Reviewed by Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro
It’s not surprising, given the times, that no less than eight of the 25 plays I saw in London this summer had to do with Utopia: Aristophanes’ The Birds, Richard Bean’s The Mentalist, Toby Wilsher’s The Adventures of the Stoneheads, Tanika Gupta’s Sanctuary, Helen Edmundson’s Mother Teresa is Dead and Stoppard’s nine-hour trilogy, The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, Shipwreck, Salvage. With the exception of "The Birds", all the plays are new. Edmundson’s play was at the Royal Court, the rest were at the National.
"The Birds", in Sean O’Brien’s new translation of Aristophanes’ satire about a belligerent superpower, is a mix of theater and the big top, combining the talents of the Theatre de Complicite and the Mamaloucos Circus. Pez and Eck, two disgruntled Athenians with Utopian dreams, flee to the kingdom of the birds, only to set up a brutal capitalistic dictatorship of their own. There are naturally plenty of visual barbs directed against the U.S. Pez wears a cowboy hat, barbecues a dissident bird, and acts with all the vulgarity, swagger, and violence the British theater, even in more peaceful times, has come to associate with Americans. The circus performers as the high flying birds, who leap up on their trampoline and swoop down on their trapezes, seem as alien on the Lyttleton stage at the National as, I suspect, the earth-bound actors will feel when the show moves on, as it will, to the circus tent.
Richard Bean’s "The Mentalist" is one of the plays in the Loft , a 100-seat theater carved out of the Lyttleton. It is part of the National’s Transformation series, intended to bring in new playwrights and directors and attract new audiences. The Mentalist stars two excellent actors, Duncan Preston and Michael Feast, as two old friends, the large and sleepy Morrie and the wiry and jumpy Ted. Morrie dabbles in pornography and fantasizes about his dead father while Ted, frustrated at the office, dreams of setting up a Utopia based on Skinnerian behavioral psychology. We realize early on that Ted is seriously unstable and that Utopia is only the latest of his hair-brained schemes. The Mentalist is loud, funny, and scary, a mix of Pinter’s theater of menace and The Sopranos.Little by little it becomes clear that this odd couple has shared a lot of shady history, but you never know how touchingly close they are until the end.
The Trestle Theatre Company’s production of Toby Wilsher’s "The Adventures of the Stoneheads" is also part of the Transformation series. The actors playing members of the long-suffering Stonehead family wear huge potatohead masks and never speak, no small feat in this two-hour refugee saga. In the beginning the family emerges from the sea onto a barren landscape with one leafless tree, and in the end they go back to the sea in search of a more hospitable land. The Stonehead father, once a doctor, now a modern day Ulysses, bravely sets off to find a job, but barely survives his adventures in hospital, restaurant, brothel, and jail. The Stonehead son falls in love with one of the natives, who dies though he pursues her to the Underground (in a tedious reworking of the Orpheus/ Euridice myth). In the most poetic moment, both hopeful and anguished, a Stonehead woman gives birth in the leafless tree.
In Tanika Gupta’s "Sanctuary" three refugees seem to have found a safe haven in an English church garden: Kabir, a Kashmiri gardener, Michael, a Rwandan pastor, and Sebastian, a Caribbean journalist. It turns out, however, that the devil is at work in this Garden of Eden. The three men cannot escape from the atrocities they have witnessed or committed in the past, and, unknown to them, the garden itself is being taken over by a health club. Gupta’s plotting is weak - why, for instance, would Sebastian, who wants to bring Michael to justice as a war criminal, show his hand so obviously, nearly allowing the mass murderer to slip through his fingers? But "Sanctuary" is a disturbing and moving play because of the sensitive acting of Nitra Ganatra as Kabir and because of its visceral evocation of those horrors of the third world that we rarely allow to impinge upon or disturb our comfortable lives.
The traffic flows the other way in Helen Edmundson’s "Mother Teresa is Dead". Jane runs away from her husband and five-year-old child in a working class neighborhood in London and seeks sanctuary in India. Disturbed by the world ’s inequalities, particularly by the fact that the child of struggling parents in England is a hundred times better off than most children in the third world, she finds temporary peace in an orphanage outside Madras run by Srinivas, a charismatic and very attentive Oxford-educated Indian. But, like the refugees in Sanctuary, Jane finds it impossible to keep the past from intruding - her surly and xenophobic (but hardworking and devoted) husband arrives to fetch her home. Also, things are not what they seem in India, often thought of as the Utopia of the spirit. It turns out that Srinivas, who has been making romantic overtures to Jane, is in a long-term relationship with Francis, an aristocratic English woman twice his age. Also he may well be using the orphanage to further his political ambitions. Edmundson has created two discerning and deeply neurotic English women, each finding her sojourn in India only a stepping-stone on the road to enlightenment. Diana Quick, as Srinivas’ older lover, is particularly compelling in this quirky and thoughtful play. In the end the two women attracted to the same man and the two men attracted to the same woman achieve a troubled reconciliation. East and West also reach an uneasy truce.
Tom Stoppard’s panoramic and overly didactic trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia", takes nine hours, uses up three slots in the Olivier, the largest of the three spaces at the National, and has a cast of thousands - actually 32 actors playing 70 nineteenth century idealists and political dissidents. Well-known figures like Turgenev and Marx step on and off the huge revolving stage with slide and video projections on seven large screens providing the backdrop. Ultimately, however, only the erratic anarchist, Bakunin, the feverish literary critic, Belinsky, and the exiled socialists, Alexander and Natalie Herzen, capture Stoppard’s imagination and ours.
At best, Stoppard’s densely populated drawing room scenes, of which there are many, are a pleasant mix of Chekhov, Jane Austin, and Hegel. But most of the characters tend to be as flat and out of focus as the projected images behind them. Too often the political and philosophical pronouncements of the men seem longwinded and rhetorical; the self-absorbed and flighty chatter of the women seems silly and dismissible. One was rarely moved although Stoppard was obviously convinced he was writing a play of high seriousness. “Too much material, not really digested. Much too talky,” was the verdict of the woman sitting behind me. “Well, this was the worst of the three,” said the man sitting beside me after Salvage. Perhaps Stoppard should have set aside his extensive notes and come up with one of his usual exquisite distillations. Instead of nine hours of Cliff Notes he should have given us two hours of the real thing.
The theme of The Coast of Utopia is similar to that of the other plays I saw this summer: although man tends to be dissatisfied with his state and dreams of finding or creating a Utopia, he is doomed to failure, given his own imperfect nature and also the uncertainty of human affairs. Both Alexander and Natalie Herzen, exquisitely played by Stephen Dillane and Eve Best, are engaging, passionate, and highly intelligent. Both are devoted to each other, yet both are unfaithful; they are watchful parents, yet their son accidentally dies at sea. By the end of "Salvage", after his wife has died of grief over their son’s death and a new crop of dissidents is taking over, Herzen has dismissed the all or nothing approach of his fellow Utopians. He gives money to good causes, laments the condition of the serfs, then pauses to enjoy the passing beauty of a summer day.