The National Theatre’s NT Live series of HD broadcasts from the London stage is back for its eighth season, starting with a mix of new productions and encore screenings. The Amherst Cinema has recently reprised Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and the double-A-side Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller trading off the lead roles.
Three more are coming this month and next, starting with The Deep Blue Sea, with the amazing Helen McCrory, showing tomorrow (Saturday) at 12:30, followed by The Threepenny Opera on November 12th and 16th, and in December, War Horse, the National’s megahit, back for a third encore.
I was fortunate to see all three productions live in London. Here’s what I had to say about each of them.
The Threepenny Opera is a new translation of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical, a politically charged satire set in a fanciful Victorian London, about a family business employing an army of ragtag beggars, a criminal gang led by a charming cutthroat, a forbidden love triangle, and a whore with a heart of tarnished gold.
Simon Stephens’ adaptation captures the spirit of Brecht’s jauntily caustic script and lyrics, and an eight-piece band, part of the onstage ensemble, does justice to Weill’s Weimar jazz amalgam of melody and dissonance. The production wears its working-class politics unapologetically and makes plenty of space for humor. It’s a dazzling production of a musical-theater masterpiece.
Rory Kinnear, who has previously played Hamlet and Iago at the National, is a rough-diamond Mack the Knife, ruthlessly charming and disarmingly ruthless. Rosalie Craig (Rosalind in last season’s As You Like It) is effectively brassy as Macheath’s newly wedded wife, daughter of the Faganesque Mr. Peachum and his sluttish missus, though her transition from naïve bride to hard-headed accomplice is implausibly sudden. Sharon Small, whom you might remember as Inspector Lynley’s sidekick in the Mystery! TV series, plays Jenny Diver, Mack’s drug-addled sometime lover who unwillingly turns him in.
At the end of The Threepenny Opera, Macheath, sentenced to hang for his crimes, is miraculously reprieved in a gleefully sarcastic climax. At the beginning of The Deep Blue Sea, the central character is rescued from near death after a suicide attempt.
She’s Hester Collyer, played by Helen McCrory, and Hester’s situation is oddly akin to that of Euripides’ tragic heroine. Having abandoned a comfortable existence for an obsessive infatuation, she’s now ignored and demeaned by her new lover. One of her first lines might well come out of Medea’s mouth, as she sums up her feelings of “anger, hatred and shame, in equal proportions.”
But this is no Greek tragedy. Terrence Rattigan’s 1952 drama takes place in a shabby London flat, Hester is no royal princess but the estranged wife of a judge, and her paramour is no adventuring Jason but a handsome ex-test pilot who’s lost his nerve and taken to the bottle. The material is a bit creaky, a labored psychological study of a soul in torment that struggles to make her life-and-death obsession believable (and Tom Burke’s bland performance as the feckless lover doesn’t help). But McCrory is magnificent, a consummate performer whose every glance and gesture is charged with meaning.
War Horse has been running – let’s say galloping – in London since 2007 and now all over the world. It’s the story, in case you hadn’t heard, of a farm horse drafted into service on the killing fields of World War I and a young boy’s epic journey to be reunited with him.It’s based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, but Nick Stafford’s stage version, directed by by Marianne Elliott, is superior in every way to the clunky original, expanding the story, deepening the characters and expressing even more effectively the fear and horror of the battlefield than Steven Spielberg’s 2011 big-screen rendition.
That’s thanks to the superior power of the imagination over literal imagery, and to the show’s most eye-popping triumph, created by the astonishing Handspring Puppet Company: the horses. Two of them are life-size, fully articulated people-powered machines that are so substantial they can be ridden but so lithe they can rear and canter. Fashioned from bent cane and translucent fabric, they make you believe you’re watching a moving, seeing, *feeling animal even as you marvel at the human choreography that’s animating them.
Photos courtesy of the National Theatre
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