On London Stages, Brevity Reigns Supreme

LONDON — Theatrical convention has never mattered to Caryl Churchill, the questing English playwright who at 83 continues to display a maverick intelligence. “What If If Only,” her new play for her longtime home, the Royal Court, runs only 20 minutes — which is six minutes longer than was widely reported when the three-performer drama was first announced.

But Churchill manages to communicate so much about love and loss and the possibility — just maybe — of a brighter tomorrow that the play, on view through Oct. 23, seems utterly complete. Theatergoers could add value by combining this premiere with the British debut of the American writer Aleshea Harris’s blistering (and 90-minute) “Is God Is,” also playing on the Court’s main stage.

The text of Churchill’s play gives its characters names like “Someone” and “Future,” but the director James Macdonald’s ever-spry production cuts through any potential opacity. You understand in an instant the inconsolable despondency of John Heffernan, playing (superbly) a man in a one-sided conversation with someone dear to him who has died; a reference at the outset to painting an apple calls to mind Magritte, whose surrealism Churchill echoes.

Heffernan is visited in his bereavement by a beaming Linda Bassett, a mainstay of Churchill’s work here playing one of several versions of the future in a hypothetical multiverse that evokes the recently revived “Constellations,” a play that was first seen at the Court. Bassett reappears later, this time known only as “Present” and promising a reality that, “of course,” contains war — what reality doesn’t, she asks — alongside “nice things” like “movies and trees and people who love each other.” Are those verities enough in themselves to provide comfort? “What If If Only” isn’t sure, preferring not to traffic in certainty but in the mystery of existence that Churchill has once again marked out as her magisterially realized terrain.

Events, by contrast, couldn’t be more linear in “The Mirror and the Light,” the third and final installment in the saga of the Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell, as filtered through the beady eye of the novelist Hilary Mantel. The first two books in her trilogy were adapted into a pair of plays that ran in the U.K. and on Broadway, and this third play, at the Gielgud Theater through Jan. 23, presumably has Broadway in its sights as well. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.

Whereas “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” were adapted for the stage by a seasoned playwright, Mike Poulton, the completion of the triptych has been whittled down for theatrical consumption by Mantel herself, in collaboration with her leading man, Ben Miles, reprising the role of Cromwell. Both are first-time playwrights working with a skilled director, Jeremy Herrin, who has staged all three plays.

The result is a lot of filleting for a book in excess of 700 pages, and you often feel as if you’ve boarded a speeding train that is racing through its narrative stops. Keen-eyed playgoers might want to supplement this show with a visit to the popular musical “Six,” which chronicles Henry VIII’s much-married life from the ladies’ perspectives: Equal time seems only fair.

This non-singing account of the story begins at the end, which is to say with Cromwell not far from his beheading in 1540. We then rewind to allow for a speedy recap illustrating how Henry VIII’s once crucial aide-de-camp reached this baleful state. No doubt in an effort to avert musty history’s cramping the theatrical mood, characters’ relationships to one another are neatly laid out, leavened where possible with jokey repartee. Dream sequences bring in such ghostly personages as Cardinal Wolsey (a droll Tony Turner) and Cromwell’s father, Walter (Liam Smith).

The aim is presumably a modern-day equivalent of the history play cycle of which Shakespeare was the master, as makes sense for a drama presented on the West End in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The problem is a narrative compression so extreme that the story barely has time to breathe, paired with an ensemble overly prone to shouting: Nicholas Boulton’s blustery Duke of Suffolk is on particular overdrive throughout.

Things improve with Nathaniel Parker’s increasingly irascible Henry VIII, who is seen changing wives — scarcely has he married the ill-fated Jane Seymour (Olivia Marcus) before he’s on to Anna of Cleves (a cool-seeming Rosanna Adams) — while Miles’s Cromwell watches from the sidelines, too often this time a supporting player in his own story. Christopher Oram won a Tony in 2015 for his costumes for the two-part “Wolf Hall,” and his work here similarly suggests a Holbein portrait or two come to life.

For sheer illumination, however, it’s left to Jessica Hung Han Yun’s elegant lighting to sear the stage, lending intrigue and import even when the hurtlingly superficial play has careered off course.

A grievous chapter from our own recent history is on view through Nov. 6 on the Olivier stage of the National Theater, where the protean director Dominic Cooke (“Follies,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) has revived the AIDS-era drama “The Normal Heart.” This is the first major production of Larry Kramer’s momentous 1985 play since its pioneering author died last year.

Kramer’s crusading spirit lives on in the impassioned Ned Weeks (the English actor Ben Daniels, in fiery, wiry form), the author’s obvious alter ego, who is seen galvanizing a reluctant New York community (The New York Times included) about the peril posed by AIDS in the early years of that pandemic. The production employs a peculiar Brechtian device that has each scene introduced by the actors in their own accents before they morph into their characters: All that does is illustrate the difficulty some of the cast has with the American sounds required.

Still, there’s no denying the roiling fury of a wordy play running close to three hours that now as then works as both a call to arms and a requiem: a testament to the durability of people under siege as well as to their fragility. “There’s so much death around,” says Ned, a remark that Churchill’s “Someone” would himself surely recognize, even as both characters find themselves in plays that pulsate with life.

What If If Only. Directed by James Macdonald. Royal Court Theater, through Oct. 23.

The Mirror and the Light. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. Gielgud Theater, through Jan. 23.

The Normal Heart. Directed by Dominic Cooke. National Theater, through Nov. 6.



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