For regular theatre goers there can be few markers that you have passed the last dregs of summer than no longer suffering a twinge of jealousy as you walk past all the tourists drinking merrily on the South Bank as you take your seat in the hot, sweaty and dark auditorium.
Not that, as we were constantly reminded, this was a summer like any other. In effect normality went into a two month hiatus as London, and in time the rest of the country, came to a complete standstill as we eventually recognised that we are not nearly as useless as we enjoy telling each other we are. The trains arrived, the people were friendly, we avoided being blown up by terrorists or trigger-happy missile silos, the army ran the logistics and G4S ran nothing and the Mo-Bot became a meme. In short the Olympics and the Paralympics happened and everyone forgot about the rain.
In between all of this excitement the London theatre scene quietly ticked over in the background. Unsurprisingly Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s predictions of audience carnage proved entirely wrong as the West End’s goal of relieving punters of ever increasing amounts of money from their cash-strapped wallets in exchange for third-rate musicals culled from second-rate films continued remorselessly onwards. Luckily for the rest of us the National Theatre proved that affordable theatre can have depth, resonance and even the odd sprinkling of star power.
The revival of London Road – transplanted to the Olivier – was an example of how to draw on a weighty subject with a lightness of touch that is rare among those more used to the deadening hand of television. Having somehow contrived to miss the first run, despite being aware of the sacksful of critical praise that it gathered meant that this was a must see. The fact that the engrossing Katherine Fleetwood reprised her role only added as an extra incentive – an actor indelibly marked in my brain following her unforgettable turn as the strongest Lady Macbeth I have had the fortune to see, and surely a match for Judy Dench’s classic portrayal, in Rupert Goold’s memorable production.
How unfortunate to have been released in the same year as the equally critically-acclaimed and certainly rather more family-friendly Matilda, London Road never received the awards it richly deserved but the fact it could sell out the Olivier for a musical based on interviews with people who lived on the same road as Richard Wright, the Ipswich serial killer, tells its own story about the power of the production.
A truly haunting piece, skilfully manipulated and never less than engaging, it raises many interesting questions about the stories that aren’t told; the impact on the community, the everyday people, of a media circus and a major police operation. Whilst there are legitimate questions over how composite characters reflect the truth and whether they bring forward narrative interest over narrative truth, there is enough in the words and the playful skill with which they are turned into song that sets this apart as a musical of rare power and intelligence.
Alongside this, the Olivier season included Simon Russell Beale giving us Timon of Athens. Without fail described as a difficult play, Timon of Athens has so many contemporary resonances that it should mean more to us. The parallels of the first half to the modern day are so clear, so apparent, that one almost hopes that the play doesn’t resume after the interval. This production, like so many before it, faced and failed the classic problem of trying to unpick and restitch Shakespeare to craft a specific relevance to modern times.
Watching the rise and inevitable fall of Timon, one is both appalled by the actions of Athenians but also frustrated by Timon’s obvious naiveté. It is hard to truly accept that Timon could have fared so well in society based on the actions we see in the play. The fault here is part Shakespeare and part Simon Russell Beale – who was a strangely passive and reedy presence in a play that really demands a lot of heft. His slightly cherubic public school persona – so perfect as Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time – feels out of place in his hermit hovel on the outskirts of the city.
The most interesting aspect of the play is to follow the generally accepted fact that the play was written by two different playwrights. Shakespeare, it is assumed, is responsible for the grandstanding and most of the second half, and Middleton, who is believed to behind the city-based Athenians. It is clear that when one thinks of the play in these terms, it is Shakespeare who comes off worst. Middleton’s play fizzes with a comic satire and adds to his reputation as one of the great comic playwrights of the Elizabethan era. His background characters hit the stage fully formed and when interacting with one another there is a robust and fascinating take on the avarice of Athenian society but the play too often grinds to a deathly halt once the moralising fury of Timon takes centre stage.
It was a disappointing production underpinning a disappointing play. There are many who call Simon Russell Beale one of our finest character actors, yet the case is still to be made of his credentials as a great Shakespearian actor following his rather undercooked Falstaff with this forgettable Timon.