Only Mike Leigh could get away with this.
Commissioned by the National Theatre in London to create a new play, he starts without a script and works out themes in private with a company of actors. He directs the piece himself and reveals the title five days before previews: “Grief.”
It’s an apt choice for a gloomy work at the NT’s smallest stage, the Cottesloe. Two hours long, no interval. It’s depressing, and often brilliant.
This is Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party” for the 1950s. We have a comedy of class and manners with many of the same elements: a single mother, a tearaway teenage daughter, ineffectual men, a bubbly social climber who bullies everyone. The plot is thin; the characters and acting are everything. Like Abigail, there’s a sudden ending, which doesn’t give it all away, because the finale jumps out at you from nowhere.
Each resident of this bleak house has their own private grief. Dorothy, played with stiff-upper-lip understatement by Lesley Manville, is struggling after the wartime death of her husband Victor, whose photograph she still stares at. Her sulky daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall) never knew her father and is in open rebellion against just about everything.
The suffocating convention the teenager hates has sucked the life out of Victoria’s live-in brother Edwin (Sam Kelly), an insurance clerk on the verge of retirement. He seems incapable of emotion, only drinking sherry -- “chin chin” -- and mumbling wartime songs: “Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking.”
The gloom is brightened by visitors. Hugh, the doctor, (David Horovitch in relentlessly jolly mode), specializes in awful jokes that raise plenty of laughs -- “computers, whatever they may be,” “to pee or not to pee, that is the question,” “as I said before, I never repeat myself.”
Marion Bailey is a delight as Gertrude, whose hectoring often goes too far: “I am such a silly girl,” she chides herself. “Garrulous Gertie.”
The London middle-class home is beautifully recreated by Alison Chitty, while the humor keeps things moving. This throws Dorothy’s repressed sadness into sharper focus and makes the final scenes all the more disturbing. Rating: ***½.
Jonathan Miller’s production of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” at the Olivier Theatre next door puts the orchestra in the round and the singers roaming in the middle, dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Props are minimal: wooden chairs, a glass of wine for Jesus, a bowl for Pilate to wash his hands.
Most people would call this semi-staged. Miller, in a contrarian program note, insists it’s fully staged. Either way, it’s hard to outdo Bach’s superb music. The Southbank Sinfonia does a fine job in the unusual setting, and conductor Paul Goodwin has worked out a sharp English translation.
The story moves forward chronologically, opera style, yet this is no opera buffa. There are plenty of times when Jesus, played by Hadleigh Adams, stands like a dazed statue for minutes at a time while events unfold around him.
Andrew Staples’s Evangelist lolls in a chair or prowls about before jumping in as the narrator. His rich voice is outshone only by fellow tenor Benjamin Hulett. Mezzo-soprano Sally Bruce-Payne comes to the fore as the drama ends and Jesus slowly walks off through the audience to his death. Rating: ***.
For a more exhaustive rundown of the Biblical story, Shakespeare’s Globe has revived Britain’s medieval mystery plays, first presented by traveling actors off stage wagons.
There’s plenty of tourist-friendly pomp and spectacle in the open-air arena. In contrast to the daylong showings once tried at the National Theatre, the adaptations by Tony Harrison aggressively cut the originals to three hours.
Sadly, this loses the rich complexity of the originals. The knights seem like cardboard cutouts. Only William Ash looks suitably sainted in the role of Jesus. It’s a dramatic story turned into lackluster drama. Bawdy comedy dilutes the supposedly scary Last Judgment, with parts of the audience getting parceled out to heaven or hell. Rating: **.
“St. Matthew Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach, staged by Jonathan Miller, is at the Olivier through Oct. 2. “Grief” by Mike Leigh is at the Cottesloe until Jan. 28, 2012. Both at National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.
“Globe Mysteries” runs through Oct. 1 at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT. Information: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com or +44-20-7902-1400.
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(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)