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‘Guys and Dolls,’ ‘Medea’ and more: Classics in London feel new again

ByTeam BB

Apr 18, 2023

LONDON — Crowd control takes on a whole new meaning in the teeming New York conjured by director Nicholas Hytner’s gangbusters revival of “Guys and Dolls.” In the theater that Hytner co-founded on the banks of the Thames, audiences fill the space as if they’re milling excitedly around Times Square. The musical’s gamblers and chorus girls make their way through the throngs via moving, interlocking runways, infusing the 1950 show with the urban energy of 2023.

The production is immersive to the max; a team of scenery movers dressed as New York’s Finest parts the Bridge Theatre spectators — who can also be seated along the multitiered perimeter — for the timeless Frank Loesser numbers. Miss Adelaide (Marisha Wallace) and the Hot Box Girls shimmy through “A Bushel and a Peck” on one platform; Sarah Brown (Celinde Schoenmaker) and Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson) rumba in “Havana” on another; and the full cast, which includes Daniel Mays’s irresistible Nathan Detroit, assembles on a third, for the socko second-act climax of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

Hytner’s production has a musical theater lover floating, too — on air. The freshness of approach is emblematic of what is happening to classic pieces these days on London stages, where dazzling revivals rethink locales as diverse as Euripides’s Greece and Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans. In the city’s newest West End theater, @sohoplace, Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels perform a “Medea” that bears down on you with the force of a bullet train. Just across Charing Cross Road, the Phoenix Theatre hosts a blistering “Streetcar Named Desire,” with Patsy Ferran as a deeply damaged Blanche and recent Oscar nominee Paul Mescal (“Aftersun”) as her feral adversary, Stanley.

And at the National Theatre, Janet McTeer recently ended a run in director-adapter Simon Stone’s heart-stopping, contemporary take on “Phaedra,” performed in a revolving box that puts sex and horror sensationally under glass.

Any of these — heck, all of these — deserve a life beyond the limits of their London runs. Not that a journey to the colonies is the be-all or end-all, but it sure would represent a satisfying distribution of theater riches.

Many of my encounters on a London trip this month were with great works reconsidered greatly. That attests to the pieces’ timeless strengths. But it also suggests that a vital reacquaintance is occurring with some of the sturdiest pillars of an art form that the pandemic denied to audiences for so long.

The only disappointing evening was a new play at the Harold Pinter Theatre: director Ivo van Hove’s English-language version of “A Little Life” (originally in Dutch), a nearly four-hour orgy of pain and suffering adapted from Hanya Yanagihara’s popular 2015 American novel. Contextualizing the ordeals of the main character (played with impressive energy by James Norton) is wholly admirable, but the extreme length and the repetitious plot work against the play’s sensitizing mission.

“Phaedra,” on the other hand, nestles so disturbingly in your nervous system that the only way to banish it might be by prescription. McTeer, whose portrayal of Nora Helmer in “A Doll’s House” on Broadway 26 years ago truly deserves the adjective “legendary,” here plays Helen, an affluent Englishwoman in a placid marriage to Paul Chahidi’s Hugo. A surprise encounter with Sofiane (Assaad Bouab), son of a Moroccan man with whom Helen had an affair many years before, sets in motion a tragedy spurred by crazed, all-consuming passion.

Stone staged another updated, emotionally charged classic on a terrarium-like set: Federico García Lorca’s 1934 “Yerma,” about a woman who loses her mind over her inability to conceive. That production, which visited New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2018, prefigures “Phaedra,” a version based on those by Euripides, Seneca and Racine. Stone’s skill at laying bare the agony in the lives of desperate modern characters reveals itself anew in this production, and, in McTeer, he has one of the most astonishing interpreters of inner turmoil working today.

The breakdown of McTeer’s tortured Helen, a member of Parliament, shadow cabinet secretary and mother to precocious Declan (Archie Barnes) and resentful Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), is a hypnotic calamity. You know what’s coming, and yet, with McTeer, you hang on every appalling twist. As a hapless bystander, Chahidi gives an endearingly funny performance, and as an active player in Helen’s psychic collapse, Bouab’s outstanding Sofiane proves a man of deceptive depth. Helen’s world turns — literally, inexorably — toward a finish worthy of Hitchcock. An audience in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre is left riled up, torn up and dazed.

