Good Show Upstaged: In London, little theaters go a long way toward outproducing the famed West End.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONDON -- London's glitzy West End is no longer the heart of British theater. Sure, it has the blockbusters with helicopters, crashing chandeliers and choruses of singing cats -- you know, the same megamusicals that are on Broadway.

But when it comes to the long-standing British theatrical tradition of challenging performances and drama, the nonprofit and smaller companies -- like our regional and off-Broadway theaters -- are where the exciting risks are being taken and met.

Consider, for instance, the thrill of seeing Fiona Shaw, the current femme phenomenon of the British stage, playing two leads in repertory at the Royal National Theatre -- quick-witted Mistress Millamant in "The Way of the World" and the title role in a gender-bending "Richard II."

Or, the world premiere of socially conscious playwright Stephen Poliakoff's psychological thriller "Sweet Panic," about a child psychologist stalked by the mother of a client. Or, the chance to see a revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," directed by Sam Mendes, the hottest young British director, and starring the first black actor to play a male lead in a major Sondheim production.

Compare that to what's showing on the commercial West End, whose status as London's theatrical hub has been diminishing at an accelerating rate over the past decade. Instead of the multilayered "Richard II," there's the Shakespearean appetizer, "The Shakespeare Revue" -- though even that originated at a nonprofit theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company. An anthology of material liberally looted from sources including Monty Python and Cole Porter, and performed by four perky singers and a pianist, the show is Bard Lite but Brite.

Then there's "Sunset Boulevard," "Cats" -- which, at 15 years and counting, just became the world's longest-running musical -- "Miss Saigon," "The Phantom of the Opera," etc., etc. In other words, the West End is overflowing with shows you don't have to go abroad to see -- shows, for the most part, that are better at chalking up record-breaking runs than at breaking new theatrical ground. (Sound like Broadway?)

Allegiance of playwrights

Ground-breaking productions are precisely what the smaller and nonprofit companies do best. That's one reason several have won the allegiances of leading British playwrights, such as David Hare at the National and Harold Pinter at the Almeida. Nor does a production at one of these theaters stand in the way of a further life in the United States. Both Hare's "Racing Demon" and Pinter's "Moonlight" were produced in New York earlier this season.

In contrast to the blockbusters in their fancy West End playhouses, several of the adventuresome shows seen during a recent London theatergoing expedition were in venues with fewer than 300 seats. Several were staged by subsidized companies. And, many have been nominated for Olivier Awards, the British equivalent of Broadway's Tonys. Between them, "Company, "The Way of the World" and "Richard II" have been nominated for nine Oliviers. (The winners will be announced today.)

Unlike the Tonys, which can make or break a show, the Oliviers -- voted on by members of the public as well as independent professionals -- don't have much box office impact. There's a lesson here, since many a worthy Broadway production has gone by the wayside immediately after an unsuccessful Tony bid.

Of all of Britain's theaters, the one that is the most prestigious these days is the National. Its influence is even apparent in this country where two of the National's recent hits, "An Inspector Calls" and "Carousel," transferred to Broadway and are now on national tours included in the current seasons of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and the Lyric Opera House.

Admittedly, a truly representative national theater -- subsidized by the government and showcasing the nation's best actors in re-thought revivals and cutting-edge new plays -- is a difficult goal in a country considerably larger and more diverse than Britain.

Still, efforts to establish just such a theater have been bandied about at New York's Lincoln Center and tried at Washington's Kennedy Center -- where Peter Sellers' daring American National Theater faltered after two seasons in the mid-1980s. (Though Tony Randall calls his company the National Actors Theatre, it is more of a nonprofit troupe presented on Broadway than a genuine national theater.) Sadly, experiments like the one at Kennedy Center are unlikely to be tried again in these budget-cutting times.

Yet London's National Theatre -- with its innovative "revisals" of the type of classics that only get staged at colleges in this country -- proves how artistically rewarding a subsidized national company can be. A British trip spent entirely in the National's three-theater complex would be a fully satisfying theatrical experience.

To find similar repertory opportunities on this side of the Atlantic, you'd have to travel to Canada -- to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake or the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.

High-profile actors love to work at the National because its rotating repertory schedule means they don't have to play the standard eight performances a week -- except, of course, for Fiona Shaw, with her alternate starring turns in "The Way of the World" and "Richard II."

William Congreve's densely plotted Restoration comedy, "The Way of the World," is the type of classic at which the National excels. The central conflict concerns the relationship between Shaw's Mistress Millamant and Mirabell, a gentleman who has incurred the wrath of Lady Wishfort, Millamant's wealthy aunt and guardian.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and designed by Anthony Ward, the production features costumes that are modernized but still suggest a period look. The women wear miniskirts sheathed in flowing trains, an effect that tells us they are members of the chic aristocracy but still have a smarmy, racy side. Millamant is the sole lady to wear trousers under her train -- a visual clue to Shaw's approach to the character as a woman who is any man's equal.

