Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016 Theatre: Top 10 Performances

Pulling together a list of my favourite performances in 2016 was tougher than usual since so many of my favourite productions were ensemble pieces.

But no effort is too great for my readers, all three of you, and there were some standout performances from both expected and less expected places this year.

So, in rough order...

Harriet Walter
Shakespeare Trilogy, Donmar Warehouse
Utter legend in being legendary non-surprise but still by far the best performance (performances technically) of the year. The range and depth of Walter’s skill in these three plays was astonishing. A force of nature. (Also her book on playing Shakespeare is ace.)

Helen McCrory
The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre
Another performance I fully expected to be excellent which was in fact excellent, even more excellent than I’d expected. Providing the fragile heart and surprisingly strong soul of this all round fantastic production, McCrory is just one of the best actresses around in any medium. Seeing her on stage is always a joy.

Elizabeth Marsh
Iron, Theatre By The Lake
The extreme wildcard of this list and a revelation in a very unexpected place (the Lake District). A timely reminder that there is theatrical life beyond London - far, far beyond London in this case - and an absolutely killer central performance, pun intended, in a play I’d like to see again. One of the most raw and vulnerable performances I’ve seen and all the more powerful for it.

James McArdle
Platonov, Young Chekhov, Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre
If Chekhov isn’t supposed to be funny then no one told James McArdle. A perfectly pitched, tragi-comic romp of a production that anchored Platonov and gave it depth as well as a genuine sense of uncontrollable fun. Cannot wait to see more of this dude in Angels in America next year.

Danny Sapani
Les Blancs, National Theatre
I liked Sapani the last time I saw him (Jason to Helen McCrory’s Medea at the NT, funnily enough) and I loved him in this. A performance of great dignity and greater anguish, he elevated an already great production into something really special indeed. More of him please.

Lucian Msamati
Amadeus, National Theatre
One of my favourite actors continuing to prove why he gets that billing. An incredibly demanding role, and one that had it been miscast would have killed the production dead before it reached the rehearsal room, handled with the utmost ease, humour and emotional clout. I genuinely love this man a little bit.

Andy Karl
Groundhog Day, Old Vic
That Karl is headlining the Groundhog Day Broadway transfer will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the London run. A riotous joy of cynicism, humour and unsentimental emotion with a killer singing voice and excellent hair who carried this show with apparently no effort.

Ralph Fiennes
Richard III, Almeida 
You can’t go too far wrong when you combine Shakespeare and Ralph Fiennes. Such was the case with his greasy, charismatic and dangerous Richard III. It was also a thrill to see him in a space as intimate as the Almeida. Close up Ralph Fiennes is the best Ralph Fiennes.

Tamsin Greig
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, or iHo, Hampstead Theatre
The emotional heart of this production was undoubtedly Greig’s Empty. The scenes between her and her ailing father were incredibly poignant and, perhaps more remarkably, incredibly real.

Paapa Essiedu
Hamlet, RSC
It’s so refreshing to see Hamlet played by someone who’s actually the right age to play him. Essiedu is a superstar in the making and seeing what I hope will be his big break was a thrill. Great production, greater Hamlet.

Theatre Review: Art

As premises for comedies go, an argument over whether or not someone should give house room to a white painting - white lines on a white canvass - must be one of the more leftfield. That it’s author is French should perhaps come as no surprise.

Welcome to the world of Art, the modern classic black comedy which has been performed around the world in approximately eight billion productions. Ok so that may be a slight exaggeration, but it's fair to say it has been done a lot. With the Old Vic's new production introducing a new cast to the original 1996 West End creative team, is it really still worth anyone's time? Pleasingly, yes it is.

Translated by Christopher Hampton from Yasmina Reza's French original, Art tells the story of three friends, one of whom buys a ridiculously expensive white painting. The reactions of the other two leads to the near disintegration of their friendship. It is a comedy but, like many of the best comedies, there is a viciousness, a seriousness and a darkness at its heart.

