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Richard III
Photograph: Marc Brenner

What great theater shows are we missing in London (but could catch in hi-def)?

Written by
David Cote

At the risk of sounding massively ungrateful about having a job that requires me to sit on my ass and watch plays and musicals, it gets really dull in the summer. And while I’m looking forward to seeing John Lithgow rage in Central Park (next Thursday) and Cate Blanchett be psycho-sexy The Maids in August, it’s dead. The New York Musical Theatre Festival winds down on Sunday and the Fringe Festival will raise its ugly, many-pated head next month, but there’s a dearth of major quality shows. As proof, just glance across the pond to what’s on in London. Suddenly I’m green with envy. Here are some of the events I wish I were reviewing. Who knows? Some may come over.

Martin Freeman as Richard III
Best known as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy—not to mention the rebooted Dr. John Watson—Freeman (pictured above) happens to be a terrific stage actor. I caught him four years ago in the Royal Court Theatre’s excellent version of Clybourne Park, and he nailed the American accent and mannerisms without a jot of cartoonish condescension (rare among Brit thespians). While he’s incredibly warm and relatable, we bet his take on Shakespeare’s murderous throne-climber would be chilling. It’s a small production at Trafalgar Studios, and unless a producer wants to bet on Freeman’s box-office draw, probably won't transfer here. Plus, there was this, ahem, mildly well-received engagement last year.

Billy Nighy and Carey Mulligan in a revival of Skylight
I missed David Hare’s intimate study of the personal and the political when it transferred from the West End to Broadway in 1996. But this revival, starring the delectable team of Nighy and Mulligan, has gotten high marks. Throw in direction by the masterful Stephen Daldry and you’ve got a night of eloquent, politically pitched drama. Consolation prize: The production will be broadcast in hi-def via NT Live starting October 23.

Headlong’s 1984
Detecting a theme yet? Such as a penchant for work that explores thorny issues? Well, that’s the English stage: It makes no secret of a desire to engage current events and ideology. (By contrast, what do we have? Liberal pabulum such as The City of Conversation.) Writer-directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan distill George Orwell’s 1948 anti-totalitarian masterpiece into a “sense-overloadingly visceral experience,” per my London counterpart Andrzej Lukowski. I’d love to see this production transfer to St. Ann’s Warehouse or New York Theatre Workshop. But I’m not holding my breath.

The Crucible at the Old Vic
Another star of The Hobbit franchise, Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), plays doomed Puritan John Proctor in this revival of Arthur Miller’s witch-trial classic. The reviews have been, in a word, stunning. South African director Yaël Farber seems to have plumbed this staple of colleges and community theaters for its dark, irrational roots, and found its sensual, earthy underbelly. The production is lengthier than usual—three and a half hours, due to interpolated movement sequences—but apparently, it’s a nonstop thrill. If any of these events have a chance of transferring to Broadway, it’s this one. Armitage is a rising star, the play has huge cultural cachet, and riding a wave of English hype bestows snob appeal. A year from now, look for it on the Great White Way.

Are you a London theatergoer? Did you just get back? Let me know what other shows I’ll be missing (damn you).

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