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.