Saturday, October 11, 2008

Belated London roundup: Merry Wives, Six Characters, and War Horse

I've been a little delinquent on posts here, but I did want to give a roundup of the plays I saw (beyond Havel's) during my trip to London.

The first was Merry Wives of Windsor, at the Globe. It is the first play I've ever seen at the Globe (Although I've visited, as you can see from the picture, left). I must admit that I got off the plane, dropped my stuff off at the hotel, and left directly for the show, which is not the ideal mode of seeing it. I felt perfectly awake while running as fast as I could from the tube station to the theater, remembering that in London, a 2pm start actually meant a 2pm start, not a 2:07 start (of course for me, it was an 8am start, with no sleep). But halfway through the first act I started nodding off, and it wasn't because of the play. Well, not completely.

The play itself was decent, and the performances were generally strong. I read a review that called the play the best version of Merry Wives seen, then compared it to a British sitcom. I agree with both of those comments...which really underlines what a poor play it is, at heart. But I always wonder why it is that, just because a play has Shakespeare's name attached, it must be performed again and again, when there are far better plays around on which one can spend one's energy. I would like to have back the hours sitting at productions like Henry VIII or Pericles (which I have somehow been obligated to see three times). Yes, Shakespeare has some great plays, and I am a bit of completist myself (I am not going to claim that every play Ionesco or Havel wrote was of equal quality), but it is one thing to present them all as an event, it is another to make a regular practice of it.

But perhaps I was just getting sleepy and testy. Nonetheless, a beautiful theater, and fun to see in action.

The next day was devoted to Leaving, but the day after I saw two more shows : first, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gielgud. This production was directed by Rupert Goold, who brought his Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart here to New York recently. This is a teched up production, with the framing conceit that the producer is actually a documentary filmmaker, considering using actors to portray "reality." The six characters drop in and demand to be filmed, and the play begins in earnest.

The framing conceit is interesting at times, highlighting the reality vs. fiction themes of the play, and uses of projections and tech tricks are at times impressive, as we see the characters get filmed in a artificially created environment, but it loses itself at the end, as the last half of the last act strays further and further from the original in a series of gimmicks that become almost an end in itself.

That being said, the production looks beautiful, and the acting is tremendously good, making it a very enjoyable show to watch. Of particular note was the Father, played by Ian McDiarmid with a repressed sexual energy that some British actors excel at like no others. It transformed the lurid soap opera that the characters describe, always a problem for me when reading the play, into something fraught with tension. Also good was the filmmaker, Noma Dumezweni.

The final show I saw was War Horse, at the National Theatre. War Horse is an adaptation of a book by the name name, by Michael Morpurgo. The story is a somewhat sentimental tale of a horse and a boy, both of whom get pulled into the events of World War II. The amazing thing about War Horse is the puppetry, particularly of all the horses. From the movements of the horses, to the sounds they make (voiced by the puppeteers, three to a horse), to the incredible design which allows actors to leap up on their backs and ride them, every element was incredible well thought out and executed. A professional, well designed show throughout, with universally strong performances, but the puppets were the real stars.

You can see a bit (just a bit unfortunately) on YouTube

Of course, I love puppetry, and reacted with excitement when the man at the box office at Six Characters mentioned the play, which I'd already read about. "I heard about that one," I said, "incredible puppets, right?"

"Well, yes, there are puppets," he said, almost apologetically. "But really, the production is very good. It's not what you would think of when you think of a play with puppets."

Of course, it was exactly what I would think of. I would have hoped that there has been enough puppetry recently in prominent shows to let people realize that puppetry is a vast, incredible realm of possibilities, not just variations on Punch & Judy shows. Apparently not. That point was particularly brought home to me when I read the ever-snarky Michael Riedel's column attacking Julie Taymor's upcoming production of Spiderman.

"The reason she worked with puppets most of her life is because she never had much of a budget," a source says. "But then Disney came along and gave her $25 million to do 'The Lion King.' "

Yes, puppetry is a great way to incorporate deaign elements when there are some monetary constraints. It is also a great way to design shows that have the budget for some amazing creations - as the Lion King, among many other shows, has proved.

But Riedel's main criticism:

There's a set designer and a costume designer and a projections designer and a fight designer and an aerial designer and a graphic designer and a film designer. In short, if you're a designer of any kind, you've got to get on this gravy train.
After coming back from London, having seen two West End shows that used strong design elements to create really noteworthy shows, that sort of comment just makes me sad.

1 comment:

Kasheri said...

"Snarky" seems a very good description. Well, every critic has to have a hook.

I'm glad you enjoyed your trip!