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Patrick Stewart Overdoses, Hookers Kidnap Dvorak: London Stage

March 03, 2012

Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare in "Bingo" by Edward Bond at the Young Vic Theatre. Shakespeare cannot face the futility of life, and commits suicide at the end of the play. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/Young Vic via Bloomberg

Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare in "Bingo" by Edward Bond at the Young Vic Theatre. Shakespeare cannot face the futility of life, and commits suicide at the end of the play. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/Young Vic via Bloomberg

Edward Bond’s 1974 play “Bingo,” about the last years of William Shakespeare, provides a gift of a role for a great actor. Patrick Stewart commands it fully.

Stewart presents the Bard as a quiet, shrewd observer. His big monologue, in which he rages at life’s futility, is a three- course banquet of theatrical goodies at London’s Young Vic.

A local fat-cat neighbor wants to evict some small farmers in order to enclose their fields for his own use. Shakespeare, also a landowner, agrees to it (as he did in real life) as long as his own financial interests are provided for.

Meanwhile, his emotional distance drives his daughter Judith to despair. A monomaniacal puritan starts agitating against the enclosures too. Some of it feels rather meandering.

You can hear tubs being thumped. Bond, a Marxist, wants to show that those who care only for their own interests come to no good. In the end, his Shakespeare commits suicide.

The play appears to suggest that if only some kindly time- traveler had biffed him on the head with a copy of “Das Kapital” he’d have cheered up and been a bit nicer.

Angus Jackson’s period-costume production is clear and straightforward. An excellent supporting cast helps. Rating: **.

‘Rusalka’

While Bond’s so-so play gets a near-ideal production, at the Royal Opera, a great work is brought low by dullards.

There are three worlds depicted in Dvorak’s fairy-tale “Rusalka.” You wouldn’t know it in this new production.

Rusalka is a water nymph who lives in a lake. She enters the forest to find a witch who can make her human, and then goes to live in the realm of men. It all goes horribly wrong.

Directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito use a surreal contemporary setting. A pink neon cross hovers above gaudy plastic-wrapped sofas. At the start, nymphs appear in baby doll nighties. By the end they’ve transformed into cheap drug-taking hookers. They seem to live in the same brothel as Rusalka.

The production received a storm of boos and jeers on opening night. It’s not that we Brits are uptight about seeing nubile young sopranos in micro-panties.

Dispiriting as it is to find yet more male directors who relish exposing scantily clad females in hooker gear, that’s not the problem. It’s just that there is zero stagecraft.

Wriggling Corpse

The final scene is staged with unforgivable incompetence. Rusalka’s human lover dies in her arms. She tries to drag his body to an open trapdoor. Unfortunately the poor tenor isn’t really of draggable proportions, so the corpse kindly wriggles and shoves itself along the floor to help out. It could be straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. Is he dead, or isn’t he?

I don’t think Dvorak had disbelieving giggles in mind when he wrote that tragic scene of his opera. It’s all the greater shame because, musically speaking, it’s a triumph.

Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin relishes every gorgeous melody and climax with suitably romantic fervor. Bryan Hymel (the Prince) has one of those tenor voices which makes the hairs on the back of your arms stand to attention. Camilla Nylund (Rusalka) sings with subtlety and huge power.

When they’re all at full throttle, the opera still works its emotional magic, defying the best efforts of the directors.

It’s the first time the Royal Opera has staged Dvorak’s 1901 masterpiece. It would be nice if this sloppy dog’s dinner won’t put them off staging the work properly before another 111 years have passed. Rating: **.

‘Hay Fever’

Noel Coward’s comedy “Hay Fever” comes up sparkling in a terrific production at (appropriately enough) the Noel Coward Theatre.

It’s a frothy piece about a Bohemian family that accidentally invites a quartet of straight-laced guests to stay for the weekend. Mayhem ensues, and misunderstandings abound.

Lindsay Duncan plays the actress matriarch Judith Bliss with a grand manner, and times her put-downs to perfection. Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays Judith’s daughter with amusing gaucheness, and Amy Morgan manages to invest the empty-headed flapper Jackie Coryton with a surprising amount of depth.

Howard Davies’s production, set in a ramshackle 1920s artists’ studio, looks great, and the laughs come thick and fast. Who needs Bond’s Marxist finger-wagging when there are guilty pleasures like “Hay Fever”?

Rating: ***.

“Bingo” is at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, SE1 8LZ. It is sponsored by Coutts Bank. Information: http://www.youngvic.org or +44-20-7922-2924.

“Rusalka” is at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, WC2E 9DD. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

“Hay Fever” is at the Noel Coward Theatre, 85-87 St. Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4AU. Information: http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk or +44-844-482-5140.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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