2010 Theatre Round-Up

The last twelve months have been pretty manic for everyone. Trying to battle our way through the recession, a general election, subsequent cuts and countless natural disasters has tested the best of us. Personally, this year has been especially busy, culminating in a move to university. It’s also been a pretty big year for me theatrically, being lucky enough to direct The Winter’s Tale, start writing my first play and winning the Harold Hobson Award at the National Student Drama Festival, giving me the impetus to start this blog and review on a regular basis. Since April I’ve reviewed each of the forty productions I’ve seen and the ones watched in the period before that bring my total number this year to sixty-four. So in true end-of-year style, here’s my round-up of theatre for 2010.

For me, the year started with a show of how brilliant our two major subsidised theatre companies are. Kicking off was Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National, followed by the RSC’s Twelfth Night at the Duke of York’s. The former was a beautiful insight into how music can be a key to the soul, while the latter showcased the comic genius of the Bard of Avon with ease. The following few months also unleashed Pat McCabe’s intensely paced and insightful The Dead School at the Tricycle and the chilling Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith, written with wit by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman.

Every year for a week in March the entire population of theatre students up and down the country camps out in Scarborough for the National Student Drama Festival. This was my second outing to the event, and although the general calibre seemed to have waned somewhat from the previous year, a handful of the shows on offer far surpassed anything from 2009. 4 Bar and Rising showed the pains each of us go through on a daily basis and was almost Beckettian in its style, while promenade production The Whitehouse Institute was a hilarious indictment on the nature of modern art and protest. Excellent productions of both Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman were also on offer, but the stand out production was Warwick University’s take on Marina Carr’s By The Bog Of Cats (no bias here – promise!).

On the same subject, being now based in Warwick I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of the touring companies making their way through the regions. Kneehigh have as always been making their mark, exhibiting their dark takes on The Red Shoes and Hansel and Gretel, once again teaching the rest of us a lesson in how storytelling should be done. Simon Stephens’ extraordinary account of teenage life Punk Rock also found its way to the midlands, as did Propeller’s macabre and bloody interpretation of Richard III. Less impressive were Forced Entertainment’s The Thrill of it All and Cupola Bobber’s Way Out West, The Sea Whispered Me, both of which proved that simply being silly on stage is never enough to make a good piece of theatre, even if you are ostensibly making some semi-prophetic point on existentialism.

A vast amount of new work has been on offer this year, and as always the Royal Court have spearheaded the campaign to get more playwrights in work. 2010 marked my first visit to the Royal Court, being treated to Laura Wade’s cutting and perfectly timed Posh, perhaps the most bitingly satirical play on our stages this year. Dominic Cooke et al also had a stonker of a hit on their hands with Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ pant-wettingly funny consideration of property and racism, considering also the nature of offense, including star turns by Sophie Thompson, Steffan Rhodri and Martin Freeman. It receives a welcome West End transfer next year. I also managed to see the Royal Court’s two hits from last year, Jerusalem and Enron, before they closed and changed cast respectively, and both more than lived up to the hype.

It seems this year has been the year of the epic play, specifically at the National Theatre, which has seen a multitude of productions spanning vast quantities of space and/or time in a few hours’ stage time. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard set the tone in April, and under Howard Davies’ superb direction we saw a country in turmoil, savaged by war. Unfortunately, I was unable to see Davies’ acclaimed production of All My Sons, but managed to get myself along to the Lyttelton again for his take on JT Rogers’ Blood And Gifts, another sprawling play considering the rights and wrongs of trust and loyalty in war. These plays alone show Davies to be the director of the year, although he is closely followed by Rupert Goold, who just about managed to tame Mike Bartlett’s messy, and again epic, Earthquakes In London into something extremely watchable. The hilarious London Assurance and stirring Welcome to Thebes also seemed somewhat epic in their scope, one crossing from city to country and the other showing a Greek tragedy in an African setting. Another hit for the National was Terrence Rattigan’s After The Dance, exhibiting some of the best acting of the year in Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll under the skillful direction of Thea Sharrock.

