable witness to before us.
A NEW YORK REALIST
A less melodramatic play about heartbreak is The York Realist which is a co-production of the Donmar Warehouse, where it is playing until March 24th, and the Sheffield Theatre, where it will open on March 27th and is scheduled to run until April 7th. A revival of Peter Gill’s keenly observed romantic story of a north country farmer and his more metropolitan boyfriend set in the early 1960s, it has been directed with an acute kind of care by Robert Hastie, who is the artistic director of the Sheffield. I was reminded of Chekhov in its seeming simplicity as so many complex emotions roil beneath the household surface, its narrative divide between country life and city life, and the utter longing that wafts about the proceedings like the winter air sneaking in through the cracks of the rustic tied cottage where it is set as the characters warm themselves not only with the old stove at the center of the room where all the action takes place but also with the proximity of human bodies within such a cottage and such lives. The play is less about the emotional traumas of being gay – there is a refreshing comfort that the two main characters have about their sexuality and their attraction – than it is about the deeply English conflicts of class and geography and culture.
The production could not be bettered, nor could its cast. Lesley Nicol – whom you may know at the cook Mrs. Patmore in Downton Abbey – plays the mother of the farmer who is himself played by Ben Batt. The more cosmopolitan boyfriend is played by Jonathan Bailey (who will be coming to the West End this summer in Ian McKellen’s King Lear as Edgar). The two mirroring monologues that each of these men has about, respectively, Batt’s character’s love of the foreignness of London and Bailey’s about his character’s love but foreignness of the north country are spellbinding and, yes, heartbreaking. I will remember this production and the two performances of these two fine actors in years to come with the same fondness and awe with which I now hold Kate Nelligan in Plenty and the aforementioned The History Boys.
Two other terrific performances – titanic ones really – are being turned in by Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson in Mary Stuart until March 31st at the Duke of York Theatre. Friedrich Schiller’s five-act verse play, which premiered in 1800, has been keenly updated by its director Robert Icke. Stevenson and Williams spin a coin before each of their modern-dress performances to decide which actor will play which role in this production that has transferred to the West End from the Almeida. It has the immediacy of a great political thriller one would binge-watch on Netflix and, at a bit over three hours, is almost as long as a whole season of such a show. Again the word that surprisingly came up again for me was “visceral” while experiencing this thrilling production. One thinks of the English theatre as being less so in this regard than our American theatre, the Brits a bit more brainy and brittle, less messy than our Method-y bunch. But on this trip to London my love of theatre became not only a thrilling emotional experience for me but also a physical one.
Indeed, part of of my being such a “culture vulture,” as a sardonic friend describes me, is not only because of my deep love of theatre and my wanting to write about it here at sessumsMagazine.com but also because there is a bracing clarity I have about it all now from the gratitude I have for being sober these days. Sobriety does give one a lot of energy and focus if one is lucky enough to find that seam in the ore of its surrender – much like an actor finding the seam of a performance of a playwright the seam in the narrative or a director mining it for them both. It was not only spiritual, this engagement I had with all the London theatre I experienced during this trip, but also , yes, physical. In the past, as a young man, I would have gone out searching in London’s gay bars and clubs for this same kind of fulfillment not knowing that what I was really searching for is what I felt sitting in all those theatres, a kind of heightened sense of being at home alone among strangers. I discovered a newfound sense of it – The Unmasked Home – seeking the satisfactions of cultural engagement in London last month. It comforted me even – especially even – when it discomfited. And it is in that incongruity where a kind of sacredness theatrically resides for me that can be transcendent in its filthy human splendor.