Playwright heats up London

Which headline-grabbing playwright will make the biggest splash in the West End this fall? Er, William Shakespeare.

Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son is already making a splash in this year’s monsoon-like British summer. Open-to-the-elements venues the Globe and Regent’s Park Open Air Theater are carrying on regardless with productions of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in the former and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Macbeth” in the latter.

Thanks to producer Duncan Weldon, however, a second “Macbeth” will appear barely a month after the Regent’s Park production closes. Beginning Sept. 24, Patrick Stewart will headline Weldon’s transfer of Rupert Goold‘s ferocious but rapturously received production set in an underground military hospital.

First seen at Chichester Festival Theater’s Minerva Studio, this production of the Scottish play will have a strictly limited 10-week run at the Gielgud, because the theater is already committed to another Weldon/Chichester transfer: “Nicholas Nickleby,” which plays over Christmas before heading to Toronto.

A further Chichester transfer is also in the cards. The “Macbeth” cast has just opened in “Twelfth Night,” directed by Philip Franks with Stewart as a kilted Malvolio and Kate Fleetwood, his Lady Macbeth, as Olivia.

As Weldon told Variety, that production too might make it into the West End, subject to Stewart’s availability. Ironically, the project that might scupper the “Twelfth Night” transfer is a Broadway berth for “Macbeth” that Weldon is eyeing for 2007-08.

All that activity complements already-announced Shakespeares. Nicholas Hytner‘s “Much Ado About Nothing,” starring Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale, begins previews Dec. 10 at the National; Michael Grandage helms “Othello” at the Donmar (starting perfs Nov. 29); and Trevor Nunn‘s RSC “King Lear” with Ian McKellen weighs in on Nov. 12 at the New London Theater, the venue that housed Nunn’s “Cats” for more than two decades.

Back at the National, at least one living playwright is being revived. Although written in 1959, Harold Pinter‘s “The Hothouse” wasn’t staged until the playwright’s own production at Hampstead Theater in 1980. The author then starred alongside a startlingly funny Celia Imrie in David Jones‘ fleet-footed revival at the Comedy Theater.

By contrast, director Ian Rickson‘s typically detailed production is considerably more measured. As he proved with “The Weir” and “The Seagull,” Rickson is outstanding when mapping actors onto naturalistic writing. His control, however, is less certain with stylization. Lurching between comedy and terror, Pinter’s second full-length play needs a more architectural grip than it receives here.

At its weakest, the production’s more arch performances overplay passages of poetic self-consciousness. On the plus side, however, the perfectly meshed design team of Hildegard Bechtler (sets and costumes), Peter Mumford (lights), Stephen Warbeck (music) and Ian Dickinson (sound) pull off a considerable coup. They simultaneously deliver the setting of an anodyne institution with dingy, bleak, white-tiled corridors and impersonal, shabby rooms in a manner that is eerily beautiful.

The production also boasts one of the year’s acting highlights. Paul Ritter plays a character named Lush, a title that barely does justice to his performance. Comically louche and snide, his hilariously detailed grasp of extravagantly long sentences is a masterpiece of sustained comic timing.

At the same time, Ritter is effortlessly malevolent in a way that is almost a rebuke to some of the more mannered perfs around him. Whenever Ritter’s onstage, the rest of the cast raises its game, picks up its cues and lifts the dramatic stakes.

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