LONDON — God save the king — of theaters. By virtue of its extraordinary range and acumen, the National Theatre, the 50-year-old company that since 1976 has operated out of a bulky modern complex on the south bank of the Thames, can stake a legitimate claim to being the world’s most influential purveyor of English-speaking drama.
Founded by Laurence Olivier and headed in the past decade by Nicholas Hytner, the National is the originator of so much work of distinction that listing it all would consume the entirety of this article. Its contributions range from “Angels in America” to “War Horse
,” from “Arcadia” to “The History Boys” to “The Madness of King George.” Its exports to Washington have included the fine “Phèdre” with Helen Mirren
that in 2009 sold out Sidney Harman Hall in an exclusive U.S. engagement.
(JOHAN PERSSON) - THE AUDIENCE by Peter Morgan, Director - Stephan Daldry, Designer - Bob Crowley, at Gielgud Theatre, 2013.
Like any great company, it’s harbored memorable misfires; a musical years ago based on the life of actress Jean Seberg is easily among the worst I’ve ever seen, and I recall gnashing my teeth through a stultifying revival of Ben Jonson’s “Bartholomew Fair.” But in a return to London this month for a week of theatergoing, I found fresh evidence of the National’s artistic primacy, in three stirring productions in the company’s rotating repertory: Maxim Gorky’s 1905 “Children of the Sun,” James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” with Marianne Jean-Baptiste and, most captivating, a new “Othello” starring Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester.
I took in some other productions of note, including an enjoyable “The Tempest” with Roger Allam and Colin Morgan at Shakespeare’s Globe, the re-creation of an Elizabethan theater that’s a 15-minute walk along the Thames from the National; and Simon Russell Beale in an energetic revival at Trafalgar Studios of “The Hothouse” — a minor entry in the Harold Pinter catalogue, made worthwhile by Beale and his nimble castmates.
Peter Morgan’s West End hit, “The Audience,” turns out to be merely an exercise in royalty-worship, with the redoubtable Mirren magnetically embodying Queen Elizabeth II, an extension of her Oscar-winning turn in “The Queen.”
The only significant disappointment occurred in an evening at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, where playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s all-too-facile drama “Chimerica” squanders a prime opportunity for insight into the abrasive crosscurrents of economics and politics between China and the United States. Although it has been well received here, the three-hour play, to American ears, is sloppy in language and cultural references and in desperate need of a rewrite.
The National has extended its global reach through National Theatre Live, a series of live broadcasts of stage productions from the National and other theaters onto movie screens around the world. (This month, the NT Live airing of “The Audience” broke box-office records for the enterprise.) Still, of course, a seat in the Olivier or the Lyttleton, the National’s two largest spaces, is by far the best way to experience the National’s capabilities.