By William Wolf

NATIONAL THEATRE TRIPLE TREAT  Send This Review to a Friend

In my most recent visit to the National Theatre in London, I had the good fortune to see three important productions, “War Horse,” “Oedipus” and “Gethsemane.” While all held interest for various reasons, “War Horse,” performed at the Olivier, is one of the most outstanding productions I have seen in many years. It is exhilarating, inventive and dynamic and I hope a way is found to bring it to New York. As of March 28, 2009, it moves to the New London Theatre in London’s West End.

Adapted by Nick Stafford from a novel by Michael Morpurgo, the play is a story about a lad whose horse is sold by his father for use in the cavalry during World War I. Furious and grief stricken, the young man joins the army in hope of finding his horse. The plot has its charm and emotional potential, but the production, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is the star of this show, thanks largely to the horse puppet design and direction by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler for the Handspring Puppet Company. Plaudits are especially due the extraordinary team that operates the horse puppets.

You have to see the production to fully comprehend the genius involved, as mere description doesn’t begin to suffice. First there is the animal Joey as a foal. On initial sight Joey looks like a rickety construction. But lo and behold, within a few minutes those operating Joey make the animal come amazingly alive with every little movement. One is immediately swept into the orbit.

Later, in a flash of theater magic, Joey morphs into full growth, seeming utterly real as a result of even more complex puppetry. In addition, when we get to Joey’s place in the cavalry, there are other huge horses seeming equally alive. The production, always amazing with its impressive use of lighting and sound, is particularly effective when the horses are plunged into battle scenes, and the feeling that they are real animals is accentuated.

The horses in this play make the horses portrayed in “Equus” look minimal by comparison. The story itself carries a Disney-like charm. Who can resist a boy in search of his beloved horse? But the plot allows for much more, including the horrors of war, and the spectacle of leading animals that have no choice into the slaughter. Not only the unfortunate men are exposed to death; so are the majestic horses.

The cast is excellent, but there is a section devoted to what occurs behind the German lines, and that portion is quite drawn out and could be trimmed somewhat. But that’s a small criticism. The thrust of the drama remains powerful and the breathtaking nature of the production and the marveling at how lifelike the horses are never lets up.

The show has been a sell-out success at the National. Now, thanks to the scheduled move of “War Horse,” it can continue to enthrall additional audiences.

I have long admired the acting of Ralph Fiennes and he outdoes himself in the production of Sophocles’ “Oedipus,” which I saw at the Olivier on a night when “War Horse” wasn’t playing. This new version, written by Frank McGuinness and directed by Johnathan Kent, is performed in modern dress, which presents no problem except for one, which I’ll attend to shortly.

The durable play is the thing here, and it affords Fiennes an opportunity to give a deeply felt, intelligent and powerful performance. He rises grandly to the occasion. When Oedipus realizes the horror that the fates have dealt him—unwittingly slaying his father and marrying Jocasta, whom he did not know was his mother, Fiennes tears into the role with such emotion that one feels deeply for the pain Oedipus experiences.

The drama becomes almost unbearably real at that point. The centuries fade and the Sophocles work seems utterly contemporary in its force. There also is the fascinating touch of having the chorus performed by men, a departure from the usual route of Greek choruses comprised of women. The result is added vocal strength.

Clare Higgins gives a strong performance as Jocasta, but this is where the modern dress becomes a problem, not because it is modern, but because of the tasteless way in which she has been costumed. Instead of wearing something that makes her look regal, Higgins is bound in am extra tight-fitting dress with a slit up the side. It makes her look more like a streetwalker than a queen. Someone who had seen the show and sat near the front amusingly warned me, “You can see her knickers.” She wasn’t wrong. I found it a terrible bit of costuming running counter to the stature of the character even though the acting by Higgins was effectively moving.

Otherwise, the play, with a fine supporting cast, was a triumph, especially for Fiennes, who added another feather to his cap with this achievement. It comes at a time when he is also being lauded for his film work in “The Reader.”

So what’s David Hare up to with his play “Gethsemane,” which I saw at the National’s intimate Cottesloe? Hare insists that this work, unlike “Stuff Happens,” is “pure fiction.” However, Brits can find part of the enjoyment matching the figures mired in scandal in England with real-life politicians, fund-raisers and conflicts of interest.

Although not up to Hare’s finest, “Gethsemane” provocatively commands attention, in no small part as a result of the fine performances by a skillful cast and sharp direction by the canny Howard Davies. The machinations play out crisply, although it takes a bit of time to lay out the basic situation and acquaint us with the personalities involved. Hare is taking aim at abuses involving the Labor government in a stab at idealism gone astray.

Although Americans won’t have the same frame of reference as British theatergoers, financial scandals and backroom maneuvers involving political jockeying have universality. One can take Hare’s plot, give it a few twists, and it could just as well apply on the American scene. Whether or not the play would succeed if imported to the United States is a question mark. But it is reasonably good and clever theater on any terms.

The plot is a sophisticated weave, with the superb acting that includes a fine performance by Tamsin Greig as Meredith Guest, a Home Secretary plagued by domestic problems that bear on her job. Her daughter Suzette (Jessica Raine), is on drugs and has been involved in a gang bang, with an unscrupulous journalist one of the perpetrators. Guest’s husband is facing a criminal accusation. One of the most intriguing characters is Stanley Townsend as Otto Fallon, a major fund-raiser for the party who doesn’t let ethics get in the way of fulfilling his task. Townsend is delightfully colorful in the role. A salute is due the entire cast, including Nicola Walker, Daniel Ryan, Pip Carter, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Adam James and Anthony Calf. All help give the production an ensemble feeling.

  

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