London theater: the Bard and much more

It's a Shakespeare kind of summer in theaters here, with the footprints of the Bard everywhere, from re-creations of Elizabethan-era stagecraft at The Globe Theatre in Southwark to the open-air performances in Regent's Park and, farther out, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Enormous numbers of tourists fill the streets around Covent Garden and the seats at the musicals playing in theaters around Piccadilly and Leicester Squares. More-adventurous visitors are taking chances on new plays in fringe theaters and on offerings by Irish playwrights.

Here is a diary of a theater-lover's week in London that included three plays and a musical.

To sit on a hard bench at the Globe, a replica that opened in 1997, for a production of Hamlet (showing through Sept. 24), is to understand more fully the relationship between actors and audiences in Shakespeare's time.

The 16th-century Globe was a theater where the groundlings stood shoulder to shoulder in the pit while more fortunate viewers sat protected under the thatched roof. Scholars think that 3,500 people watched productions in Elizabethan times. Now, because of our larger physiques and laws that limit crowding, the Globe holds about 1,500 persons.

No one sits or stands far from the actors. The superb acoustics allow the beauty of the spoken words to be heard clearly, despite some distractions from airplanes overhead and outside traffic. With a running time of 3-1/2 hours, it seems that not a comma nor a phrase has been cut, but the pace never slackens.

Five brass players in the balcony over the stage mark the royal entrances with musical flourishes, enhancing the pageantry of the colorful Elizabethan court costumes. The theater's artistic director, Mark Rylance, makes a superb Hamlet, full of energy, changeable passions, and a sense of self-ridicule about his indecision.

The latest London musical, The Witches of Eastwick, is housed at the 19th-century Theatre Royal Drury Lane until March 2001. A playhouse has stood there since 1660.

Rather than the falling chandelier of "The Phantom of the Opera," or the helicopter in "Miss Saigon" - previous successes of producer Cameron Mackintosh - "The Witches of Eastwick" offers a trio of flying women, like adult Peter Pans. Based on a novel by American John Updike that was turned into a film by Warner Bros. in 1987, the stage musical is a bland personification of the admonition, "Beware what you wish for."

The women conjure up an exciting man - who turns out to be the devil. A forgettable score by Dana Rowe and dull lyrics and dialogue by John Dempsey make this latest Mackintosh venture a disappointment, even though the cast of veterans - Ian McShane as the devil, with Lucie Arnaz, Maria Friedman, and Joanna Riding - is worth watching.

A show that has the audience buzzing with anticipation before the stage lights dim is Stones in his Pockets, a two-person play by Irish author Marie Jones at the New Ambassadors Theatre through Aug. 19. It's slated for Toronto in Jan. 2001 and Broadway on St. Patrick's Day, 2001. In the play, an American film company making a movie in Ireland hires locals as extras. The fine actors, Conleth Hill and San Campion, play more than 15 characters, including the female star of the film and an old codger with memories of serving as an extra in the classic American film "The Quiet Man."

Worth seeing at the Lyric Theatre is British writer Fanny Burney's A Busy Day (through Oct. 7), a comedy of manners written 200 years ago. Like Jane Austen, her contemporary, Burney wrote novels about the game of courtship as a social sport, involving economics, class distinctions, and the vagaries of matchmaking.

Other attractions include the BBC Promenade concerts, nicknamed the Proms, now in their 106th season, at Royal Albert Hall until Sept. 9. In addition, there was a two-week season of the Royal Ballet at the splendidly refurbished Royal Opera House in Covent Garden that ran from July 17 to 29. One week featured various principal dancers in the leads of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon."

Also deserving a visit is the Theatre Museum on Russell Street in Covent Garden, and the foundations of the Rose, the Elizabethan playhouse rediscovered in 1989 during excavations for a new building.

The best friend for London theatergoers is "Time Out," available at newsstands. The weekly magazine lists performances, telephone numbers, and reliable recommendations. A half-price ticket booth is located at the south side of Leicester Square. Half-price tickets (generally for seniors and students) for remaining seats can be purchased at theater box-offices one-half hour before showtime.

Besides "Stones in his Pockets," the tour de force bill of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" and "Richard II" (which alternated through July 22 at London's Almeida Theatre), starring Ralph Fiennes in each title role, is also headed to the United States. They will run at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Academy of Music Sept. 7 to Oct. 1.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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