Gwilym Lee as Leonard with Tom Hughes, who plays the ghost of his lover Gerald, in Peter Gill's “Versailles.” | JOHAN PERSSON
A family feud sounds like a mild form of dispute unworthy of news coverage, but these can be the types of conflicts that lead to wars — from the current crisis in Crimea to the Great War, the 100th anniversary of which is being marked this year. In Britain, where nearly a million died in its insanity, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit of World War I portraits includes a loop of the 1910 funeral of Edward VII with his son George V marching flanked by his first cousin, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Hapsburg Archduke Ferdinand. The assassination of Ferdinand by a 20-year-old Bosnian Serb led to a conflagration that mobilized 70 million soldiers across Europe and killed nine million sons and daughters of nations led by close relatives (Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, which sustained the greatest losses, was a first cousin of Britain’s George and second cousin of Germany’s Wilhelm).
How to wrap one’s mind around such catastrophes and the confounding enmity of people of like blood? Some assistance was found recently on the stages of London’s West End where fractious families abound, from a ferocious “King Lear” to a terrific new family drama about the aftermath of World War I to smaller family stories that illuminate the human condition, if only we could see the light.
“Versailles” at the Donmar (donmarwarehouse.com), is the new play by Peter Gill, who gave us “The York Realist” (2001), a tender drama of a rural gay man in the early ‘60s. Here, we are in an old-fashioned, upper middle class, small town drawing room with the family and neighbors of young Leonard (Gwilym Lee, a great Edgar in Derek Jacobi’s “Lear” at BAM in 2011), who is about to head to Paris with the UK delegation to the 1919 talks that will settle the terms of the peace and — as he is keenly aware — either prevent or precipitate the next “unthinkable” war. Fools prosecuted the Great War that was supposed to be over by Christmas 1914 (and, also, end all wars) and geniuses did not emerge five years later to resolve it, leading not just to World War II but to most of the conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere that are so white hot today.
In three fascinating hours, Gill, who also directs, manages to give all sides of the post-war debates their due, from widowed matriarch Edith (Francesca Annis), who just wants life to return to normal, to her friends Marjorie (Barbara Flynn), who has lost her dear son Gerald in battle, and prosperous Tory Geoffrey (Adrian Lukis), who wants some measure of revenge. Leonard will have some minor say in this, contributing his expertise on the Saar coal fields — crucial to German recovery, but demanded by the French for reparations. Among those joining the debate are Edith’s daughter (Tamla Kari) and her friend Constance (Helen Bradbury), who dramatize the rapidly changing role of women. We also go behind the scenes in Paris where Leonard toils in a back office, granted only a brief chance to influence a semi-sympathetic diplomat, Frederick Gibb (Simon Williams).
While the play is full of talk, these are words to hang on, especially those between Leonard and the ghost of Gerald (Tom Hughes), who was his young love. Every player nails their character in a play I hope will have life after its run (to April 5) in the intimate Donmar and an influence far beyond the world of theater.
Simon Russell Beale as King Lear and Adrian Scarborough as the Fool in Sam Mendes' production at the Olivier. | MARK DOUET
“King Lear” (nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/king-lear), from 1603, directed by Sam Mendes at the National’s Olivier, is rendered in modern, fascist dress about a fractured kingdom more than a millennium ago. As they say in Paris, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Mendes (who is reviving his production of “Cabaret” with Alan Cumming on Broadway this month) and his Lear, the estimable Simon Russell Beale, have said they had today’s tyrants in mind in mounting this production. They have taken one of Shakespeare’s most dyspeptic characters and made him unrelievedly angry. Even loyal Kent (Stanley Townsend), who will follow Lear in exile in disguise, turns his first speech, usually played pleadingly, into an angry rebuke of this foolish ruler who is turning over his kingdom to his two flattering daughters and denying level-headed daughter Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) of her share. But the wisest character in “Lear” is his Fool (Adrian Scarborough).
Beale certainly captures Lear’s ferocity and evil –– from his rebuke of Cordelia to his carousing with his soccer-thug retinue. In exile, he crabbedly skulks around either half clad or in a hospital gown befitting his madness. But they take almost too long to let his humanity come through here –– a daring approach though a tough one to endure. (To May 28.)
