Remounting this celebrated 1990 musical in such violent times might be seen as pouring salt on open wounds. But director Jamie Lloyd is not only faithful to Sondheim’s original vision of the carnival setting; he also augments it to a surrealistic degree, lifting it out of time. One end of the tiny Menier stage is occupied by a giant clown head through whose gaping mouth the ghoulish narrator and other characters enter and exit. The stage blazes with light as deadly shots are fired, “hit” or “miss” signs are illuminated, and rows of actors don Ronald Reagan masks to face the next assassin. It’s like watching a play of intrigue and murder in the Jacobean tradition.
Director Lloyd could have taken this opportunity to make an easy dig about America and our penchant for violence. Instead, he makes Assassins everyone’s nightmare—and a universal statement on the too-frequent tragedy of leadership throughout history. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” says Henry IV, and that statement couldn’t be more vividly dramatized than in these powerful productions about the perils facing those who rule, popularly or otherwise.
Speaking of the Jacobean, one of the gems of this London season is tucked away in the tiny Sam Wanamaker Playhouse of the Old Globe on the South Bank. There, Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director, has mounted a sensational production of The Changeling, Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s lurid 17th-century tale of lust and murder. This elegant gilt-and-wood-paneled jewel-box of a theatre, with its frescoed ceiling, is a newly built facsimile of the Blackfriars playhouse where Shakespeare’s company performed. Every effort has been made to replicate the original—including the pit, the three-tiered seating, the gleaming black-and-gold-shellacked woodwork, and the chandeliers that are lowered and individually lit by the actors (there is no modern lighting). In this shimmering, shadowy atmosphere, Middleton’s bloody melodrama is enacted by an agile ensemble of 13 actors richly clad in black and red, accompanied by period instruments.
Set in 17th-century Valencia, Spain, the tale follows a young noblewoman named Beatrice-Joanna, whose independent spirit and ferocity rivals that of the heroine in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Beatrice finds herself in an untenable situation: Her father has betrothed her to a man she doesn’t love, Alonzo; instead she prefers another, Alsemero, whom she’s met in church. Unfortunately she makes a bargain with the devil, Deflores, who offers to murder Alonzo so that she can have her Alsemero. Deflores then claims payment—her virginity, of course—and Beatrice becomes locked in a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with her blackmailer. At one point, Alsemero demands a “virginity test” to ascertain Beatrice’s purity (how little times have changed), providing a darkly humorous dimension to this otherwise bleak tale. It’s a true thriller, compounded by a parallel plot (too complicated to delve into here) set in an insane asylum. Suffice it to say, Hattie Morahan’s charismatic Beatrice, Dromgoole’s fast-paced directing, the skilled ensemble and the glowing venue combine to deliver a thrilling evening.
For all the great writers whose work is headlining London stages, you might fairly call this a “director’s season,” as talented young helmers are displaying their wares. Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse (another gem of a London theatre nestled in the West End), has staged a smart, stylish revival of City of Angels, the Cy Coleman/Larry Gelbart Broadway musical from 1989 that tells the story of a crime writer named Stine. A Raymond Chandler type who is trying to write a screenplay about a private eye named Stone, Stine ends up developing a relationship with his fictional character. On either level of a slick two-part set, Stine sits up top in an office surrounded by stacks of scripts, typing away on his Remington, while below Stone chases blondes up and down the mean streets of Los Angeles. It’s full of ’40s Hollywood glamor, complete with Coleman’s snazzy jazz score and a chorus of singer/dancers. “I’m nothing without you,” the writer and his protagonist croon to each other in a witty duet, as one goads the other on to higher levels of creativity. It’s a clever metatheatrical conceit, and with Rourke’s virtuosic staging, it makes for a crackling, appealing attraction.
Speaking of bold direction, Goold has chosen to remount his provocative 2011 RSC production of The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida, where he is now artistic director. Goold is a versatile young director known for bold concepts: the 2006 Macbeth set in an abattoir, a creepy American Psycho in 2014. He’s also capable of great restraint (as in his aforementioned stately direction of King Charles III). In the case of the Merchant, however, he’s gone over the top by setting set the play in Las Vegas—to emphasize its context of “human greed, envy and ruthlessness,” according to the program notes.
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