by Carol Rocamora
On any night in London this month, no matter what performance you’re watching, you’re bound to see stars – literally.
Take this past week for example – when you can see the likes of Jonathan Pryce, Sir Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hollander live on stage in three varied productions. These actors – who maintain a high profile on screen – still make it a priority to tread the boards for their admiring audiences.
At Shakespeare’s Globe, Jonathan Pryce is a commanding Shylock in Jonathan Munby’s handsome, black/red/gilt production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a succession of great actors who have portrayed this immortal role (most recently, Henry Goodman, Dustin Hoffman, F. Murray Abraham, and Al Pacino), Pryce offers an especially powerful portrait of a persecuted Jew who presents a formidable force against the hostile Venetian Christians, circa 1600. With his commanding height and charismatic presence, he towers over the rest of the cast, playing all the aspects of this complex role – cunning negotiator, stern father, uncompromising opponent, and, ultimately, heartbreaking victim of religious intolerance. I’ll never forget the final moments of Munby’s production, when a corps of Christians lead the defeated Shylock in and force him through the punishment of conversion. While his daughter Jessica kneels and recites a Hebrew prayer, a priest tears off Shylock’s cap, pours water over him, and recites a Latin prayer of baptism. Pryce lifts his fists to the heavens with a raging defiance, in one of the most devastating moments I’ve seen on any stage.
At the renovated Garrick Theatre, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s newly formed company has crowned its second season with a revival of The Entertainer, John Osborne’s 1957 classic, featuring an all-star cast. Set during the Suez Crisis, it tells the story of Archie Rice, a musical hall entertainer in the grips of a midlife crisis. His music hall act is waning, his finances are failing, his daughter (Sophie McShera of Downton Abbey) is rebelling, his wife (Greta Scacchi) is drinking, his father is fading, and his son is missing in action. Sir Kenneth is reprising a role made immortal by Laurence Olivier – a formidable challenge. Yet, Branagh made Archie Rice his own. His smooth tap dancing, his facile dialogue, and his cocky bravado provide a cover for a depleted, dejected soul in deep decline. Directed with verve and flair by Rob Ashton (Branagh’s frequent collaborator), the volatile scenes of family instability are offset by a number of seedy (yet charming) song-and-dance hall routines performed skillfully by Branagh and four dancers. This is a bittersweet play about the disintegration of a man, a family, and – ultimately – the British Empire.
Over at the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, Tom Hollander is charming us with his performance in Travesties, Tom Stoppard’s devilishly clever, absurdist 1974 romp about art, history, and the theatre. This brilliant British dramatist (who loves making hay from history) has unearthed the esoteric fact that three notable figures – Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce (author of Ulyssses) and Tristan Tzara (a founder of Dadaism) – all lived in Zurich in 1917. To further complicate matters, Stoppard has chosen Henry Carr, an obscure British diplomat also on the scene at the time, to narrate the story (if indeed there is one). Carr, now an old man, reminisces about the time that he performed in an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest with Joyce (an actual fact). But since Carr’s gone a bit dotty, Lenin and Tzara somehow appear in his reminiscences, where they all end up playing parts in Wilde’s wild farce. It’s a kind of nonsensical vaudeville of dazzling dialogue (some of it in limericks), song, and dance. Under Patrick Marber’s deft direction, it all amounts to absurdist entertainment, intellectual acrobatics, a serious inquiry into art – or all of the above (you decide). It’s Stoppard at his wickedest and wittiest – and Hollander delivers a pitch-perfect, virtuosic performance.