Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana

I am in London for two months. My friends kid me about being a culture vulture so flying over here is a way for me to feast on cultural offerings after the cultural famine during the COVID shutdown. Being called a vulture tends however to evoke the image of clawing my way though carrion and London with its  “carry on” attitude emerging yet again is teemingly alive with theatre and ballet, opera and gallery openings, museum exhibits and great boutiques, buzzy restaurants and vintage clothing stores. This is a report from my first teeming week. There will be more weekly columns to come.

I booked an airbnb in the Kilburn neighborhood so my very first night in town I walked over to the local Kiln Theatre to see its evening of one acts, The NW Trilogy, which highlights the different communities of immigrants who have called the Kilburn neighborhood home –  the Irish, the Afro-Caribbean, and now the South Asian. It was more of a socially conscious success than an artistic triumph – the varied audience adored seeing itself onstage – but I love discovering new talent and there was a young actress in the evening, Claire Keenan, who caught my eye. I look forward to seeing more of her work. I first found the Kiln and fell in love with it when an old friend of mine, director Michael Engler, who directed many of the Downton Abbey episodes (including the show’s finale) as well as its film version, invited me a couple of years ago to accompany him to the Kiln for a benefit cabaret hosted by Jim Carter (Carson in Downton) and his wife, Imelda Staunton (the next actress to portray Queen Elizabeth in The Crown) with a lineup that included Michelle Dockery (Downton’s Lady Mary) who surprised and thrilled me with her singing talent. Carter and Staunton live in the neighborhood and it was their own sense of community that brought them there that night to lend their support to the Kiln. If you’re in London, check it out. One of my favorite places to see a play in its theatre or a film in its cinema or have a coffee in its cafe. It’s Wi-FI always works, too.

Kilburn, in fact, was used by the late Nobel Prize winning British playwright Harold Pinter as a both a plot point and punchline to prove the slightly boho, deeply bourgeois bona fides of his Betrayal characters Jerry, a literary agent, and his mistress Emma, who have a flat there where they meet for their afternoon trysts which they assume they are keeping secret from their spouses. “We were brilliant,” says Jerry at one point in the play. “Nobody knew. Who ever went to Kilburn in those days?” 

Aside from Shakespeare, the two playwrights I most associate with Britain are Pinter and Tom Stoppard. So on the second night I headed to the West End to see Stoppard’s latest play, Leopoldstadt, which he also, now that he’s 83, claims will be his last.

Kenneth Tynan once said about Stoppard, “You must never forget that [he] is an émigré.” The playwright, whose original surname was Straussler, arrived in England as a boy because of the Nazis imminent invasion of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) where he was born. Stoppard, purposefully incurious it seems, says he didn’t learn how fully Jewish he was until the 1990s – his widowed mother married her second husband, a British army officer Ken Stoppard, when the playwright was still a child – nor did he realize how many of his relatives had died in concentration camps.  Leopoldstadt, which seems as much an amends for that as it is a farewell to the stage, is set in the Jewish enclave of Vienna, hence its title.  It tells the intergenerational saga of the Merz family through its attempts at assimilation, its philosophical and political debates, and its dependence on a family business to survive in the increasingly alarming and dangerous world yet prizing even more finding a more worldly prestige within academia. It is also about misplaced patriotism and the family’s assumptive patriarch innocently believing in the cynicism he presumes will help his whole family survive as Jews in such a world during such a time. But most of all it is about that lethal mixture of cynicism and innocence finding a reverence in a relentless love of logic (it is family that cherishes its mathematicians) even though locking themselves inside such a fortress of logic could not protect them from the illogical unalloyed fervor of Nazism’s evil. There is a kind of rigor mortis inherent in logic – it is set in place, rigid, concrete-like in its correctness, unmoved by outside forces – and the tragedy of Leopoldstadt is that the family who relies on logic learns that all that is left for them is its rigor mortis. Indeed, Stoppard’s mission through his career has seemed to help us to revel like him in science and logic within the framework of an emotional art form. His work at times can seem like a mathematical contraption. This play is a kind of confession on his part that he might have been wrong all along.  In that regard, it is also an amends to us, his audience, as well as his family.

