London theatre is alive with the sounds of slamming doors, as high-flying farce makes a welcome appearance on its stages this spring. Not one but two adaptations of French farces just opened—a rare occurrence in one season, let alone a decade—and they remind us of the fine art of executing this exacting genre, as well as offering relief in these turbulent times.
At the Garrick, where Kenneth Branagh’s ambitious new company is enjoying a splendid inaugural season, The Painkiller, a 1969 farce by Francis Verber, has audience members rolling in the aisles. Branagh costars with British comedian Rob Brydon in a preposterous thriller that turns into an improbable bromance. Set in two adjacent hotel rooms, this romp features Branagh as a professional hit man contracted to kill a witness in a trial unfolding across the street, while Brydon plays a depressed photographer hired to shoot the same event but intent on committing suicide instead. Their parallel purposes are thwarted by a porter who keeps running between the two rooms and the arrival of Brydon’s wife and her psychiatrist/lover, who accidentally drugs Branagh with a tranquilizer.
There are hilarious bits not only with the requisite slamming doors but also with telephone cords, pillow fights, and a giant policeman who gets locked in a closet. The mayhem is marshalled by director Sean Foley (the play’s adaptor) with split-second precision, and it’s an utter delight to watch Sir Kenneth, the classical Shakespearean, throw himself into physical comedy with dazzling skill, writhing and twitching and falling face down into furniture.
A few streets away, the intimate Donmar Warehouse’s choice of farce throws in a hefty dose of absurdism with the antics. Anthony Weigh has updated Jean Anouilh’s 1937 black comedy Le Voyageur Sans Bagage, renamed it Welcome Home, Captain Fox!, and transplanted it to the U.S. in the 1950s. Weigh’s version tells of a World War II veteran suffering from amnesia rescued from a mental hospital by a pair of Miami opportunists, who bring him to a Long Island mansion where the influential Fox family is mourning their long-lost son, Jack. The Foxes instantly claim him for their own—along with 22 other desperate families whose sons are still missing. They all camp out in the Fox drawing room while the alleged Jack cowers upstairs, trying to figure out who he is, or wants to be. A situation comedy about mistaken identity, it is as farcically far-fetched as the Verber concoction, with an added bonus of existential angst (as well as some prickly anti-American satire). Director Blanche McIntyre directs this sharp, stylish production with a sure hand, and the company is uniformly excellent; standouts include Sian Thomas as the decadent Mrs. Fox and Katherine Kingsley as the Miami smoothie, a.k.a. “Mrs. Marcee Dupont-Dufort.”
Meanwhile, two provocative political plays concurrently playing in London warn us that any escape into laughter is only fleeting.
After decades of dark visions about climate change (The Skriker), cloning (A Number), dangerous political alliances (Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?), and world war (Far Away), the indispensable Caryl Churchill is offering her most devastating prophecy yet at the Royal Court Theatre. Playing a scant 60 minutes, Escaped Alone creeps up on you and grabs you by the throat. Four septugenarians sit on lawn chairs in a sunny backyard, drinking tea, chatting happily about TV sitcoms and grandchildren, and even breaking out into a carefree quartet of the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Pretty soon, though, it’s clear that this scene is not so sanguine. One woman is obsessed with feline phobia to the point of dysfunction; another is agoraphobic and can’t get herself down to the corner supermarket; still another has a prison record for murdering her husband (“the kitchen knife just happened to be in my hand”). All these are nothing, though, compared to the fourth character’s seven Cassandra-like monologues, which punctuate the play’s scant scenes. She shares a nightmarish vision of total devastation featuring global starvation, autocannibalism, insanity, floods, fires, plagues, and armies firing nets to catch flying cars while pets rain down from the skies. It’s an apocalyptic cuppa tea, in short—and one that only Churchill can pour in her sly and scalding style.
A stellar quartet of veteran stage and screen actresses—Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, and June Watson—lend both disarming comfort and frightening credibility to Churchill’s vision. James Macdonald, who has directed three of the above-mentioned Churchills, frames the play’s searing scenes in gleaming neon, as if to highlight their surreal normalcy and to imprint their warnings forever in our collective minds’ eye.
Over at the National Theatre, American playwright/actor Wallace Shawn invites us through the looking glass and into another surreal world. In his intriguing, unsettling Evening at the Talk House, a group of theatre artists gather at the eponymous café to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a (non-existent) play called Midnight in a Clearing with Moon & Stars. The cast party has been organized by the playwright (the excellent Josh Hamilton), who now writes sitcoms and longs for “la recherche du temps perdu.” But a TV actor (Shawn, in devilish form) crashes the party and takes the play down a rabbit hole into a darker place. He’s been beaten to a pulp by “friends”—we never know why, exactly, but it doesn’t matter. We soon learn that some of the theatre artists have been working as hired political assassins, and soon the talk at the genteel Talk House has turned from theatre to drone strikes. Deftly directed by Ian Rickson, this is an eerie “no exit” premise threatened by violence, reminiscent of both O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie.
Killing theatre careers and killing innocent political targets appear to be the connecting themes in this strange and tantalizing play, which has no clear resolution. Shawn—whose provocative political plays of ideas have been produced consistently, and preeminently, in London over the decades—is writing about man’s inhumanity toward man, both in the theatre and on the world’s political stage.
Where are the visionaries who might lead us out of darkness? Two revivals on the South Bank offer solitary heroic figures from another age who valiantly attempted to do so. In Harley Granville Barker’s 1907 play Waste, now playing at the National Theatre under Roger Michell’s seasoned direction, an idealistic MP named Henry Trebell is intent on pushing a bill through the House of Parliament that would disestablish the Church of England and divert its wealth to public education.
“A man of ideas is often a grave embarrassment to a government,” warns one cabinet member. As played by a passionate Charles Edwards, Trebell’s perseverance in the face of formidable political opposition appears both courageous and admirable. Trebell’s flaw, however, is the messianic zeal that renders him blind to issues of personal responsibility. A careless affair with a wife of an Irish republican has tragic consequences, destroying both the woman and ultimately Trebell’s career and life.
Another flawed idealist is holding court at the neighboring Old Vic Theatre, in this case Ibsen’s 1893 classic, The Master Builder, in which a brilliant, visionary architect, Halvard Solness, builds magnificent structures but cannot stave off personal tragedy—his first home was consumed by fire, and his infant twin sons died soon after. “You could build anything for 1,000 years but for me it would never be a home,” his devastated wife tells him. Solness cries out, “I am an artist and I pay the price over and over again,” taking solace from a young female admirer who feeds him visions of building castles of dreams.
Ibsen’s lifelong preoccupation with God, free will, and the constraints of society are embodied in the soul of his master builder, played by the charismatic Ralph Fiennes in one of the finest performance of his career. Fiennes’s complex, nuanced portrayal ranges from godlike arrogance to aching vulnerability. Strong supporting performances include Sarah Snook as his passionate young disciple Hilde and Linda Emond as his wounded wife. David Hare offers a skillful adaptation, and director Matthew Warchus delivers a powerful production that crescendos to a deafening, devastating climax.
If, as Branagh says, farce is “tragedy plus timing,” then only time will tell whether the dark prophesies of Churchill and Shawn will materialize. Meanwhile, in an era conspicuously lacking master builders of vision, we have little choice but to keep on laughing in the dark.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!