As Good As it Gets – Seeing Theatre in London for the First Time

This is not Miami. But I can’t resist sharing impressions from my first experience of seeing theatre in London. Particularly The Hunt, a riveting new play at The Almeida, a small, highly regarded venue that’s roughly the equivalent of an Off Broadway theater. I’ve never seen acting of such intensity, depth and nuance, nor a production where design and movement were so seamlessly integrated into the meaning and concept.

In four nights my teenage-aspiring-actor daughter and I saw three plays that seem like a fair representation of the spectrum of British theatre: Shakespeare’s Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe, a quintessential British history play by the country’s defining dramatist; The Hunt at The Almeida; and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, a rambunctiously inventive, unabashedly commercial West End show. The experience left me envious of a city offering theatre of such tremendous variety, quality and creativity.

The Hunt at the Almeida. Photo by Marc Brenner
Tribal passion in The Hunt at London’s Almeida theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

First, The Hunt. Based on a 2012 Danish film, it’s the story of a very young girl who falsely accuses her teacher, Lucas (the stunning Tobias Menzies) of sexually molesting her, ripping apart the trusting community in their small Danish town. Trust, tribalism, and the essential unknowability of human beings are at the play’s heart. We see the lie that precipitates the drama in the first scene, as Clara (Abbiegail Mills, one of three child actresses playing the role), propelled by mysterious hurt and anger, as well as a sexual video which prompts her to react for reasons that also remain unclear, appeals to Lucas, and then accuses him after he rejects her.

The Hunt at the Almeida. Taya Tower (Clara). Credit - Marc Brenner (14)
Taya Tower as Clara in The Hunt at London’s Almeida theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Yet director Rupert Goold (also the Almeida’s new artistic director) keeps the rest of the play as riveting as any mystery thriller. As Lucas defends himself to the girl’s parents, his fellow teacher, his son, and the town, we’re on a constant knife’s edge over whether he’ll be able to prove his innocence. No one is in the clear here; not Clara’s mother who once yearned for Lucas and is having an affair; not the girl’s neglectful, alcoholic, suddenly raging father; not Clara, whose motivations are cloaked by a soft but icy opacity and a sense of subterranean pain. (Credit Goold and the process at the Almeida that enabled Mills, in her professional debut, to convey such nuanced and profound feelings.) And, strangely, the accusations and rage that surround Lucas, and his sometimes confounding refusal to explain himself, raise doubts about his motivations. We know he’s innocent. And yet….

Es Devlin’s set, a house as simple as a child’s drawing, which Neil Austin’s lighting renders either opaque or brightly transparent, becomes a metaphor – for what (or who) we keep in or out, for the things we hide, for the community that repels or embraces us. The men of a hunting lodge crowd the house, pulling each other, one by one, from a watery pit at the center, our subterranean psyche. The figure in a hulking, furry deer’s mask who keeps appearing is, likewise, a stand-in for the dark forces that lurk within us. The hunting lodge becomes a tribe, chanting and stomping on a spinning platform; so does the town, squeezed together in a sweet Christmas gathering that turns violent. Thought the play starts with an answer to the question at its center – did Lucas molest Clara? – it leaves us with a deep uncertainty about what drives us, alone or together.

The Hunt at the Almeida. Marc Brenner (9)
Dark forces in The Hunt at London’s Almeida theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

The Almeida originated Ink, the Rupert Murdoch story, which went on to become a hit on the West End and Broadway. The Hunt, which has gotten glowing reviews, could well move on to a more prominent venue. But it won’t have the hothouse intensity that comes from experiencing it in such a tiny space, with powerful actors bound in a tight, organic camaraderie. Menzies, whose many credits include Outlander (where he plays both Black Jack Randall and Claire’s husband Frank), Edmure Tully in Game of Thrones, and Prince Phillip in the upcoming third season of The Crown, is the play’s star. His gravity and depth anchor the play; conflict radiates through his stoic exterior, so that he seems to pulse with repressed emotion. To be this close to an actor doing such profound work is a fantastically visceral experience.

