States of play

The Brits have conquered Broadway. Not without bloodshed. By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
Here's a neat, pond-straddling irony. On this side of the Atlantic, Richard Eyre periodically finds himself attacked by commentators who feel that the National Theatre under his directorship has given undue favour to 20th-century American drama. Over in New York, Eyre's closest equivalent - Andre Bishop, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater - has presided (to rather less abuse) over a period that has seen, in addition to the import of the RNT's Carousel, a quick succession of East Coast premieres of new English works. Following Stoppard's Hapgood and Arcadia, Eyre's own production - with a mostly American cast - of David Hare's Racing Demon is currently enjoying an acclaimed season on the Lincoln Center's main stage.

What, you might ask, does a play about the internal struggles of the C of E have to say to a US audience - especially given the fact that Diane Shaffer's Sacrilege, an American play about the closer-to-home controversy over women becoming Catholic priests, has so recently folded after the briefest of runs, and despite the star presence of Ellen Burstyn?

True, the Village Voice promptly averred that the theme of Racing Demon "matters only to the English and those fixated on their up-tight little island". But worries about what the critic of New York magazine called the drama's "potentially parochial" text have been largely dispelled.

If the US production proves anything, it's that Hare's play, in which flawed and fatigued liberal tolerance is pitted against dynamic fundamentalist zeal, offers a powerful, barrier-transcending paradigm of that mix of virtues and vulnerabilities that generally lay liberal institutions open to threat.

Watching the play in New York, talking to people there, and following the press reaction, I was struck less by what the audiences didn't get than by what they are in a better position than the English to notice about it. Admittedly, as Andre Bishop points out, it's "money - who has it, who doesn't - that Americans think about, not class" and there is no US equivalent of an established church, with its privileges and penalties, so that the causes and precise social connotations of the old-boy network probably aren't very intelligible (while the fact that one of the curates is nicknamed "Streaky" is more likely to evoke the idea of nude sprinting in New York than of bacon).

American commentators, ranging from the Revd Stephen Chinlund, executive director of Episcopal Social Services in the city, to the New Yorker's second stringer, tended to have - revealingly - much more to say than British critics about the way women are dealt with in the play. It bothered them that the issue of female ordination, though crucial to the plot, is essentially "marginal" in its handling. The fact that the young zealot's cast-off girlfriend is underwritten did not go unremarked but, for the Revd Chinlund, the reason that the character should have a larger role is no mere question of aesthetic fair shares. "She should be the priest!" he proclaims. Offering a loving counterbalance to the "competing egos" of the men, she is, he argues, the play's "potential hero".

The Village Voice may have questioned the drama's relevance to the US - "where Christianity is now mainly a concern of the loony-bin fascists who've taken over most of its outposts" - but that's to overlook the portrait of the increasingly fanatical Tony. Given the rise of the religious right, Andre Bishop considers the New York premiere of this 1990 piece well timed rather than belated.

The projections in Eyre's excellent staging are a bit too relentlessly stuck on rain-spattered dreariness as a shorthand for the emotional climate of this sometimes oddly sunny island. But, unlike the idiomatically insecure cast of Arcadia, these American actors have got the measure of the Englishness of the piece.

The same cannot be said for the other Broadway premieres this autumn of works that began life in Britain. It is perhaps no coincidence that, though it has an English setting, Mrs Klein, Nicholas Wright's RNT play about the great psychoanalyst, now grippingly staged at the Lucille Lortel Theater, focuses on three Mittel-European emigres and stars the German- born actress, Ute Hagen, in lethally brilliant form.

Take, by contrast, the fate of Harold Pinter's Moonlight. Over here, Ian Holm's foul-mouthed former civil servant raged on his deathbed against the dying of the light with an irritable Alf Garnett intensity, while Anna Massey dispensed a disconcerting mix of aloofness and compassion as his wife. At the Roundabout Theater, silver-haired Jason Robards and blonde-helmeted Blythe Danner resembled, farcically, nothing so much as Blake Carrington and Krystal from Dynasty and killed what is a highly mannered, highly charged piece with misplaced low-key naturalism.

The inadvertent comedy is even more delectable at the Manhattan Theater Club's production of New England, Richard Nelson's play about a family of English expats, scattered across America, who are edgily thrown back together by the father's suicide. Having a good communal sneer at their adopted country is one of the ways these characters try to relieve the resulting tensions. When they were played by English actors at the RSC, the irony of this worked, but in New York, where the Brits are impersonated by Americans, it's just one cultural convolution too many. This is particularly hard on Tom Irwin, who is forever falling off the stilts of his would- be English accent while also employing distinctively un-English confrontational body language. It wouldn't be so bad if he weren't supposed to be playing a cynical teacher of acting who delights in doing snooty take-offs of his dumb American pupils. Talk about cross-reverberations! What comes over, at such moments, is less the play proper than a possible future subject for a Richard Nelson culture-clash comedy.

One of Nelson's expats tells an anecdote about being accosted in a grocery store queue by an American, demanding "What the fuck is going on with that Queen of yours? Why's she letting 'em push her around? If I was Queen I wouldn't let nobody push me around. That lady needs some balls!" I was reminded of the story listening to audience comments at Brooklyn's Majestic Theater, where Britain's Cheek By Jowl had brought their revelatory production of The Duchess of Malfi on the American leg of its world tour. "That guy's a real drip," was the general consensus on Antonio, the steward, whom the Duchess woos and secretly marries in defiance of her oppressive brothers. To a society where the imperative is to "go for it", Antonio's caution and apprehensiveness at his sudden, dangerous elevation evidently seemed baffling and all too lacking in "balls".

Anastasia Hille's stunning Duchess, by contrast, was a woman they could do business with. Declan Donnellan's production powerfully suggests that the heroine and her siblings are trapped in identities imposed on them by a damaged, Ian Mc- Ewanesque childhood. The Duchess is the one who tries to escape, to unbuild her vanity, and is persecuted as a result. But whereas the role is usually played as an exercise in submissive, stoical virtue, Hille shows you a wilful, imperious, often termagant-like woman whose fate is all the more harrowing since, to her, the shedding of vanity is clearly a crucifixion.

Starting a short London season next week, the production is wonderfully lucid: never before has it been so plain that the characters channel on to the malcontent, Bosola, feelings that are blocked from their true object; but it's also clear about what must be left worryingly unclear. Suffering from realistically delayed shock at the specious spectacle of her slaughtered family, Hille's Duchess knocks back drink and approaches death by taking a final deep drag on the last of many cigarettes. In New York, where a stage is just about the only public place where you can smoke, this aspect of the characterisation provoked audible comment. It caused the woman in front of me to explain to her friend how she'd simply had to leave Les Miz in London at the interval. The reason why? "The entire universe were smoking!"

n 'Duchess of Malfi': from 27 Dec, Wyndham's WC2 (0171-369 1736)

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