This “Lear” can be seen in cinemas around the world starting in May as part of NT Live (ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/44084-king-lear).
Kate O'Flynn and Harry Hepple in Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play “A Taste of Honey,” at the Lyttelton Theatre. | MARC BRENNER
“A Taste of Honey (nationaltheatre.org.uk/ shows/a-taste-of-honey), Shelagh Delaney’s raw 1958 drama written when she was 18 about a squabbling mother and 17-year-old daughter –– Helen (Lesley Sharp) and Jo (Kate O’Flynn in a breakout performance) –– is mounted at the Lytteleton in the kind of first-class production that only the National could pull off. Bijan Sheibani (who helmed the great Holocaust play “Our Class”) directs.
While “The Full Monty” (see below) elicits sympathy for men sidelined by an unforgiving economic system, Delaney shows us how women have had to cope with such setbacks from time immemorial. She dares to not make either woman sympathetic, which renders the drama all the more provocative as they make choices moralists would deem “wrong.”
The brief reprieve that Helen gets from her charming louse of a suitor, Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly), and Jo from her sweet sailor, Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa), is short-lived. In Act Two, independent Jo is relying on her gay friend Geoffrey (Harry Hepple, who lends dignity to a character abused even by his friends in that Mesozoic era for gay people). This was the first play to get past the Lord Chamberlain’s censors with a matter-of-fact sympathetic gay character.
I confess that with both “Honey” and “The Full Monty,” I had trouble deciphering the northern accents, something the UK audience members of all classes had no trouble with. Still, I’m grateful they are not smoothing them out for a foreign audience and are giving us the real thing.
“The Full Monty” (delfontmackintosh.co.uk) began as an indie hit movie about unemployed Sheffield steel workers scripted by Simon Beaufoy in 1997 (made for $3.5 million and grossing $250 million), became a David Yazbek/ Terrence McNally musical hit (set in Buffalo) on Broadway in 2000 and the West End, and now gets its first stage version via Beaufoy, set back in the north of England.
I loved the movie and liked the musical, but this stage version, at the Noël Coward and directed by Daniel Evans, is for those who like to see beloved characters in the flesh. It’s getting an enthusiastic reception from London audiences who hoot these steel workers-turned-strippers on to their naked triumph. It’s a tug-at-the-heart classic, not least because of the spunky boy, Nathan (Jack Hollington, the night I saw it, but rotated among three kids), who gives his dad, Gaz (Kenny Doughty), the spine he needs to see the stripping scheme through.
“Monty” also gives us some gay characters to root for, hapless Lumper (Craig Gazey) and humpy Guy (Kieran O’Brien). Sidney Cole as Horse really livens up the show. (To June 14.)
Another audience-pleaser –– since 1989 –– is “The Woman in Black” (thewomaninblack.com) by the late Stephen Mallatratt at the Fortune Theatre, directed by Robin Herford and the second longest running show after “The Mousetrap” (1952). My friend Bernárd Lynch, long a London resident but seeing the show for the first time, said that witnessing the audience –– many of them young –– scream repeatedly and in delighted terror was the best part of the show. It is a ghost story told by two players (Stuart Fox and Gwynfor Jones) with theatrical invention and it is a ride that shows no signs of stopping, partly because the book on which it is based is part of the British national curriculum and so becomes an introduction to theater for many.
Russell Tovey and Gary Carr in John Donnelly’s “The Pass.” | MANUEL HARLAN
John Donnelly’s “The Pass,” just closed at the Royal Court, was the gayest play of the week and, after what seemed like a slow start, exploded with one surprising, trenchant, funny, and thought-provoking turn after another. Russell Tovey of “History Boys” and “Looking” fame is Jason, a David Beckham-like soccer star with a secret. His early-career teammate, pal, and rival Ade (Gary Carr of “Downton Abbey”) has one, too, but later comes out.
The play is an unsparing and unsentimental meditation on the price of fame, livened up considerably by Lyndsey (Lisa McGrillis), a good-time gal trying to have sex with mid-career Jason, and by bellboy Harry (hilarious Nico Mirallegro of “Upstairs/ Downstairs”), who gets caught up in some mad games between late-career Jason and Ade. The story unfolds in unpredictable ways, essential for good theater.
