LONDON — Something extraordinary is happening on the London stage this summer. A few of the most resonant new plays to come around in quite a while also happen to be antiques.
OK, "new" is probably not the most accurate way to describe Friedrich Schiller's late 18th century domestic tragedy "Luise Miller," superlatively brought to life at the Donmar Warehouse. Nor is there anything contemporary about Henrik Ibsen's epic closet drama "Emperor and Galilean," bravely being assayed at the National Theatre, where a powerhouse hit has improbably sprung from Carlo Goldoni's 1746 comedy "The Servant of Two Masters," reworked by Richard Bean into the British romp "One Man, Two Guvnors."
But these offerings from the neglected repertory have an undeniable freshness, especially for an American who has grown tired of the familiar parade of pseudo classics (from Alfred Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy" to some of the more recent David Mamet retreads). It's hard to imagine any of our local artistic directors having faith that postwar British playwright Arnold Wesker's 1958 state-of-the-nation play, "Chicken Soup With Barley," fervently under examination at the Royal Court Theatre, could speak so directly to the political dilemmas of our own country in 2011. But then a full blood-and-guts engagement with the theatrical past hasn't exactly been a top priority for those busily planning their Broadway knockoff seasons.
To be utterly frank, I wasn't running to my matinee of "Luise Miller" with the greatest alacrity. Schiller is a writer I'm all too ready to consign to his corner of the canon. The curious thing is that whenever I read or see his work, I'm struck by the masterful way he interweaves political, philosophical and psychological observations. Still, I expected a first-rate Donmar Warehouse production of an outmoded play.
I was wrong. Not about Michael Grandage's pitch-perfect staging, but about "Luise Miller," which has been adapted by Mike Poulton from "Kabale und Liebe" ("Intrigue and Love" being the title that Schiller was persuaded to adopt for box office reasons). The play comes from a very different theatrical era, but it can still evidently thrive under the right conditions in our own.
This is Grandage's final year as artistic director of the modest-sized Covent Garden theater, which has disproportionately brought work to Broadway (including the Tony-winning drama "Red," "Hamlet" with Jude Law, and "Frost/Nixon"). And his handling of "Luise Miller" clarifies his great strength as a director -- the ability to focus the action around the play's central conflict. This might seem rather rudimentary, but Grandage's keen interpretive skills, as witnessed this spring in the Derek Jacobi-led "King Lear" at BAM, have a way of laying bare the essence of a work while revving up its narrative momentum.
The play revolves around the ill-fated romance between Luise Miller, daughter of a humble court musician, and Ferdinand, son of the chancellor, one of the most feared statesmen in the land. Their love is obstructed, just as Luise's father feared it might be, by political necessity. The chancellor demands that Ferdinand marry the prince's mistress to cover up the impropriety of this royal infidelity.
A work about purity and corruption, the play makes the great societal contest between egalitarian idealism and aristocratic realpolitik extremely personal. The drama is indeed laden with more melodramatic reversals than a prime-time soap opera, but the actors are so alive to what is at stake for their characters that even when the dramaturgy creaks, the truth of the work is never in doubt.
Grandage has cast his play as impeccably as he has understood it. Felicity Jones (a radiant young presence destined for stardom) captures the limpid tone of Luise's innocence. Better still, there's an otherworldly gravity to her ardor that presages her eventual doom. Max Bennett makes a princely Ferdinand, a white knight prepared to do battle against Ben Daniels' suavely malevolent chancellor.
'Luise' stands out
"Luise Miller" was the unexpected high point of my week of nonstop London theatergoing. I didn't get to see Grandage's acclaimed production of "Don Carlos" a few years back and I was only a cool admirer of the Donmar Warehouse "Mary Stuart" that was so well received on Broadway. But after this "Luise Miller," I can now lend credence to such a farfetched notion as Schiller our contemporary.
Director Jonathan Kent has a more formidable challenge at the National Theatre in mounting "Emperor and Galilean," a play that was written to be read rather than produced. Ibsen, who somewhat perversely considered this his "most important work," was liberating himself from the technical limits of the 19th century stage, an exercise that proved exceptionally useful as he went on to foment a revolution in realism with the great domestic prose plays that followed this unwieldy though not unworthy epic.