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Psychiatrist Romps, Lion Talks, Salome Sings: U.K. Stage

June 12, 2012

"The Physicists"

Miranda Raison as Nurse Monika Stettler and John Heffernan as Johann Wilhelm Mobius in "The Physicists" by Friedrich Düerrenmatt. At the beginning of the play, Dr. Von Zahnd only allows female nurses to work in her asylum. Photographer: Johan Persson/Donmar Warehouse via Bloomberg

The deranged hunchback psychiatrist walks over to her father’s portrait and cackles. Then she turns to her patients and reveals the truth of their incarceration.

Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s satire “The Physicists” (1962), now at the Donmar Warehouse in London, has an amusingly Grand Guignol denouement. In Sophie Thompson, playing the twisted psychiatrist Dr. von Zahnd, it also has a comic actress who scores a bull’s-eye with every dart.

Zahnd has only three patients in her luxurious sanatorium. Two of them believe they are Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and the third is the renowned physicist Johann Wilhelm Mobius.

He believes that his amazing discoveries have the potential to be abused by humanity, so he feigns madness in order to continue his work in safe seclusion.

The situation provides a springboard for discussions on the ethics of scientific responsibility, and the danger of knowledge. Who is sane? Who is mad?

So far, so Sixties. The politics of the piece are sometimes quaint and reductive. A debate about the relative merits of democracy (“not free”) and militarized socialism (“not free either”) is naive, even for its time.

Stomping Shrink

The comedy is another matter, and in Jack Thorne’s new translation, it still feels fresh. Thompson relishes all the opportunities that the exaggerated mad-scientist role of Zahnd offers. She stomps about, enunciating with booming authority. She laughs with a mirthless dry sucking-in sound.

Periwigged Newton (Justin Salinger) and pop-eyed Einstein (Paul Bhattacharjee) step up to the plate too, and play their roles with juicy comic gestures.

John Heffernan employs a more naturalistic style as Mobius, and this is a problem. It seems director Josie Rourke wants to show Mobius as a moral mouthpiece, and his pronouncements as lessons. Who wants to be lectured at the theater?

Those moments apart, Rourke’s production fizzes and sparkles, and the clever plot twists in Act 2 are well handled. It looks attractive, too, in designer Robert Jones’s all-white 1960s clinic with fashionable chairs and lamps. Rating: ***.

Lucia’s Trills

Opera Holland Park opens its summer season with Olivia Fuchs’s new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” by Donizetti.

The corset-and-bustle costumes suggest that the action has been updated to the 1870s. Jamie Vartan’s set, a monolithic slab of cracked slate, offers a gloomily symbolic background.

There’s neither enough period detail to suggest why Fuchs chose the 1870s as her setting, nor enough emotional specifics to make the relationships convincing.

It makes for a slow evening, despite some good singing. Aldo di Toro is a stylish, Italianate Edgardo, and Elvira Fatykhova (Lucia) uses some well-produced scales and trills to make the most of her mad scene. The glass-harmonica accompaniment sounds terrific, and Stuart Stratford’s conducting offers the drama that the production lacks. Rating: **.

“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” directed by Rupert Goold (“Enron”), is playing in an impressive circus- like tent on Kensington Gardens. Based on the novel by C.S. Lewis, it tells of four children who enter a magical realm to do battle with the evil White Witch who lives there.

There’s a majestic talking lion, operated by three puppeteers, who appears at the climax of a beautifully orchestrated pageant. There’s a giddy flying-battle sequence. There are in-the-round projections and fairytale costumes.

It’s a spectacular family show, with enough humor and smoke-and-mirrors trickery to keep adults as entertained as the kids. And who can resist a friendly talking lion? Rating: ****.

Proud Antigone

Two other shows shine a darker light on human affairs. Sophocles’s “Antigone” gets a taut, atmospheric production from Polly Findlay at the National Theatre. She updates the action, about a leader who forbids his niece to bury her traitorous brother, to a 1970s police state. Jodie Whittaker makes a stirring and defiant Antigone, standing up for the rights of humanity against temporal laws. If Christopher Eccleston (King Creon) lacks her natural authority, Jamie Ballard gives a wonderfully neurotic turn as the blind prophet Tiresias. This show grips like a fish hook. Rating: ***.

As does David McVicar’s superb production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” at the Royal Opera House. He sets the action in the creepy, white-tiled basement of a 1930s palace. Angela Denoke is the emotionally damaged heroine who slinks around the stage in a stylish Molyneux-style dress, and sings with a powerful, clean-edged sound. During a punchy “Dance of the Seven Veils,” McVicar shows that Salome’s terrible behavior springs from a childhood of sexual abuse by Herod. It’s an emotional sucker-punch in a great production. Rating: ***.

“The Physicists” is at the Donmar Warehouse, whose principal sponsor is Barclays Plc (BARC), http://www.donmarwarehouse.com or +44-844-871-7642; “Lucia di Lammermoor” is in repertoire at Opera Holland Park, which is sponsored by Investec Wealth & Investment; http://www.operahollandpark.com +44-300-999-1000; “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is at the Threesixty Theatre, Kensington Gardens, http://www.lionwitchtheshow.com +44-844-871-7693; “Antigone” is in repertoire at the National Theatre, http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000; “Salome” is in repertoire through June 16 at the Royal Opera House, http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

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

Muse highlights include: James Pressley on books and Scott Reyburn on the art market.

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

To contact the writer on the 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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