If you worship youth and beauty, in particular your own, time is not your friend. Such is the predicament of the widowed London fop Sir Harcourt Courtly, who plans to restore his shaky fortunes by marrying an orphaned country heiress the same age as his wild-oats-sowing Oxbridge-drop-out son. Watch the plates spin in the live video of Nicholas Hytner’s revival of London Assurance, filmed in 2010 at the National Theatre, London.
The script is the handiwork of Dion (short for Dionysus) Boucicault (1820–90), who was born in Dublin, flourished as an actor-playwright-manager on both sides of the Atlantic, and was laid to rest in Hastings-on-Hudson. His stock in trade was melodrama, including The Vampire, in which his undead bloodsucker impressed one critic as “a dreadful and weird thing played with immortal genius.”
Sic transit gloria. Back in his native Ireland, the flamboyant nationalism of The Shaughraun, written in a similar key, gives Boucicault a measure of lasting fame. Elsewhere, he is perhaps best remembered for his first smash, London Assurance. Originally titled Out of Town, the knockabout farce took young Victoria’s capital by storm in 1841 and reached New York, then Boston, the same year. Broadway has brought it back every few decades—most recently starring Brian Bedford as Sir Harcourt. London revivals have been scarcer. Hytner’s at the National was the first since Ronald Eyre’s landmark production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970 (which also played a brief Broadway season two years later).
The obvious type to cast as the preening Sir Harcourt would be a superannuated matinée idol—think Kevin Kline or a pre-Netflix Frank Langella on Broadway, or the elder Olivier in the West End, if only he were still around. Instead, Hytner drafted Simon Russell Beale, who stands a rotund five-foot-six, his ho-hum features afloat in a fleshy moon face.
At 61, Beale ranks today as Britain’s preeminent stage actor of his generation, with credits extending from his grade-school debut as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the heights of Hamlet, Falstaff, Uncle Vanya, and Henry Lehman in The Lehman Trilogy, not to forget frequent forays into comedy of every description, from the Restoration curio The Man of Mode to Monty Python’s Spamalot. A chameleon of the emotions, he has a special genius for acidulous shades of chagrin, insecurity, schadenfreude—all of which come in handy this time out, as does the preemptive sneer.
Never has Beale attempted to coast on his looks. Yet here we find him in makeup an inch thick, itemizing the skin-deep perfections he has lost or never had, striking poses like Nureyev, even leaping into the air. Who are you going to believe? Sir Harcourt, or your lying eyes? “May I grow wrinkled,” he raves at a peak of amorous rapture, “may two inches be added to the circumference of my waist, may I lose the line of my back, may I be old and ugly the instant I forego one tithe of adoration!”
She who inspires this tirade is none other than Lady Gay Spanker, an Amazonian equestrienne who lives to laugh and hunt foxes. Here she bursts to life in the person of Fiona Shaw, who, like Beale, has done her share of heavy lifting, from title roles in Electra, Medea, and Richard II (yes, Richard) to a one-woman, 37-minute, dramatization of The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot’s 433-line landmark of the modern poetic sensibility.
And who is Lady Gay? “Glee,” an adoring cousin suggests, “glee made a living thing.” Not entering until the third of five acts, in a top hat, riding crop in hand, Shaw gallops to the lead, neck and neck with Beale, chortling maniacally, corkscrew curls aquiver.
P.S.: London Assurance? What might that mean? Think of London as a proper-noun modifier, as in “Paris fashions” and “a New York minute.” As for assurance, think self-assurance to the point of chutzpah.
The 2010 live performance of London Assurance is available for streaming on IMDb
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii