Top Theatre of 2016: A Waffling of Riches

2016 was my first full year of living in London so took full advantage and saw a SHITLOAD of theatre. At least by my standards. I’m fairly certain I saw more theatre in 2016 than I did in my whole pre-2016 life. Talk about overcompensation.

ANYWAY. I saw a lot of great theatre. I saw some duds (that shalt not be mentioned) but the standard’s been pretty high – or maybe the novelty of seeing London theatre so regularly has yet to wear off. But I don’t think that’s it.

I remember rocking up to the south bank on a May evening to go to the Globe for the first time; it was the very first performance of Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t know the play, or the concept and was knocked for 6. Not only did it totally nullify any ‘Shakespeare-should-always-be-spoken-in-RP’ argument that remains, it totally transformed the text into something that spoke to 1589 (or whatever), 1916 and 2016. I loved it. Then – about three months after everyone else – I saw Emma Rice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and saw wonderful, glorious anarchy reign in a theatre that will soon be returned to museum status. And of course then there was Imogen; Shakespeare and Skepta. And THAT JIG. Fecking brilliant. Utterly astonishing.

This year was something of a year of Icke for me, starting with the sickeningly brilliant Uncle Vanya, which has sort of ruined Chekhov for me. I don’t want to see it done any other way. I didn’t know the play, and I sat catching flies for most of the third act in total awe of the play and the production. There was proper fear in it. Then there was the wonderfully slick (apart from when the set broke) The Red Barn which yes felt a little short on substance but when style is THAT GOOD I sort of don’t care. And anyway, it was compensated by the very substantial Mary Stuart, which I wrote about here:

The National was pretty much guaranteed to give you quality from the off this year, from the euphoric As You Like It in the Olivier, to the stomach-twisting, forensic Cleansed in the Dorfman. Les Blancs took me totally by surprise, having booked an entry pass ticket on a complete whim for that evening’s performance. Danny Sapani was excellent, and Sian Phillips was haunting. There was the one night only reading of Stuff Happens, that was probably more effective as politics than theatre, but that connected as powerfully with an audience as anything I’ve seen this year. The Young Chekhov trilogy was probably more than the sum of its parts, but achieved a genuine cathartic response from its audience in a way I’ve rarely experienced. And THEN they top it all off with Amadeus, which had my friend audibly sobbing. Lucian Msamati has total control over the character, the stage, the audience; in essence, he has everything that makes a great. And who knew that play was one of the greats of the 20th century.

I don’t remember a time I cried with laughter at the theatre before or after Unreachable at the Royal Court. I was there press night, when the moth gatecrashed the second scene. I WEPT. Anyone who claims comedy can’t be as substantial as drama needs to button it because it was one of the most satisfying evenings I spent in the theatre this year.

For me though, the play of the year was Oil. Unashamedly ambitious, big, broad, chaotic, messy; all my favourite things. Examining oil from appropriation to extinction, and simultaneously exploring the complexities of a mother-daughter relationships across a 150ish year period. And I almost got taken out by a flying log 15 seconds in.

The Donmar’s Shakespeare Trilogy, revived at King’s Cross was another surprise. I’m sensing a theme. I was really not in the mood for a day of Shakespeare when I turned up to a plastic shed in King’s Cross at 11 in the morning. By the time I emerged from Julius Caesar I was shaking. Totally thrilling, matched by the soaring Henry IV (Harriet Walter plays the flute????) and then a Tempest that is probably less successful as a standalone, but that was almost unbearably moving as a conclusion to the trilogy. And I saw it for free through the Donmar’s Young+Free scheme, so kudos to the Donmar for walking the walk on accessibility.

So there we go, my poorly formulated, hastily written top theatre of 2016.

Other moments worth a quick mention: Tara Fitzgerald’s offstage laugh in Macbeth at the Globe, Linda Bassett’s terrible rage in Escaped Alone at the Royal Court, Elizabeth Debicki’s subtle bewilderment at the set malfunctioning in The Red Barn at the National and the end of Les Blancs at the National. Properly brilliant.