The Hunt at the Almeida. Stuart Campbell (Marcus) and Tobias Menzies (Lucas). Credit - Marc Brenner (5)
Tobias Menzies as Lucas with his son Marcus (Stuart Campbell) in The Hunt at London’s Almeida Theatre. Credit – Marc Brenner.

But all the actors are formidable. At the end of The Hunt I turned to my daughter and said “you know this is as good as it gets” and she answered “I know.” Afterwards the actors came out through the lobby, greeting friends before heading off on bike or foot into Islington, the working-class-gone-hip neighborhood around the Almeida – a wonderfully normal ending to a spectacular evening that was also, apparently, quite usual.

It’s one thing to assume Shakespeare is synonymous with English drama, it’s another to see how his plays are everywhere – in every actor’s resume, in seemingly every theatre’s roster. The British keep him fresh in so many ways. We didn’t see one of the astonishing four productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (including a nightclub-ish immersive version and another in the city’s parks) this summer, but opted for Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe, a painstaking reproduction of his original theatre – right on the South Bank of the Thames, with a large patio overlooking the river. They’ve kept the pit for hundreds of standing theater lovers (tickets only £5.00!), and the roof is open to the slowly darkening summer sky.

A scene from Henry V by The Globe Ensemble at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

This production kept a declamatory, slightly over-the-top, playing-to-the-house kind of acting style – and a rambunctious spirit and physicality in the comic sections – that I like to think is traditional. But I can’t imagine that Henry V would have been played by a black woman in Shakespeare’s time. As my transplanted American host pointed out, the British have adopted the attitude that, since theatre is make-believe anyways, anyone can play anything. The cast of Henry V was filled with non-white actors, with men playing women’s parts and women taking many of the male parts. There was something exhilarating in the discovery the actors, and the audience, seemed to find in all this; something fresh and alive that fit the setting and, indeed, the spirit of the play – that made it feel vital.

As Henry V, the angular, intense Sarah Amankwah combined a splendidly self-aware, even ironic bearing with a ferocity that lit the stage on fire, as she tore through some of Shakespeare’s most famous monologues. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” I don’t know Shakespeare’s history plays at all, nor do I have the sense of pride and identity that I assume animates a British theatregoer’s connection to these plays. But I still got chills.

Sarah Amankwah as Henry V by The Globe Ensemble at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Finally, my daughter insisted we see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, from Mischief Theatre, an ensemble formed by drama school graduates in 2008 who’ve had enormous success with gut-and-fourth-wall busting comedies like The Play That Goes Wrong. (Which went from the Edinburgh Festival to the West End to Broadway, not to mention being a hit on Youtube – where my daughter found them.) No high art this – the Criterion Theatre is on raucous Piccadilly Circus, packed with tourists and street performers – and the audience was filled with a school group and guys drinking in their seats.

But the play was deliriously funny, verbally and conceptually inventive, physically exhilarating. The ridiculous story is set in 1958 (apparently so they could use 50’s rock n’ roll and costumes) Minneapolis, where everyone is out to steal a diamond a Hungarian prince is leaving at a local bank. There’s a romantic-heist triangle between an escaped prisoner, his seductive con artist girlfriend, and a screwball pickpocket; plus an ineptly corrupt bank president and bumbling cops. It’s packed with expert slapstick, word games (variations of ‘who’s-on-first’ type jokes that are unreasonably funny), and stuff that seems to be in there just because it was fun – like a scene on the back wall which seemed to be there mostly to make jokes about the laws of physics, gravity and perspective. I kept thinking there was way more creativity in Bank Robbery than you would ever expect from something so bent on entertainment. But not, apparently, in London.

(Lead photo of Tobias Menzies in The Hunt at London’s Almeida Theatre; credit Marc Brenner.)

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