We had assembled to see Carey Mulligan in a sold-out solo show called “Girls & Boys,” the harrowing account of a young woman whose husband commits an unspeakable horror. But before the play, there was another ritual to be performed at the Royal Court Theatre: drinks and a bite in the vast theater bar downstairs.
It is a big, boisterous, welcoming room, and a link to a social aspect of playgoing that has never been replicated quite as exuberantly in New York. Across London, theaters have come to understand better than anywhere else that voracious consumers of the arts want something else to chew on, to be able to pair their love of drama with a pint or a glass of wine and, say, a burger and chips, or a cheese board. So large, inviting and comfy spaces have been dedicated in the theaters to soaking up some alcohol and accommodating some serious schmoozing, to go with the cultural enrichment.
In a recent week of theatergoing here that resulted in several truly superior evenings — among them, the best “Julius Caesar” I have ever seen, and an exquisite play with music, “Girl From the North Country,” threaded with the songs of Bob Dylan — I was reminded again and again of how London sometimes eclipses other cities in which I love to go to theater. Not necessarily in sheer quality — it’s the totality of the rite that captivates me in London, the sense you gain that theater is happening all around you.
New York and London trade too many of their top-drawer showpieces to rank the two cities: Londoners at the moment are entangled in their own swoony “Hamilton” love affair, for instance. In other ways, these premier theater meccas are becoming more like one another. The offerings on London’s Broadway, the West End, seem ever more focused toward war horses and tourist-trapping musicals. It is being left to government-subsidized theater to do all the creative heavy lifting.
Ticket prices, too, are approaching but not as yet quite at the highway-robbery levels of Broadway: For a Wednesday matinee orchestra ticket to the popular “Girl From the North Country,” I paid 69.75 pounds from the website (about $99), and for “Julius Caesar” it was 90 pounds ($127).
Best ‘Caesar’ ever
Both productions proved worth it. After sitting through various lackluster productions of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” I was resigned to a relationship with the play that would forever be ambivalent. Until Nicholas Hytner showed me the light.
The radiant illumination emanates from Hytner’s spanking new headquarters on the South Bank, where his sensational production is winning over even the most skeptical of Shakespeareans. With a portion of the audience absorbed into the proceedings as Roman citizens, and buoyed by outstanding performances, Hytner’s in-the-round production seizes strikingly on every rabble-rousing opportunity the Bard offers up.
Hytner has turned the flexible, 900-seat performance space into a ring, with spectators seated at floor and two balcony levels and also standing inside the playing area. The standees form the crowds in the crowd scenes. Members of the audience wander out into the lobby and back into the pit with cups of beer. As parts of the stage rise on hydraulics from various points inside the ring, they and others around them are encouraged to react, brandish signs, and at one breathtaking moment, unfurl a flag that engulfs them all.
For a play that is so much about having the average person in one’s thrall, the conceits are dazzlingly on point. So are the actors. What they and Hytner trace is the tragic arc of a freedom movement’s demise, how a blow against tyranny becomes too savagely drenched in blood, and how the rabidity of the cause blinds its leaders and allows them to be outmaneuvered and vanquished. As each of the rebellious Roman senators is wiped out by Antony with barbaric efficiency, you watch the step-by-step snuffing out of a dream. And as the standees are coached by roving “security” men and women to crouch down during the fighting, you get a harrowing portrait of an entire civilization being brought to its knees.
Duluth on the West End
At the National Theatre, I caught up with Bryan Cranston’s galvanizing portrayal of Howard Beale, the disordered false prophet-anchorman of Lee Hall’s overly sermonizing adaptation of the 1976 film “Network,” directed by master of technology Ivo van Hove. For all of the production’s electronic wizardry, its most striking feature was its radical theatrical hospitality: The entire right-hand side of the Lyttleton Theater stage was occupied by a working restaurant that van Hove called “Foodwork.” Dining ticket holders paid for an elaborate meal that went on throughout the performance.
The other high point of the week for me was “Girl From the North Country,” which ended its West End stay last month. Playwright Conor McPherson composed the script and directed this play with music, which reveals the intersecting lives of financially struggling transients in a Duluth boardinghouse of the 1930s. Accompanied by the actors taking turns playing guitar, fiddle, piano, bass and drums, 21 Dylan songs are interspersed, not so much to assist in the storytelling but to help define the spiritual and emotional bonds of these desperate, hurting people.
The extraordinary contributions by musical director Alan Berry, orchestrator Simon Hale and movement director Lucy Hind elevate these musical moments to ecstatic levels. The setting of Dylan’s 2012 song “Duquense Whistle” is so startlingly affecting that you’ll be hard-pressed not to reach immediately for the tissues.
The veneer of Midwestern stoicism, and the aura of trouble surrounding the characters, vanish as cast members erupt into all manner of harmony. Dark souls never sang with more lightness of being.