LONDON — He may have come and gone here in the twinkling of a faux pas in July, but Donald J. Trump is still casting a very visible shadow over this city’s cultural landscape. American playgoers visiting London’s theaters in search of escapism may find that there’s an awful lot on this city’s stages to remind them of political frictions they only thought they’d left at home.
Anxieties about the surge of nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic are percolating through plays as different as “Imperium,” the Royal Shakespeare Company’s absorbing two-part adaptation of Robert Harris’s “Cicero Trilogy” of novels set in ancient Rome; and Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s “The Jungle,” an immersive piece that places its audience in the midst of an migrant encampment at Calais.
Even the latest comedy by Alan Bennett, “Allelujah!,” set in a geriatric ward, simmers with its author’s dismay about xenophobia in the age of Brexit. So did David Hare’s “The Moderate Soprano” (now closed), about the founding of the Glyndebourne music festival in the 1930s, and the invaluable contributions of German artists in creating what is perceived as a quintessentially English institution. (Mr. Hare’s play has acquired enhanced resonance with newly raised concerns over the impact of Brexit on the British classical music culture.)
The National Theater this summer has offered windows on American racism (with a rousing production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “An Octoroon”) and self-cannibalizing capitalism (the fabulous “Lehman Trilogy”), as well as Britain’s culturally invasive colonialism (in an exquisite revival of the Brian Friel masterwork “Translations.”)
Some of these productions are more blatantly topical than others. Consider that bloated guy with the surreal blond coif, for instance, who makes his entrance to knowing chuckles at the John Gielgud Theater these days, where “Imperium” runs through Sept. 8.
His name may be Pompey, and he may be a denizen of ancient Rome. But as a walking sight gag, described by another character as “a petulant child in the body of an aging man,” he’s as much an effigy of the sitting American president as the Angry Baby balloon that flew over Parliament Square during Mr. Trump’s brief recent visit.
“For God’s sake don’t laugh at his hair,” one Roman senator says to his secretary, which means the audience laughs all the louder.
That same senator — the legendary orator and philosopher Cicero (artfully played by the Tony and Olivier Award-winning actor Richard McCabe) — elicits further laughs, in a more regretful key, when he says of Pompey, “I doubt he could do much damage.”
Pompey turns out to be little more than comic relief here. Other characters, though, embody the more persuasive appeal of a populism that sounds uncomfortably familiar these days.
Take Catiline (Joe Dixon), the Roman senator and fiery demagogue who knows how to work up a restless mob. “I share your poverty,” declaims this wealthy son of aristocracy. “I feel your anger.” And: “Help me tear down the corrupt and moribund order of privileged people.”
Cicero, who has been observing this speechifying from the sidelines, makes a wry prediction for Catiline’s probable success. “Stupid people sometimes vote for stupid people,” he says. And the audience with which I saw the show broke into bountiful applause.
“Imperium,” directed by Gregory Doran, is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s second offering in recent years to evoke the political turmoil of a distant era as a mirror of our own. It follows in the stately wake of the much-lauded “Wolf Hall,” Mr. Poulton’s stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels set during the reign of Henry VIII.
Lacking the more intricately shaded characters of its predecessor, “Imperium” isn’t as fully gratifying as “Wolf Hall.” But it holds the attention with the sharp-nailed grip of a governmental soap opera like “House of Cards.”
And like the maligned Catiline, this vigorously paced show knows how to play to the crowd. It has been designed with eye-filling pageantry by Anthony Ward, and features some goosebump-raising set pieces, including one in which the dead Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey), bursts through the center of the floor as a talking, doomsaying statue.
The dialogue sometimes leans toward the clunk of sword-and-sandals films of the mid-20th century. Yet there’s a certain cathartic charm in seeing the moral squalor of present-day governments translated into a juicy melodrama that winds up in an orgy of destruction.
A different form of catharsis is on offer in “The Jungle,” which has transferred from the Young Vic to the Playhouse Theater in the West End. This intense evocation of the last days of the migrant encampment in Calais, France — directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin — places theatergoers in the heaving center of a provisional, teeming city of the dispossessed. (The convincingly detailed set is by the brilliant Miriam Buether.)
The show presents the points of view not only of the immigrants, who are trying to shape a home out of limbo, but of the do-gooding Britons who arrive in hopes of helping out. (It’s worth noting that the play’s young authors established a theater in the Calais encampment.)
The night I saw the show, there was little doubt that the helplessness and guilt of the British characters, who find themselves surrounded by fathomless and unresolvable suffering, were shared by many members of the audience. Theatergoers on all sides of me were crying in response to harrowing autobiographical monologues by actors playing refugees from Somalia and Afghanistan.
By the end, cast and audience seemed to have melted into one teary, sweaty blur, steeped in an oddly inspiring, paradoxical feeling of hopeful hopelessness. It will be interesting to see if Americans, who probably feel less immediately invested in the events of “The Jungle” than the British, will respond as emotionally when the production travels to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn at the end of this year.
In the meantime, Americans in London in search of a more comforting history lesson might find it in a play inauspiciously entitled “Pressure,” at the Ambassadors Theater. Written by and starring David Haig, this appealingly old-fashioned history drama is set during the 72 hours before the allied Operation Overlord invasion of Normandy in 1944.
The action takes place in Southwick House near Portsmouth, where Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (a fulminating Malcolm Sinclair) is about to give the signal for the momentous invasion that would be known as D-Day. But will the weather, which has been propitiously (and unusually) fine, continue to be so?
James Stagg (an immensely likable Mr. Haig), the Scottish meteorologist who has been brought in as an adviser and is well versed in the caprices of British weather, thinks not. His cocky American counterpart, Colonel Irving Krick (Philip Cairns) disagrees.
And a debate about such seemingly arcane matters as jet streams and barometric readings brings the audience to the edge of its seat, as characters keep reminding us that the lives of hundreds of thousands of troops hang in the balance. The collective sigh of relief that the audience emits at the end isn’t inspired only by the (spoiler alert) final success of the mission and vindication of Stagg.
I’ve no doubt that it also comes from the contentment of having been transported into a moment in history when a war seemed truly winnable; when the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States was in its honeymoon phase; and when the line between good guys and bad guys seemed fixed and unblurred. Distant times indeed.
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