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Ralph Fiennes, Jodie Comer and other stars light up London plays

Great actors remind us why we go to the theater, even when we’re weary

Jodie Comer in “Prima Facie” at London's Harold Pinter Theatre. (Helen Murray/Empire Street Productions)
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LONDON — I am a glutton for entertainment. My immediate follow-up to seeing 17 New York shows in the weeks before the deadline for the 2022 Tony nominations was traveling to London for 10 days in May — and seeing nine more shows. Extreme theatergoing can have some deleterious side effects, particularly on the lower back. But the upside is the vitamin shot to the psyche administered by a night of splendid acting.

On four separate evenings in London, actors of the caliber of Jodie Comer, Ralph Fiennes, Nicola Walker and Bertie Carvel reminded me why the stage remains the most powerful conveyance for passionate communion with the work of a great performer. And why, even in a production that might have other shortcomings, a harmonious portrayal at its core is justification enough.

In Comer’s case, her breathtaking turn underlined all the strengths of a vibrantly assembled solo act. If you’ve watched her on TV in “Killing Eve,” you may think you’ve experienced the full extent of Comer’s talent. But you haven’t, and certainly not before you’ve seen her in “Prima Facie.” Alone onstage for 100 minutes in the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre (through June 18), Comer unspools the tale of a brash, highflying criminal lawyer who knows precisely how to work the system — until the judicial tables are turned and the system comes crashing down on her. Suzie Miller constructs her monodrama at the intersection of #MeToo and British justice, and though the dramatist appends a superfluous moral to the story, the proceedings amount to a virtuosic, blow-by-blow account of a process stacked against female victims.

There’s balletic and interpretive precision in Comer’s embodiment of Tessa, a courtroom killer of far different intent than her nonpareil television hit woman, Villanelle. It’s the essence of bravura, the kind of consummate conquest of the stage we theater freaks seek, night after night. And it’s not the only achievement of this caliber on London stages at the moment. Across the Thames, at the National Theatre through June 11, Walker is displaying flawless authenticity as a single-minded reformer in a becoming revival of the Emlyn Williams chestnut, “The Corn Is Green.” While over at the South Bank’s Bridge Theatre through June 18, Fiennes is applying a persuasive veneer of smug, quasi-messianic belief to his portrayal of controversial New York master planner Robert Moses, in David Hare’s new “Straight Line Crazy.”

And then, at the august Old Vic Theatre through May 28, you will find — or you can try to, under all the amazing makeup — Bertie Carvel being Donald Trump, in a disappearing act as thorough as a stone consumed by quicksand. Trump is the central character of Mike Bartlett’s “The 47th,” a mock-classical satire imagining a presidential electoral matchup between Trump and Vice President Harris, played by Tamara Tunie. It’s that rare evening when a performance is so unpleasantly uncanny you wish you hadn’t been there to see it.

You may know Walker from her granularly precise starring roles on British crime procedurals such as “Unforgotten.” But theater is even more inspired terrain for her: In director Ivo van Hove’s stunning “A View From the Bridge” on Broadway in 2015, playing a longshoreman’s wife watching as her tormented husband self-destructs, she demonstrated remarkable aptitude for playing troubled characters from the inside out.

In “The Corn is Green,” she’s the uncompromising Miss Moffat, an Englishwoman who arrives in a northern Wales village to claim an inheritance — but the more profound mission turns out to be the school she starts for the families of miners. One lad in particular becomes the focus of her ambitions, Morgan Evans (played by the outstanding Iwan Davies), for whom she seeks a spot at Oxford.

In the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, director Dominic Cooke has added a cumbersome framing device, the character of Williams himself (Gareth David-Lloyd), whose narration includes reading the stage directions; far more effective embroidery is provided by a chorus of singing miners. But it’s the pragmatic certainty of Walker’s Miss Moffat that gives this sentimental project its steely core. Something both accessible and mysterious informs the actress’s countenance; she’s endowed with the gift of ceaseless watchability.

Fiennes similarly elevates Hare’s “Straight Line Crazy,” a windy, curiously undramatic bio-drama that asks us to reassess the legacy of Moses, a 20th-century American visionary who had a bad case of White privilege when it came to marginalized New Yorkers. His sprawling infrastructure schemes for New York, resulting in networks of bridges, parks and highways as well as expressways that opened suburbs to the middle class, also displaced hundreds of thousands of low-income city dwellers, and shortsightedly favored the automobile over mass transit.

The play places the galling callousness of Moses front and center, but aside from a bracing confrontation in Act 2 between Moses and a devoted acolyte well played by Siobhán Cullen, it’s oddly inert. Might it be given a stronger spine by Hare and director Nicholas Hytner before a seemingly inevitable staging on its more logical home turf in New York City? (Lincoln Center, a perfectly ironic potential host for this piece, was one of Moses’s brainstorms, a complex carved out of yet another bulldozed, low-income neighborhood.)

In any event, “Straight Line Crazy” — a title derived from Moses’s predilection for cutting major arteries straight through existing communities — offers the sort of character that Fiennes plays with intuitive finesse. Despite his leading-man good looks, this actor excels at men languishing in moral swamps, or worse. Whether he portrays a professor caught up in a TV cheating scandal (“Quiz Show”) or a Nazi concentration camp commandant (“Schindler’s List”) or just the incarnation of evil (Voldemort), Fiennes can make it seem as if the milk of human sourness curdles in his veins.

The Bridge Theatre’s elegant space gives Fiennes another platform for his estimable gallery of cold men. For even colder comfort, a theatergoer would visit the Old Vic Theatre, also on the South Bank, where playwright Bartlett has provided Carvel an opportunity to exercise his formidable protean muscles; he won a Tony in 2019 playing Rupert Murdoch in James Graham’s “Ink.” In “The 47th,” Carvel’s transformation is stunning: Though the voice is pitched a bit too high and nasal for Trump, the mannerisms and cosmetic likeness are more polished than any American impersonator has managed.

An American patron has to ask, however: So what? The British audience tittered at Bartlett’s fantasizing about the ascension of Tunie’s Harris to the presidency after President Biden resigns, and Trump running against her in 2024. I sat through it miserably, with the memory of recent political calumnies ringing in my ears. The play regurgitates Trump’s biliously authoritarian excuse for a political doctrine and portrays Ivanka Trump (Lydia Wilson) as an even more diabolical Xerox of her father.

Bartlett dollops Shakespeare in scoops of erudite ice cream over the proceedings, much as he did in the far more entertaining “King Charles III” that imagined Charles succeeding Elizabeth II. But “The 47th”? Let London get it out of its system, and keep it out of ours!

At the opposite end of the scale, an announcement of an American engagement of Comer in “Prima Facie” would be most joyful tidings. You marvel at the physical exertion, anguishing emotion and narrative detail Comer has to master, as self-possessed Tessa moves from discrediting victims’ testimonies to being a victim herself. Director Justin Martin has helped Comer hone the evening to its sharpest possible intensity — a feat that offers audiences a luminous encounter with a star made for the stage.

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