In the 50 years that I have been going to London, the city has gone through major changes. The skyline is drastically different. The culinary choices have become far more sophisticated. What once was a bargain for tourists has since become one of the world’s most expensive cities.
But one thing has remained constant – London was and still is one of the greatest places for theatergoing. On a recent trip there, I saw the wide range of theatrical offerings – a contemporary take on American politics (The 47th), a Shakespearean classic with a modern twist (Much Ado About Nothing) and a “classic” British sex farce (Boeing, Boeing).
The 47th is the tongue-in-cheek projected history of the 2024 campaign for the U.S. presidency, the title referring to the 47th person who would hold the office. It is, of course, a uniquely American story, but the Brits are simply better than we are at crafting timely political tales for the stage.
Think of the plays of David Hare, Howard Barker and particularly Mike Bartlett, the writer of The 47th, as well as King Charles III, the suppositional tale of the current prince who has been cooling his heels while his mum, Queen Elizabeth II, continues to set platinum-level longevity records on the throne.
The 47th, like King Charles III, is written in iambic pentameter, which gives the play a Shakespearean heft, even if it gives Donald Trump – at the center of the production, as played by the sublimely on-target Bertie Carvel – a more articulate-than-accurate mode of speech. Those who paid attention in English class will catch Bartlett’s references to the Bard’s canon, from Trump as Lear to a bit of Richard III malevolence to the speechifying of Mark Antony and on and on.
It is Bartlett’s supposition that two years from now Joe Biden will have had enough of commanding-in-chief and he will cede the nomination to Kamala Harris (the remarkable Tamara Tunie), who accepts the heavy mantle, then wrestles with the responsibility. Trump, of course, has no such qualms, as he is broadly caricatured from his initial entrance on a careening golf cart. Also much in evidence for recognition’s sake are the Trump offspring – Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric – though they are mere pawns in this race for the kingdom. Ultimately, when Trump becomes hospitalized mid-campaign, the play darkens and has echoes of Angels in America, with Trump as Roy Cohn, his real-life mentor.
For the most part, however, director Rupert Goold sees the future in comic terms and the Old Vic audience is clearly amused by the depiction of American politics off the rails. It would be interesting to see how The 47th plays in the Colonies. Hardly a play that intends, or even tries, to change minds, it is a canny look at what we have just gone through and, perhaps, what lies ahead.
Much Ado About Nothing
One of the more welcome additions to the London theater scene was the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which opened in 1996, largely due to the tireless efforts of research and fundraising by actor Sam Wanamaker. The wooden circular structure is architecturally similar to the playhouse where the Bard and his troupe first performed many of his immortal plays, with reserved seat benches for the well-heeled and a center section for the standing-room groundlings.
Authentically, that section is open to the elements and, at the performance of Much Ado About Nothing that I attended, the standees were drenched with rain during the second act. All part of the theater-going experience.
Much Ado is one of four productions playing in repertory this summer, along with Julius Caesar, King Lear and The Tempest. The romantic tale of Benedick and Beatrice, a pair of verbal wits whose apt match is obvious to everyone but themselves, makes for a crowd-pleasing evening, thanks to upbeat direction by Lucy Bailey and a playful cast of classically trained performers.
Bailey moves the play from Sicily to Northern Italy and in time to 1945, just before the fall of Mussolini’s regime. That allows a celebratory mood as Benedick and his band of brothers return home triumphant from the war, to the embrace of the women and a serenade of an all-female combo of accordionists. Those liberties aside, this is a fairly faithful production to Shakespeare’s intent, heavier on the comedy than the darker shades of the second act, but a welcome kickoff to the Globe’s summer season.
Much Ado is arguably Shakespeare’s most formulaic romcom, given an emphasis on the physical comedy thanks to the deft playing of Ralph Davis (Benedick) and Lucy Phelps (Beatrice), who each go to great lengths for every laugh. The secondary lovers, Hero (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) and Claudio (Patrick Osborne), have the more bitterly dramatic subplot, but even it is played with a lighter touch than usual. Leonato, Hero’s parent, is a standout here, having gone through a gender switch to Leonata and played with palpable remorse by the lusty Katy Stephens.
Not that the play needs comic relief, but Much Ado has the Bard’s all-but-can’t-miss laugh-getters in language-mangling constable Dogberry and his handful of bumbling watchmen. George Fouracres, apparently a popular veteran Globe clown, brings to mind an Italianate Inspector Clouseau and his underlings add to the fun with some welcome audience participation schtick.
The result is a satisfying two-and-a-half hour’s time on the stage, further evidence that, generally speaking, the Brits do Shakespeare better than we do. Much Ado continues to Oct. 23, and should please even the Bard-averse, especially if you are under cover when the rains inevitably come.
And what would a trip to England be without that enduring cultural phenomenon, the British sex farce, the sort of winking, door-slamming, slightly naughty fluff that used to be packaged with airfare and a hotel stay for the not very discerning tourist trade?
At the Theatre Royal Bath, in a charming Roman spa town about an hour and a quarter out of London by train, I caught a classic of the genre, Marc Camoletti’s 1960 Boeing Boeing, translated from the original French by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans in a version that most recently became a Tony Award winner on Broadway in 2009. It takes place in the Parisian apartment of French businessman Bernard (John Dorney), a guy who prides himself on schedule efficiency which allows him to juggle three affairs with a trio of comely flight attendants – American Gloria of TWA (Isabel Della-Porta), Italian Gabriella of Alitalia (Nathalie Barclay) and German Gretchen of Lufthansa (Jessica Dennis) – who fly out of nearby Orly Airport.
With the assistance of his put-upon housekeeper Bertha (stolid Jo Castleton), Bernard is able to keep the three stewardesses apart and unaware of each other, until new, faster airplanes make hash of his plans and their arrival and departure. Add in the unexpected entrance of Robert (Paul Sandys), an old school chum of Bernard’s, mind-boggled to hear of his revolving door of lovers.
If you have ever seen a sex farce, it would be difficult not to be ahead of Boeing, Boeing’s plot twists, but director Michael Cabot gives the production a deft, tight touch that earns its laughs. He is aided considerably by Dorney, who physicalizes his meltdown as he tries to salvage his scheme and keep the stories and bedrooms of the woman straight.
Also contributing to the mirth is the set design by Bek Palmer – with its seven highly slammable doors – and his kicky 1960s uniforms for the leggy stews. The production is traveling the provinces, bringing welcome escapism to locals and tourists alike.