THE HEIR PLAYS PETER PAN

BenW avec tint.jpg

This Season: for her theatre highlight, Isabel Lloyd picks a new play with an ethereal star

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

It was a tiny role, third from bottom on the cast list for the National’s adaptation of "His Dark Materials", but it stood out. Amid the sad lack of magic in the staging—Ghosts are coming! Flash a spotlight on and off!—were a couple of scenes featuring an ambitious young cleric called Brother Jasper. Thin, brittle, swamped by a ridiculous black cape, with a light voice and a lighter tread, the 23-year-old unknown playing him had none of the physical attributes that help an actor bed down. Yet an unmistakable strength of purpose flowed out of him and filled the yawning Olivier auditorium. Actors often talk about someone owning a stage; even back in 2003, Ben Whishaw didn’t just own it, he seemed its rightful heir.

Whishaw’s deep, almost arrogant self-confidence as a performer tugs away from his physiognomy, which is delicate to the point of girlishness: cherry-red lips, fine fingers, hair so lushly romantic it seems to have its own built-in wind-machine. He’s often cast as an ethereal, a poet, or both—Sebastian Flyte, Bob Dylan, John Keats, Konstantin in "The Seagull"—and made a saintly, infuriating and definitive Richard II in the BBC’s "The Hollow Crown", every trembling, diva-ish breath imbued with an iron sense of his righteous possession of the throne. Like a storybook princess, he knows how to flick a limpid gaze up at the camera with all the seductive poise of Bambi-era Diana. 

No surprise, then, that he now appears as the role model for a boy more often played by girls: Peter Pan. A new play from John Logan (the writer of "Red") conjures a meeting between Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s eternal youth, and Lewis Carroll’s muse, Alice Liddell Hargreaves. The way Peter veers between muddy-kneed derring-do and other-worldly vulnerability should provide a tight fit for Whishaw’s boldness and offhand grace. And with Judi Dench as Alice, returned from Wonderland and advancing towards old age, this is casting worth queuing for.

Peter and Alice Noel Coward, London, March 9th to June 1st

THEATRE AT A GLANCE

Lucky Guy (Broadhurst, New York). Theatre from beyond the grave: a "new" play from the late Nora Ephron, about the life of the journalist Mike McAlary. Tom Hanks—the screen embodiment of Ephron’s wit, and occasional sentimentality—makes his Broadway debut as McAlary.

Othello (Olivier, London, from April 16th). Directed by Nicholas Hytner, with the ever careful, ever consummate Adrian Lester as Othello, and the suppressed fire that is Rory Kinnear as Iago—this is likely to be one of the biggest draws of the National’s 50th anniversary season.

Mies Julie (Riverside Studios, London, to May 19th). Looking at British schedules, you sometimes feel you could spend a year watching nothing but reworkings of Strindberg. But this is one of the better versions, set in South Africa, co-produced by Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre, and a hit on the Edinburgh Fringe. 

Once (Phoenix, London, from March 16th). In 2012 the director John Tiffany used the staging skills he showed in "Black Watch" to turn a slight but charming film about two songwriters falling in love in Dublin into a multiple-Tony-winning Broadway musical. Now it lands in the West End, complete with come-up-and-have-a-pint pub set. 

4000 Miles (Ustinov Studio, Bath, April 11th to May 11th). A well-deserved British premiere for Amy Herzog’s Obie-award winner, a sad, funny, truthful look at a grouchy, ageing left-winger and her eco-dude grandson listening, and not listening, to each other.

Isabel Lloyd is deputy editor of Intelligent Life

Illustration Kathryn Rathke