See y’all in 2017.

 

Photo by Marc Brenner.

Mary Stuart @ Almeida Theatre: Fluidity and Rigidity

Let’s not even pretend this is a review. It’s not. It’s just some thoughts that I had.

Rob Icke’s had a very good year. He started with Vanya, won an Olivier, directed the sold out Red Barn at the National and now there’s this. And it’s bloody good. There’s a moment towards the end of Mary Stuart that is seared onto my memory; one queen is trapped, the other is free. I want to keep this spoiler free so I’ll just say it’s so beautifully constructed and performed it took my breath away. It was a singular, stunningly crafted moment in a production that delivers nothing less than that.

If Icke’s Vanya was an exercise in the detail of stillness and quiet, then Mary Stuart’s on Red Bull. There’s a sense of restlessness, there is really no time to think, let alone make the thoughtful decisions. It’s as if Mary and Queen Liz (if I may) have permanent motion sickness. There’s an incessant ticking of a clock, in fact the whole show is through scored to heighten the tension, but it’s never intrusive. The only way the noise and the movement can stop is when one of them is dead.

Both of the women at the centre of this drama know what it will mean if they ever dare to externalise their anger. They also know how easily it could have been the other way around – as, I’m sure, do the actors. A coin spin, as has been oft reported, decides which actress plays which queen.  At the performance I attended, Lia Williams called heads. Heads it was, and seemingly without blinking she became Queen Elizabeth, utterly regal. Juliet Stevenson, totally implacable, shed her velvet suit jacket and scribbled the name Mary Stuart.

Mary’s predicament is… delicate, to put it mildly. Schiller certainly seems to think that Mary is guilty of murdering her husband, which makes Mary’s barely-contained rage at the start all the more interesting. And yet, she is totally insistent on meeting Queen Elizabeth. If she is guilty, and there’s very little Elizabeth is likely to do, and there’s now a precedent for executing a queen, why is she so insistent on this? Stevenson plays the turmoil and the desperation exquisitely, always regal – even dressed in sackcloth.

Williams’ Queen Elizabeth has not yet been aged by politics. She does not – or perhaps cannot – hide her panic as well as Mary, her self-assurance seems to be on a knife edge, as if her head were the one on the chopping block. With Williams’ subtle work, you get a woman who is only just managing to keep a hold on things; her court, her relationships, her own mind. Icke’s production suggests that is is only when matters are taken out of her own hands does she become the iconic ‘Elizabeth I.’

Speaking of which, there is an excellent coup Icke pulls in the final minutes of the play, that suggests the fluidity of time, of history and of chance is totally, irrevocably changed by the events of the fourth act. That is to say, when the course of history is inadvertently changed by someone else, then the icon is born.

By taking the element of chance literally, the production is both fluid and rigid; relying both on discipline and chance. Perhaps they’re not as exclusive as they appear to be.

 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Hello(s)

So.

I did reviewy things for the theatre before, when I saw a lot of musicals, then gave it up because I didn’t like the whole rank-it-on-a-scale thing. Also I started to really not like musicals.

Then I discovered that’s not really criticism. But this blog isn’t likely to be that either.

Basically, I just wanted somewhere to write my thoughts about plays down, to save my poor housemates’ sanity. Because I can’t half talk.

If you’re interested, my name’s Harry. I’m a history student. I’ve lived in London since September 2015 so I feel like I’m perpetually playing catch-up. I also have a tendency to use too many commas, so feel free to shout at me in the comments.

I can’t promise regularity, but believe me, when I have thoughts on a play, i have THOUGHTS.

I might write some things about Mary Stuart first, or maybe do a Top-Theatre-of-the-Year thing. Eh. Who knows.

Right. Think that’s it.

Ta-ra.