Though there have been many Art casts down the years, this one is a welcome addition to the list. Paul Ritter is acerbically great as arch frenemy Marc, his dry one liners delivered with the appropriate amount of affection and malice. Rufus Sewell is a joyously unsympathetic Serge, all faux warmth and righteous indignation (and achingly attractive but that’s by the by). Tim Key is the star though as Yvan, the only character who’s not an utter shit. Key laps up the audience’s sympathy through a combination of everyman affability and understandable neuroses. For those who know the play, his wedding invitation breakdown is an absolute joy and the unquestionable highlight of the production.

The original creative team have certainly aged well too. Notably praiseworthy amongst those is the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Matthew Warchus who directs here and does it with considerable aplomb. The pacing of the production, not something I usually immediately notice unless it’s wrong, is immaculate; pacey but not rushed. And the simple design, unchanged as far as I can tell from the mid-90s original, is still deceptively simple and effective.

Yasmina Reza’s writing is great - punchy, relatable and very funny. There are some fantastic, memorable lines; 'life denying woman' is my new favourite insult for example. In the post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth age the play’s focus on how people react to being disagreed with feels very relevant and the emotional punches it draws out of this premise are fantastically vivid. My only small criticism is that it does very obviously sound like a translation, which of course it is, in that some of the dialogue and particularly the monologues sound a bit clunky to a native English ear. But that doesn’t detract from the overall effect though and is really just me nitpicking.

Having never seen another production of Art I can’t say where this sits in the league table. However, judged on its own merits this production is great: very funny, brutal, pacey and a fab night out.

Art plays at the Old Vic until 18th February.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

2016 Theatre: My Top 10 Shows

Never has a year needed theatre more than the clusterfuck that has been 2016.

I mean Jesus Christ what a shower. Where do you even start, or indeed finish, on the list of terrible things that have happened? The election of the world’s most unpresidented man as the most powerful man in the world is surely the highlight but the rest of the list is far too long to even embark on. So let’s not. Let’s go for a happier list.

Perhaps it’s a reaction to 2016, but there are an unusually high number of upbeat musicals in my top 10 this year. There’s also a pleasing amount of heavyweight drama, enough to make me feel culturally superior in a deeply snobbish way.

Here’s the list, in rough order...

Into the Woods
Fiasco/Menier Chocolate Factory
Genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and quite possibly unlike anything I’ll see again, there is no end to the love I have for this production. And indeed this company. Probably the thing I loved most, quite apart from the extraordinary talent of the cast and their beautiful interpretation of one of Sondheim’s lushest scores, was the joy that oozed from every cast member and every moment of the show. The perfect antidote to 2016.

Shakespeare Trilogy
Donmar Warehouse
Staying with the theme of uniqueness, I have never seen clearer or more revelatory productions of Shakespeare. The setting of the three chosen plays in a women’s prison, framing the stories within the semi-fictional life stories of the prisoners was a masterstroke that clarified the text and key themes so well. One of those productions that can genuinely be described as an experience, and a privilege to have seen.

Show Boat
Sheffield Crucible/West End
No particular prizes for uniqueness here, other than the sheer quality of this utter babe of a production. Looked stunning, sounded stunning, a superlative cast and a knockout score played perfectly. Joyous.

Guys and Dolls
Chichester Festival Theatre/West End
This was the first thing I saw this year and, evidently, has hardly been bettered. Again, a tremendous production of a killer show with a fantastic cast. The choreography gets a special mention too, the presence of Carlos Acosta as a choreographer was certainly not wasted. And Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat was perfect.

The Deep Blue Sea
National Theatre
At the less happy clappy end of the scale but no less enjoyable for that. A dream cast delivering an acting masterclass on a set that could’ve walked straight off a film and a play that I loved a lot. Such a powerful, sad but ultimately affirming production. The pick of a reasonably strong year at the NT too.

Groundhog Day
Old Vic
Fair to say I was sceptical about this one but my goodness what a lovely surprise. The genius of Tim Minchin’s music and another knockout cast won me over totally, along with innovative staging and a general air of irreverent fun. Will surely blow everyone away when it transfers to Broadway next year.

Young Chekhov
Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre
Another trilogy, another triumph. Superbly acted across the board with an extra star in the incredible, beautiful set. Who knew the Olivier stage could be a lake? As a non-Chekhovian I really went to see these productions because I felt I should, not because I wanted to. It was an exceptionally nice surprise to enjoy them so much.

