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The British on Broadway

Gina Allum
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  • Arts
  • Last updated: Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 12:28 pm

115949008 238x300 The British on BroadwayThe British are colonizing New York all over again – with branches of Prêt à manger, and with theatrical productions. Warhorse has cantered off with six Tony awards, the fanboys flock to see Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, and now the RSC have an unprecedented six-week residency in Manhattan. But how is the Brit shtick really going down in the stalls? Do the Americans really, like, get where we’re coming from?

New York: the city that never sleeps. Except when watching Shakespeare. Actually that’s more than a little unfair – I just happened to be sitting near a family (typical on both sides of the Atlantic) giving their kids a culture fix the way one might administer a dose of cod liver oil. The teens’ response, not unreasonably, was extravagant lounging, and stealthy playing of Angry Birds.

A pity, as Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet has a real whiff of teen spirit (Romeo: moody, in a hoodie; Juliet: petulant, hormonal). The foyer feedback, however, was that this very childishness, received on transatlantic wavelength as brattishness, somewhat diminished the tragedy. A little less messy reality would seem to be the order of the day.

The RSC’s elaborate temporary camp is on the rarefied Upper East Side, far from the heaving press of Times Square: the Park Avenue Armory is a military-turned-cultural fortress. Our thesps quickly fell foul of their hosts, however, in their attempt to graft a hectare or two of the Forest of Arden on to Park. Animal rights groups scotched the rabbit-skinning in As You Like It, which bunny lovin’ seems a bit rich in a town unusually dedicated to the consumption of fleisch.

Such purblind sentiment over animals is clearly one reason why War Horse is so successful in the city. It is undeniably ingenious – the horses’ every twitch realised by the puppeteers -  and harrowing to watch the great horse puppets translate to the carcasses of World War One. The quiet ensemble acting and the simplicity of its staging must be a refreshing detox after a blowout on Broadway. But a great piece of writing for theatre it is not.

The USA-made Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo didn’t play out nearly so well with the punters. In this play, another innocent beast exposes the horror of a closer, more contemporaneous and less glorious war.  One message board reaction was “If you Hate the war, Hate this country and Hate God, You will love this play!” The violent capitalizations attest to the visceral strength of feeling, the prickly patriotism. Americans can enjoy War Horse because it is “another country”.

Though quite where that country is, is another question. The Yanks have terrific difficulty with British regional accents (as Cheryl Cole found to her cost). In War Horse the US cast abandons all hope of reaching Devon, and instead settles on Ireland, as being quite westerly enough. To English ears this is maddeningly distracting, but locals enthused over the authenticity of a rural England. Clarifying, one said that all they could really hear in a British voice was “town” or “country”, and this was “country”.

We are clearly far more familiar with them than they are with us. Nourished on a diet of movies, suckled on the TV teat of Friends, The Simpsons, et al, we recognize, or flatter ourselves we can recognize, a New Yorker from a Mid-Westerner, a Southerner from a Valley Girl. Small wonder we appear to them in outlandish miniature.

The American actors in Jerusalem have also settled on generic Hibernian, this time for Wiltshire. Watching the show, it’s striking how many cultural references are shared, in these homogenized, global times. Allusions to pop culture, or the economy, are blandly borderless. When McKenzie Crook’s rustic DJ says “I drop the bomb on the people at the back ‘cos the people at the back don’t take no slack” he is of course aping a US, gangsta idiom.

But it’s perhaps not surprising that Jerusalem didn’t win best play at the Tonys. Despite a bit of fussy Americanization (Alan Sugar replaced with Donald Trump, for example) it retains an exquisite, cherishable parochialism – a pocket of rearguard resistance to that very cultural hegemony – that is untranslatable Stateside. Lines about petty officialdom, like “that’s a Swindon-level decision,” of course pass without a titter.

In the event it was Mark Rylance that the New Yorkers fell for, as fabulous fabulist Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the wild man of the Wiltshire woods. Rylance seems to act through his back and out of his sides; like a great athlete he appears to have more time available to him than anyone else on stage.

It’s a shamanic, shameless seduction of the Broadway auditorium. Some things need no translation.

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