To have a concurrent “Medea” so strikingly conceived leaves you with no qualms about ancient Greeks bearing gifts. Okonedo is herself a world-class tragedian, as she proved not so long ago in an “Antony and Cleopatra” at the National, opposite Ralph Fiennes and directed by Simon Godwin. Here at @sohoplace, a new theater-in-the-round designed with physical comfort in mind, the “Medea” directed by Dominic Cooke itself affords nothing in the way of solace.

It’s the ultimate “How could she?” play in the Western canon, a mother driven to the horrendous act of filicide as spiteful revenge on a blithely unfaithful husband. Cooke scatters the women of Corinth (Jo McInnes, Amy Trigg, Penny Layden) in seats around the stage, as if they are chatty neighbors unable to keep their comments to themselves. The device enlists us as members of a scandal-obsessed public at a crime scene in progress.

Daniels plays all the men of the modern-dress drama and, most important, imperious Jason, foolishly unable to grasp the magnitude of Medea’s devastation. Their sons, played by a rotating cadre of youngsters, appear onstage briefly to hammer home the ghastly juxtaposition of innocence slaughtered in the name of adult betrayal.

Okonedo, like McTeer, is the ferocious main event. What is it in the bearing of great actresses that allows them so effortlessly to control the temperature of a vast room? As with some of the others I’ve seen portray this volcano of grievance — Fiona Shaw and Diana Rigg among them — Okonedo insists that we not dismiss Medea’s rage as simple madness. Her jaw set in firm, grim resolve, Okonedo stirs the requisite ashes of smoldering bitterness. Because of Jason’s infidelity, she has been drained not only of familial compassion, but also of maternal protectiveness. The achievement here is to make an impulse to unspeakable carnage feel inevitable.

Inevitability is in the DNA of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” too. “We’ve had this date from the beginning,” Stanley famously, menacingly informs Blanche before he commits the physical violence that robs her last shreds of sanity. Director Rebecca Frecknall’s brash, expressive take on Williams’s darkly poetic masterpiece at the Phoenix orchestrates the play’s brutal clashes to the nerve-fraying beats of drummer Tom Penn’s jazzy riffs.

The tension between Mescal’s Stanley and Ferran’s Blanche brews in a cocktail of incompatible spirits: Mescal’s earthbound Caliban, if you will, to Ferran’s flighty Ariel. It’s not merely here that Stanley is a brute; Mescal also manages to seem like male fragility incarnate, just as Ferran is not simply a fading flower. There’s a steely spine in her Blanche, behind a veneer of tulle and the memory of magnolias.

On a bleak set by Madeleine Girling that might be a derelict warehouse in the French Quarter, Williams’s story unspools with Euripidean certainty. The other characters — even sympathetic Stella (Anjana Vasan) and Mitch (Dwane Walcott) — are helpless witnesses. Rarely do you get to feel, as pitiably as you do here, Stanley’s primal anger and Blanche’s folly.

No intimation of anything but theater’s ability to lift the spirit attaches to the Bridge’s “Guys and Dolls.” Loesser’s affectionate siphoning of New York’s native moxie inspires Hytner to his own sweet brands of inventiveness. And the cast draws just as rewardingly on the musical’s deep reserves of ingenuity. In Deborah Andrews and Bunny Christie’s gleeful costumes — Christie also devised the set — Wallace and Schoenmaker make for sparkling comic leads. (“Marry the Man Today,” sung by Wallace’s Adelaide and Schoenmaker’s Sarah on adjoining runways, is a particular pleasure.)

This is the second divine “Guys and Dolls” of the season, the first last fall’s splendidly cast, concert-style staging at the Kennedy Center. Here in London, the Runyonland conjured in Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s book engulfs you on another level. Choreographers Arlene Phillips and James Cousins make such thrilling use of the shifting platforms, it’s as if the numbers are danced on rooftops. Just when I thought “Guys and Dolls” couldn’t raise the roof any higher.

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