The satire hits with a surprising slap in Harold Pinter’s “The Hothouse.”
The 1958 story is now playing in a fizzing laugh-a-minute London production by Jamie Lloyd.
Roote (Simon Russell Beale), the incompetent head of a sinister medical institution, struggles to keep control of his staff. They plot against him, get drunk and flirt inappropriately.
Beale is a dazzling farceur, and he fills the Pinteresque pauses with double-takes and pompous bits of business. Indira Varma matches him as a nymphomaniac staff member, and John Simm creeps deliciously as the falsely subservient Gibbs.
As a satire of political abuses, it’s a bit predictable. As an exaggerated take on institutional absurdities it’s a masterpiece, and Lloyd pushes every comedy button as far as it will go.
You’ll laugh till you splutter.
Much of the same applies to Ibsen’s “Public Enemy,” now playing at London’s Young Vic. Fascism has rarely seemed such fun. The hero of seems at first to be a champion of truth in the face of collective greed and lies.
Doctor Stockmann (Nick Fletcher) lives in a prosperous new spa town. When he discovers that the water supply is polluted, the local bigwigs browbeat him to lie about his evidence.
In his long speech denouncing their greed, Stockmann gets to the root of the problem. Democracy is a lie. The majority of the population is stupid.
“The howling of the masses will always drown out the trumpet of reason,” he says.
Suddenly we’re being led down a dangerous path which seems to have Mussolini at the end of it, beckoning. Is Stockmann a danger to society? Clever old Ibsen (adapted by David Harrower) keeps you guessing.
Director Richard Jones plays up the satire. The set (Miriam Buether) suggests that we’re in small-town Scandinavia in the 1970s. There’s garish pine cladding, and people sport dreadful perms.
The production rolls along with brio and plenty of laughs, and the conflict between Stockmann and his brother the mayor (a slimy Darrell D’Silva) ends up in an amusing bout of fisticuffs.
Then things grind to a halt in Stockmann’s famous denunciation. Fletcher, on muted form, avoids the necessary rhetorical gestures and climaxes and comes across as a bored headmaster on prize-giving day.
The rest of the cast is great. Rating: ***.
Carrie Cracknell’s production of Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” at English National Opera shows similar abuses of power to greatly different effect.
Wozzeck (Leigh Melrose) is a downtrodden ex-soldier who is manipulated by an unscrupulous doctor (James Morris) and a callous captain (Tom Randle). In a fit of rage, he murders his unfaithful girlfriend Marie (Sara Jakubiak).
Cracknell takes a realistic, rather than a traditionally symbolic, approach to the piece, and sets it in a grotty pub full of lager louts. What you lose in expressionistic effect, you gain in detail.
Both Melrose and Jakubiak are superb as societal dregs struggling against fate, and conductor Edward Gardner -- when not drowning the singers -- draws seductive sounds from the pit. Rating: ****.
“The Hothouse” is part of Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed season at the Trafalgar Studios. Information: http://www.atgtickets.com or +44-844-871-7622
“Public Enemy” is at the Young Vic. Information: http://www.youngvic.org or +44-20-7922-2922
“Wozzeck” is in repertory at English National Opera. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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