Yet an­other Bri­tish in­va­sion

The lat­est crop of ver­sa­tile English ac­tors puts U.S. ac­tors at a dis­ad­van­tage.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES McNULTY THEATER CRITIC

This year, the dis­cus­sion around the Academy Awards was all about the un­bear­able white­ness of be­ing an act­ing nom­i­nee. The Tony Awards can hardly brag about di­ver­sity. It’s never a good sign when a re­vival of “The King and I” is the mul­ti­cul­tural bright spot.

If there hasn’t been the same del­uge of con­dem­na­tory op-eds for the Tonys’ lack of in­clu­sive­ness, it may be be­cause theater folks are silently con­tend­ing with an­other em­bar­rass­ing cul­tural mat­ter: the Bri­tish re-col­o­niza­tion of our act­ing prizes.

The math speaks for it­self: Of the 10 nom­i­nees in the lead ac­tor and actress cat­e­gories for drama, five

are English. Had half the nom­i­nees been African Amer­i­can or Latino or Asian, the year no doubt would have been her­alded as an­other mile­stone. But when our an­ces­tral over­lords take 50% of the pie, it barely elic­its a peep.

Broad­way An­glophilia is cer­tainly not new. With its tra­di­tion of the­atri­cal ex­cel­lence, Bri­tain has long been ex­port­ing its top-tier thes­pi­ans to our shores, and this tal­ent has cul­ti­vated a taste for lan­guage tautly de­liv­ered and wit served ex­tra dry.

Yet the cur­rent wave of Bri­tish stars, the one that in­cludes Os­car and Tony win­ner Ed­die Red­mayne, plus Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, Carey Mul­li­gan and Felic­ity Jones, stands apart from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. Although com­fort­able with clas­sic and con­tem­po­rary stage work, they are equally at home in front of the cam­era. They might not have the same panache of their il­lus­tri­ous the­atri­cal for­bears, but they seem more emo­tion­ally sup­ple and are ca­pa­ble of cry­ing real tears.

Ian McKellen made head­lines a few years back warn­ing that, with the demise of reper­tory theater in Bri­tain, there’s lit­tle chance of an­other Derek Ja­cobi, Michael Gam­bon or Judi Dench emerg­ing. Far be it from me to con­tra­dict Sir Ian, but Chi­we­tel Ejio­for, Rory Kin­n­ear and Sally Hawkins are prov­ing him spec­tac­u­larly wrong.

Com­mut­ing from TV and film to theater, th­ese rel­a­tively young guns have merged the best of Amer­i­can and Bri­tish styles. Im­pres­sively bilin­gual, they switch back and forth be­tween Shake­spearean elo­quence and Method mum­bling.

One can dis­cern the dif­fer­ence in this year’s Tony nom­i­nees. Rep­re­sent­ing the Bri­tish old guard are He­len Mir­ren, front-run­ner for the lead actress award for once again play­ing Queen El­iz­a­beth II (this time in Peter Mor­gan’s play “The Au­di­ence”), and Bill Nighy, who stars op­po­site Mul­li­gan in the top-notch re­vival of David Hare’s “Sky­light.”

Th­ese two daz­zling vet­er­ans deploy all the tricks of their trade. Mir­ren, in a per­for­mance much broader than her Os­car-win­ning por­trayal of the same char­ac­ter in “The Queen,” de­liv­ers a royal tour de force that has lively, hu­mor­ous fun with the Bri­tish monarch’s fa­mous re­straint. (At one point, she dis­creetly breaks into a jig.) The play doesn’t paint a very con­vinc­ing por­trait of this El­iz­a­beth, but Mir­ren strate­gi­cally hu­man­izes what is es­sen­tially an en­ter­tain­ing holo­gram.

No one’s hands are as busy on Broad­way th­ese days as Nighy’s. Re­turn­ing to a char­ac­ter he has por­trayed be­fore, he is se­duc­ing au­di­ences with his tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­ity, crunch­ing on all those crisp con­so­nants in Hare’s talky script while wield­ing his wiry body like a con­duc­tor’s ba­ton. Nighy knows his char­ac­ter in­side out, but his per­for­mance is mem­o­rable pri­mar­ily as a feast of flam­boy­ant act­ing.

Con­trast th­ese sea­soned pros with their nom­i­nated younger com­pa­tri­ots and you’ll find an act­ing style that is less con­scious of the au­di­ence and more her­met­i­cally at­tuned to a char­ac­ter’s long­ings and am­bi­tions. Th­ese ac­tors seem to spe­cial­ize in what Method pro­gen­i­tor Stanislavsky called “soli­tude in public.”

