LONDON — With a somnolent West End struggling to hold an audience this summer, the real action in London shifted toward a stew of global visitors offering as exhilarating a lineup of international theater as this city has seen in an age.
That’s saying something in a capital that is usually hosting several foreign troupes, not least because various British companies and/or theaters make a point of programming them into the schedule. On July 14, for instance, Notting Hill’s Gate Theater finished a monthlong run of three productions from Eastern Europe, not long before Japan’s Nomura Mansaku Co. visited Shakespeare’s Globe for four days (July 18-21) with its much-admired production of “The Comedy of Errors.”
I missed those particular shows but am still reeling from the lineup I did catch, whether from South Africa (three times over: more on Pieter-Dirk Uys’ “Foreign Aids” next issue) or Canada (twice) or an East London fireworks display engineered by the French pyrotechnician, Christophe Berthonneau, who set the Eiffel Tower sizzling on Millennium Eve.
That last occasion was part of this year’s London Intl. Festival of Theater (LIFT), a biennial part of the city’s cultural landscape that also in June offered up its most wondrous and wackiest show yet: “Box Story,” a stirring collaboration between performance artist Bobby Baker and composer Jocelyn Pook (“Eyes Wide Shut”) housed within a church in Islington, north London — and positing a world almost too far gone for prayer.
Baker is English, to be sure, and at age 50 possesses some of the determined daffiness of the late comedienne Joyce Grenfell, not least when tottering toward us on purple high heels, the box of the title preceding her. And yet, there’s nothing remotely parochial about Baker’s unsparing, ruthlessly articulated vision, which makes use of ordinary food — cornflakes, say, or Black Magic chocolates, her ingredients awash in rivulets of white wine — to construct a carefully arrived-at landscape of famine, incest and war. What’s the link, you ask? Nothing that isn’t available to a fertile imagination, even if this witty and disturbing show inhabits far darker realms than most minds willingly choose to roam.
Much the same could be said of a second, no less extraordinary piece — “Happy,” the fiercely ironically titled show from Ronnie Burkett. The fortysomething Canadian puppeteer had a sellout season at the Barbican in 1999 with “Tinka’s New Dress” and was back this summer with so bleakly inventive a fantasia that his dexterity left a packed house frequently holding its breath. (“Happy” was part of BITE, the ongoing array of international work at the Barbican that has Julie Taymor and Richard Maxwell, among others, still to come this season.)
Moving nimbly among the more than 40 puppets populating the outsized dollhouse that was his set, Burkett pressed cabaret and camp into the service of a complex story that transcended its soap operatic strain. “You want the rainbow,” we were told in one drolly aphoristic moment, “you gotta put up with the rain.” Truisms like that aren’t the only reason (though they don’t hurt) that “Happy” deserves showers of praise — and, for as long as Burkett has the stamina to deliver it, a commercial transfer.
There’s no doubting the onward trajectory sure to be traced by various other visiting shows, starting with Broomhill Opera’s East End repertory productions of “Carmen” and “The Mysteries,” both previously premiered at the Spier Festival outside Cape Town. These were performed by a single South African company before an ecstatic (and, sadly, far too white) London public who would have raised the roof with their responsiveness at Wilton’s Music Hall — if the exuberant multiracial company hadn’t got there first. (The productions are under consideration for stands at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music next year.)
Standing ovations — a London rarity — were the order of the day, too, at “The Far Side of the Moon,” the latest piece from Quebecois writer-director-performer Robert Lepage. (The show visited the National Theater’s midsized Lyttelton for a sellout stand in mid-July.) One flies, the other doesn’t, might be one version of a synopsis of a virtuosic solo feat that casts Lepage as two brothers — one a timorous academic with his head in the stars, the other a brash, and gay, weatherman with a material-minded eye on the ground — making opposing ways through a world that allows the more cosmically minded one to achieve lift-off.
That such a climactic gesture is almost literally achieved honors the weightlessness of a performance capable of inducing its own very special vertigo. The audience was young and rightly enthusiastic at “The Far Side of the Moon.” And why not for a show that builds to so breathtaking a bodily coup de theatre that ecstatic theatergoers could be forgiven for feeling as if they had briefly left this earth?