Curtain up!

Summer's almost over, the nights are drawing in - and the weather wasn't much cop anyway. So hie thee to a playhouse! Next month sees the start of, arguably, the best drama season ever. Marcus Field and Madeleine North present their pick of the autumn crop and talk to the players at the heart of the action
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The Independent Culture

Stuff Happens

Stuff Happens

The plot: The invasion of Iraq by US and UK forces in 2003. The title is taken from Donald Rumsfeld's infamous response to the looting of Baghdad following the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The players: David Hare's 13th play for the National is, it's probably safe to say, unlikely to be a polemic in defence of American foreign policy. Head honcho Nicholas Hytner directs the final production of the inspired Travelex £10 Season, with Nicholas Farrell as Tony Blair and Alex Jennings as George W Bush.

The details: NT Olivier, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), Wed to 6 Nov

Cloaca

The plot: Four middle-aged men face up to a few painful facts in this dark new comedy about male friendship and failings.

The players: Maria Goos. You may not know her name, but this Dutch playwright is likely to leave her mark on British theatre now that Kevin Spacey has chosen to direct Cloaca for his opening play at the Old Vic. Stephen Tompkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Adrian Lukis and Neil Pearson star.

The details: Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628), 16 Sept to 11 Dec

Darwin in Malibu

The plot: Charles Darwin is living it up in present-day Malibu. But his tranquillity is shattered when old friend Thomas Huxley washes ashore, closely followed by the Bishop of Oxford and a momentous verbal tussle over God, science "and the sex lives of hermaphroditic barnacles".

The players: Robert Delamere directs Crispin Whittell's new play, which stars Oliver Ford Davies as Darwin, Douglas Henshall as Huxley and Nigel Planer as the Bishop of Oxford. Could this be the hit Hampstead have been waiting for?

The details: Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), 16 Sept to 16 Oct

Thom Pain

The plot: Well, there isn't one. It's just one man and his monologue - an absurdist stream of consciousness about life, love, and the longeurs inbetween.

The players: Scripted by Will Eno, "one of the finest playwrights" Edward Albee has come across in years, the piece stars Hollywood actor James Urbaniak and was an Edinburgh Festival favourite.

The details: Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100), Friday to 24 Sept

The Woman in White

The plot: Wilkie Collins's beloved Victorian thriller - about two sisters manipulated by a brilliant villain - gets the Andrew Lloyd Webber treatment.

The players: Mr Musical himself - Trevor Nunn - directs Michael Crawford, Maria Friedman and Edward Petherbridge in Charlotte (Humble Boy) Jones's adaptation of the 1860 novel. Wayne McGregor is the choreographer, designs are by William Dudley and Hollywood lyricist David Zippel fleshes out Webber's tunes.

The details: Palace Theatre, London W1 (0870 895 5579), previewing, opens 15 Sept, booking to 5 March

A Passage to India

The plot: E M Forster's classic tale of inter-racial relations in colonial India - immortalised in David Lean's 1984 film version - staged by physical theatre pioneers Shared Experience.

The players: Nancy Meckler revives Martin Sherman's acclaimed adaptation, with live, specially composed Indian music by Chandru and Sirishkumar.

The details: Bristol Old Vic (0117 987 7877), 9-11 Sept; Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (08700 500 511), 14-25 Sept; tour continues (info: www.sharedexperience.org.uk)

Brighton Rock

The plot: A musical version of Graham Greene's classic tale of gang warfare in 1930s Brighton.

The players: Michael Attenborough directs this world premiere by Giles Havergal, with original music by John Barry and lyrics by Don Black.

The details: Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), 20 Sept to 13 Nov

Festen

The plot: A patriarch celebrates his 60th birthday at a Danish country pile. His family are in attendance. But his son, Christian, has some skeletons to drag out of the cupboard. An explosive family feast.

The players: The Almeida's celebrated adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg's famous Dogme film gets a West End transfer. Jonny Lee Miller is replaced by Luke Mably in the lead role. Jane Asher, Sam Beazley, Rory Kinnear and Claire Rushbrook co-star.