In the role of a self-made restau­ra­teur with con­ser­va­tive lean­ings who tries to re­sume an old love af­fair af­ter his wife has died, Nighy bounces around the apart­ment set like a Tory dervish. Mul­li­gan, in one of her most dis­ci­plined per­for­mances to date, doesn’t try to com­pete but, rather, sinks deeper into char­ac­ter, al­low­ing us to glimpse the in­vis­i­ble battle be­tween her pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and her un­re­solved ro­man­tic feel­ings.

My Tony vote, how­ever, would go to Ruth Wil­son, nom­i­nated for her por­trayal of a Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist who re­ceives some very bad med­i­cal news in Nick Payne’s “Con­stel­la­tions.” This in­ven­tive drama imag­ines vari­a­tions of scenes be­tween her char­ac­ter and a be­sot­ted bee­keeper played by Jake Gyl­len­haal, testing whether in a uni­verse of in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­ity, this love story might have a chance of cir­cum­vent­ing its tragic fate.

Wil­son doesn’t traf­fic in stereo­types of fe­male sci­en­tists but plays in­stead a woman, as abra­sive as she is soft, who just hap­pens to be as­ton­ish­ingly gifted in math and science. Her per­for­mance is im­pres­sively nat­u­ral­is­tic yet fleet enough to han­dle the stylis­tic chal­lenges of a work that re­fuses to play by re­al­ism’s rules.

Although the Tony is likely to go to ei­ther Amer­i­can Alex Sharp in the Bri­tish im­port “The Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent of the Dog in the Night-Time” or Bradley Cooper in “The Ele­phant Man,” Ben Miles, a Bri­tish stage ac­tor now en­ter­ing his vin­tage prime, would be my pick for lead ac­tor in a play. Play­ing Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall,” the two-part adap­ta­tion of Hi­lary Man­tel’s cel­e­brated nov­els about the Machi­avel­lian go­ings-on in Henry VIII’s court, Miles man­ages in a plot-heavy dra­matic marathon to shed light on a com­pli­cated, much-mis­un­der­stood his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. The great Mark Ry­lance has be­come the face of Cromwell to many, thanks to the Bri­tish minis­eries re­cently shown on PBS, but it was through Miles’ al­ways dig­ni­fied, sub­tle char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that the com­moner turned royal fixer sprang to life.

Although there’s ob­vi­ously no short­age of bril­liant ac­tors in this coun­try, the U.S. no longer has a mo­nop­oly on the grit­ti­ness that once set our per­form­ers apart. Amer­i­can re­al­ism has seeped into the world’s cul­tural reser­voir through movies and tele­vi­sion, yet our artists have been a lit­tle too con­tent to stick to their own patch of ground. This has put Amer­i­can ac­tors at a de­cided dis­ad­van­tage when the role be­ing es­sayed is el­e­vated in some way, when ev­ery­day folksi­ness is not the ul­ti­mate goal, when flu­ency and in­tel­li­gence are set above the com­mon rung.

One could con­cede that Red­mayne’s English­ness gave him an edge in play­ing the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing in “The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing ” or that Cum­ber­batch’s ac­cent was just right for math­e­ma­ti­cian Alan Tur­ing in “The Imi­ta­tion Game.” But surely there were many African Amer­i­can ac­tors up to the chal­lenge of play­ing Martin Luther King Jr. in the film “Selma.” King’s soar­ing or­a­tory, how­ever, came nat­u­rally to Oyelowo, schooled in El­iz­a­bethan ca­dences at the Lon­don Academy of Mu­sic and Dra­matic Art.

Glob­al­iza­tion keeps leav­ing Yanks in the lurch. While “Break­ing Bad” is avail­able ev­ery­where, Shake­speare re­mains the pin­na­cle in Bri­tain. “The Hol­low Crown,” the se­ries of Bri­tish tele­vi­sion films in which Shake­speare’s his­tory plays have been re­vi­tal­ized, has be­come a show­case for this ag­ile new gen­er­a­tion.

By sub­merg­ing them­selves in the metaphor­i­cally rich rhetoric of the Wars of the Roses cy­cle, Ben Whishaw, Tom Hid­dle­ston, Kin­n­ear and Cum­ber­batch have en­larged their ca­pac­ity as in­ter­pre­tive artists. That’s not some­thing that read­ily hap­pens with stu­dio movies or even the bet­ter TV shows. Shake­speare, it turns out, can still boost pop­u­lar­ity: Cum­ber­batch’s com­ing per­for­mance as Ham­let on the Lon­don stage this sum­mer has the buzz of the Bea­tles’ first ap­pear­ance on “The Ed Sul­li­van Show.”

The mu­si­cal is the one area in which Amer­ica hasn’t lost its pre­dom­i­nance. But as the Brits bring home more of our award bric-a-brac, it has be­come in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent how a lack of di­ver­sity — in both de­mo­graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion and act­ing ver­sa­til­ity — is caus­ing us to come up short.

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

HE­LEN MIR­REN is a front-run­ner for a Tony.

ED­DIE RED­MAYNE has won Tony and Os­car.

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