Good enough for God? Church attendance has been declining in Britain, and in the rest of Europe, for almost two generations, so a play about the irrelevance of God hardly touches a burning nerve. When Canadian-born playwright Drew Pautz chose this theme for Love the Sinner, mounted on the National’s tiny Cottesloe stage, most reviewers showed indifference. The play’s themes were called muddled, and as often happens, the artist was blamed for the critic’s refusal to think. Pautz has updated a respectable genre, the drama of ideas, which fostered another argument about God and human affairs, Shaw’s Saint Joan. Shaw could count upon solid religious conformity as a backstop for his secular ripostes. Today, the orthodoxy has swung so far in the other direction that Love the Sinner includes a major character whose attitude is “God? Are you kidding? Put that Bible down right now.”
Not out or proud. In his mid-twenties Tennessee Williams went to a playwriting workshop in Iowa and produced a nearly three-hour-long drama that was caustically received by his tutor and fellow students. Chagrined, he consigned it to the bottom drawer while mining many of its motifs for his acknowledged masterpieces, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Nothing more was heard of Spring Storm (1937) until twenty years after Williams’s piteous accidental death in 1983. Salvaged from his archived papers, the play was given a reading in New York and a couple of regional stagings, to no great acclaim. Critics called it intriguing juvenilia.
For the second production in their inaugural season of “NT Live” telecasts, the National Theatre has selected one of Shakespeare’s less commonly staged plays, All’s Well That Ends Well. (The telecasts, appearing in selected venues worldwide, are not exactly live, but slightly delayed until an appropriate local viewing hour.)
Lo, I am with you always.
Sometimes I think all is lost. Mostly when I go to a “live in HD” event. The other day I went down to the Mahaiwe to see “All’s Well that Ends Well” from the National in London and found the theater half empty. No Helen Mirren, I guess. At first it seems real good watching one of these things. It’s clear. It doesn’t force you to look at what you don’t want to see. In this case there was subtle and passionate acting. But after forty-five minutes or so, there just doesn’t seem to be anything up front – no tension, no real sound, no humans. There is a cold poltergeist just in front of the proscenium. He’s invisible. I guess I’m the only one who sees him. And he’s separating me from the great ones. And he’s keeping their voices from entering not my ears, but my imagination.
“Spots of time.” In the same months when Edward R. Murrow was galvanizing American radio listeners with his besieged reports from the Blitz, wartime Londoners were glued to J.B. Priestley. His broadcasts were second in popularity only to Churchill’s (supposedly out of pique, the Prime Minister had Priestley booted off the BBC as a leftist). Now I wonder if anyone thinks much about this literary jack of all trades, tweedy pipe-smoker, and loudly public socialist. Although born before the automobile, Priestley outlived John Lennon by four years before dying in 1984, a month before he would have turned ninety. The National Theatre has revived one of Priestley’s most accomplished West End dramas, Time and the Conways. No doubt the hope was to make him relevant again, since the themes of the play, economic ruin and twisty time, are a perfect match with our Great Recession—Priestley wrote his drama in 1937—and the cosmic scheme of quantum physics.
“All right, boy. It’s okay.” I was jet lagged and groggily apprehensive walking into the New London Theatre (under the auspices of the National Theatre) for the revival of a play about a Devonshire lad and his faithful horse, Joey. My nervousness caused me to get lost in the narrow medieval tracks around Drury Lane. It wasn’t the potential mawkishness of the story, which has been a hit with teenage readers as a novel. The word that set me on edge in the title was “war.” Yet another change rung on Wilfred Owen’s theme of the pity of war, this time with the artillery aimed at innocent animals?
The observer effect. After the play Betrayal, from 1981, I lost track of Harold Pinter. London productions of his plays have the zing of authentic English irony, etched menace, and pithy delivery that doesn’t come across with American accents. One could see Pinter as an actor as late as 1995 when he appeared in the West End in a revival of an earlier work, The Hothouse. Pinter is as strange and threatening on stage as on paper, although a witty anecdote circulated around that production. Supposedly his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, phoned up the management and said, “The whole run has been so successful, Harold and I were thinking that you should have the Comedy Theatre renamed the Pinter Theater,” to which the manager replied, “Or he could just rename himself Harold Comedy.”
The long nights are already on the wane, but one leaves the theatre with a glow on the horizon, and a newspaper can be read outdoors well after nine o’clock.Fresh off the plane (i.e., as grungy as five-day-old socks) I tried not to go groggy at the National Theatre’s production of Shaw’s Major Barbara. Putting on a play by Shaw is like sticking your head out of a foxhole to see who shoots. Nobody could be more fusty and out of favour (perhaps the two Barries, James and Philip), but the London critics were mostly happy and none were snarky.