I had a hard time alas following the familial connections of the large cast of characters in Leopoldstadt’s often expositional narrative which takes us through scenes set in 1899 to the 1920s and then the harrowing late 1930s.  But when only three characters remained by 1955 to pay homage to their now almost extinct family and to say their  names aloud in a litany that was finally the tragically logical way for Stoppard to end this play as we are told where each died – Dachau, Auschwitz, a death march – and thus how they had, I was moved to tears.  Stoppard has said the end of the play moved him as well and it was the first time his work had ever made him cry. Some London critics have claimed it his masterpiece. I don’t think it is that.  But it is his most masterfully human work as it sometimes stoically stumbles about in a kind of stunned gracefulness under the direction of Patrick Marber. If Leopoldstadt is Stoppard’s swan song to the stage, it is one filled with the love of the English language that only an émigré who longs for the language of the country that saved him could write. 

Leopoldstadt closed because of the COVID lockdown and then reopened on the West End in August. There have been a few cast changes.  One of them is the actor playing the role of Leo, one of those three remaining characters, one who has made a life for himself by 1955 in London where his mother had escaped only to die in the Blitz. Originally the role was played by Luke Thallon, who won a Clarence Derwent Award for it, which is an annual honor citing a talented newcomer to the stage. (Past winners have included Jeremy Irons, Alan Bates, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, and again Imelda Staunton.) Thallon is now starring in the two-hander, Camp Siegfried, at the Old Vic along with Pasty Ferran, the young actress who won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in 2019 for her portrayal of Alma in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. They are two of the most remarkable young actors working onstage in London right now. Camp Siegfried is by American playwright, Bess Wohl, and concerns an actual camp on Long Island during the 1930s where young German Americans frolicked along Hitler and Goebbels Streets and flower beds were formed into swastikas. Yes, you read that correctly. It was interesting to see this paired with the Stoppard play. Camp Siegfried could have easily failed – it borders on being a romcom about fascism – but instead with Wohl’s singular vision and with the talents of Thallon and Ferran as they are so keenly directed by Katy Rudd, it becomes an alarming look at deeply disturbing levels of seduction and how such seductions can be curdled into indoctrination. Thallon brilliantly shows us how an American version of a brownshirt needs not brawn to become a killer, just a numbing ability to believe in anything other than himself. And Fellan –  I kept thinking I was seeing the lovechild of Vivien Leigh and Arnold Stang on the Old Vic stage (look them up, my young readers) – is heartbreaking and frightening. She gives a Hitlerian speech at one point that made my blood run cold as I felt at the same time the stinging warmth of a couple of tears streaming down my face. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a reaction in all my years of theatergoing. I’m  doing an interview with her in a couple of days so watch for that here at GRAZIA.  I’ve never witnessed a talent quite like hers. I felt both smote and smitten.

