LONDON — When actors as demonstrably intelligent as Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy are let loose on an artfully crafted piece of penetrating drama, something special is bound to happen. And indeed, exceptional is the adjective that comes to mind for their collaboration on “Skylight,” David Hare’s nourishing portrait of former lovers of soul-searchingly mismatched means and values.
Hare’s play made a deserved splash on both sides of the Atlantic in its original 1995 form, with Michael Gambon and Lia Williams. The revival at Wyndham’s Theatre, in the heart of London’s West End, offers commensurate — perhaps even greater — rewards. For in director Stephen Daldry’s flawless staging, Nighy and Mulligan (along with a third essential performer, Matthew Beard) explore the fissures among the characters so potently that the evening hums along on what feel like the vibrant currents of life as it is actually lived.
In nine days of sampling London’s theater’s summer wares, “Skylight” was a pinnacle event — but far from the only one. On a strict diet of straight plays (none of the latest crop of musical revivals was particularly tempting), I was treated to exemplary work on more evenings than not. In addition to “Skylight,” which struck me as the best version of the prolific Hare’s oeuvre I’ve ever seen, the outstanding productions included an invigorating “Antony and Cleopatra,” featuring Clive Wood and Eve Best, at Shakespeare’s Globe; the compulsively absorbing saga of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII, in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” at the Aldwych; and the authentically terrifying “Let the Right One In,” by the National Theatre of Scotland, at the Apollo Theatre.
None of the other pieces were up to this estimable level. Three plays at the National Theatre were in various ways underwhelming: Sean O’Casey’s uneven, rarely performed antiwar play, “The Silver Tassie”; a lukewarm “King Lear” with Simon Russell Beale, and a new play, “Great Britain,” bogged down by its predictable take on the British tabloid press. “Handbagged,” meanwhile, a satire at the Vaudeville Theatre about the testy relations between Queen Elizabeth II and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, proved to be a slight, mildly amusing comedy stretched to a laborious two-hours-plus.
Washington audiences will be pleased to know that exports in recent years from the National Theatre of Scotland were not flukes; Shakespeare Theatre Company has been the local base for two runs of the Scottish troupe’s “Black Watch,” as well as one of the clever, site-specific “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This season, Shakespeare is bringing yet another of the company’s shows, “Dunsinane,” a so-called “sequel to ‘Macbeth’ ” by David Greig, author of “Prudencia.”
It would be a darn good thing if the Scottish theater’s “Let the Right One In” traveled to the capital, too — although the likelier first American venue for this stage thriller, based on a 2008 Swedish movie of the same title, would be Broadway (where, incidentally, “Skylight” already appears to be headed this season). Directed by the ridiculously gifted John Tiffany — “Black Watch,” the Tony-winning musical “Once” and last season’s “The Glass Menagerie” with Cherry Jones were all his handiwork — “Let the Right One In” is seriously unnerving, the most harrowing bit of chiller theater since Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman.”
I’m allergic to vampire stories, perhaps owing to the bottom-draw badness of the Broadway musical versions of “Dracula” and “Lestat,” both of which gave me nightmares, for all the wrong reasons. So I did not walk into the Apollo Theatre on tourist-inundated Shaftesbury Avenue brimming with hope for the tale of a bullied teenager who develops an obsessive crush on a bloodsucker.
Shows you how important it is to keep an open mind. Because the spectrally ravishing “Let the Right One In” is itself mind-blowing. Set in a spooky forest of set designer Christine Jones’s devising, the play follows the travails of Oskar (a superb Martin Quinn), a withdrawn lad who’s at the mercy of the school bullies until he meets the strange yet entrancing Eli (sublimely otherworldly Rebecca Benson). We quickly discover the graphic murders occurring in the woods are thoroughly explicable crimes: Eli’s gotta eat. Or rather, drink.
This may not sound as if it’s entertainment for the squeamish, but the shrewdness of Jack Thorne’s script, aided by Tiffany’s Hitchcockian suspense-building and the eerily evocative movement by associate director Steven Hoggett, prevents “Let the Right One In” from descending into schlocky horror. What it capitalizes on instead is that more poignant horror, the helpless isolation of the persecuted. It’s why the power of “Let the Right One In” owes more to sorrowful tidings than shocking ones.
Like virtually all the shows I saw, “Let the Right One In” was birthed by an institutional British company; of the nine productions I chose to take in, only “Skylight” had roots in the commercial theater. This may have been coincidental, but it also suggests the West End shares with Broadway a heavy reliance on the nonprofit sector for play development.