While Shaw wears trousers in "The Way of the World," in Shakespeare's "Richard II" she plays a trouser role -- the ousted monarch himself. Directed by Shaw's frequent collaborator, Deborah Warner, this production, which has traveled to Paris and will be part of the Salzburg Festival, has provoked controversy in its hometown.

As Richard, Shaw sports male clothing and close-cropped hair. Her casting makes textual sense since the character is generally regarded as effeminate. In addition, there is a long history of women playing male Shakespearean roles -- though Shaw is the first to play Richard II.

Gender bending

Although there have been instances of gender-bending casting in this country -- Pat Carroll played Falstaff at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre six years ago and will play the title role in Ben Jonson's "Volpone" at the end of this season -- there is practically a tradition of this abroad. Sarah Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt both played Hamlet, and Charlotte Cushman played Iago, to name a few.

Shaw is unquestionably up to the challenge of Richard II -- though you never completely forget she's a woman playing a man's role. Primarily, however, her antics seem playful, befitting a king who ascended the throne at age 10. She demonstrates Richard's affection for his soon-to-be rival cousin, Bolingbroke (David Threlfall), by rubbing noses and kissing him on the lips. And she plunks herself down on the floor and sucks her thumb as she delivers the famous lines: "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings!"

This production flaunts a major advantage the National has over traditional West End theaters, with their proscenium stages. The National's Cottesloe, where "Richard II" is holding court, is a small, flexible facility, which director Warner has arranged so that most of the audience sits on two sides of an elongated stage, like spectators at a sporting event.

The result is exciting and visceral -- history and Shakespeare brought boldly to life in a production that makes history of its own.

Meanwhile, across the Thames, in the Donmar Warehouse, a tiny theater carved out of a former warehouse, Adrian Lester is making history as the first black actor to head the cast of a major production of a musical by Stephen Sondheim. The man responsible for this casting is director Sam Mendes, widely regarded as the front-runner for the top job at the National Theatre after Richard Eyre steps down next year.

As "Company's" Bobby, a bachelor unable to commit to a romantic relationship, or even to his own 35th birthday party, Lester succeeds in making the character distinct and likable enough for us to understand why his friends -- four married couples and three girlfriends -- care about him. In other words, Lester fills in what has often been regarded as the hollow center of this 1970 revue-like musical, with a book by George Furth.

Next month this revival of "Company" moves to a large, commercial West End theater, where it will sacrifice the intimate, three-quarter-thrust staging that makes theatergoers feel they are in the protagonist's living room.

As to new shows by British writers, well, as is increasingly the case with Broadway, in Britain these tend to originate away from the West End. A perfect example is "Sweet Panic," Stephen Poliakoff's suspense drama, receiving its world premiere under the playwright's direction at the 174-seat Hampstead Theatre.

Harriet Walter -- familiar as the nasty sister-in-law in Ang Lee's movie of "Sense and Sensibility" -- plays a seemingly savvy child psychologist who appears to have her life, and the lives of her disturbed clients, pretty much in control. Then she becomes the target of a stalker -- a client's mother, played by Saskia Reeves as mousy, but relentless.

Larger issues

Was the past better than the present? Is control a realistic response to the chaotic modern world? Or, as the stalker contends, is panic "the only intelligent reaction"? Though the psychologist's change of heart seems a bit precipitous -- a fault with the script, not the excellent performances -- this does not detract from the larger issues that are raised. And, by couching these issues in a thriller format with an everyday setting, Poliakoff has created a work whose ordinariness acquires Hitchcock-like tension.

"Sweet Panic" may not move to the West End or come to Broadway. But those are no longer measures of a play's worth. It will certainly have an afterlife -- in other British theaters and possibly American regional theaters.

Similarly, though director Deborah Warner's daring "Richard II" has been controversial, that very controversy -- about Shakespeare, no less -- is an indication of the important theatrical dialogue taking place away from the commercial arena. Warner couldn't have even mounted this stylized production in a standard West End theater.

When the actors in "Richard II" slam up against the walls separating the audience from the stage, the effect symbolizes not only the physicality of conflict, but in a larger sense typifies the overall change in the British theatrical scene. While the West End overflows with megamusicals that keep the cash registers ringing, the most compelling work in the modern British theater is being created in the smaller and non-profit theaters.

TOMORROW: A visit to London's Theatre Museum.

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