London Theater Lights Up With Female Stars

Four actresses give standout performances in shows from `Sweeney Todd' to `Piaf'

WHILE superb actors are almost always appearing on stage in the United Kingdom, there is a quartet of exceptional performances by actresses presently on view in London.

Any one of these would be - as a Michelin Guide might put it - ``worth a detour.'' The sum total make a trip to England this spring virtually mandatory for serious students of acting.

At the top of the list, one would have to place former Olivier prize-winner Kathryn Hunter in Caryl Churchill's The Skriker at the National Theatre. This dark allegory is written in a kind of half-prose, half-poetry style that is unlike anything Churchill has attempted before.

The author and her director, Les Waters, have conjured up a mercurial creature that is both old and young, short and tall, male and female, human and beast. Sound impossible? You haven't met Hunter.

When the lights go up in the Cottlesloe, the National's smallest stage, we discern an ominous shape in the darkness, a fat toad with peacock feathers and a deep, resonant voice.

IN the next scene, the character has changed into a normal-looking hospital patient, played by a pint-sized actress with large dark-brown eyes and an exceptionally expressive smile. She becomes, in turn, a drunk American woman, then a derelict, then a child. In a triumph of costume and make-up design, she is never the same size or shape - or sex.

Playing a character fiendishly eager to cast spells, ``The Skriker'' fixates on two young English women - one who has just given birth and the other who is about to - and delights in her ability to fool them (and us) with her disguises. She's frightening and memorable.

In contrast to the diminutive Hunter, Irish-born Fiona Shaw is a luminous and greatly admired beacon of intensity. Tall, broad-shouldered, and blessed with a magnificent speaking voice, she is without question the most exciting talent to illuminate the British stage since Vanessa Redgrave. She doesn't just put on the clothes of a character, she inhabits the character entirely.

In the National Theatre revival of an American play called Machinal, written by the late Sophie Treadwell in 1928, she brings her unusual presence and fierce concentration to a role one wouldn't at first have thought worthy of her.

This neo-Expressionist drama chronicles the step-by-step dehumanization of a secretary in a large factory who reluctantly marries her boss and, after a brief extramarital affair, returns home and murders him.

Last year, by coincidence, the Public Theatre in New York mounted the same play, directed by the talented Michael Greif, with an escalating tension that was harrowing. The National Theatre production is a more visual and aural collaboration - so stunning, in fact, that it almost buries the play in its machinery.

London's new theater Wunderkind, Stephen Daltry, (whose memorable production of ``An Inspector Calls'' arrives next month on Broadway) isn't just showing off, though. He's decided to create a living, breathing environment that is far more monster than any husband: a hypocritical, uncaring society that suffocates and traps his heroine, then sentences her to die.

Shaw more than matches the scale of this concept with a minutely detailed portrait of a shy, ungainly virgin who feels undeserving of happiness. Her slow transformation from intimidated daughter to uncomfortable wife to terrified electric-chair victim is, in a word, awesome.

Also in the not-to-be-missed category is the living rag-doll portrayal of Stephen Sondheim specialist Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Lovett in the new National Theatre revival of Sweeney Todd. It's directed by Declan Donnelan, who did such an impressive job here with ``Angels in America.'' Unfortunately, no one else in the cast compares to McKenzie's musicality.

I HADN'T yet seen Elaine Paige. I missed both ``Evita'' and ``Anything Goes'' here. Thus, I wasn't exactly prepared for the power, raw edge, and deep feeling she brings to her impersonation of Edith Piaf in the West End play Piaf (evenings only, with an alternate appearing in the matinees).

Pam Gems's biographical overview tries to cover so much ground that we feel we never get to know any of the supporting characters. But Sir Peter Hall has given the play a vivid, theatrical production that is just the right setting for Paige.

Wearing basic black with her hair cropped short, the actress summons up the spirit of ``the little sparrow'' with eerie authenticity. Little sparrow? Not this lady. Paige gives us a perpetually bleeding alleycat, who was hurt by life again and again. Singing with equal skill in both French and English, Paige implicitly explains why: Piaf couldn't help coming back for more.

It's true what the London culture pages say: London is a Peter Hall Festival. The director has three different revivals on stage at the moment. In addition to ``Piaf,'' he has mounted two treasures from the theatrical trunk, with varying degrees of success. The cast of Oliver Goldsmith's ``She Stoops to Conquer'' is lifeless, except for Donald Sinden's Mr. Hardcastle and (former teenage idol) David Essex's Tony Lumpkin.

Far better work, though not exactly memorable, is on display in Sir Peter's production of An Absolute Turkey, in a new felicitious translation he co-authored (with Nicki Frei) of the Feydeau farce ``Le Dandin.'' With sets by the wickedly funny Ronald Searle, it's almost impossible to resist the adorable Felicity Kendal, the nimble Nicholas Prevost, or the Terry-Thomas-like shenanigans of Griff Rhys Jones.

Derek Jacobi - that's Sir Derek, now, thank you very much - has plunged into Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), under the guidance of Artistic Director Adrian Noble. The majority of local critics were not kind, but when does anyone praise ``the Scottish play''?

Jacobi has an original approach, even though at one point he ages before our eyes so suddenly that one suspects the projectionist must have put up the wrong reel. Looking like a bearded and crew-cut cross between a punk Malcolm McDowell and Anthony Hopkins, we recognize the look of a confident, virile warrior with military victories behind him. But when he ascends to the throne, he is disbelieving and superstitious. All this is valid, intelligent work. But we never get to see Macbeth enjoy his power; he remains fearful.

Cheryl Campbell's Lady Macbeth may be partly to blame: a self-centered seductress from the Joan Collins school, she seems obsessed with herself, not her husband's career. Fortunately, Jacobi, survives: His ``Tomorrow'' soliloquy is most poignant, and in the final duel with Macduff, we watch fear eat away at his confidence, and know that he is doomed. This is a fascinating character study, and one well worth seeing. The production re-opens in Stratford in May.

BECAUSE of his appearances on PBS, Jacobi has become a household name in the United States. An equally gifted actor of even greater appeal, Anthony Sher is still scarcely known in the US. But he should be. After watching his Fairbanks-like heroics in ``Tamburlaine'' last summer, I caught up with him in the RSC revival of Tom Stoppard's Travesties.

This inventive Adrian Noble production has now transferred to the West End, and it gives Sher the opportunity to shine in a comedic double role. Bursting with intelligence, vitality, and animal charm, he plays beautifully with the other actors onstage, but one can scarcely look at anyone else. It's unfair to call him a British Pacino. True, he's short in stature but his dark, savage humor is more like a young Olivier.

It occurs to me that going to the theater in London is so much fun because chances are taken on both sides of the footlights. The energy generated by actors rubs off on those in the stalls, and in the process, an appetite for adventure is created.

People don't sit grumpily in their seats, daring the spectacle about to begin to give them their money's worth; rather, they impatiently wait, like eager children, for the curtain to rise and the party to begin.

* This story concludes the London season report. Part I appeared last week.

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