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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 24th May 2003

Henry V / The Lady From the Sea / Sexual Perversity in Chicago

The Spectator - 24th May 2003

I let out an involuntary groan of disappointment as soon as the curtain went up on Nicholas Hytner's production of Henry V. The opening scene is set in what's clearly supposed to be the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street and, sure enough, Adrian Lester comes strutting on in a grey, double-breasted suit, the very image of Tony Blair. "Oh no," I thought. "This is going to be one of those 'iconoclastic' versions of Henry V in which Shakespeare's patriotism is turned on its head. Instead of a celebration of England's greatest military victory we're going to be subjected to an attack on Blair's role in the war in Iraq."

I did my best not to rise to the bait. So what if Hytner's taken one of the sacred texts of British patriotism and turned it into a piece of left-wing agitprop? There's nothing new in that, I told myself. Michael Bogdanov staged a similar production of Henry V in the 80s in which he attacked Margaret Thatcher's Falklands campaign. In any case, Hytner's just posing as an anti-war protestor in order to provoke outrage, not because he actually believes in any of this crap. He's a professional controversialist, not a committed lefty, and if I work myself up into a state I'll just be playing his game. I held my breath and counted to ten.

But it was no good. By the end of the evening I'd been reduced to a spluttering, eye-popping rage. How dare he stage such an unpatriotic production of Henry V in the Royal National Theatre, I wanted to know? You wouldn't catch the French doing anything like that. And why attack Tony Blair when Saddam Hussein was so much worse? Why not a production of Macbeth set in Baghdad with Saddam as the Scottish tyrant? Heaven forbid that one of Britain's enemies should be attacked in our National Theatre rather than one of our leaders. To top it all, it was being staged in the Olivier. What would Laurence Olivier make of this production when his own film version was so heart-stoppingly patriotic? Spinning in his doublet, no doubt.

Even now, almost a week later, I find it difficult to write about the play without getting hot under the collar. The thing that irritates me the most isn't that Hytner decided to do something so attention-seeking, but that he imagines there's anything even vaguely newsworthy about this interpretation. In the 59 years since Olivier's film, the number of unpatriotic productions of Henry V must outweigh the patriotic ones by a ratio of ten to one. There's nothing remotely brave about yet another. Hytner isn't taking a stand against the conventional view of the play; he's expressing it. If he wanted to do something genuinely courageous, he would have staged a production of Henry V that celebrated Blair's part in overthrowing Saddam Hussein rather than condemned it. Now that would have been controversial.

It's too early to say, but it looks depressingly like Nicholas Hytner isn't going to be a patch on his predecessor as the National's artistic director. As if to confirm this, Trevor Nunn has just unveiled a superb production of The Lady From the Sea at the newly-refurbished Almeida. Starring Natasha Richardson in the title role, it's a beautifully staged version of a very well-constructed play. Nunn manages to tread a fine line between Ibsen's rather heavy-handed symbolism and his deft social comedy and is ably assisted in that regard by Tim McInnerny and Louisa Clein, two gifted comic actors. This is second only to Three Sisters as the best evening at the theatre currently available in London.

My one reservation is Natasha Richardson. She gives one of those all-out, no-holds-barred performances that some theatregoers absolutely adore, but I find a little difficult to watch. She doesn't overact, exactly, but she acts a bit too intensely, a bit too unselfconsciously. At times, it felt like too much--I never lost sight of a great actress giving a great performance, when what I wanted was for her to simply become the character. To be fair, though, by the end of the play I was completely absorbed in the drama and that was in no small part due to her.

At least Natasha Richardson takes a huge risk--she really puts herself out there-- which is more than can be said about Matthew Perry and Minnie Driver in Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The most striking thing about this production of what must be David Mamet's most feeble play is just how well-protected the two stars are. First of all, they're cast in the two secondary roles, the leads being played by Hank Azaria and Kelly Reilly. Secondly, for roughly 50% of the time they're protected from the audience by a sliding metal shield. The play consists of a series of very short scenes--it lasts about an hour and twenty minutes--and the shield snaps shut between each one. It's as if the two heartthrobs are so terrified of being mobbed by their fans, they can't risk exposing themselves to the audience for more than 30 seconds at a time. With so little to do, and with so little time to do it in, it's a wonder they didn't just stay in Hollywood.

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