Easing off the stiff upper lip

Times Staff Writer

THE critic Kenneth Tynan famously described John Gielgud as “the finest actor on Earth from the neck up.” The remark, a backhanded compliment if ever there was one, suggested that Gielgud’s velvety voice and supple mind -- best in the business though they were -- didn’t amount to a complete definition of the art of acting.

Tynan, being Tynan, was forever railing against the British tradition of drawing-room chat. For him, a tea party’s worth of conversation -- gossipy, droll, issue-oriented or sententious -- hardly constituted a play. Needless to say, he had an unwinnable fight on his hands.

Words, words, words. Oh, how the Brits love them. Their playwrights write works that are mostly talk, and their mellifluous players stand stock still delivering each linguistic morsel trippingly on the tongue. If only they’d remember occasionally that their bodies might be more eloquent than their mouths.

Though hardly a thing of the past, this stereotype must be rethought after the banquet of memorable performances on London stages this summer. In less than a week in July, it was possible to see some of the finest acting talents stretch themselves -- and the classical notion of British theater -- in ways that challenge us here in the States to marry verbal finesse and visceral personality with equal effectiveness.


From the Royal Court, where a dream ensemble was performing Tom Stoppard’s latest, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (which has since moved to the West End), to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where Judi Dench was delivering the quips of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” with body English, actors were reveling in what sociologists have been telling us about for years -- the greater fluency of nonverbal communication.

The evidence didn’t come from straight drama alone. The Menier Chocolate Factory’s exquisite revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” at Wyndham’s Theatre certainly celebrates the work’s lyrical cleverness, but the music’s emotion is brought to life by a spectacular cast and computerized stage design that transcend even the gold standard of Sondheim’s turn of phrase.

The new revival of “Evita” at the Adelphi Theatre may not have shed new light on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1978 paean to the power of celebrity, but the taut physical presence of its star, the diminutive Argentine actress Elena Roger, conveyed the determination of a real-life diva more persuasively than Rice’s shallow book, which holds up as well today as the scenario for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

And at the Duke of York’s Theatre, Michael Gambon gave himself over to the silences of Beckett’s “Eh Joe,” lending a beleaguered face to what the playwright once declared as his artistic mission: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”


Stoppard, never at a loss for words, might beg to differ, but less out of genuine disagreement than a native bent for frolicsome debate. Ideas are his metier -- more accurately, ideas in transit.

“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” his giddy 1967 philosophical take on Hamlet’s pair of two-faced pals, got him labeled an absurdist, but his real talent is for hyperactive intellectual farces that bring disparate fields of knowledge into collision with jaunty virtuosity.

The knock on Stoppard has been that his plays are brainy to a fault. “The Real Thing” (1982), though many consider it one of his most moving works, exemplifies the problem -- it’s an over-rational take on that most irrational of subjects, love. Even when he was wrestling with heartache, his approach was inveterately cerebral.

Things began to change with “Arcadia” in 1993, followed by “The Invention of Love” in 1997. This later phase -- let’s call it vintage -- has shown no letup in complexity of form and subject. What’s new is the tenderness underlying the acrobatic brilliance.


“Rock ‘n’ Roll” shares this emotional groundedness. The Royal Court production, directed by Trevor Nunn, may have been physically cramped and a bit clumsy, but the performances (particularly those of the magisterial leads, Rufus Sewell, Brian Cox and Sinead Cusack) were quietly nuanced, and the celebration of great bands (including the early Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and beyond) was artfully integrated into a characteristically ambitious drama.

Stoppard, who’s Czech-born and British-raised, tackles a subject of historical scope and autobiographical intimacy. The play centers on Jan (Sewell), a Czech graduate student at Cambridge who returns to his homeland in 1968 with his beloved album collection after the Soviet tanks have rolled in, crushing the seeds of political liberalization and spoiling the socialist dream.

Jan is the protege of Max (Cox), a stalwart Communist don, whose classics scholar wife, Eleanor (Cusack), is dying of breast cancer. Their floundering, hippie daughter, Esme (played by Alice Eve and later, as a middle-aged woman, by Cusack), loves Jan with no expectation that the crazy, polarized world will allow them a future together.

Spanning two decades, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” charts the Cold War from its deep freeze in that fateful late-'60s Prague summer to its eventual thaw via perestroika in 1987 -- a period bookended, Stoppard notes, by Syd Barrett and U2. The connection may seem trivial, but the point is that ideology, Marxist or otherwise, isn’t as agile as rock ‘n’ roll in keeping pace with the unpredictable charge -- call it Eros or the life force -- that animates and guides our private and public destinies.


The play’s structure is less tidy than what we’ve come to expect from Stoppard. He’s covering a lot of territory, and there are moments when you get the sense of a playwright sorting through a massive sheaf of typewritten pages. But the bouts of haste and confusion are pardonable when you consider the depth of concerns that are not only crisply articulated but also profoundly felt.

Sewell’s Jan, a promising academic whose career is short-circuited by the oppressive turn in his country’s fate, stoically bears the weight of his era in his weary face and dimmed eyes. Even when his records, which he has been fastidiously protecting, are threatened by the authorities, he bows his head in dignified submission.

As Max, Cox rumbles magnificently with unrepentant diatribes. He may have chosen the wrong political horse, but he won’t concede defeat -- especially not to Jan, who has had to endure the long Soviet nightmare. There’s something tyrannical in the way Max holds fast to positions the 20th century has shown to be monstrous failures, though his more flexible humanity has ample opportunity to emerge, most poignantly in his caressing of his ailing wife when she reveals her scars to him (a scene acted with passionate restraint by Cusack) and in the second chance he’s given at love.