But while we had hugely ambitious plays at the National, we were not hard-pushed to find more minimalist productions elsewhere. At the Arcola, Thomas Bernard’s Heldenplatz explored the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany fifty years after the Holocaust, and Breathing Irregular at the Gate simply used dance and voice-over to tell stories of 999 phone-calls. Even larger theatres such as Milton Keynes saw smaller-scale productions such as the beautifully understated productions of Bennett’s Enjoy and The History Boys. The National also got in on the act, acquiring from the Royal and Derngate Laurie Sansom’s exquisite revival of Tennessee Williams’ Spring Storm, and we even saw plays such as Tim Crouch’s The Author without any set whatsoever which challenged our very thinking of what a play ought to be.

It’s been a pretty good year for Shakespeare as well. Although Lucy Bailey’s production of Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe lacked much weight in terms of the performances it offered, only a few months later Dominic Dromgoole brought us his superb productions of Henry IV Parts One and Two with Roger Allam in the role of Falstaff proving himself to be one of our great stage actors. At the National in September, however, Rory Kinnear gave Allam a run for his money in the race for actor of the year when he played the most sought-after of all roles, the Danish Prince Hamlet. Once again, however, it’s the Royal Shakespeare Company who have come out as the leaders in producing Shakespeare, continuing with the ensemble we have all come to know and love from last year. Beginning with David Farr’s warehouse-bound King Lear, moving from Boyd’s accomplished but somewhat lacking Antony and Cleopatra to Goold’s astonishing Romeo and Juliet and bringing back into the repertoire Julius Caesar, As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale from 2009 all while completing and opening the new theatre, the RSC has had a bumper year. Not to mention the success it’s had with new works Dunsinane, The God’s Weep and, most recently, the joyous Matilda, A Musical.

All in all it’s been an impressive year for British theatre, especially in the face of outrageous cuts from the new government. For yet another year we’ve seen the potential of the subsidised sector to create far better theatre than the commercial sector. Granted, companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company are subject to bureaucracy and aren’t without their faults but we see time and time again their ability to offer us unforgettable theatrical experiences. 2010 has been fairly understated in comparison to previous years, being void of any major celebrity-centred hype which we saw with David Tennant’s Hamlet and Stewart & McKellen’s Waiting For Godot, proving that the theatre sector is capable of making hits without too much media invasion. It would be lovely to say we can get used to it, but sadly in a few years time we will no doubt look back on this year as the last in a Golden Age of British theatre.

And on that depressing note, it leaves me to wish you a happy New Year. Thank you for sticking with me over the past twelve months. See you in 2011.

“What You Will” and “Lights, Sound, Action”

at the Swan and Royal Shakespeare Theatres, Wednesday 15th December

The Royal Shakespeare Company are certainly firing on all the engines at the moment. Not a day seems to go by without some event to showcase the new theatres. On some days audiences are treated to more than one, and the brilliant thing is they could not be more different.

Roger Rees’ one-man show What You Will is a cross between stand-up and traditional performance, mixing anecdotes about Shakespeare with some of his most famous speeches. Rees has condensed some of the most memorable and entertaining moments of his professional life into a ninety-minute show which stretches from laugh-out-loud funny to deeply moving.

We start with Rees joining the RSC with his friend Ben Kingsley, telling us how he was given non-speaking roles, essentially playing a “mime-artist”, before moving on to greater things. We hear mention of Olivier, Richardson and Dench among others, and hear fleeting moments of greatness. Another structuring method is the use of reference to Rees’ four favourite actors, providing anecdotes on each to strengthen our understanding of the trials and tribulations faced by the Shakespearean actor.

But it is not all storytelling. Inserted throughout are references to the views of Dickens and Shaw on the Bard and advice to actors from the 1940s. Most engaging are the answers given by pupils about the works of Shakespeare, providing nuggets of hilarity at regular intervals, such as “Shakespeare was born in the year 1564, supposedly on his birthday” and “He wrote in Islamic pentameter.”

