London Theatre – I

Every few years, I make a point of traveling to London to recharge my theatre batteries. [1] Here’s my take on what I saw on my most recent trip. Because this is a writing blog, I’ll try to focus on that aspect. Some critiques of the acting and directing will inevitably slip in, but I’ll try to constrain them to the footnotes, where you can disregard them as the snarky asides they probably are.

Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie

In addition to 74 novels and 165 short stories, Agatha Christie wrote 16 plays. I’ve seen stagings of three of those, and for me, they all fail in the same way. Like a bad M. Night Shyamalan film, they sacrifice character for a clever plot and a twist ending. Which is a shame as Christie pioneered the cozy, a sub-genre of mysteries which succeeds almost entirely on character. In a Miss Marple book, I don’t really care whodunit—it’s the journey, not the destination.

That said, Witness is well crafted, just dated. Modern audiences are much more sophisticated in terms of story. I’ve seen literally hundreds of hours of crime dramas, so I need something more than a simple twist (or even a double twist) to satisfy me. Christie may have gotten there first (Witness dates back to 1925 in its earliest incarnation), but that’s not the environment it’s operating in now, and the play doesn’t have a Marple or a Poirot to fall back on. [2]

Bitter Wheat by David Mamet

Until I saw Bitter Wheat, I would have counted Mamet among my favorite playwrights. Now, I’d lump him in with Tarantino as someone whose schtick has worn thin, despite being a master craftsman. [3] Bitter Wheat isn’t a bad play—it’s smart, funny and insightful, but it’s almost recklessly glib. I’m not sure the world needed another take on Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement. Especially not this take. Especially not from this playwright. That said, it was one of the more interesting plays I saw, in a grist-for-the-mill sense. I happened to be seated between a couple of other solo theatre goers, and we immediately fell into vigorous discussion at the intermission and close of the play.

Mamet has been castigated in other reviews for creating empathy for, or even glorifying, a harasser, but I don’t think that’s fair. The Weinstein-analog, an obese film producer played by John Malkovich in a fat suit, comes across as pathetic and self-serving and has his career destroyed as a direct consequence of his harassment. Where the play falls down is there’s no real remorse and no catharsis for the audience. When Malkovich’s character turns his keen insight on himself to the point of self-loathing, it’s not a rock-bottom moment that signals redemption but a tactic he deploys in pursuit of his agenda. That’s the joke, for Mamet, but it’s a joke in poor taste. [4]

Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Probably the best show I saw on this trip. [5] I knew nothing about Fleabag going into it, despite Waller-Bridge currently blowing up on Amazon Prime [6] and everywhere else. [7] I was very lucky to score a last-minute return as the show had been sold out for weeks.

I saw this the night after Bitter Wheat, and it made for a striking constrast. Both main characters have enormous sexual appetites and both make appalling choices. [8] In Bitter Wheat, that choice drives the plot, and it’s largely treated as a punchline. In Fleabag, that choice defines the character, and its consequences, not revealed until the climax, are a goddamn gut punch.

Bitter Wheat was merely unsatisfying on its own. Seeing Fleabag hard on its heels convinced me that Mamet really should have stayed on the sidelines of this particular cultural maelstrom.

I’m not really doing Fleabag justice here. It was brilliant, moving and funny on its own, more than just a foil for a lesser play. But these are just my impressions, not actual reviews.

Next time: more London theatre (this may take a few installments). Still on tap — As You Like It, Night of the Iguana, Fiddler on the Roof, A Very Expensive Poison, Henry IV, Matilda, Merry Wives of Windsor, Peter Gynt, Harry Potter and the Curse Child, the new Mischief Theatre production and Ian McKellen’s touring show.

____________________

1. Burnout is real, even if you have the best job in the world.

2. The fun thing about this particular production—it was staged in the Council Chamber of the London County Hall, creating an incredible, courtroom ambiance.

3. Yeah, that’s a dig at Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (or Charles Manson meets the Inglorious Basterds).

4. I’ve encountered Mamet’s plays primarily in script form, as a reader. I’ve only seen two previous productions (Speed-the-plow and Oleanna). This is the first professional production of his I’ve seen. I’m glad I had the chance to see it, and to see John Malkovich live on stage, but … eh. Mamet himself directed this production, and I think it would have fared (slightly) better in the hands of another director.

5. Also the most expensive, at $188 for a 65-minute show. But worth it.

6. Fleabag the series has been renewed for a third season, and Waller-Bridge was just tapped for a new content deal.

7. She played a droid in a Star Wars film! She was the head writer for the first season of Killing Eve!

8. I don’t mean to conflate these choices, and they’re not equivalent. One is a breach of consent, the other is a personal betrayal. 

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