Stage Review: Shakespeare, High and Low

National Theatre's 'King Lear,' Propeller company's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' are highlights of London trip

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LONDON -- Scratch the bio of the British actors omnipresent on TV and film and you usually find deep experience in Shakespeare. Whatever the Bard may be in the United States (The New York Times recently commented on his frequent appearances in New York this past year), he's a regular presence on London stages.

So on the Post-Gazette London theater tour two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to score two high-profile Shakespeares, which I'll label High and Low.

First there was "King Lear" at the National Theatre starring Simon Russell Beale, which you could call a trifecta of the greatest tragedy, theater company and actor -- greatest English stage actor of his generation, that is, with nods also to Mark Rylance and Ralph Fiennes.

Then, at the other extreme, came Edward Hall's Propeller company in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a delicious comic trifecta of leading young director, skilled all-male company and a comedy that can bend itself to many interpretative approaches.

In a week where I also saw Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest flop (more about that next week) and a variety of other shows, mainly fun but lightweight, this Shakespeare duo was the highlight.

'King Lear'

I'll cut right to the chase: the second half of Act 2 had me flooded with tears. Credit mainly Shakespeare's heart-rending parallel stories of two fathers who never knew their own children -- Lear and his three daughters, Gloucester and his two sons -- and their resulting torment. But credit also the actors and the particularity of Sam Mendes' direction.

This is not a "Lear" that excels in the big stuff, such as the old king's battle with the elements in the storm scene. Nor is it triumphant in every role: Anna Maxwell Martin's overacted Regan is more whiny than seductive; Sam Troughton's Edmund is awfully buttoned up for a vengeful Machiavel; Michael Nardone's Cornwall dwindles into a B-movie mob boss (well, that's probably intentional); and even Adrian Scarborough's elderly Fool makes little impact -- although his casual death at the hands of the mad king is pretty extraordinary.

Perhaps these shortcomings are just the complaints of a lifelong Shakespearean who has too many fixed ideas about how things should be. Anyhow, such cavils hardly matter when measured against the other roles and the grand, painful sweep of this huge epic of family loss and redemption.

That's how it plays out. There are several plays inherent in "Lear." But despite the bustle of 20th-century armies (the era chosen by director Mendes and designer Anthony Ward) filling the expansive Olivier Theatre, this "Lear" is less national, dynastic struggle than intergenerational reckoning.

This focus is epitomized by Mr. Beale, a stout, querulous king who grows gradually out of his folly into our pity, grudging admiration and, in the magnificent scene of mad prophecy with the blinded Gloucester on the beach at Dover, astonishment and revelation. That this is followed by the sweet agony of his reunion with Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) starts the tears afresh.

Mr. Mendes (and his colleague, Mr. Shakespeare -- let's not forget him) have got the overall tragic rhythm and crescendo very right. The king is just part of it. Attention must be paid also to Stanley Townsend's stalwart Kent, Kate Fleetwood's surprisingly sexy Goneril, Stephen Boxer's Gloucester and, above all, Tom Brooke's marvelous Edgar, who from another angle is really the hero.

Ultimately, my emotional response had a lot to do with my companion, my granddaughter, Ella, nearly 16 but seeing her first live Shakespeare. Talk about jumping into the deep end of the pool! She never wavered in focus, shedding some tears herself and, more to the point, spotting details that had escaped me. This one goes in my memory book.

"King Lear" will be broadcast at the SouthSide Works Cinema May 21 and 25; details at National Theater Live:

'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Now to move from the sublime to the ridiculous. But here the ridiculous is appropriate, because "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a great comedy in which the ridiculous pervades both comic means and story.

Further, this "Midsummer" is by Propeller, an all-male company with an approach and style that inevitably alter whatever they touch. I can't speak about this knowledgeably, because this is my first Propeller show, but it was a fine place to start.

Propeller is not all-male in the way of Shakespeare's Globe, whose "original practices" re-create the mode of presentation for which they were written. Propeller works as an ensemble -- there's doubling and everyone pitches in to play the fairies, for example -- to "more completely explore the relationship between text and performance. Mixing a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic, they have been influenced by mask work, animation and classic and modern film and music from all ages."

That's what they say. In "Midsummer," the result is a fast-paced tumult, spoken with lickety-split clarity to die for by a gaggle of white-faced tumblers. Puck pops out of a box, ruby-slippered (Julie Taymor comes to mind); it just takes a small skirt to turn an actor into a girl; and the company adds live music (oboe, cellos, flute, keyboard).

As you'd expect, these guys get most of the sex jokes in the text (but not "hole" and "hair" in the "Pyramus & Thisbe" playlet), and they add a few: when Bottom turns into an ass he gains a droopy, yard-long phallus; they call him "dong-kee."

The son of famed director Peter Hall, Propeller's artistic director Edward Hall also leads the Hampstead Theatre and is an associate director at the National Theatre and the Old Vic. I saw Propeller a half-hour outside London at Kingston. They tour a lot -- they've come to the United States several times. Watch for them.

To get on the notification list for PG theater tours, call Gulliver's Travels, 412-441-3131.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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