The details: Lyric Shaftesbury, London W1 (0870 890 1107), opens 15 Sept, booking to 15 Jan

Don Carlos

The plot: A tyrannical king steals his son's betrothed for himself, sparking rebellion on a scale he couldn't have imagined - Friedrich Schiller's rarely staged epic receives a brand new adaptation.

The players: Director Michael Grandage bows out of Sheffield with a flourish. His cast includes Richard Coyle, Derek Jacobi, Claire Price and Una Stubbs.

The details: Sheffield Crucible (0114 249 6000), 22 Sept to 6 Nov

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The plot: James M Cain's brooding American thriller - about an affair which goes horribly wrong - comes to the stage for the first time.

The players: Lucy Bailey directs Andrew Rattenbury's new adaptation of Cain's novel. Charlotte Emmerson, who played the lead in Bailey's production of Baby Doll, takes the role of Cora, opposite Patrick O'Kane as Frank.

The details: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), 18 Sept to 16 Oct

The Solid Gold Cadillac

The plot: An elderly lady takes a stand against the fat cats who run the General Products Corporation of America, a company in which she has shares. George S Kaufman and Howard Teichan's 1953 Broadway satire gets a West End revival.

The players: Directed by the West Yorkshire Playhouse's Ian Brown, the play stars Patricia Routledge and Roy Hudd.

The details: Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1555), from 27 Sept

Macbeth

The plot: A site-specific, promenade production of Shakespeare's tragedy of hubris and witchcraft.

The players: Out of Joint, who last produced David Hare's The Permanent Way, celebrate their 10th anniversary with this ambitious touring event. Danny Sapani plays Macbeth, Max Stafford-Clark directs and Es Devlin has the task of designing for a large variety of spaces.

The details: Redbrick Mill, Batley (01484 430528), 10-17 Sept; Oxford Playhouse (01865 305 305), 21-25 Sept; tour continues (info: www.outofjoint.co.uk)

Dumb Show

The plot: A famous comedian comes a cropper when a business deal goes awry and the tabloids swoop in for the kill.

The players: Comedy supremo Terry Johnson directs Rupert Graves, Douglas Hodge and Anna Maxwell Martin in Joe Penhall's first play since his award-winning Blue/Orange.

The details: Royal Court Downstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), Thur to 9 Oct

The Elephant Vanishes

The plot: Japanese author Haruki Murakami's short stories about Tokyo are brought to life by seven Japanese actors, Complicite-style inventiveness and lots of stunning visual trickery.

The players: Simon McBurney's award-winning show returns for a second outing.

The details: Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), Thur to 25 Sept

Buried Child

The plot: Sam Shepard's darkly comic portrait of dysfunctional middle-American life. It's the play's first major London production for over 20 years.

The players: Matthew Warchus directs a cast which includes Brendan Coyle, Lauren (Six Feet Under) Ambrose and M Emmet Walsh of Blade Runner and Raising Arizona fame.

The details: NT Lyttelton, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), 18 Sept to 15 Dec

Hecuba

The plot: Troy's beloved queen is enslaved, widowed and mourning the loss of 19 children... Euripides' great revenge tragedy revived.

The players: Ex-Almeida helmer Jonathan Kent directs a new version of the Greek classic by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. The cast includes Tim Pigott-Smith, Finbar Lynch and Clare Higgins.

The details: Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0870 060 6624), 9 Sept to 13 Nov

Doctor Faustus

The plot: Faustus sells his soul to the devil and a highly-charged game of cat and mouse commences... Marlowe's poetic masterpiece revived.

The players: A phalanx of directors - including Edward Kemp and Steven Pimlott - have devised a promenade production through the streets of Chichester, winding up at the Cathedral for the hellish climax. Michael Feast and Samuel West head-up the cast of Youth Theatre performers and eager locals.

The details: Minerva Theatre, Chichester (01243 781312), 8-25 Sept

The Shadow of a Gunman

The plot: Sean O'Casey's political melodrama, part of his famous Dublin Trilogy, is a tragi-comic portrait of life in the Dublin slums of the 1920s.

