A ‘Brief Encounter’ for Shakespeare Theatre: Company to import Kneehigh Theatre show


Joseph Alessi and Hannah Yelland in Kneehigh’s U.K. tour of "Brief Encounter." (Steve Tanner/Steve Tanner)

Adding to its burgeoning reputation as an importer of high-end artistic wares, Shakespeare Theatre Company will introduce Washington audiences in March to yet another innovative British theater troupe, Kneehigh Theatre of Cornwall, via its highly regarded stage adaptation of “Brief Encounter.”

The show is expected to feature several members of the cast who appeared in the Broadway version in 2010, including Hannah Yelland, nominated for a Tony for her performance and who now makes Washington her home. It will run for 19 performances, from March 29 to April 13, in Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre, on Seventh Street NW.

Brief Encounter” uses music, movement and cinematic effects to re-imagine David Lean’s 1945 film — based on a Noel Coward play — for the stage. First staged in Cornwall, England, in 2008 by Kneehigh’s artistic director, Emma Rice, the show brings to 11 the number of productions that Shakespeare Theatre has booked under its “special presentations” banner. These are shows originating in London, New York, Paris and elsewhere that are marketed to the public separately from the company’s main stage subscription series, which consists mostly of classical works produced by the theater itself.

The other special presentations being offered this season are “Mies Julie,” an erotically charged South African version of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” that starts Nov. 9, and “Man in a Case,” an avant-garde adaptation of a pair of Chekhov short stories that arrives Dec. 5 and stars Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Shakespeare Theatre Company began its role as important importer of international work for the city in 2009, with a successful run of Jean Racine’s “Phedre,” starring Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper, from London’s National Theatre. The programming that has followed has included some of the most exciting theater of the past several seasons. Among the highlights: the National Theatre of Scotland’s Iraq war play, “Black Watch”; John Hurt in Gate Theatre of Dublin’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”; the marathon playlets of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” from London’s Tricycle Theatre; “Petrushka,” from American puppeteer Basil Twist; and another entry from the Scottish national theater, “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” a “site-specific” work that was performed in a Georgetown pub.

Chris Jennings, the Shakespeare Theatre managing director, said the work of Kneehigh Theatre has been in artistic director Michael Kahn’s sights for some time. “We’ve been talking to them for years about bringing ‘Brief Encounter’ to Washington, and they’ve been wanting to come,” Jennings said. The opportunity arose as part of an international tour that is taking the Kneehigh production to Australia, Beverly Hills, Calif., and Washington.

The productions Shakespeare Theatre have brought in have, in general, met or exceeded the company’s sales expectations, Jennings said, although Kahn noted that the return visits of two shows that did well in their initial stands — “Black Watch” and the musical “Fela!” — had disappointing results.

Nonetheless, company officials say the rate of success argues for supplying more of what Kahn describes as “the kind of theatrical works Washington doesn’t normally see.”

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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