This last gift Stoppard bestows not only on him. Time has obviously softened something in the playwright, and his work, like the music that inspires him, nakedly communicates the poignant beauty of longing.


Nothing like the Dame

IF Stoppard has been accused in the past of being all mind, Coward has been permanently labeled all style. Dench doesn’t spring to mind when you think of his artificial panache. Of course, we all know the Dame can do anything. But the invincible reality she brings to her roles doesn’t seem the ideal fit for a playwright who has come to epitomize a cooked-up British fantasy of high society.

Wrong. Turns out she’s perfect. In Peter Hall’s production of “Hay Fever,” she gets to play a prematurely retired actress (the role was inspired by Coward’s early days in New York at the home of theater legend Laurette Taylor) camped out in her summer house with her husband, two marriageable children and a farcical number of amorous houseguests, who prove a (literally) captive audience to the family’s unbounded histrionics.

Her character’s name -- Judith Bliss -- suggests the secret of Dench’s success: Playing another actress named Judi, she’s naturally tempted away from the glamorous contrivances and over-the-top flourishes performers typically bring to Coward.


She opts instead for quick-shot realism, never giving more than what’s required. But whatever she does, she does with grit and gusto. When she takes a sip of tea you can hear the gulp, and when she chews her breakfast toast you can see the swallow.

If her character seems slightly phony, that’s because she’s supposed to be delightfully, irresistibly, professionally so. Not for nothing are newspapers clamoring (with her own encouragement) for her return to the stage.

“Talk, talk, talk! Everybody talks too much!” complains Judith’s husband, David (the excellent Peter Bowles), giving voice to the playwright’s tongue-in-cheek self-critique. But what stands out with Dench isn’t her handling of Coward’s prized wit but her appropriately outlandish -- at times even galloping -- attempts at attention-getting.

One example will have to serve: After having corralled her guests into a family game in which one person has to guess the adverb being acted out, Judith offers a most melodramatic demonstration of what it means to do something “winsomely.” The hilarity of her floating across the room is eclipsed only by her outrage at the stumbling attempts of the amateurs around her. Her impatience is understandable when you see that acting isn’t second nature to either Judi -- it’s first.


If ever there was a musical overdue for a fresh look, it’s the glorious “Sunday in the Park With George,” which seems only to have improved over the wan musical-theater decades since its premiere in 1984. Elegantly directed by Sam Buntrock, the revival stars two actors of gripping emotional honesty: Daniel Evans as the pair of Georges (the 19th century French neo-Impressionist painter Seurat and his great-grandson, a 20th century American postmodernist at an artistic crossroads) and Jenna Russell as the two influential women in the Georges’ lives.

Not many musicals -- or plays, for that matter -- have better captured the obsessive-compulsive act of creativity, with its manic highs and its depressive troughs. The vivid staging incarnates Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” with its lazy summer day unfolding in the most light-speckled colors.

But the alienation and vulnerability behind the canvas’ execution -- the musical’s human dimension -- are conveyed by Evans and Russell’s palpably felt understanding of the difficulties of what one number melodiously describes (and harrowingly inventories) as “the art of making art.” Suffice it to say that the production makes Seurat’s pointillist technique seem not just a painterly breakthrough but a theatrical one as well.

Michael Grandage, now leading the ever-fertile Donmar Warehouse, may be one of the most unstoppable directors in London (his staging of Schiller’s 1787 “Don Carlos” was by many accounts the production of last year), but he’s up against the immovable object of Webber and Rice’s tired fancy in the over-hyped West End revival of “Evita “


The show seems slighter than ever. The notion that superstar actresses jockeyed for years to play the role of Eva Peron on film (which ultimately did little to redeem Madonna’s movie career) is hard to credit. A series of photo ops trying to be a character sketch, the piece has a simplistic pop score that makes “The Phantom of the Opera” seem like Beethoven.

The casting of Roger, a big star in Buenos Aires, was supposed to add a touch of verite to the proceedings. Fat chance. What her presence does add, however, is a visual image of striving attack. A small actress packing a theatrical wallop, she mirrors her character’s quest for the limelight, the ambition pouring out of every calculated pose and stage-managed expression of solidarity with her audience, while somehow not completely turning everyone off by the phoniness. Eva herself might approve of the performance, even if she would have complained about the clunkiness of the vehicle.

Beckett’s teleplay “Eh Joe,” staged by film director Atom Egoyan in a 25-minute presentation in the West End (can you imagine such an offering on Broadway?), will be forever associated in my mind with the crevices and shadows of Gambon’s monumental face.

He has no lines and little action. What he does have are reactions, most of them to the guilty voice that’s playing in his head concerning the women he has mistreated over his lifetime. (Penelope Wilton speaks the blistering, accusatory words on tape.)


As always in Beckett, the dramatic kernel is consciousness -- how it is to perceive, suffer and, most challenging of all, remember what was and what wasn’t. The work strips away all the nonessentials, the exposition and filler that often try to make a theatrical mountain out of a molehill.

Beckett wants only the molehill. To him, it more realistically reflects our situation as passably sentient creatures. Gambon, a huge theatrical star in the work of a playwright who has no use for them, subordinates himself wholly to the task at hand: existing in the aftermath of mistake and misdeed, with no one around to hear his extenuating mumbo jumbo.

And the rest, as some famous Brit once said, is silence -- a quality that has given the familiar chatter of the London stage a well-deserved summer holiday.