The players: Dominic Dromgoole directs this revival, starring Aidan McArdle and Maggie McCarthy.

The details: Tricycle, London NW6 (020 7328 1000), 30 Sept to 6 Nov

The Bacchae

The plot: Euripides' final play - about the dangers of repression - revived Kneehigh-style.

The players: Emma Rice directs this touring production from the team which brought us the magical Wooden Frock and Red Shoes.

The details: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), 24 Sept to 16 Oct; tour continues (info: www.kneehigh.co.uk)

Primo

The plot: Primo Levi's If This is a Man, his extraordinary work about surviving Auschwitz, has been adapted for the stage by Antony Sher, who performs the piece.

The players: Sher is directed by actor/director Richard Wilson, who makes his National Theatre debut with Primo.

The details: NT Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), 24 Sept to 1 Dec

Don Juan

The plot: Molière's titular tart is chased by ex-lovers, creditors and outraged family members as his reign of loucheness comes crashing spectacularly down around him.

The players: Gent-for-hire James Wilby plays against type as the devilish Don Juan. Neil Bartlett, in his final show for the Lyric, directs and designs.

The details: Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (0870 500 511), 30 Sept to 30 Oct

Pedro, the Great Pretender

The plot: Cervantes' tale of "a loveable trickster" who discovers his true vocation is the stage. It was the 17th-century author's final work and only now receives its (professional) world premiere - almost 400 years after it was written.

The players: The closing play of the RSC's Golden Age season, Mike Alfreds directs Philip Osment's new translation. John Ramm stars as Pedro.

The details: Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0870 609 1110), Wed to 30 Sept

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The plot: The "lunatics" take over the asylum in Ken Kesey's famous anti-establishment tale.

The players: Frances Barber, Mackenzie Crook and Hollywood bad boy Christian Slater star in the hit Edinburgh transfer.

The details: Gielgud, London W1 (0870 890 1105), opens Fri, booking to 4 Dec

Michael Attenborough, director

Attenborough has an unusually close relationship with his latest production, a new musical adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. "There was a stage version in 1942 and my old man [Richard Attenborough] played Pinky when he was 19," he explains. "And Dulcie Gray, who played Rose, was my godmother. The director of the film, John Boulting, was my godfather. So I'm littered with connections." Not that this seems to have intimidated Attenborough, who has returned to the novel as his primary source. "What the book gives us that the film almost can't is the interior story - about right and wrong, good and evil, Catholicism, sex..." For those who find it hard to imagine the dark story of a psychotic 17-year-old killer as a musical, Attenborough says: "Most of the songs are sung almost like arias where a character is revealing what they're feeling." The surprise in this piece should come from our ambiguous feelings for Pinky. "He was hard to like in dad's performance because he was offered no examination of what was going on inside him or of his social background," points out Attenborough. The reinstating of Pinky's childhood traumas and some soul-searching songs is sure to make our feelings for this mixed-up bad boy a whole lot more complex. MF

Hugh Bonneville, actor

He's played Philip Larkin, John Bayley and is about to be seen as Samuel Pepys in Richard Eyre's new film Stage Beauty, but Hugh Bonneville's currently tackling a slightly less literary part, that of "a thrusting ambitious politician" in the opening play of Kevin Spacey's inaugural Old Vic season. Cloaca, by Dutch author Maria Goos, concerns four middle-aged male friends and their joint mid-life crises. If it's sounding like Yazmina Reza's hit play Art, Bonneville insists it's a different kettle of fish. "I think this is crueller and a lot blacker and therefore a lot funnier. It makes you squirm as much as it makes you smile. It's horribly true about men... we're sitting in the rehearsal room most of the time shielding our eyes." Co-stars Neil Pearson and Stephen Tompkinson, along with director Spacey, have apparently been sharing their "embarrassing stories" to get them in the mood - stories which, disappointingly, have refused to leave the rehearsal room.MN

