Three London Shows Put a New Spin on Old Classics

When I was in London recently, walking down near Cheapside, north of the Thames, I went into the small museum built above the Mithraeum, an ancient site hidden twenty feet under Bloomberg’s glassy European headquarters. You’re often conscious in London of the place’s great age, but there’s nothing like visiting the remnants of a third-century temple devoted to Mithras—a bull-killing god popular with Roman centurions—to make you appreciate just how many cities lie beneath the streets. (A river, the Walbrook, once ran by the temple, though it has since been built over and lost.) Spring in London feels like a time for the new: goslings waddle in the parks, tiny daisies dot the grass. This May, however, many theatre productions were digging old, sometimes familiar things out of the sediment and reconsidering them in the city’s changing light.

Sir John Falstaff is among those resurfaced treasures. He’s one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters: a roguish knight and petty brigand, who befriends the young Harry, a prodigal prince sowing his wild (and criminal) oats. In “Player Kings,” Robert Icke’s nearly four-hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s two “Henry IV” history plays, at the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre, Ian McKellen—himself a mischievous theatrical god—takes up the character’s traditional fake belly and air of ribald delight. To reëxamine him, Icke places Falstaff and his medieval milieu in a recognizable now: when Harry (Toheeb Jimoh) and a backstreet buddy go on a spree, they cut apart an A.T.M., sending sparks from their metal grinder across the dark.

Harry’s father, Henry IV (Richard Coyle, snapping like a cornered fox), has come to rather hate his wayward heir. He not so secretly prefers the rebel Hotspur (Samuel Edward-Cook), who is, at least, applying himself. But is Harry really so debauched, or is he playing some deep public-relations game? Icke excels at textual archeology—his “Hamlet,” from 2017, incorporated a scene from a corrupted pre-first-folio edition known, thrillingly, as the “bad quarto”—and here he has cleverly compressed Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” dyad, splicing together Elizabethan variants, making subtle adjustments, and interpolating lines from “Henry V.” He has also shaped the evening around McKellen’s coward-knight, slowing the action when unease flickers around the old man’s mouth, as Harry’s pranks reveal his cruel nature, then speeding the civil-war plot along to reveal the self-interested Falstaff bustling about in the historical margins.

Icke’s ochre-and-shadow production, a series of shifting brick rooms (designed by Hildegard Bechtler) warmed by occasional firelight, superimposes two worlds: Henry IV’s court and Falstaff’s disreputable tavern, in Eastcheap. Despite the constant pleasures of “Player Kings,” its spotlight is on Shakespeare’s cynicism: high or low, everyone’s a crook. Even Henry IV is a usurper, ashamed of his backstabbing path to power. Icke’s innovative staging makes the young prince’s double inheritance from his two father figures explicit. When Harry faces Hotspur on the battlefield, he beats the better warrior with a trick that he must have picked up in Eastcheap. What would stop him? Honor? Falstaff knows what that’s worth: “Can honor set a leg? no / or an arm? no.” So Harry’s sneaky knife goes in (quick quick quick)—and, lo, a king draws it out.

McKellen is eighty-five this month, and he seems to be aging through the great roles in random order: his rumbustious, knowing Falstaff comes long after the first time McKellen played King Lear, as a mere lad of sixty-eight; he played Hamlet in 1971—and also last year. Age has given him bright new tools for performance. At one point, Falstaff kneels before Harry and then staggers upon rising. I saw McKellen massage his knee. It was only several scenes later, as the limp developed into a saucy bit of stage business, that I realized I had been taken in. Our protective feelings for McKellen the actor have been put in service of the play’s pity for “sweet Jack Falstaff,” whom Harry will inevitably spurn, breaking his overtaxed, unworthy, lovable old heart. It also, in a sly way, makes us complicit: despite knowing everything, we forgive a bad man.

Benedict Andrews, another director who writes his own adaptations, has been largely celebrated for his modern take on Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” which is set, in the round, on russet rugs that extend up the walls of the relatively tiny Donmar Warehouse. Andrews likes an abrasive edge: his “Three Sisters,” from 2012, featured a headbanging Nirvana needle drop; here, characters shout “you’re nuthin’ but a fuckwit” as an onstage drummer thrashes her cymbals. I loved its Armageddon vibe, but this “Cherry Orchard” is not always crowd-pleasing—the night I saw it, both of my bench mates left at intermission. There’s a risk in keeping your audience close and well lit. You can see a lot of unconvinced expressions when, for instance, a character once described by Chekhov as “a suave man” reels in chugging vodka straight from the bottle. Chekhov’s familiar, slow-burning story of an aristocrat, Liubov Ranevskaya (Nina Hoss), who lets her patrimony drift into the hands of her neighbor, the nouveau-riche Lopakhin (Adeel Akhtar), has been changed, on purpose, into something more violent, even ugly.

Still, this “Cherry Orchard” is graceful—if not in its language then in its dramatic swiftness. Andrews has his cast sit around the stage with the rest of us, so that they can fling themselves into scenes without making an entrance. The incredible fleetness and proximity, more than anything, convey what the director has extracted from Chekhov: the nauseating sensation of watching a whole society, of which we are a reluctant part, stumbling headlong into ruin.

I hope that “Player Kings” comes to New York with McKellen—it’s a stunner—and I would love to see this “Cherry Orchard” unleashed on our own easily startled audiences. I’m less eager for “London Tide,” another theatrical reappraisal of a cultural artifact, to make the journey. A musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s serial novel “Our Mutual Friend,” now at the National, the show was written by Ben Power, with goth-folk music and songs composed by PJ Harvey. Its quality is bizarrely variable, including both unforgettable stage imagery and, occasionally, risible awkwardness.

Power, who also adapted Stefano Massini’s “Lehman Trilogy” for the stage, turns almost completely away from the novel’s own social dudgeon. What remains, once he cuts Dickens’s satirized rich and his dying poor, are two intricate romantic plots: a man, John (Tom Mothersdale), who fakes his own death, wondering if his arranged bride, Bella (Bella Maclean), will love him without his money, and a Thames riverman’s daughter, Lizzie (Ami Tredrea), who has attracted one deranged suitor (Scott Karim) and one sweet (Jamael Westman), much to the amusement of her friend Jenny Wren (Ellie-May Sheridan, giving the production’s standout performance).

Power’s touch with these stories is very tender, the line-by-line writing is often elegant and tart, and Harvey’s underscoring is beautiful, but the show would be better off without the songs, which can sound lugubrious and interchangeable. So many of Power and Harvey’s lyrics are about London—first “This is a story about London,” then later “London is not England / England is not London,” and later still “London is our home”—that it becomes a little goofy. The director Ian Rickson, the set designer Bunny Christie, and the lighting designer Jack Knowles, though, have made a production so gorgeous that it could almost go on tour alone, without the accompanying musical. The National’s huge Lyttelton stage surges, black and shining, tilting and rising under the actors’ feet. Above them, long rows of lights move in ripples; the whole theatre seems to be on a raft, subject to the wakes and tides of the Thames. This set—just synchronized light rails and a backdrop of what appears to be cheap plastic—creates one of the most impressive stage illusions I’ve ever seen. “I feel a little seasick,” someone behind me said, as intermission started. But I had been in London for a few days, and I had started to feel at home on the river. ♦

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