The cushion of state money let the Hampstead and Donmar playhouses develop broad programs with international reach. Now they must find creative ways to play on.
LONDON — Standing ovations at London theaters are drearily routine these days, but I experienced one a few weeks ago that felt genuinely impassioned. I’m thinking of the fervent audience response to a new two-character play, “Blackout Songs,” on Hampstead Theater’s intimate second stage. (The show runs at the 100-seat Hampstead Downstairs until Dec. 10.)
Chronicling the bruised and bruising relationship between two self-destructive drinkers who meet at an A.A. meeting, Joe White’s spiky tragicomedy is impressive on several fronts. Its performers, Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries, fearlessly inhabit two restless lovers trying to stave off psychic and physical ruin. The writing plays with time, asking the audience to piece together a fragmented narrative that views these characters — unnamed until the very end — at critical points as they ricochet in and out of each other’s lives.
The play asks a lot of the two actors, who meet its demands with force. But there was an additional reason for the palpable excitement in the house at the show’s end that night. The excellence of the show dealt a direct rebuke to the still fresh news of major cuts in government subsidies for arts institutions across London, in which the Hampstead lost its entire grant. Work like “Blackout Songs” is what the Hampstead exists to do, and suddenly the theater felt at risk.
The same fate befell the venerable Donmar Warehouse, another small theater with an outsize reach. Might the activity of two playhouses so crucial to the theatrical ecosystem — not just in London — be somehow curtailed? Would they have to become safer, less adventurous?
Both houses have long shown their importance, here and overseas. Equipped with three auditoriums between them (the Hampstead has a 370-seat main stage as well), they have generated a substantial body of work, sending shows from London into the world and also offering homes to shows from abroad. The Donmar has just staged the European premiere of “The Band’s Visit”; a second American musical, “Next to Normal,” is scheduled to arrive there next year.
To cut these theaters’ subsidies is to advocate, willingly or not, for shrunken ambitions. Philanthropy and commercial activities can pick up the slack, of course, as in the United States. But donor bases don’t arrive overnight. The cushion of state money let the Hampstead and the Donmar develop broad programs with international reach. Unless the theaters tread carefully, the effects of the cut will be felt far beyond London.
I can easily see international producers snapping up “Blackout Songs,” not least because its compactness — two characters, one set — is attractive financially. But the director Guy Jones’s production sets the bar high. On a bare stage with just a few chairs, the play’s jagged, nonlinear style is accompanied by whiplash shifts in mood that Humphries and the compellingly volatile Austin capture with ease. The impact couldn’t be stronger, prompting the best sort of guessing game about where the play might end up next.
The Hampstead has a history of birthing plays that have entered the theatrical canon. Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” and Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party” premiered there, as did Harold Pinter’s seminal two-hander, “The Dumb Waiter.” The flow of writing works both ways: The Hampstead has hosted multiple American Pulitzer Prize-winners and finalists, including Marsha Norman, Martyna Majok, Tony Kushner and Stephen Karam.
“The Humans,” the Karam play that won the 2016 Tony Award, traveled to the Hampstead in 2018 with its American cast. An earlier Karam play, “Sons of the Prophet,” will receive an overdue British premiere on the Hampstead’s main stage on Dec. 12: further evidence of that two-way traffic.
Sure, not every Hampstead offering has been of comparable value. It has faltered of late with plays like “The Breach” and “The Snail House,” two misfires from Naomi Wallace and Richard Eyre; the current main stage play, Rona Munro’s history-minded “Mary,” is beautifully directed by the Hampstead’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, but doesn’t galvanize the audience as “Blackout Songs” does downstairs. (It also requires more background knowledge of Mary, Queen of Scots and her court than most playgoers will possess.)
Still, it’s important to the Hampstead to program a range of work across its two theaters and throughout the year. “What’s the point of a theater not having shows?” Greg Ripley-Duggan, the Hampstead’s executive producer, said pointedly by phone this week. But, he added, the lost subsidy was “an awful lot of money to make up, and to make up from one year to the next. The business model is going to have to change radically.”
An absence of state funding will mean greater reliance on corporate and individual philanthropy, and pressure on ticket prices in a city where playgoing — especially away from the West End — is still reasonably affordable. Tickets for “Blackout Songs” can be had for about $12, a sum unheard-of in New York.
Across town at the Donmar, a recent 30th-anniversary gala fell within days of the funding cut announcement, and the playhouse’s current and former artistic directors took to the stage at the event to celebrate the 251-seat powerhouse and argue for its survival. The Donmar is also lucky to be hosting a show just now that plays to its strengths: “The Band’s Visit.” On view through Dec. 3, the production is the first musical at this address from its current artistic director, Michael Longhurst, whose career spans both sides of the Atlantic, much like the Donmar itself. “Frost/Nixon” and “Red” are just two Broadway hits first seen there, as was Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” which is now back onstage in New York through Feb. 5.
“The Band’s Visit” has gone in the other direction. Much lauded on Broadway, this adaptation of a 2007 Israeli movie of the same name has an unshowy sweetness that suits the intimacy of the Donmar — all the better for a musical set in an Israeli backwater that is transformed by the unexpected appearance of a group of Egyptian musicians lost on their way to somewhere else.
Like “Blackout Songs,” this loving reappraisal of “The Band’s Visit” brought the audience to its feet. Let’s hope the Donmar, and the Hampstead, find creative ways to play on.
Blackout Songs. Directed by Guy Jones. Hampstead Downstairs through Dec. 10.
The Band’s Visit. Directed by Michael Longhurst. Donmar Warehouse through Dec. 3.
Source: Theater - nytimes.com