The fate of European Jews in Europe in the lead up to Word War II is used to comedic effect by the late Larry Kramer in his play The Normal Heart when his stand-in Ned Weeks has his first date with Felix Turner and he starts railing about it when all Felix wants is to have a romantic evening. It speaks to Larry’s fiery genius that he could actually bring that off. The play is often thought of as merely agitprop because it tackles the beginning of the AIDS crisis in New York City by dramatizing Larry’s activism and the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization. But I think it belongs in the American canon along with Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Streetcar Named Desire, Our Town, A Raisin in the Sun, Angels in America, and all of August Wilson’s work. I saw the latest production of the play at The National Theatre and that bit of dialogue about European Jews managed to get its disconcerting laughs in director Dominic Cooke’s raved-about production. Larry was one of my dear friends and I have seen many productions of the play.  The latest at The National is stripped down to its bare bones. It is achingly realized. Cooke and his cast even came up with an opening that I’ve never seen before that involves the lighting of a fire in pit around which they stand silently remembering the dead in a ritual worthy of the earliest Greek stagings of drama and then suddenly a blaze of disco light erupts along with disco music as they strip off their shirts down to their own bare bones and dance in a frenzy that itself emphasizes ritual. The Felix of Welsh actor Dino Fetscher may be the best performance of the role I’ve yet seen.  The rest of the cast is exemplary.  Ben Daniels plays Ned and I was reminded of something that Carol Burnett said about Fanny Brice when she was asked to play her in Funny Girl on Broadway before Barbra Streisand was offered the role. I wrote a cover story about Barbra for Vanity Fair during my long tenure there and talked to Julie Styne, Funny Girl’s composer, about that time in her life. He told me that Burnett turned down the part because she told him that they needed someone with “her Jewishness born in her” for the role of Fanny. Daniels is great as Ned – he pairs his ruggedly lithe sexiness with a kind of noxious nobility – but I came away convinced that Ned – AKA Larry Kramer – needs that same thing somehow.

On Wednesday, I headed over to the Chiltern Firehouse Hotel’s garden restaurant to meet a London friend for lunch and have some of its scrumptious  “Forty-eight Hour” grilled, citrus marinated chicken created by Executive Chef Richard Foster in collaboration with its other renowned chef, Patron Nuno Mendes.  When I walked in, I ran right into another old friend, Krista Smith, who was my first fact-checker at Vanity Fair before she rose in the ranks to be the West Coast Editor. She is now the Director of Editorial and Publishing at Netflix. Krista was having lunch with Poppy Jamie, a co-founder along with Suki Waterhouse of the accessories line Pop & Suki and the creator of the wellness app, Happy Not Perfect. You might remember Poppy from Snapchat’s first “talk show,” Pillow Talk with Poppy.  I had a lovely visit with them.  Krista was in town for the opening night gala of the London Film Festival which had as its attraction Netflix’s The Harder They Fall.  I caught it the next day at Royal Festival Hall and surprised myself by liking it more than I assumed I would. It is a revenge western starring Black actors –   including a star-making performance by Jonathan Majors who not only shares the screen with Regina King and Idris Elba, among others, but also commands it.   Directed by Jeymes Samuel, it has a self-consciousness about its overabundance of violence that is also underscored incongruously by its modern soundtrack. Samuel – AKA The Bullitts –  is an English writer, director, singer-songwriter and music producer.  He worked alongside Baz Luhrmann and Jay Z on the music for Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby but this film has the feel of Quentin Tarantino if he had listened to a lot more Quincy Jones or maybe even admitted more to himself and to us how much Pam Grier really made him growl with desire. Anyway, it was no surprise later when was I was walking into Queen Elizabeth Hall that night to see writer Armistead Maupin interviewed by Russell Tovey that Jay Z and Queen Bey, wearing a Valdrin Shahiti black column gown, were making their own kind of royal entrance down below into the Royal Festival Hall for the film’s premiere. 

My other favorite place for chicken –  roasted, not grilled – is the Soho brasserie Randall & Aubin at 16 Brewer Street.  It’s only about a block away from the Gielgud Theatre where I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Mirror and the Light adapted by Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles from Mantels book. Sometimes I think these overstuffed books by Mantel are just highfalutin filler between lots of royal entrances and exits. The play at times could seem like that.  Miles plays Cromwell with the equipoise needed for a man who navigated life as much as lived it. Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII (the mirror and the light of the title) was brilliant. He played him as deeply human until he had to be inhumane for his subjects who needed to believe he was more than human. The machinations of the court made me realize how much I am looking forward to the upcoming new season of Succession once I get back to America since HBO Max is not available here in London.  Succession’s first two episodes this season are, in fact, being screened at the London Film Festival on Friday October 15th.   I like them both – this play and that series – for their rarified glibness, their glorification of it. There is a meanness at their heart, but it is a heart nonetheless. 