Lucy Bailey, director

It's all down to Tennessee Williams really. Casting around for a new project to do with her Baby Doll team, Lucy Bailey was handed an adaptation of James M Cain's infamous 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. It'll be the story's first stage outing, but Bailey's confident it's well suited to the medium. "The novel is written almost in dialogue, so it's got this very spare, poetic style ... which lends itself to very good dramatisation." Of course, she's got everyone's knowledge of the 1981 film version (starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange) to contend with. Is she worried? "Everyone's expecting the table scene... we have so many laughs about that. [I know] people will come because they have this almost iconic sense of those two in the kitchen and the knives going off the table and the bread being pushed aside and her being taken. But the story is so fast-moving and compelling that I don't think you stop to worry about that." MN

Joe Penhall, playwright

It's been three years since Joe Penhall's last play, the colossal hit Blue/Orange, which tackled institutional racism, made us laugh, launched Chiwetel Ejiofor's career and reminded everyone what a brilliant actor Bill Nighy is. So there's likely to be just a teensy bit of anticipation for his new work, Dumb Show. A satire of sorts, "it's basically about a very famous man who finds himself the subject of tabloid infamy." No particular celebrity inspired him, Penhall insists, "but it has a pretty topical relevance - just because there's been wave upon wave of witless TV stars, like lambs to the slaughter, being busted for drugs, transgressive sex or what have you." It's a play he's been itching to write for years. "I've always been fascinated by tabloid morality, because it's so banal and prurient, and just dumb and nasty - breathtakingly so. And I've always been curious as to why it's so popular." MN

Neil Bartlett, director

Bartlett's final production as artistic director at the Lyric Hammersmith is his new translation of Molière's 17th-century masterpiece Don Juan, set here in a luxury hotel. The period - the first half of the 20th century - has been chosen, explains the director, because it's far enough away for the formalities of the play to still pertain but close enough for us to feel a connection. "And there's something about the world of the luxury hotel that is sexually suggestive and rather sinister." This is a perfect environment for the amoral and increasingly desperate Don Juan, a middle-aged lothario who seduces and dumps his lovers as fast as he can find them. The challenge for a director is to make us feel ambiguous about this cad. "He is a monster beyond description," says Bartlett. "Except that everyone in the play - and I'm quite sure most of the people in the audience - falls completely under his spell." Don Juan's tactics for getting away with it all still resonate today. Neo-Christians will be squirming in their seats when he reveals his ploy, paraphrased by Bartlett as: "What you need is a little dash of religious hypocrisy. If you can claim God as your alibi, no one will touch you." Bartlett feels that the play is a fitting finale for his time at the Lyric. "Almost the last thing Don Juan says before he makes his exit through the trapdoor is 'Oh, go to hell!'. And there's something about a dissolute, amoral, middle-aged libertine finally getting his comeuppance that suits me." MF

Clare Higgins, actor

Now seems to be a pertinent time to be staging Hecuba, Euripides' tragedy about war and its consequences - but be prepared, there is no happy ending. In this new version by Frank McGuinness, Clare Higgins plays the queen of Troy who seeks revenge for the murder of her husband and 19 children. How can she empathise with a character who has suffered so much? "Well, it's how I feel on a Monday morning, quite frankly," she quips. More seriously, Higgins sees many parallels with current events. Of Odysseus, who holds Hecuba prisoner, she says: "He is a creep who goes round shaking hands and saying 'hail fellow well met'. For me he is just like Tony Blair and I get savagely angry with him. It feels very real." As the action progresses, Hecuba discovers that her one remaining son, Polydorus has been murdered by Polymestor, king of Thrace. In a bloody act of vengeance she blinds him and slaughters his children. In the final shocking scene Polymestor prophesies that she will be turned into a bitch and drowned at sea. "The play makes it clear that the cycle is never going to end; it just gets bleaker and bleaker," says Higgins. "It's an immensely depressing and bleak place to be." The renewed relevance of the play is confirmed by the RSC's plans to stage its own version in February with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. Will Redgrave see the Donmar production? "I've no idea," says Higgins, "but I'm awfully glad I'm going first." MF

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