Most successful are the famous speeches, however, and the rest of the performance pales in comparison when Rees utters the Bard’s immortal words. We are treated to Sonnet 18, the Prologue to Henry V and Romeo’s address to Juliet on her balcony. Some of the most famous words in the English language spoken afresh. It sometimes seems that the rest of Rees’ show is simply a vehicle to showcase this enormous talent, but this shouldn’t sound like a criticism. Most would be happy to sit through dirge to see these lines spoken by such a wonderful actor.

Following What You Will we can kill a few hours exploring the new theatre complex. The insults chair and tower are worth a look, and one has to keep an eye and ear out for quotes projected onto various walls and spoken from small crannies. The Swan exhibition room seems somewhat lacking at the moment, concentrating on the transformation project, but will no doubt take on a life of its own when hosting new installations.

The day finishes with a demonstration of the tech in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Lights, Sound, Action. We are introduced to the lighting, sound and automation managers for the company before being treated to a demonstration of each. At times there are a few too many in-jokes to be funny to outsiders, but what is said is interested nonetheless. The real treat comes at the end of the evening, when the lighting, sound and automation departments put their skills together, turning the theatre into a Disneyland-ride-cum-disco. Sound rumbles through the floor, lights swivel rapidly and levels are raised and lowered from the gods. A simple idea, but one which truly showcases the scope of the new space. A director’s dream.

“The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” by Bertolt Brecht

at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 3rd December 2010

There is always a risk when putting on a production of a play written by Brecht. Do you stick religiously to Brecht’s theories, or simply take the text and run with it in your own interpretation? Although Warwick University Drama Society’s production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, under the direction of Josh Roche, is superbly performed with full gestus, the acting style seems to be a means without an end in the absence of an overt political angle.

Arturo Ui is the ultimate allegorical play. Depicting the rise of Hitler, this production has been transposed to Greenwich from the original Chicago setting, using episodes based on real events to satirically portray his climb to power. We watch as the manipulative Ui plays games with his followers in order to take control of the Cauliflower Trust. Here, however, the character of Ui has been split into three; left, right and centre, supposedly representing the three sides of the protagonist. A clever idea, but one which is not highlighted or explained enough to make it worthwhile; what point is being made here?

The production is made by the performances. There is not a weak link among the ensemble cast and astonishingly not one ever strays out of character, mannerisms and all. As the left, centre and right incarnations of Ui, Ed Davis, Tom Syms and Stewart Clarke are strong and charismatic, towering over others both physically and vocally. James Sheldrake as Dogsborough bumbles away hilariously and Lizzy Leech as the Chief Clark always looks somewhat bewildered as to what is happening around her. Givola and Giri played by Rob Beale and Joe Boylan respectively are both wildly eccentric and somewhat disconcerting. The use of gestus throughout is hilarious and each character is perfectly defined.

But what use is gestus if we are not made to think? Yes, posters are dotted sporadically around the stage and the prologue and epilogue serve to alert us to a few points, but we never find out the implications for us. Of course this is difficult with such a highly analogous play, but we constantly yearn for some sort of didactic message. It sometimes feels like the performing style has been incorporated simply for the sake of humour, but when we know this isn’t the case it becomes frustrating that the major themes aren’t highlighted.

This said, however, all aspects of the production are faultless. Rosie Bristow and Ashleigh Brown’s set, costume and make-up go hand in hand to create a vivid image, lit effectively by Lizzie Drapper’s lighting design. Matt Wells’ music ranges from ethereal to joyous and complements the rest of the production with gusto.

This is an accomplished and slick production, with a multitude of excellent moments, especially towards the end of the play (Ui’s final speech, for example, is genuinely powerful). It cannot be stressed enough how excellent the performances are, which is why it is such a shame that the message never truly comes through. With a little more signage and more focus on the language, this would be a production of which Brecht himself would be proud.