LONDON — It was a good theater year for the Greeks, George W. Bush and the resurgence of the West End musical, which is just one way of summing up the London stage during 2004, which offered an indecent number of moments to savor.
What, you’re feeling Scrooge-like? Well, there was certainly plenty that fell awfully flat, from Michael Hastings’ dreary “Calico,” a dismaying literary drama that managed to waste even the wondrous Imelda Staunton, to the London stage preem of “Fuddy Meers,” an event virtually entirely lacking in laughs that left not just Brit spectators befuddled. (Make that befuddyled.)
Imogen Stubbs’s staggeringly bad “We Happy Few,” with its faux-“Follies” opening, aimed to pay homage to the theater and merely left audiences wanting to never set foot again near a playhouse, while Dutch scribe Maria Goos’ “Cloaca” got Kevin Spacey’s much-vaunted Old Vic regime off to a halting start. Sometimes, the show didn’t deserve the production it got (“The Woman in White” trapped a potentially bracing chamber musical in a bloated, lazy staging), while other ventures — Rufus Norris’ career-making directorial way with “Festen,” most spectacularly — posed an object lesson in style over substance: The eye was seduced while the mind was left to wonder, is that all there is?
The Almeida’s “Brighton Rock” was the musical dud of the year, while too many Hampstead Theater entries rivaled one another for reigning straight-play stinker. (Nick Stafford’s “Love Me Tonight” is the dubious victor in that category.)
But with a new year upon us, here are four reasons to put the turkeys behind us as we toast the London theater in 2004. After all, if you can’t be optimistic at the start of the year, when can you?
1. Katie Mitchell
This phenomenal director scaled the heights of the classical canon in 2003 with Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” and returned to the National’s Lyttelton auditorium to achieve the same success in 2004, this time with a far less well-known play, “Iphigenia in Aulis.” The play signaled a resurgence of interest in its author, Euripides (the Donmar staged an emotionally cool, overly chic “Hecuba,” starring Clare Higgins) and was revitalized for keeps by Mitchell, whose staging was sassy and yet deeply serious, its tale of familial sacrifice of a piece with a thematically larger, truly timeless drama about the winds of war that blow no less bruisingly today.
2. George W. Bush
Even as many of us mourned Dubya’s continued occupancy of the White House, he performed memorable double duty on the London stage. In April, there he was at the Hampstead in the gleaming-eyed presence of U.K. TV name Jason Durr, who, on the evidence of the scattershot satirical revue “Follow My Leader,” has a new career as a political impersonator should he want one.
Alex Jennings, of all people, stepped even more memorably into Dubya’s theocratic shoes in David Hare’s “Stuff Happens,” the English thesp treating the American president with a respect that actually forced one to reconsider the appeal of Bush fils. It’s not often that a British stage makes you understand anew the American political process, but to watch Jennings’ shrewd, cunning turn in Nicholas Hytner’s ever-alert production was to understand Dubya’s hold over the U.S. electorate, no matter how alarming that might be.
3. The Royal Court
OK, it may not be as cozy as the Donmar or as glam as the Almeida, but Ian Rickson’s Sloane Square venue hit the bull’s-eye time and again during the year just gone, with plays as diverse as “Honeymoon Suite,” “The Weather” and a short shock of an evening known as “Bear Hug,” which made something both antic and subversive of anthropomorphism.
A league apart was “Shining City,” the first play in four years from Irishman Conor McPherson, the author of “The Weir” here spinning as urban a yarn as that earlier play was rural. McPherson’s concerns, however, remain the ongoing presence in life of people presumed dead, his style a mixture of the contemplative and the eerily charged. Among the cast of four, the expansive Stanley Townsend shone as a fiftysomething salesman who arrives at the office of a Dublin therapist wanting to ease his conscience, only to realize the path to salvation takes many, sometimes shocking turns.
4. Great acting from … Americans?!?
Britain always hosts a feast of thesping, so it was interesting to find so much outstanding London acting in 2004 coming from Americans. Julia Stiles made something coherent for the first time in my experience of the rampaging Carol in Lindsay Posner’s smart West End revival of “Oleanna,” whose tragic arc was there to be gleaned at the outset from the young thesp’s anxious, frustrated eyes.
As the roaring paterfamilias Dodge in the National’s revival of “Buried Child,” the great M. Emmet Walsh suggested himself as a natural for Beckett or Shakespeare. And master classes in musical finesse were offered, first, by Barbara Cook, who brought her latest concert show to London not once but twice, and, toward the end of the year, in an eleventh-hour rescue operation by Nathan Lane.
All but abseiling into the Theater Royal Drury Lane in the wake of Richard Dreyfuss’s sudden departure to pick up the pieces of the London preem of “The Producers,” Lane showed you can’t affix a nationality (or a pricetag) to so amorphous a thing as genius. The guy just is one, plain and simple. And even the bad back that last week led to Lane’s premature departure from the show in no way lessens the brio this American butterball brought to London.
Happy new year.