Tovey’s Jason doesn’t fall back on the clichés of the closet case, but sticks out his bare chest in pride for what he has accomplished — and contempt for those who don’t have the fortitude to make his bargain. He’s worshipped but not likeable — and fascinating to watch.
Mark Arends as Winston Smith Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's adaptation of “1984.” | MANUEL HARLAN
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan brought the original Nottingham Playhouse cast from their hit adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” to the Almeida (to March 29; almeida.co.uk/event/1984). In the spirit of the protagonist Winston Smith (Mark Arends), I will think for myself and say that this is a flat and cartoonish depiction of the dangers of conformity, social control, and tyranny that have now gone far beyond anything that Orwell could have imagined. Constantly flashing strobe lights are an assault on the audience, not an illumination. With mostly stylized acting, the most recognizable human being on the stage is the evil O’Brien –– Tim Dutton, in a portrayal that put me in mind of shameless California Republican Congressman Darrel Issa. It has gotten almost universal raves from the London critics and won a West End transfer this spring, but I’d say you’ll need a good stiff “victory gin” after this one, which is what may be intended.
The tiny Old Red Lion Theatre above an Islington pub has produced some gems over the years and is now giving space to an Edinburgh Fringe hit, “Rachael’s Café,” a first play by Lucy Danser, who encountered Rachael Jones, a transgender woman, at Jones’ café in Bloomington, Indiana. Graham Elwell plays Rachael in this one-person show, an easy-going introduction to the profound challenges of being a nearly 50-year-old trans woman with an ex-wife and three kids in the Midwest –– including having to become her own boss to survive in a world where her gender expression makes her much less employable. While based on actual interviews with Rachael, there’s not much in the way of drama here –– something that might be remedied by hearing better stories from her or showing her interactions with family, patrons, and townsfolk. (To March 15; oldredliontheatre.co.uk/rachaels-cafe.htm.)
Graham Elwell in the title role of Lucy Danser's “Rachael's Café.” | ANTON BELMONTE
Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” shows how great an almost one-woman show can be, especially when the Winnie half-buried in the sand is Juliet Stevenson in a flawless production directed by Natalie Abrahami. The play just closed at the Young Vic but a New York transfer would be most welcome. Yes, Winnie’s Willie (David Beames) is down a nearby hole, blurts out a few phrases, and surfaces briefly, but it is Stevenson’s job to hold a center stage that she is imprisoned by –– and she does so with wit, pathos, and dignity in a moving meditation on immobility for the two-hour evening.
Buried up to her neck in Act Two, Winnie says, “Someone is looking at me still. Caring for me still.” Yes, we are Winnie/ Juliet –– and you were the perfect ending of a week in London playhouses.
Coming up in the West End: The Chichester Festival’s acclaimed production of “Another Country” is at the Trafalgar Studio (March 26-April 5; trafalgar-studios.co.uk/Another-Country.html). Alan Ayckbourn’s “A Small Family Business” is at the National’s Olivier, starring Nigel Lindsay (April 1-May 31; nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-small-family-business). James Graham, who wrote the politics-behind-the-scenes “This House” for the National, has penned “Privacy,” about government snooping, presented at the Donmar (April 10-May 31; donmarwarehouse.com). Seán O’Casey’s “The Silver Tassie” offers more about World War I at the National’s Lyttelton (April 15-May 21; nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-silver-tassie). David Hare’s “Skylight,” about a May-December relationship, is being revived at Wyndham’s with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy (June 6-August 23; delfontmackintosh.co.uk); Lee Hall’s (“Billy Elliot”) stage adaptation of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s hit movie “Shakespeare in Love” begins July 2 at the Noël Coward Theatre (shakespeareinlove.com). Regent’s Park Open Air (openairtheatre.com) has Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (May 15-June 7), “Hobson’s Choice” (June 12-July 12), “Twelfth Night re-imagined” (June 21-July 12), “Porgy and Bess” (July 17-August 23), and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (August 28-Septtember 13).