London stages as testing grounds

City's theater has worldwide clout.

Shakespeare as a pajama party. Shakespeare as a slaughterhouse.

Add Vincent van Gogh in a British boarding house, a drawing-room feminist in the 1920s, and a baseball team taking showers onstage.

Why sample theater in London for people who aren't necessarily hopping right over here?

Because London, like New York, is a crucible as well as pinnacle for theater. What's tested here can have far-flung influence, and not only in theater but in movies and other media.

Example of the moment: director Sam Mendes of London's cutting-edge 250-seat Donmar Warehouse. His $80 million second feature film, "Road to Perdition," opened last week. His first, "American Beauty," won several Oscars, including his own for direction. His Donmar "Cabaret" in New York won four Tonys. He's now preparing a Broadway revival of "Gypsy," starring Bernadette Peters.

Back at the Donmar, the world première of "Take Me Out" – a play with an American writer, director, and cast – is on its way to New York.

A mix of American and British hits can be seen in both cities: "Chicago," "Les Miserables," "The Lion King," "Mamma Mia!," and "Proof." Noel Coward's "Private Lives" has moved from London to New York. "Kiss Me, Kate" has moved from New York to London.

This summer, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, and Madonna are among the Americans who have appeared on London stages. This fall, look for Elaine Stritch in her one-woman Broadway show and Glenn Close in Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire." Plays by Americans like Kenneth Lonergan ("This is Our Youth" and "Lobby Hero") and Christopher Shinn ("Where Do We Live") have been welcomed.

An all-out revival of "Oklahoma!" conquered London and went on to New York, where its unusual villain, Shuler Hensley, promptly won a Tony as Jud Fry.

Herewith a bit of what it's like to watch the creation, so to speak, of London shows whose international ripples have yet to be seen.

Shakespeare slumber party

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the pajama party, with most of the cast in costumes prompting quips about "A Midsummer Nighties Dream."

When players double as fairies, there's no costume change except that skeins of tiny lights twinkle on their chests. This is a neat touch in a production where the young, mixed-up lovers are more hyper than dewy-eyed and the "rude mechanicals" freshen those tired amateur theatricals with a dopey earnestness that's hard not to like.

It's at the Thameside replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, advertising 600 tickets at five pounds for every performance. These are in the "yard," where groundlings stand as in Shakespeare's day – and furtive sitters are politely required to get up.

We made straight for a wall, as advised by a London friend, because you are allowed to lean, even against the stage. People this close face such risks as characters brushing their teeth and spitting into the air.

Language sets the changing scene on this bare stage lit by daylight. It's excellently spoken. But how is any illusion preserved? In the empty space of the Globe, as director Mike Alfreds notes, "both actors and audience create what in fact is not there."

"Rose Rage" is Shakespeare noir at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It begins to set your teeth on edge before you're settled in your seat. The sound of sharpening knives, the bloody smocks, the murky gratings – it dawns on you that you're in an abattoir.

This becomes the recurring image of the carnage of the 15th-century Wars of the Roses loosely chronicled by Shakespeare (and likely collaborators) in the three seldom seen "Henry VI" plays.

They have been tautly adapted into two parts that clarify the narrative while making the violence surreal: Cabbages are split instead of heads, and nameless entrails are held on high. Then the players may make the moves of liturgy or sing "Jerusalem."

This is the saga with the recently famous rebel's cry: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." It ends with the schemer who will be Richard III waiting for the throne. Richard Clothier plays him with a hearty open-faced malice more chilling than the typical lurking variety.

Going commercial

Many other performances could be cited in this all-male cast á la Shakespeare's time. But the innovative director, Edward Hall, is a story in himself. He caused controversy by leaving the Royal Shakespeare Company founded by his father, Sir Peter Hall, and going on to direct a "commercial" West End show.

The latter is a revival of Somerset Maugham's "The Constant Wife," seen at the Apollo Theatre before its move to the Lyric, and Mr. Hall proves he can go from slaughterhouse to drawing room without dropping a teaspoon.

What a pleasure to see British boulevard acting, even if somewhat underlined, lavished on a soufflé. But this is not just another comedy of adultery. Back in the 1920s, a wronged woman begins to think she doesn't have to take it any more if she gets a job.

Nicholas Wright's well-received "Vincent in Brixton" is moving to the West End Theater District from the National Theatre/Cottesloe. A Dutch actor, Jochum Ten Haaf, persuasively suggests a young van Gogh finding lodgings in London and trying to fit in as he deals in art before creating it. Under the direction of Richard Eyre, the kitchen is alive with cooking and cleaning, and Vincent awkwardly enters in. Here a chair, there some poppies, foreshadow subjects of the artist to be.

Fact or fiction?

Van Gogh did have stays in London, and the author says he has drawn on letters and other evidence, while imagining events. Who knows if Vincent shifted his affections from the daughter of the house to her teacher mother? But he and the older woman seem to nurture each other in a shared state of melancholy.

We are left with questions, wishing perhaps that this Vincent seemed more like a potential genius beneath the genial self-absorption. More irritating questions are left by Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out," as caught in a preview before its recent opening at the Donmar Warehouse.

Joe Mantello directs a sure-footed cast in "Take Me Out," whose title is at least a triple play, echoing the old ballgame song, a request to be taken out of the game, and an African-American baseball star's coming out as homosexual. The box office warns of "full frontal nudity," which means ballplayers shower on stage complete with soap and running water.

This is the fifth in the Donmar's season of American plays, and it will be here into August before its move to New York. It can use some time to sharpen an already provocative production that, for instance, brilliantly evokes baseball play in a small space.

Melodramatic events involving a bigoted pitcher are not as compelling as the question of alienation in a diverse team – a diverse nation? – in which people feel isolated for many reasons.

More than one local reviewer has noted the oddity of launching a play about baseball in Britain, like trying out a play about cricket in the US. But it's one of the fillips that keep London theater interesting even if it's not all successful – and even though some Britons, horrors, are reported to consider theater too old-fashioned for today's "cool Britannia."

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