First NIghter: Two Big Treats at London's Globe, Two Mistreats Elsewhere

LONDON -- Even before William Shakespeare's so-called "problem play" Measure for Measure gets properly underway at the Globe, director (and company artistic director) Dominic Dromgoole has loosed on the audience what looks and sounds like a musical 16th-century orgy attended by various bawds and Lords (Lawds?).

Then Duke Vincentio (the dashing and amusing Dominic Rowan) appears to declare he's going on sabbatical -- but really going undercover to assess the state of his turbulent Venice -- and announces he's appointing Antonio (Kurt Egyiawan) deputy. Immediately he's off to check out a realm far-gone in debauchery.

Representing the louche state of things are the likes of the gossipy Lucio (Brendan O'Hea, walking with comic eccentricity in an hilarious green ensemble, courtesy of designer Jonathan Fensom and looking very much like a period drawing now on display at the British Museum). Also waxing decadent like crazy are the sexually indefatigable Mistress Overdone (Petra Massey, raunchy in white face) and the anything-goes Pompey (Trevor Fox).

Shakespeare has his strategies, of course. In contrast to the licentious town behavior, he introduces chaste novitiate Isabella (the beautifully articulate Marian Gale), who's eventually asked to spare her harshly condemned brother Claudio (Joel MacCormack). He's impregnated fiancée Juliet (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) while they're enmeshed in a wedding ceremony technicality. Now his only hope for leniency on the out-of-wedlock charge is Isabella's agreeing to surrender her virginity to power-overwhelmed Vincentio.

The situation is what renders the Bard's M4M problematic, since Isabella's reluctance to accede tends to try contemporary theatergoers' patience. But Dromgoole mitigates that by keeping everything lively. Hilarity almost constantly reigns, as it did when former Globe artistic director Mark Rylance played the Duke in a 2004 Measure for Measure production.

Dromgoole has found his own way to go about it. Bravo to him and his entire marauding team.
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The way Jessica Swale sees things, Charles II and his famous, not to say infamous, mistress Nell Gwynn, the orange-seller/prostitute who became one of the first women of the London stage, truly loved each other from the moment he met her after being entranced by her performing.

Swale presents her version, based pretty much on the known facts, as the double-entendre-stuffed Nell Gwynn, also at the Globe. And it's not just any old comedy. It's a new and all but thoroughly hilarious comedy- with-music (composer Nigel Hess), staged with brimming life by Christopher Luscombe, who knows exactly how to command a troupe of skilled players.

Cleverly, Swale alternates scenes where Nell (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Charles (David Sturzaker) become enamored of each other against the resistance of crafty advisor Lord Arlington (David Rintoul), fuming Queen Catherine (Sarah Woodward) and replaced mistress Lady Castlemaine (Sasha Waddell) with backstage and on-stage scenes involving King's Company leading actor and earlier Gwynn lover Charles Hart (Jay Taylor), general manager Thomas Killigrew (Richard Katz), previous company male leading lady (Greg Haiste), company dresser and reluctant player Nancy (Amanda Lawrence), actor-in-training Ned Spigget (Angus Imrie) and none other than John Dryden (Graham Butler) in his developing days

Swale secures the rampant fun by underpinning the focal love story with a crucially human sequence wherein Nell presses Charles to confess that though he has a full and enjoyable life as monarch, he remains a man who, when a boy, watched his father have his head removed in public. He readily confides in Nell because Swale presents her as someone who insists on talking to him not as a subject but as an equal.

If there's anything wrong with Nell Gwynn, it's so minor as to be not worth considering, whereas everything that's right is due as well to the playing -- especially by the charming Mbatha-Raw -- and to Hugh Durrant's set and costumes and Charlotte Bloom's choreography.

Nell Gwynn is included in the Globe season for its obvious pertinence to London theater history, but it would be a disappointment were it not recognized as a first-rate work worthy of being produced wherever there are audiences eager for a cracking-good time.
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Rupert Goold must have had something viable in mind when he approached Rachel Cusk to come up with a new version of Medea for the Almeida. He gives an idea of whatever it was in a program note about the personal being irreversibly political and, in the case of the Euripides play, its carrying within it potential for a feminist slant.

Unfortunately, his objective -- and Cusk's -- isn't convincingly realized in what they've wrought. It's more of a jumble than anyone would hope. Starting with a contemporary Medea (Kate Fleetwood, trying hard), garbed in street clothes and flanked by parents expressing no sympathy for her recent divorce, Cusk goes on to several confrontations the bitter woman has with her ex, Jason (Justin Salinger). The fight fests continue at mounting volume until Medea has reached her wit's end, and, sad the say, the audience has reached its.

In the meantime, a women's chorus (Sarah Belcher, Ruth Everett, Georgina Lamb, Emily Mytton) circulate carrying infants (or that's what it looked as if they were carrying). Perhaps also speaking on their behalf, a cleaning woman (Michele Austin) airs her distaff woes.

It does appear that Medea, as Euripides requires, murders her children -- after sending a choker to Jason's new inamorata -- but patrons learn the boys (played alternately by Guillermo Woodward, Xavi Moras Spencer, Lukas Rolfe, Louis Sayers, Sam Smith, Joseph West) may have snuffed themselves as a result of divorced-kids despair. Huh? What?

When Goold and Fleetwood collaborated some years back on their bloody, medieval-kitchen-sink Macbeth, they struck pay dirt. This time they've just struck out.
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The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain has been around for 60 years, giving opportunities to young hopefuls who otherwise might not have the chances for an acting career.

In other words, it's a valuable institution. How valuable, however, comes into question when this year's London season at Ambassadors Theatre includes an evisceration of Charlotte Bronte's great and gloomy Wuthering Heights. It's tempting to call this revision inexplicable, but, as it happens, there is an obvious explanation for Stephanie Street's obscenity-ridden reimagining of the ill-fated Catherine Earnshaw-Heathcliff love affair in windswept northern England.

The NYT's slogan -- or one of them -- being "We are classics reimagined," Street has gone about reimagining a modern-day version undoubtedly because she and director Emily Lim believe that getting young audiences interested in attending theater requires speaking to them in a contemporary vernacular. Hence, the woebegones Cathy and Heathcliff liberally salt-and-pepper their speeches with four- and seven-letter words. (There are no 12-letter words included, and thank heaven for small mercies.)

This means that at one point Cathy strikes out at her nanny Ellen by calling the vigilant woman "a f*****g drama queen." On the other hand, Street never mentions moors and leaves out Cathy's declaration, "I am Heathcliff." Shame on her for so cavalierly trashing one of literature's greatest novels.

Street's notion to have Cathy and Heathcliff each played in today's street clothes by five actors isn't a bad one and conveniently gives roles to that many more members of this year's good-looking and promising troupe. Cathy is Francene Turner, Megan Parkinson, Grace Surey, Paris Iris Campbell and Lauren Lyle. Heathcliff is Gavi Singh Chera, Conor Neaves, Luke Pierre, Oscar Porter-Brentford and Oliver West.

Were there such a thing as a literary police force, paddy wagons would be pulling up to the theater right now.