LONDON -- Once upon a time, voyagers steered by the stars, then came the compass. But in theater, the stars serve us still, and did so especially on last month's Post-Gazette Critic's Choice theater tour to London.
No stars burned brighter than Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, but the London stage was lit simultaneously by James McAvoy, Rupert Everett, Rowan Atkinson, Betty Buckley, Ben Whishaw and (bright to the British, if not so visible from over here) Frances de la Tour and Antony Sher.
Those are just the ones I saw in the nine plays I packed into six days. Stars I missed included Kristin Scott Thomas, Rufus Sewell and Henry Goodman, with others having ended their runs just before we arrived or coming into view shortly after we left. And my nine plays/six days wasn't close to a record: a Pittsburgh friend there at the same time managed 11 1/2 plays in just five days.
Today I start off a survey of London theater with a couple of the brightest, Dames Helen and Judi, and my theater critic colleague, Sharon Eberson, chips in with the bloody Mr. McAvoy. On wednesday, we'll survey some of the other London offerings.
The London theater firmament almost always sparkles this way. There, economics still allow a producer to put on a show featuring a star or two for just a couple of months; in New York, it would have to be a much longer run to break even, which, to a star balancing movie jobs, makes the stage less appealing.
American audiences award standing ovations as a matter of course, but I'm made of sterner stuff: my long-standing rule has been only Laurence Olivier, Ted Williams and Roberto Clemente -- and all three are now dead. Sure, I break my own rule occasionally. And now I've added a fourth immortal: Helen Mirren.
I've seen her on stage a half-dozen times and she always shines with an animal magnetism matched by a deep theatrical intelligence. Playing Queen Elizabeth II, no one's idea of a charismatic figure, may be the ultimate test, and she passes it with sizzle, command and exquisite timing in "The Audience," another literate, witty tour of the queen's life by the same Peter Morgan who wrote "The Queen," for which Ms. Mirren won an Oscar.
Here, we see the Queen in her brief weekly meetings with seven of the 12 prime minsters who've served since she became queen in 1952. The best known prime minister missing from the seven is Tony Blair, presumably because he is featured in "The Queen" and Mr. Morgan has also written a Tony Blair trilogy. So here, he contents himself with a small fistful of ironic comments on Mr. Blair -- the absence that speaks louder than presence.
If this doesn't sound like much of a concept for a play, no, it isn't. But the play is enriched with small interspersed scenes in which Queen Helen recalls her girlhood, when royal protocol was irksome, and then the sudden change when her uncle abdicated, throwing her father onto the throne and making her the heir apparent.
These small scenes allow Ms. Mirren some respite, channeling emotions that Mr. Morgan hypothesizes. She moves easily from 25 to 80-plus, scrupulous in building a character that makes sense, clarifying the queen's intuited emotions and making a very good case for her intelligence -- with what adherence to reality, we can only guess. But Ms. Mirren also takes those interviews and uses them to portray a growing wisdom that well serves her ministers (for such they are).
However close this is to the real thing, Ms. Mirren makes it real. If she hasn't caught the real Elizabeth, we certainly hope that Elizabeth II catches some of this real Mirren. Even an arch democrat like myself is taken by a system of government that avoids screaming dysfunction, its wheels gently oiled by this non-partisan monarch.
Among the P.M.s, the audience favorites (and perhaps the Queen's) are Edward Fox's iconic Churchill and Richard McCabe's proletarian Harold Wilson. I'm less taken with Haydn Gwynne's Margaret Thatcher, but probably that's because of her abrasive politics. Paul Ritter's John Major provides robust comic relief.
For all its humor and even with Queen Helen, I suppose "The Audience" is too insularly British to fly on Broadway. But could we get such pleasure out of our own heads of state? I doubt it.
At Gielgud Theatre through June 15; call 011-44-844-482-5130.
'Peter and Alice'
This is a not a review: it can't be, because we saw just the sixth preview, with opening night still 10 days away. Presumably there was polishing and even shaping still to do. I hope so, because what I saw, despite its rich thematic content, hadn't come together in what you would call a coherent play.
But the basic idea is delicious. Judi Dench plays the elderly Alice Liddell, who as a young girl was the muse for the Rev. Charles Dodgson's creation of "Alice in Wonderland." Ben Whishaw plays the grown-up Peter Davies, who, along with his brothers, was James Barrie's model for "Peter Pan." Historically, they actually met in 1932, when she was 80 and he 35.
The rest is imagined by playwright John Logan ("Red," another fictional investigation of an artist), pivoting on the fact that both stories are about refusing to grow up -- "Pan," obviously, but "Alice," also, when you factor in Rev. Dodgson's fixation on prepubescent girls, whom he liked to photograph nude. Mr. Barrie has his own neuroses, having moved himself into the Davies family and more or less made it his own.
As Alice and Peter begin to talk, the walls fly away and we enter their simultaneous fictional worlds, complete with actors as the iconic Alice and Peter, plus the two authors and a few more characters, and much discussion ensues. The stories interweave (at one point, I think Alice pitched in as Wendy) and overlap -- not just the fictions but also the strange stories of the authors.
The material is fascinating, but in the preview, it felt more like an illustrated lecture than what you'd call drama. I don't mind that it never arrives at a conclusion -- how could it? -- but every time it seemed to come close to revelation or at least dramatic surprise it backed off and tackled another brier in its thicket of ideas.
So aside from the seductions of youth and the trap of celebrity and much, much more, what is it primarily and satisfyingly about? Ms. Dench, mainly. To see this beloved 78-year-old actress on stage is justification enough.
At Noel Coward Theatre through June 1; 011-44-844-482-5141.
James McAvoy enters rock-star style, sliding crosswise across the floor with an ax in one hand and a machete in the other. Known for movies from the dark ("The Last King of Scotland" and "Atonement") to the fanciful ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "X-Men: First Class"), the Scottish actor turns every shade of intense while going unhinged in an updated "Macbeth" at London's small Trafalgar Studios.
Turning 34 this month, Mr. McAvoy is a younger Macbeth than I've seen with the exception of, well, Mr. McAvoy -- he played Joe Macbeth, a chef who murders to claim a high-end Glasgow restaurant, in the 2005 BBC series "ShakespeaRe-Told." His relative youth serves the character's ambition in director James Lloyd's post-apocalyptic retelling.
Macbeth is a soldier at the height of his prowess, inspired by a witch's prophesy to kill the aging king and seize power. He struts and frets and sweats his hours on the stage as greed overtakes his senses. His willful wife, played by the waif-like Claire Foy, also loses herself in the prophesy and inflames his desire for power. As betrayals and bodies pile up, the couple retreat into his-and-hers manifestations of guilt and madness.
The program puts the Bard's name above the title, but Shakespeare couldn't have imagined the witches emerging from manholes and wearing gas masks. Mr. Lloyd's vision of a dystopian future is aided by Soutra Gilmour's after-the-fire props and sparse, blackened set. When the king's son laments that his country "weeps, it bleeds," the evidence is before us. What color there is are flashes of the star's blue eyes and streaks of bright red, from the seats in the bowl-like space to the bountiful use of blood.
As Macbeth charts his murderous path to the throne and his former comrades either fall or become his enemies, Mr. McAvoy grows ever more tortured, pounding himself with his fists (one London reviewer referred to him as "a Scottish Tarzan"). Macbeth's paranoia is made palpable by the actor, who has been leaving audiences in a frenzied state. Driven by the lead's justified star power and positive reviews, the majority of performances are SRO through the April 27 end date. -- Sharon Eberson.
At Trafalgar Studios through April 27; call 011-44-844-871-7632.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published April 7, 2013 4:00 AM