Autumn theater offerings in London

Productions set: 'Othello,' 'Susan,' 'Rhinoceros'

Ewan McGregor gets real nasty

Shakespeare may not automatically spell box office bonanza, but the casting of the Donmar’s disarmingly unseasonable Christmas production certainly does. Michael Grandage production of “Othello” stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Moor pitted against Ewan McGregor as the arch manipulator who impugns the honor of the Desdemona of Kelly Reilly. (Pictured here is Paul Robeson in the title role.)

This project is very much a case of playing to strength. Grandage’s career took off with Shakespeare thanks to outstandingly fleet and passionate productions of “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It” for Sheffield Crucible. The upcoming “Othello” prorduction also reunites his “Don Carlos” and “Evita” team of Christopher Oram (production) and Paule Constable (lighting).

All three lead actors have worked with Grandage before. Ejiofor led the cast of “The Vortex,” Grandage’s first production upon taking over the Donmar, and he also played Othello while still a student. McGregor performed Sky Masterson in the Donmar’s West End production of “Guys and Dolls.” Likewise, Reilly played the title role in Grandage’s production of Patrick Marber’s Strindberg revamp “After Miss Julie.”

Grandage himself is no stranger to the text. In his previous life as an actor, he played Roderigo to Ian McKellen’s Iago and Willard White’s Othello for Trevor Nunn’s landmark RSC staging.

Not the Madonna stage musical

People have been after Deborah Harry for years to get the rights to her Blondie songs. But she has turned down every request — until now: Two days after producer Susan Gallin approached her with the concept of combining a stage version of “Desperately Seeking Susan” with the Blondie back catalog, Harry agreed. Indeed, she liked the idea so much, she wrote a new song.

Gallin hadn’t even been looking for a musical when Peter Michael Marino walked into her office, but after reading his half-page outline she immediately signed. “His combination of the movie and that music just made tremendous sense,” Gallin says.

Director Angus Jackson’s production — designed by Tim Hatley and lit by Hugh Vanstone, both of whom designed “Monty Python’s Spamalot” — is opening cold in the West End. But the producers have an ace up their sleeve. Not only has this show been through extended workshops, the first half of the preview period will only play Wednesday through Saturday a la “Billy Elliot.” The sked allows extensive rewrites to be rehearsed without the pressure of nightly performances.

Co-producer Mark Rubinstein is convinced that “DSS” is more than another jukebox show. “The book really works,” he claims. “It’s not some terrible contrivance to get the songs in. They really drive the story forward.”

The Royal Court’s scribes speak the language

The autumn highlight at the buoyant Royal Court is not one but two plays. Artistic director Dominic Cooke has boldly yoked “Rhinoceros” by French-Romanian dramatist Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994) to “The Arsonists” by Swiss playwright Max Frisch (1911-1994). Opening separately, they will run in tandem until Dec. 15 with the same cast performing both plays. Cooke helms the former, Ramin Gray the latter.

Cooke has a history of taking on large-scale projects. In 2006 he simultaneously directed one acting company in “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles” at the RSC, the same year his production of “The Crucible” waltzed away with Oliviers for play revival and director.

The fact that “The Arsonists” is better known as “The Fire-Raisers” points to Cooke’s fresh approach. These revivals boast brand-new translations. Instead of hiring a language specialist to provide a literal translation, which a playwright then gussies up into a “version,” Cooke’s translators, Martin Crimp and Alastair Beaton, are widely produced playwrights who speak the relevant language.

Leading both casts is Benedict Cumberbatch, whose movie career is rocketing. The plays open two weeks after the release of “Atonement,” in which he stars opposite Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Six days after the run ends, he’ll be seen in the U.S. in the Peter Morgan-scripted “The Other Boleyn Girl.”

Almodovar connects with the Old Vic

All About My Mother” is nothing short of a coup for the Old Vic. Samuel Adamson’s adaptation of the 2000 foreign-language Oscar winner is the first English-language theatrical production of a Pedro Almodovar movie and the first stage presentation of his work in 20 years.

Old Vic producer Kate Pakenham commissioned Adamson (“Southwark Fair”) to write one of the venue’s 24-Hour Plays. “Blown away” by the powerfully witty result, she immediately began developing future projects with him.

Instead of merely mimicking the movie, Adamson has amplified the original’s innate theatricality. Much of it is set in dressing-rooms, backstage and even onstage with scenes from Tennesee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Helmer Tom Cairns has fielded an A-grade cast headed by Lesley Manville as the mother who discovers a wealth of unexpected friends from a transvestite to a nun as she searches for a missing father. She’s joined by Diana Rigg, Mark Gatiss and Eleanor Bron, with Hildegard Bechtler designing and music by Almodovar’s longtime composer, Alberto Yglsias.

U.S. producer Dede Harris is onboard beside Daniel Sparrow, plus Pakenham and John Richardson for the Old Vic and Neal Street Prods. The play is clearly aiming for West End and Broadway afterlife.

Getting a head start on Spielberg and Jackson

Timing being everything, Christmas 2007 turns out to be perfect for the West End run of “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin.”

This year is the centenary of the birth of Herge, inventor of the plucky and uniquely coiffed adventurer whose stories have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. And his fame can only increase with Peter Jackson helming a trilogy of screen versions for Steven Spielberg beginning in 2010.

The production, directed by the eclectic Rufus Norris with the “An Inspector Calls” design team of Ian MacNeil and Rick Fisher, began life in 2005. At that time it was a Christmas show co-produced by the adventurous Young Vic theater and the Barbican BITE:05.

Based on the story “Tintin in Tibet,” the show features the key figures from the much-beloved series: the never-say-die hero, his trusty dog Snowy and the extravagantly fulminating Captain Haddock. Their friend Chang has disappeared in a plane crash in the Himalayas, and rumors are circling of Yeti prowling the peaks.

Buoyed by strong reviews and sellout houses, the production was reworked for a tour. The London run, produced by Sonia Friedman Prods., Mark Rubinstein, Michael Edwards & Carole Winter, Tulchin/Bartner Prods. and WTTP in association with Watford Palace Theater, arrives at the Playhouse theater Dec. 6.

The National Theater isn’t horsing around

Banking on a show with the leading role played by a horse might not seem wise, but that’s to reckon without the ingenuity promised by the National Theater production “War Horse.”

The life-size cane, plywood and aluminum equines, created by South African puppet company Handspring, have up to three manipulators and can carry human riders — all of which is essential for a story about a farm boy and his horse who end up serving in World War I, sometimes on opposing sides.

Based on the striking novel by the popular children’s author Michael Morpurgo, the adaptation — six drafts over two years of development — is by Nick Stafford and will be directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, both associate directors of the National Theater.

“No other company can make an animal puppet with this amount of believable life without having it speak in a ‘Lion King’ manner,” boasts Morris. These horses are silent, offset by lavish theatrical storytelling of an entire village going to war, depicted via everything from folksong to scenes played against a movie-style soundtrack.

Aimed at teenagers and adults, the show runs for a three-month season in the annual slot previously filled (to capacity) by SRO runs of the Philip Pullman “His Dark Materials” trilogy and then “Coram Boy.”

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