LONDON — Can we get his doctor’s number?
That’s a question that might occur to viewers of “Beat the Devil,” the 50-minute solo play at the Bridge Theater here, in which the playwright David Hare details his own experience of the coronavirus.
Hare, 73, makes repeated reference to a kind, smart general practitioner who helps him through a scary and grueling time as the illness takes hold, his temperature spikes and his mouth begins to taste of sewage. This physician is never identified during a reminiscence that feels more like a staged diary entry — and an entirely straightforward one, at that — than a full-fledged play.
We get news, however, about Hare’s wife, the designer Nicole Farhi, who is described lying across Hare’s steaming body to cool him down. And there are numerous broadsides, most of them fairly predictable, leveled at Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his colleagues in the governing Conservative Party, none of whom, Hare tells us, accept the slightest responsibility for any mishandling of the pandemic.
If “Beat the Devil” treads a familiar path, it breaks with tradition by offering the role of Hare to a star more than 15 years his junior. Whereas the writer presented his own monologues in productions such as “Via Dolorosa” and “Berlin/Wall,” the lone onstage presence on this occasion is Ralph Fiennes in fine, often bitterly funny form under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, who runs the Bridge.
The playhouse has reduced its seating capacity from 900 to 250 for a season of one-person shows that run through Oct. 31. To help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, audience members must have their temperature taken on arrival, and a one-way system leads into an auditorium in which most of the seats have been removed. Spectators sit masked, unless sipping drinks. One bit of good news is that there’s that much more space to put a jacket and bag.
You might ask why anyone would want to see a play about the coronavirus, after all that we’ve just been through and with no end to the pandemic in sight. But Fiennes’s presence gives genuine luster to the standard-issue writing, and Hytner and his team deserve credit for opening their doors when plenty of comparable theaters around town remain shut.
The element of surprise absent from “Beat the Devil” is everywhere, though, in Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads,” a series of monologues originally written for TV that have recently been rerecorded by the BBC, with two new titles added to the mix. Broadcast this past June, eight of the 12 solo plays are now running as double-bills in repertory at the Bridge, with the same actors from their summer airings. Two of those double bills recently opened for review, with the other two coming next week. (Anyone with access to the BBC iPlayer can still watch the televised versions.)
As always, comparisons between screen and stage are fascinating. Reprising her role in “The Hand of God” as a gently snobbish antique dealer who gets a cruel comeuppance, Kristin Scott Thomas is much funnier onstage, and her performance is broader: You sense this distinguished actress feeding off the laughs.
And seen on a separate evening, Monica Dolan’s widow in “The Shrine,” one of the two new Bennett monologues, is even more boldly realized in person than on television. Dolan brings a renewed fury to her character Lorna’s realization that her deceased husband, Clifford, had led a double life, and a not very attractive one. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Bennett depicts someone confronted too late with a grim reality: All Lorna can do is lament the husband she never really knew.
Yet it can be difficult not to contrast these iterations of the “Talking Heads” with the originals from decades ago. Maggie Smith, a longtime friend and colleague of Bennett’s, had a career triumph in 1988 as Susan, the alcoholic wife of a Yorkshire vicar in “Bed Among the Lentils.”
Inheriting the same role, the Olivier Award-winning actress Lesley Manville (“Ghosts,” “The Visit”) cuts an angrier, less fragile figure. Hair pulled back as she appears before us smoking, Manville makes plain her exasperation with a loveless marriage and the release she finds as she drifts into an affair with an Indian grocer, Ramesh Ramesh.
At last, Susan says of sex, she finally understands “what the fuss is all about,” even if such bliss — as per the Bennett norm — cannot last.
Best of all, at least so far, is the director Nadia Fall’s keen-eyed stage version of “The Outside Dog.” One of the few Bennett monologues about someone not yet in middle age, it is another story of a marriage beset with deception. The fast-rising TV actress Rochenda Sandall (“Line of Duty”) is in blistering form as Marjory, the obsessive-compulsive wife of a man who works in a slaughterhouse — her tidiness a reaction, no doubt, to her bloody spouse.
“The Outside Dog” chronicles a community with a killer on the loose, and Bennett brings the unexpected feel of a thriller to a shuddering story of domestic abuse. I don’t know what it’s like for these actors at the curtain call to look out at such a thin public. But presumably even through the playgoers’ masks, they can hear a muffled bravo.