National Theatre
An absolute joy of a production, and a fitting love letter to the power and joy of music. Whoever decided to do the whole thing with a live orchestra, the exceptional Southbank Sinfonia, should also get some kind of small award.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, or iHo
Hampstead Theatre
Included not only because I love the title, this was a funny, touching, real production that was deeply affecting and fantastically staged. I never expected to enjoy a play where so many people spent so much time speaking over each other could work so well.

Les Blancs
National Theatre
Yael Farber’s NT directorial debut was a stunner. A depressing stunner, but a stunner nonetheless. Perhaps depressing is the wrong word. Moving is probably what I mean. Another great example of what can be achieved by an innovative design on the Olivier stage too.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Theatre Review: the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy

It says a lot about the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy that it’s been three weeks (shut up, I’ve been busy) since I spent my Saturday huddled in their temporary, chilly, Kings Cross home and yet I can still remember the productions well enough to write a blog post about them.

The main thing that it says of course is that these productions are exceptional and I loved them to bits. Spoiler alert.

But then is it really a spoiler given the first third of this trilogy, Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female Julius Caesar, is now four years old? And the second third, Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female Henry IV, is two years old. In a shocking development, the new final third of the trilogy is Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set all female The Tempest. All three utilise the same cast, anchored by the mighty Harriet Walter, and the same technique of framing the plays within the stories of the women prisoners who populate the prison setting. Or to put it another way, the actors are playing prisoners playing the Shakespeare characters; the Shakespeare becomes plays within the plays.

This is one of the too-many-to-list things about these productions that make them so powerful. The interplay between the plays, the fictional actresses playing in them and their stories is incredibly effectively executed and used, intruding on the plays at key moments to up the drama and the emotional ante. Particularly in the second two thirds of the Trilogy the prisoners’ stories intermingle with the Shakespeare with incredible power. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because spoilers, but the moments in Henry IV and The Tempest where the prisoners playing Falstaff and Prospero’s respective realities burst through the play are probably the most impactful moments of theatre I’ve seen this year.

Much is understandably made of the fact that the casts for all three plays in the Trilogy are completely female. Certainly some of the ‘I’m just a weak and feeble woman’ nonsense you almost always get in a Shakespeare play is illuminated by having a woman’s mouth speaking it. But the more interesting point the casting makes is how universal the themes in these plays are. Any person can become a Caesarian demagogue and any person can rebel against them. The gender is entirely unimportant. Of course the women’s prison setting also makes the casting a necessity and as such instantly removes any questions from the audience’s mind about the suitability of women playing these parts, if indeed anyone had any. It’s another way that the setting helps to shine a spotlight on plot and character, and clarify the plays. The two hour run times help also in this regard.

The main thing of note about this cast though is that they are without exception mind blowingly good. Harriet Walter is nothing short of a force of nature as Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero respectively. Prospero is probably the highlight, utilising Walter’s incredible capacity for pathos to conjure something uniquely sad and touching (and making the most of some of Shakespeare’s most interesting and beautiful poetry). Her prisoner character is also the most effectively wrought - and the saddest, a political prisoner on a life sentence with no hope of parole. Her meltdown in The Tempest is awful but amazing to witness. Sophie Stanton is a revelation as Falstaff in Henry IV, funny and sad with an excellent line in Donald Trump jokes (I think these may be additions to the original text…) who, again, works equally hard and delivers the scene of the day in the brief appearance of her prisoner character. Jacky Clune (highlight: a dangerous, magnetic Caesar), Jade Anouka (equally good as Marc Antony, Harry Hotspur and Ariel) and Clare Dunne (highlight: a hypnotic Prince Hal) also standout in what is surely the strongest ensemble in London at the moment. Or at almost any moment in fact.

There are many other awesome things about this production that I’m not going to go into - the brutal, discomforting design, the clever use of lighting, video and music, the fact that the venue and the front of house staff are just lovely - because otherwise we’d be here all day.

Suffice it to say that theatre rarely gets any better than this. The Shakespeare Trilogy is a marvel. I wonder if I’ll ever connect as strongly with the big man than I did watching it?

The Shakespeare Trilogy plays at the King’s Cross Theatre until December 17th. It’s day returns only at this point, but 100% worth queuing for if you can.