On a request from a former director of mine, I’m writing a review of my first impressions of the theatre scene in London’s West End. I was only in the city for a week, but I made it to four shows and spent less than £50. I didn’t see the Broadway-transplant musicals, just straight theatre, but that wasn’t why it was a low-cost week; Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Rupert Everett and James MacAvoy were among the A-listers on stage. Instead I woke up between 5 and 6 a.m., took the tube from Paddington Station to Charing Cross, and stood in line from 7:30 to 10 or 10:30 – when the box office opened – to purchase a day-of ticket. It wouldn’t have been so bad except London was uncharacteristically windy that week, I wore winter socks the whole time, another girl sat on a hot water bottle and we all still froze to death. But if you’re there, do it, especially in the summer time when you can enjoy the cool morning temperatures. I was front-row for Helen Mirren in The Audience and it wasn’t a crane-your-neck spot. It was an oh-my-God-I-can-see-her-breathe spot. These kinds of deals just don’t exist in New York.
Macbeth, starring James MacAvoy, is playing at Trafalgar Studios and is sold out, which means that if you want tickets your only option – no matter how much you’re willing to pay – is the day-of seats. It’s a production of Shakespeare’s bloody, villainous drama like none other. I will go as far as to say this: You haven’t seen Macbeth until you’ve seen Jamie Lloyd’s production. He sets it in war time and brings liquid into the setting perhaps at the level of a production directed by Shakespeare himself; blood, vomit, chemicals and standing water are among those I recall from the play. It’s real, Trafalgar Studios committed to a production of the show that feels real. You’re not watching royalty gone nutty on stage; you’re watching real people with real problems with whom – though you’ll likely never be in the same situation – you can relate.
Performing it in a black box theatre removes the fourth wall that typically blocks the audience from the raw, vulgar desire that binds together M and Lady M. And every other performance of Macbeth I’ve seen has done that, blocked passion and put up loveless barriers to make the characters more “royal.” You don’t quite know why Macbeth would ever marry a kook like Lady Macbeth but you write it off as “that’s how marriage was done” instead of witnessing the deep connection between the couple. By bloodying up everyone on stage – and even some in the audience – and allowing MacAvoy and costar Claire Foy to be a little primal, you suddenly realize it’s not Lady M who is crazy but the thirst for power that overtakes them both.
Needless to say, the acting was superb. I was really impressed with the young Foy who commanded the stage with MacAvoy. The witches were another group of standout actors and Lloyd crafted their roles in his interpretation well, with choreography and costuming to match. In line with that, the black box can present staging challenges for a director, but Lloyd used inventive technical elements to move the play forward and to accomplish tough scenes while still keeping them visible to even the limited view seats.
I’d love to review all of the shows I saw in London but I’ll just briefly sum up my reactions to the other three in case you’re interested.
The Audience, starring Helen Mirren: I regret not purchasing this play. Peter Morgan (playwright) is brilliant. This is a well-researched piece of history that brings to life gossip, secrets and impressions the Queen has of those around her. You cannot go to London and not see this production. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the Queen of England.
The Judas Kiss, starring Rupert Everett: I know I just said this but I also can’t imagine anyone else playing Oscar Wilde. He’s perfect. I remember seeing him as Alfie in the film version of The Importance of Being Earnest and I think he’s got a Wilde streak in him. See it but expect nudity (I wasn’t) and people to be drunk and try not to sit in the balcony otherwise you’ll have a really limited view and it might be hard to hear.
Peter and Alice, starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw: I wrote a paper on the production for a class after returning to the States. I really enjoyed the play – it’s a new work by John Logan. I think what it does well is marry two unrelated children’s book characters together by exploring commonalities in the lives of the historical people they were based on (Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland). It’s also very short and it’s not so bad if you get standing room only, and the theatre is small so you get to see Dame Judi up close.