A CLASSIC OF POWER, PUZZLEMENT AND A DIFFICULT WOMAN
Sometimes less is more and understatement gives a show its sharpest edge. Which is not to suggest, perish the thought , that the Lincoln Center Theatre’s much- awarded production doesn’t do sumptuous. The front cloth alone used 500 books of gold leaf: lit in rainbow changes it shimmers , a mirage of exotic orientalism, hypnotizing you at ever scene change. The costumes have equal dazzle, from the smallest gold- top-knotted child to King Mongkut and his wives like elegant living jewels; the Victorian governess’ crinoline is dowdy in contrast (I had forgotten that wonderful moment when, helping to Westernize the wives, Anna explains that a crinoline represents the circle of protection around a woman. “Are your men so aggressive?” asks the royal polygamist, puzzled…
But the restraint in Bartlett Sher’s production lies, notably in the first act, in his ability to resist all temptation to break into the musical-theatre hoofing which some other productions have embraced. Instead the court ladies, and often their children, are static in pools of shining decorum and crouched obeisance. It establishes something which not all the whistling of happy tunes and gettings -to- know-you can disguise (the merriment of Richard Rodgers’ immortal tunes is at times interestingly at odds with the material). What Anna Leonowens took on in 1862, at a tricky political juncture and under an absolute and alien monarchy, was unnerving and lonely. That sense of threat really works here, for Ken Watanabe’s King Mongkut is at times far more genuinely frightening than Yul Brynner in the film. The ongoing fear that he is, in |Victorian language, “a barbarian” is close to the surface. His accent is at times, in his tortured unaccustomed English, hard to make out, which adds to the alien quality, and the twinkle in him is hardly there until the wonderful persuasion scene at the end of the first half when Anna disguises her advice as admiring guesses about his intentions. O’Hara herself is wonderful, even a bit topical actually, as the original “Difficult Woman” who must manipulate stubborn male power.
A confession: I have known every number by heart from early childhood, from a cracked album and the film; as a diplo-brat my nursery school was in Bangkok a hundred years later , my schoolmates the image of the little pupils on stage, and my treasure a steepled golden hat, identical to the ones on the dancers in the (bizarrely watchable if rather lengthy) exotic Uncle-Tom ballet in the second act. But this production has, more than any other I have seen, a determined sense of danger alongside the teasing mutuality of Watanabe’s sometimes oafish King and Kelli o’Hara’s gloriously forthright , beautifully sung Anna . Her showstopping imaginary reproof to his polygamy always raises applause. “A flock of sheep and you’re the only ram – no wonder you’re the wonder of Siam!” The glorious polka of Shall We Dance, with the palace pillars moving around them as if through great spaces, lifts the heart; but when moments later Mongkut reverts to older notions of kingship and threatens poor Tuptim with a horsewhip, you believe it. A move into stylization in the final scenes works extraordinarily well, both alienating and intensifying the sense of a distant, half-understood court.
Really, the old show could hardly be bettered. Beautiful staging without exaggeration, a real spark between O”Hara and Watanabe, and perfect support . Not least from a dignified and touching Naoko Mori as Tuptim and from Jon Chew who is engaging as the upright, anxious-to-learn Crown Prince Chulalongkorn. He did indeed, as the show has him prophesy, abolish the grovelling rules of prostration so despised by Anna. It is oddly and personally satisfying to know, for all the romanticisation, that such things are true and that it was the eldest son of that young Chulalongkorn who was on the throne of Thailand a century later. When I was that small child being taught, unsuccessfully, to do those strange, angular dances in a spiked golden hat.
box office 0207 087 7757 https://kingandimusical.co.uk/ to 29 Sept