Review: ‘Theater of Blood’

In the latest and possibly unlikeliest entry in the ongoing lineup of film-to-stage transfers, "Theater of Blood," Jim Broadbent plays a man possessed. And who can blame him? As Edward Lionheart, a failed Shakespearean actor whose method of revenge on his detractors makes Richard III seem a pussycat, Broadbent gives full, gleeful rein to an activity many in (and out of) the industry have doubtless considered indulging numerous times: murdering theater critics. And messily, too.

In the latest and possibly unlikeliest entry in the ongoing lineup of film-to-stage transfers, “Theater of Blood,” Jim Broadbent plays a man possessed. And who can blame him? As Edward Lionheart, a failed Shakespearean actor whose method of revenge on his detractors makes Richard III seem a pussycat, Broadbent gives full, gleeful rein to an activity many in (and out of) the industry have doubtless considered indulging numerous times: murdering theater critics. And messily, too.

No one at Daily Variety feels his wrath, though Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott’s adaptation of the cult Vincent Price horror film has inordinate fun elsewhere all but naming names.

Will any of this score with those hapless uninitiates not already versed in the intricate byways of the commentator and the artist — not to mention the rivalries between critics? Probably not. But everyone else should have a good, anarchic time, some first-act longueurs notwithstanding, and perhaps emit the odd squeal as well. When it comes to strategies of extinction, Lionheart is a breed apart.

“Theater of Blood” is undeniably lowbrow, so it comes as something of a delicious shock to find it packaged in such ravishing high style by director McDermott, whose Improbable theater troupe has co-produced the show with the National on an elevated budget. If the play does transfer to Broadway, which seems entirely possible given that street’s self-infatuation, it won’t come cheap.

Rae Smith’s funhouse of a set simply won’t quit, its decaying Victorian surrounds alone worth the price of a ticket. With its famously deep stage, the Lyttelton by now has a history of celebrated designs from which their given shows were inseparable: “Theater of Blood” immediately joins the ranks of such visual extravaganzas as “An Inspector Calls” and “Les Parents Terribles” that have a visceral effect, too — and not just because the flying apparatus that sends Lionheart airborne looks a tad lightweight for Broadbent’s frame.

The jolts come mostly via the savagings that beset our poshly spoken scribes, who range from a poodle-carrying critic for the Sunday Times (Bette Bourne, in prim, prime form) to a bibulous Daily Mail scribe (Tim McMullan), who ultimately cracks under the weight of openings: “Five plays a week? I can’t take it anymore.”

And why waste time on ordinary murders when, as Lionheart reasons, you can do them in character? At which point, cue scenes from “Julius Caesar,” “Henry VI, Part I,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “Titus Andronicus,” all of which find Lionheart giving the performances of his life.

The staging, complete with gothic lighting from Colin Grenfell that has its own spidery allure, imaginatively raises speculation about who will go first? last? best?

But as the evening pans out, it’s less the order of the murders that matters than their increasingly inventive nature. Most unforgettable is the sight of Sally Dexter’s vampish Observer critic fried alive, her limbs very much on view even as her blond head turns suddenly into a “Psycho”-worthy skull. Elsewhere, auds will be intrigued to find the very modern purposes to which the Bardic art of drowning can be put.

So far, so fantastical — or maybe not, given that passions in this particular business do run high. Is “Theater of Blood” about anything? In a perhaps overstrenuous attempt to justify its inclusion in a repertoire alongside Lorca, Shakespeare and Strindberg, the play devolves into a metatheatrical meditation on the very nature of the National itself. Time frame is the year of the film (1973) — before the South Bank complex had opened.

These passages will tickle theater folk while leaving others bemused. They’ll make no sense whatsoever if the play does travel beyond this “great gray Stalin of a gravestone to actors,” as the auditorium in which we are seated is described. On the other hand, in a role played in the film by her mother, Diana Rigg, Rachael Stirling as Miranda Lionheart makes an eloquent case for the difficulties of having so obsessively overripe a dad. How do you keep pace with a parent’s feelings, she wonders aloud, when they’re “so big, whether real or not”?

Indeed, there’s nothing small or to scale about a show that finds Broadbent, in his first London play since “The Pillowman,” adopting more disguises and facial tics than there are Shakespeare plays. Yet his perf always works, eliciting sympathy for an artist facing “the persistent denial of my genius,” who’s simply had enough. For all its buckets of gore and deliberate outrageousness, the play is oddly real, too, though to say otherwise might well be to summon an early demise.

Theater of Blood

National Theater, Lyttelton, London; 894 seats; £36 $66 top

Production

A National Theater and Improbable co-production by special arrangement with MGM onStage of a play in two acts by Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott based on the MGM/Sam Jaffe/Harbor Prods. film, an idea by Stanley Mann and John Kohn, and the screenplay by Anthony Greville-Bell. Directed by McDermott.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Rae Smith; lighting, Colin Grenfell; music, Joby Talbot; illusionist, Paul Kieve; fight director, Terry King; music arrangements, Christopher Austin; sound, Gareth Fry. Opened, reviewed May 19, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Edward Lionheart - Jim Broadbent Miranda Lionheart - Rachael Stirling Peter Devlin - Mark Lockyer George Maxwell - Paul Bentall Michael Merridew - Bette Bourne Sally Patterson - Hayley Carmichael Chloe Moon - Sally Dexter Trevor Dickens - Steve Steen Oliver Larding - Tim McMullan
With: Rachael Spence, Edward Woodall, Victoria Willing, Nick Haverson, Gerard Bell, Stephen Harper.
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