Brit Props

London
09.16.05

Left: In the back row, Allan Corduner as Danny, Alexis Zegerman as Tammy, Caroline Gruber as Rachel, and Nitzan Sharron as Tzachi. In the front row, Samantha Spiro as Michelle and John Burgess as Dave. Middle: Ben Caplan as Josh. Right: The play's poster.


The tease tactics that ran up to the opening of Mike Leigh’s first play in twelve years were incongruously akin to the short trailers before summer blockbusters, in which a baritone voice booms nonsensically while explosive vagaries of sex and violence whip across the screen, a far-off date hovering portentously. Giddy anticipation is inevitable, though even the nippers know that very little to justify it has been revealed. And so it went with the advance press for Two Thousand Years at the National Theatre, a play so mysterious that it didn’t have a title until two days before the first scheduled performance. It was known as A New Play by Mike Leigh, which of course is fine as a working title but looked mighty strange on the promotional poster pasted around the South Bank Centre, a poster that in itself sparked a daft and protracted media guessing game thanks to its image of a solitary palm tree in the desert. “Could it be about the war?” we salivated. All 16,000 available tickets were snapped up weeks in advance.

Since the first two performances were cancelled due to the director’s improvisational scripting technique and the play being “not ready” as a result (cue yet more instant buzz and column inches effortlessly filled), my plum spot in row J on the third night of previews turned out to be more special than even I had anticipated. Leigh was in the back corner nearest to the exit, as one might have expected. The National Theatre’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, was visibly nervous, sitting off to the side; a long-time crush of mine, the beautiful actress Natasha McElhone, waltzed past in an attention-grabbing quilted coat and four-inch wedge heels; film producer Eric Abraham and his wife Sigrid Rausing, the food packaging heiress and perhaps the wealthiest woman in Britain, had even better seats than me; and at my feet was an unidentifiable bald, obese fellow in a t-shirt that said STONED AGAIN in large blurred letters—the most intriguing and, I’d guess, given his who-cares demeanor, among the more important people in the room. Then Daniel Radcliffe—a.k.a. Harry Potter himself, an emblem, like Leigh, of British excellence and international success––sat down in my row. These days his appearance is about as emphatic a cause for patriotic flag-waving as Prince Charles’s. Hats off and huzzah!

Now that the trailer’s come and gone I should probably say whether Two Thousand Years was a super Spider-Man or a dead-in-the-water Godzilla. Well, thanks to ancient protocol the critics won’t be touching it until this weekend. The most that The Guardian (the protagonists' paper-of-choice) has ventured is that the play was “enthusiastically received.” Hmm. No shit. So we will have to wait until after the official premiere, when the critical floodgates open. We shall see if the intensely observed portrait of three generations of non-practicing Jews in a middle-class London suburb will make any sense to the general public; I’m sure the copious Hebrew and Yiddish won’t. We’ll see whether the onslaught of one dense, heady intellectual discussion after another covering Iraq, Israel, and even New Orleans, will serve a larger purpose or merely ease the minds of thespians wondering if they’re able to make a difference on the stage. I will say that Mike Leigh’s quiet, singular talents don’t benefit a bit from the decidedly un-British publicity machine that this play unwittingly set into motion. But I’d love to see the production again, if you happen to know where I could get a ticket.

William Pym