LONDON — We had assembled to see Carey Mulligan in a sold-out solo show called “Girls & Boys,” the harrowing account of a young woman whose husband commits an unspeakable horror. But before the play, there was another ritual to be performed at the esteemed Royal Court Theatre: drinks and a bite in the vast theater bar downstairs.
It is a big, boisterous, welcoming room, reminiscent somehow of a scene in Cheapside in “Henry IV, Part I” — and a link to a social aspect of playgoing that has never been replicated quite as exuberantly in that other international theater town, New York. Across London, theaters have come to understand better than anywhere else that voracious consumers of the performing arts want something else to chew on, to be able to pair their love of drama with a pint or a glass of wine and, say, a burger and chips, or a cheese board. And so, at the Young Vic or the National Theatre near the Waterloo railway station, or the Royal Court in Sloan Square, or the brand-new Bridge Theatre, under the Tower Bridge, large, inviting and comfy spaces have been dedicated in the theaters to soaking up some alcohol and accommodating some serious schmoozing, to go with the cultural enrichment.
I like to think this mixing of pleasures says something about the more advanced degree to which theater is integrated into the British diet. It’s not that a night out with Chekhov — or Carey Mulligan, for that matter — must include a lager to limber you up. Still, participating in an indulgence of all the senses, within the confines of the playhouse, with other theater obsessives, seems to satisfy some deep spiritual longing for talking out the experience fully, for sharing what the act of becoming the audience signifies.
In a recent week of theatergoing here that resulted in several truly superior evenings —among them, the best “Julius Caesar,” at the aforementioned Bridge, that I have ever seen, and an exquisite play with music, “Girl From the North Country,” threaded with the songs of Bob Dylan, at the West End’s Noel Coward Theatre — I was reminded again and again of how London sometimes eclipses other cities in which I love to go to theater, such as New York or Washington. Not necessarily in sheer quality, although I can’t imagine ever seeing a production of Peter Gill’s beautiful “The York Realist,” about a rugged gay farmer in the Yorkshire countryside, as smartly textured as the one I saw at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. It’s the totality of the rite that captivates me in London, the sense you gain that theater is happening all around you.
New York and London trade too many of their top-drawer showpieces to rank the two cities: Londoners at the moment are entangled in their own swoony “Hamilton” love affair, for instance, and New Yorkers are frantically gobbling up tickets to that recently minted British stage mega-hit “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” In other ways, these premier theater meccas are becoming more like one another. The offerings on London’s Broadway, the West End, seem ever more focused toward war horses and tourist-trapping musicals. It is being left to government subsidized theater — akin to the nonprofit sector in the United States — to do all the creative heavy lifting.
Ticket prices, too, are approaching but not as yet quite at the highway-robbery levels of Broadway: For a Wednesday matinee orchestra ticket to the popular “Girl From the North Country,” I paid 69.75 pounds from the website (about $99), and for “Julius Caesar” it was 90 pounds ($127).
Both productions proved worth it. After sitting through multiple lackluster productions of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” I had pretty much given up on it. The tragedy has that chilling assassination scene — plus the Mark Antony oration that every school kid used to learn — but the work loses steam in the ensuing collapse of the rebellion against Caesar’s tyranny and sputters to a rather bland finish. I was resigned to a relationship with the play that would forever be ambivalent.
Until Nicholas Hytner showed me the light.
The radiant illumination emanates from Hytner’s spanking new headquarters on the South Bank, where his sensational production is winning over even the most skeptical of Shakespeareans. With a portion of the audience absorbed into the proceedings as Roman citizens, and buoyed by outstanding performances by Ben Whishaw as Brutus, Michelle Fairley as Cassius, David Calder as Caesar and David Morrissey as Mark Antony, Hytner’s in-the-round production seizes strikingly on every rabble-rousing opportunity the Bard offers up.
Hytner has turned the flexible, 900-seat performance space into a ring, with spectators seated at floor and two balcony levels and also standing inside the playing area. The standees form the crowds in the crowd scenes, and here’s another example of how a theater sensibly blurs the lines between concessions and performance: Reminiscent of the Groundlings, members of the audience wander out into the lobby and back into the pit with cups of beer (and maybe that’s why you tend to notice that there are more guys here than usual who you’d think would be more comfortably at a rugby match). As parts of the stage rise on hydraulics from various points inside the ring, they and others around them are encouraged to react, brandish signs, and at one breathtaking moment, unfurl a flag that engulfs them all.
For a play that is so much about having the average person in one’s thrall, the conceits are dazzlingly on point. So are the actors. What they and Hytner trace is the tragic arc of a freedom movement’s demise, how a blow against tyranny becomes too savagely drenched in blood, and how the rabidity of the cause blinds its leaders and allows them to be outmaneuvered and vanquished. As each of the rebellious Roman senators is wiped out by Antony with barbaric efficiency, you watch the step-by-step snuffing out of a dream. And as the standees are coached by roving “security” men and women to crouch down during the fighting, you get a harrowing portrait of an entire civilization being brought to its knees.
At the National Theatre, I caught up with Bryan Cranston’s galvanizing portrayal of Howard Beale, the disordered false prophet-anchorman of Lee Hall’s overly sermonizing adaptation of the 1976 film “Network,” directed by none other than the modern master of technology, Ivo van Hove. For all of the production’s electronic wizardry, though, its most striking feature was van Hove’s wildly innovative contribution to the notion of radical theatrical hospitality: The entire right-hand side of the Lyttleton Theater stage was occupied by a working restaurant van Hove called “Foodwork.” Dining ticket holders paid for an elaborate meal that went on throughout the intermissionless performance.
The other high point of the week for me was “Girl From the North Country,” which ended its West End stay last week. Playwright Conor McPherson composed the script and directed this play with music, which reveals the intersecting lives of financially struggling transients in a Duluth boardinghouse of the 1930s. Accompanied by the actors taking turns playing guitar, fiddle, piano, bass and drums, 21 Dylan songs are interspersed, not so much to assist in the storytelling but to help define the spiritual and emotional bonds of these desperate, hurting people.
“Slow Train,” “I Want You,” “Went to See the Gypsy” and, of course, “Like a Rolling Stone” are all performed, and so are a whole passel of songs Dylan has written later in his career. The extraordinary contributions by musical director Alan Berry, orchestrator Simon Hale and movement director Lucy Hind elevate these musical moments to ecstatic levels. The setting, for instance, of Dylan’s 2012 song “Duquense Whistle” is so startlingly affecting (as sung by Jack Shalloo, portraying a young man of diminished mental capacity) that you’ll be hard-pressed not to reach immediately for the tissues.
The veneer of Midwestern stoicism, and the aura of trouble surrounding the gallery of characters, vanish as cast members erupt into all manner of harmony. Every actor gets an arresting turn, but the ones I recall most poignantly are supplied by Sheila Atim, as the foundling daughter of the innkeepers; Shirley Henderson, playing her damaged mother; Claudia Jolly, as a discarded young lover; Arinzé Kene, as a man on the run from the law; and Bronagh Gallagher, portraying a woman trapped in a spiral of bad fortune. Dark souls never sang with more lightness of being.