The pair of plays percolating with Tudor intrigue, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” for example, started at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home base in Stratford-upon-Avon. Adapted by Mike Poulton from the best-selling novels by Hilary Mantel, they’ve settled into a highly successful run in revolving repertory at the Aldwych Theatre. Under Jeremy Herrin’s assured direction, the plays barrel fleetly and fluidly through the tumultuous events of the reign of England’s papal adversary and serial husband, King Henry VIII.
The story has been a staple since Shakespeare’s time — though it must be acknowledged that Poulton’s version is far more bracing than the Bard’s. The productions, which take us from Henry’s divorce from the first of his six wives, Catherine of Aragon, to the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, to his marriage to his third, Jane Seymour, unfold with the compressed briskness of the old Classics Illustrated comics. On a stage with little adornment other than the occasional blazing hearth, the actors are called on to furnish the real fire: Nathaniel Parker’s mood-swinging Henry and Lydia Leonard’s operatically scheming Anne bring on both evenings’ exhilarating heat. Meantime, Leah Brotherhead’s cunningly patient Jane and most important, Ben Miles’s stonily manipulative Cromwell, provide a counterbalancing sense of cool calculation.
Given the popularity of Mantel’s novels and the precision of Herrin’s stagings, one lives in hope the RSC’s double-bill will find its way to our shores.
Eve Best’s Cleopatra? Bring her, too! Shakespeare’s Globe visited the Folger Theatre in Washington on July 25 and 26 with its world-touring “Hamlet” and returns in September with “King Lear.” In its open-air home on the South Bank, I was in the thrall of its “Antony and Cleopatra,” shepherded inspirationally by director Jonathan Munby. (He’s known to Shakespeare Theatre Company audiences by virtue of last season’s “Measure for Measure,” and, even more memorably, by his splendid “The Dog in the Manger” in 2009).
Warmly satisfying is this version’s portrayal of a mature love between Cleopatra and her Mark Antony, played as a warrior spent from all the battle-testing by the rough-hewn Clive Wood. Trailed by flowing tresses and conspiratorial ladies in attendance, Best’s Cleopatra is a woman of playful, witty spirit: it is her brain that stamps this queen of the Nile as irresistible.
The exuberance of Best’s performance — she even flirts with audience members standing at the front of the Globe’s Elizabethan stage — is a contrast for what comes across as so appealing about another actress doing enticing work, “Skylight’s” Mulligan. It’s the stoic self-containment of Mulligan’s Kyra that gives the character so much authority, helps us to understand the path she has chosen, and why her decision to retreat from Nighy’s Tom makes sense.
“Skylight” takes place in Kyra’s dreary working-class flat, where wealthy restaurateur Tom shows up unannounced one evening. (Designer Bob Crowley’s conjuring of the apartment block is itself a marvel.) It’s been years since their affair ended, a split occasioned by the discovery of the betrayal by Tom’s wife, a friend to the much younger Kyra. She’s since died, and Kyra, once manager of one of Tom’s restaurants, is now a teacher in a school in a tough London neighborhood.
The strong sexual flicker between this Kyra and Tom carries a more pungent scent of regret than did the nonetheless excellent actors in the original production, and Nighy beautifully evokes Tom’s barely stifled outrage at having been unable to win Kyra back. Tom can’t for the life of him grasp Kyra’s rejection of all the finer things he can offer, and this failure to acknowledge the nobility of sacrifice is at the heart of Hare’s play — as it is, it seems, a point of anguishing contention for the entire society.
That Kyra still pines for the good life is illuminated after Tom departs, in a wonderful scene that allows Beard, as Tom’s son, Edward, to make a lovely, heroic gesture. But the play’s radiant residue is most directly attributable to the grace and fortitude of Mulligan’s achievement.
Let the Right One In, adapted by Jack Thorne. Directed by John Tiffany. At Apollo Theatre. Visit www.right-one-in.com.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Mike Poulton from Hilary Mantel’s novels. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. At Aldwych Theatre through Oct. 4. Visit www.rsc.org.uk.
Skylight, by David Hare. Directed by Stephen Daldry. At Wyndham’s Theatre, through Aug. 23. Visit www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk.
Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Munby. At Shakespeare’s Globe through Aug. 24. Visit www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre.
The Silver Tassie, by Sean O’Casey, directed by Howard Davies, and Great Britain, by Richard Bean, directed by Nicholas Hytner. At National Theatre. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
Handbagged, by Moira Buffini. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham. At Vaudeville Theatre through Aug. 2. Visit www.handbaggedtheplay.com.