I also saw Matthew Bourne’s new ballet, The Midnight Bell, based on a work by novelist Patrick Hamilton set in seedy bar in Soho as it explores some pretty dark, lonely corners in the neighborhood and the lives depicted.  It had a week-long stand at Sadler’s Wells during its English tour.  It is lovely and touching, its sadness swelling and soaring until it becomes rather swell itself and dreamy. More of a nightmare – purposefully until it was unintentionally so – is the West End’s 2:22 A Ghost Story. The scariest part of this production for me was my sitting in a a sold-out house with mostly unmasked audience members.  Singer and songwriter Lily Allen is making her stage debut in the play – hers is the harried damsel in distress role – and she acquits herself well enough. She finds many tones in the one-note role as only an accomplished singer of her calibre could.  I wish I had liked the play more.  Because I certainly like her.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other films I have seen these first few days of the London Films Festival. I have never been a big fan of Kristen Stewart who just seems to spend too much time fashioning an image of not caring about her image. She possess a kind of louche loveliness. I sometimes forget that she is actually an actress. But after seeing her as Princess Di in director Pablo Loarrain’s Spencer I will never forget it again.  She nails the part in this psychological biofilm that begins by telling us it is a “Fable Based on a True Tragedy.”   It is more than an impersonation, although impersonations do tend to win acting awards.  She transcends being spot-on in summoning for us a collective memory of an iconic figure, much as Natalie Portman did in Larrain’s earlier film, Jackie. Portman was nominated for an Oscar for that role.  I hope – I can’t believe I’m writing this – Stewart is nominated for one as well for her role in Spencer.

Last Night in Soho, directed by Edgar Wright, begins with an engaging  and breezy concept that turns very dark before it offensively melds mental illness into a horror movie. I loved how it began and hated the turn it took. I then just found it risible and saw the final plot point coming way back at the turn. But the late Diana Rigg in one of her last performances – she plays the landlady of the lead character, a fashion student in London  – is cantankerous and divine.  Anya Taylor-Joy is in it, too. Thomasin McKensie is lovely in the mad and maddening lead. Also in the cast: Matt Smith and Terence Stamp.

George Clooney brought the latest film he’s directed, The Tender Bar, based on J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, to the festival. He also brought his wife Amal, who looked like a movie star herself in a custom white-sequined dress by 16Arlington. Ben Affleck stars in the film, although the performance could easily be slotted into the Supporting Actor category come Oscar time. Affleck reminds us in his portrayal of Uncle Charlie what a great actor he can be; he is not wigging out about growing older and is easing gracefully into his character actor roles.  The film is a coming-of-age story about a writer that, to this writer, needed less editing. But that’s what all writers think, I guess, even about films that are about writing. The Tender Bar just seemed to have been pared down to the CliffsNotes version of itself. I adored Lily Rabe in the role of the writer’s mother although she never ages even as the writer does from a small child to a graduate of Yale to a writer at The New York Times. Both actors playing JR – he didn’t use periods in the film – are wonderful.  The young TikTok f-word-loving sensation Daniel Ranieri is the childhood version of the writer and Tye Sheridan is the older version.

Maybe readers would have preferred I had done a CliffsNotes version of this column. But if you’ve gotten this far, maybe not.  In another of Pinter’s plays, 1971’s Old Times, the character of Anna recalling her love of London when she was younger mirrors my love for it now that I am an older version of myself.  “Queuing all night, the rain, do you remember?” Anna asks. “My goodness, the Albert Hall, Covent Garden, what did we eat? To look back, half the night, to do the things we loved, … and to a concert, or the opera, or the ballet, that night, you havent forgotten? And then riding on top of the bus down Kensington High Street … and all the hustle and bustle in the morning … and then the night to come, and goodness knows what excitement in store. I mean the sheer expectation of it all, the looking-forwardness of it all.”  Here’s to the looking-fowardness I feel here in London, the sheer expectation of it all.