LONDONNot everyone can jaunt across the Atlantic just to see world-famous actors performing onstage in London. And that's especially if the productions are completely sold out, like Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Hamlet or Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience.
Luckily in recent years, many of these marquee-name productions have been captured in high definition video for live simulcasts to movie theaters across Europe and screenings closer to home months later in select art house cinemas or college campuses. The National Theatre of Great Britain in particular has not only preserved productions conceived for its massive South Bank performance complex, but also from commercial West End theaters as part of its NT Live series.
There are also screenings closer to home months later in select art-house cinemas like the Music Box Theatre, which recently took place. They're also screened on college campuses like Northwestern University in Evanston or the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
On a recent U.K. trip, I was able to see two much-buzzed-about West End productions featuring knighted British actors tackling roles created by other famous knights before them. One was a commercial revival of Harold Pinter's 1975 drama No Man's Land, starring out actor Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart in roles, respectively, originated by Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. The other was gay U.S. director/choreographer Rob Ashford's production of John Osborne's 1957 drama The Entertainer, starring Sir Kenneth Branagh in the title role written for Sir Laurence Olivier.
Not only did I want to see these stars live in works I had only read about before, but I also knew that what I critiqued could also be partially experienced later by Chicago-area audiences onscreen. Though there currently is no local screening scheduled at the moment for The Entertainer, No Man's Land will be screened via NT Live at Northwestern University in Evanston in February.
In these uncertain times with so many unknowns due to the "Brexit" vote of the U.K. leaving the European Union, both plays carried a peculiar resonance of dread on top of the rather bleak issues and personal dynamics being explored. Both very British works were also challenging due to the playwrights' often oblique or symbol-filled writing styles.
Like many of Pinter's plays, No Man's Land just provides sparking dialogue and moments of tense drama amid a mysterious situation. Audiences have to piece together in their own minds precisely what might be going on.
It all begins with two elderly men in an alcoholic stupor stumbling into a well-appointed drawing room near Hampstead Heath, a lovely London park but also a notorious gay cruising ground for most of the 20th century. Rather shabbily dressed and the more lucid of two is McKellen as Spooner, while far more wasted and distressed is Stewart as Hirst.
The two clearly know each other from the past, and Spooner is trying to get something out of Hirst. But the dynamics drastically shift the next morning as two cockney toughs ( Damien Molony as Foster and Owen Teale as Briggs ) appear as overly protective and on-the-make manservants who have latched onto Hirst, a once famed poet likely suffering from dementia.
Both McKellen and Stewart are acting masters of the Pinter's engaging repartee, so they keep things light and funny even if you might be bewildered at exactly what is happening. Both have also been performing these roles since Broadway in 2013 and on tour, so their well-seasoned familiarity is also a bonus.
Pinter and director Sean Mathias also work in lots of humor from Foster and Briggs' crass talk while performing overly refined serving duties as commanded by Hirst.
One can easily interpret No Man's Land as a bitter rivalry in one-upmanship as we see Spooner drawing from the past while seeking assistance from Hirst. But there's also a significant statement on how one's future legacy can be hindered or tarnished if the wrong money-grubbing people mishandle an artist's work that needs to be shared instead of staunchly guarded. Let us be grateful that these master actors, though largely known for the sci-fi work in film and TV, can also have their great stage work preserved.
You can also appreciate that Branagh in The Entertainer was also captured for posterity, even though Ashford's production is largely a misfire. That's because the taping of the production was significantly the first to be done with a single camera rigged up on a series of motorized winches and wires to capture everything in a single take.
I attended the simulcast dress rehearsal, so understandably many in the audience were often distracted by the ever-present swooping camera over the stalls. But the audience also could have resisted warming to the production since Osborne's play is so creaky and meandering itself.
The Entertainer focuses on the delusions of the fractured northern English family of Archie Rice ( Branagh ). He's a hoary old comedian and emcee clutching on the remains of English music hall variety ( a cousin to American vaudeville ) while his family members are also clutching onto memories of their glorious past.
Now Osborne is revered in English theater for being one of the pioneering "Angry Young Men" playwrights who put poor and working class characters onstage and rubbed the faces of polite English audiences with pessimistic views of the U.K.'s declining empire and status as a global power. This latter aspect is often applied as a direct metaphor for The Entertainer with its references to the Suez Canal crisis and its sparring stage family who clutch onto their great theatrical past.
Yet more than 50 years on, it's appalling to see how Osborne's exposition for The Entertainer is so poorly written. The plotting is also so plodding, often thwarting the work of great and famed actors featured here like Greta Scacchi, Gawn Grainger and Sophie McShera ( Daisy from Downton Abbey ).
Despite tap dancing up a storm and his leading-man looks, Branagh is ultimately miscast as Archie. Sure, some of the laughs probably didn't come from audiences reluctant to find humor in Archie's often homophobic, misogynistic and racist jokes. But also Branagh didn't command the stage like you expect a well-seasoned compere who would carry on despite all the odds.
Director Ashford's doesn't help matters with the decaying theater kept omnipresent even during domestic scenes as an obvious visual metaphor. His cadre of chorus girls were also too perfectly fit and glamourous to match the seedy surroundings.
Even though The Entertainer largely didn't work when compared to No Man's Land, at least both were captured to show how attempts were made in 2016 to revive these older works for modern audiences. Luckily more people ( and hopefully future generations ) will be able to experience these significant London productions beyond those who could see them in person.
No Man's Land continues at the Wyndham's Theatre in London through Saturday, Dec. 17. For more information, visit NoMansLandThePlay.com or NTLive.com for details on local screenings. The Entertainer has closed, but information on future encore cinema screenings can be found at The-Entertainer.BranaghTheatreLive.com .