By Carol Rocamora . . .
London is flying high on theatre this fall – both thrilling and thought-provoking. But don’t worry – several of the unmissable productions I just saw there are planning to come to New York before the current season is over.
Life of Pi, the dazzling stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel by Lolita Chakrabarti now playing on London’s West End, will arrive on Broadway in March 2023 (after a preview at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston). Winner of five Olivier Awards, it tells an epic tale of endurance featuring a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi who, after a cargo ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is left stranded on a life- boat with – of all creatures – a ferocious Bengal Tiger. These two unlikely travel companions spend over 220 days together at sea, struggling to survive together. The miracle of the show, directed by Max Webster, lies in the breathtaking visual effects – beginning with a lifeboat emerging from the stage floor (designed by Tim Hatley) which in turn becomes an undulating ocean (fantastic lighting by Tim Lutkin and video and projection design by Andrzej Goulding). The Tiger is the star of the show, manipulated by three puppeteers (designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell). Also featured are a larger-than-life-sized zebra, monkey, hyena and turtle, all manipulated by this brilliant design team. This uplifting story of survival and endurance, of hope and faith, is a wonder to behold and a testimony to the miracle of theatre. Don’t miss it when it comes to New York.
Next to arrive in New York is The Doctor, Robert Icke’s arresting adaptation of Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi– scheduled to appear at the Park Avenue Armory in June 2023. Known for his daring reimagining of the classics (from the Oresteia to Hamlet to 1984), Icke takes Schnitzler’s 1912 play about a doctor who takes a medical-ethical stand, and expands it into an exploration of religious identity, race, gender, and labeling that challenges a contemporary audience as never before (I promise). This mind-bending adaptation (transferred from the Almeida Theatre to the West End) tests our mental acuity by cross-casting actors in roles where no one is who they appear to be – for the purpose of challenging our basic assumptions about human identity. Leading this agile ensemble is a brilliant Juliet Stevenson, playing a Jewish doctor who refuses to grant a Catholic priest a final visitation to her fourteen-year-old patient, about to die from a self-administered abortion. Though her decision first appears to be morally and ethically sound, she becomes the victim of vicious anti-semitic attacks and political persecution on the part of her colleagues –with devastating results. Prepare yourself for an alternatingly sensational and mind-boggling journey – both intellectually challenging and emotionally draining.
The Doctor isn’t the only play in London that deals with anti-Semitism and related issues. The rise of Nazism is the driving force in Good, C.P. Taylor’s frightening 1981 play that charts the conversion of a German academic named Professor Halder– a seemingly “good man” – into a radical Nazi and member of the SS. Now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre on the West End, Dominic Cooke’s brilliantly directed, pared down production (the stellar cast is reduced to three principals) sharpens the pain of the professor’s conversion, as superbly played by David Tennant. Sharon Small plays multiple roles, including the professor’s mother, wife and subsequent lover, while Elliot Levey plays Calder’s best friend (who is Jewish, and whom he betrays) and subsequently a Nazi supporter. The action careens from one scene to the next with these virtuosic performers changing roles in an instant – building to a shocking, unexpected final moment that you will never, ever forget.
The third production featuring the rise of Nazism is a sensational revival of Cabaret, Kander & Ebb’s smash-hit 1966 musical, also playing on the West End. Director Rebecca Frecknall has gone all-out to sensationalize the depravity of pre-Nazi Berlin in the 1920s, beginning with a reconfiguration of the Playhouse Theatre into the infamous Kit Kat Klub where the action takes place. Audience members are guided through a back door – as customers would have done at the time – through basement corridors, to emerge into a front lobby where lewdly costumed singers and dancers are already deep into the entertainment (the dazzling choreography by Julia Cheng). Once inside the theatre itself, you’ll marvel at its in-the-round configuration, sensationally transformed by designer Tom Scott, with a superb orchestra on either balcony. As a louche Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, Callum Scott Howells is mesmerizing, emerging from the theatre floor and rotating around the stage on a turnstile along with the writhing dancers. Madeleine Brewer plays Sally Bowles, the ambitious, self-destructive chanteuse, and Sid Sagar is convincing as the naïve Cliff Bradshaw, who eventually returns to Pennsylvania rather than face the frightening music to come. Vivien Parry as Fraulein Schneider and Richard Katz as Herr Schultz are especially affecting as doomed middle-aged lovers (he’s Jewish). It’s an unforgettable spectacle and a frightening vision of the dark future that lies ahead for Germany and the world. You leave the theatre with the terrifying “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” still ringing in your ears.
Meanwhile, what is a London theatre season without an Ibsen play? Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of The Bridge, gives John Gabriel Borkman (a lesser known Ibsen) a powerhouse revival, thanks to a new version by Lucinda Coxon and a trio of Britain’s finest actors. In the title role, the great Simon Russell Beale plays a Norwegian version of Bernie Madoff – a notorious banker jailed for financial wrongdoings. (“There are different rules for exceptional people,” declares Borkman, a cry that we’ve heard more loudly than ever these days.) Released from his prison, stripped of his wealth and status, he lives in bitter isolation, furiously pacing the second floor of the family home, while his estranged, equally bitter wife Gunhild (Claire Higgins), lurks below. A fierce conflict rages between Gunhild and her sister Ella (Lia Williams) who also loves Borkman and who owns the house they live in. Imprisoned in this poisonous love triangle, they also fight over Erhart (Sebastian de Souza), Borkman and Gunhild’s son who was raised by Ella. Hytner maximizes the play’s inherent melodrama, culminating in Borkman’s break-out from his prison-home for the first time in eight years, raging King-Lear-style on a stormy heath. “This is my kingdom!” he cries into the void. Played by the masterful Simon Russell Beale, Borkman is a fascinating Ibsen anti-hero – egomaniacal, possessed, complex, flawed, isolated…. doomed.
And finally, if ever there were a production that was meant to come to New York – indeed, destined to come to New York – it’s Tammy Faye the red-hot new musical at the Almeida. Artistic director Rupert Goold has assembled a creative dream-team – music by Elton John, lyrics by Jake Shears, book by James Graham – to tell the story of the Tammy Faye Bakker, the magnetic televangelist who founded a satellite network with her first husband, Jim Bakker, in the 1970s. Featuring an electrifying performance by Katie Brayben in the title role, we follow Tammy from her Midwestern origins to TV stardom and near sainthood (at least among her flock.) Bunny Christie’s set appropriately features a wall of TV screens to tell the story, as Tammy sings Elton John’s infectious score all the way to the top. It’s a dramatic story, filled with conflict (marital and legal problems, Jim’s imprisonment) and heartbreak (Tammy’s health). The versatile, energetic cast members play multiple roles, includes names all too familiar to American audiences (Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham, Ted Turner, etc.). It’s a chapter of recent American cultural history worth revisiting, given the focus on the Evangelists during the past presidential elections. But the power of the piece lies in Brayben’s charismatic performance, rich in humor, heart and heartbreak, overpowering in its delivery – with show-stopping numbers at the end of Act One (“Empty Hands”) and the penultimate “If You Came To See Me Cry.” It’s already a Broadway- sized performance. Indeed, it’s as if she’s already arrived.