London theater, like Broadway, has had less than a banner year. No new Amadeus, The Real Thing, Cats or Nicholas Nickleby, no groundbreaking experience, has emerged to take the West End and then America by acclaim. The difference is that when Broadway falters, production slows to a trickle and half the theaters are dark. In London there is always plenty to see, including, at the moment, as many American musicals as on Broadway, at roughly a third of Broadway prices. Shows open and close more quickly in London than in New York City, where financial success usually depends on a long run: visitors earlier this summer could have enjoyed Liv Ullmann in Old Times, Charlton Heston in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Deborah Kerr in The Corn Is Green and Alan Bates in Dance of Death. Currently, Lauren Bacall is starring in Sweet Bird of Youth, and Vanessa Redgrave in The Seagull.
The West End offers at least one major new play, Breaking the Silence, and hit revivals of Harley Granville Barker's Waste, a dizzying story of political corruption, and Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, a cascade of coruscating epigrams coupled with glimpses of gymnasts, astronauts, concupiscent doctors and murdered rabbits, all in the arcane service of condemning modern epistemological philosophy.
Despite this commercial abundance, some of the hottest tickets are for productions at the subsidized National Theater and Royal Shakespeare Company. Both suffered cutbacks when their Arts Council grants were announced this spring, and the National's director, Peter Hall, temporarily closed his experimental Cottesloe stage. Some critics wondered if there might be a connection between the dispute and productions that have endorsed leftist views or attacked the conservatism of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The National's Pravda, for example, seems to say that the worst sin of Fleet Street is generosity toward Thatcher. The R.S.C.'s Today is a paean to men who abandoned their homes and families to fight as Communists in the Spanish Civil War.
The most conspicuous and skillful example of a leftward tilt is the R.S.C.'s anti-imperialist version of Shakespeare's celebration of conquest, Henry V. This was the text that Laurence Olivier used on film to rally his countrymen to nationalistic zeal. But in Director Adrian Noble's post-Falklands vision, the play becomes a chronicle of doomed and bloody consequences of meddling abroad. In its most striking visual image, the names of the dead from the Battle of Agincourt are inscribed on a scrim resembling the Viet Nam memorial wall in Washington. This sobering reminder of the wages of war remains onstage during the final lighthearted scenes, when the King shifts from fighter to lover, as if to mock his charm. The production is vigorous, persuasive, at moments unforgettable, and in Kenneth Branagh, 24, it features a potential heir to the legacy of Olivier, Richardson and Gielgud. Branagh has the animal magnetism of a leading man and the cerebral fire and ice of a character actor. He brings off the hortatory set pieces of command with howling fervor and excels at the gentle comedy of courtship, pouring his heart into the cracked vessel of his schoolboy French as he woos the French princess Katharine (Cecile Paoli).