This has been a fantastic year. After a few years where I've felt a bit despondent about the quality of new theatre work, this year feels like a complete rebirth. Interestingly and - depending on your view - encouragingly, it's an advance on all fronts at once. It's not just a good year for the playwrights or a time for the directors to shine, so many areas of theatre seem to be powering at the moment. It's a year that's seen the exciting renewal of a couple of theatre buildings, the Almeida and Orange Tree in particular; we've seen some great new plays, but some astonishing revivals too. There seems to be a sea-change in British directing and design practices. There have been moments of astonishing acting. Maybe I picked well; maybe I was just lucky. But I can't remember feeling this positive about London theatre since the 1990s.
At the risk of disappointing those who look upon me as an omniscient God of theatre - yes you do, don't deny it - this is a plainly partial and incomplete survey of the theatre year. I go to the theatre once or twice a week so I don't see everything. I don't get many freebies so some things I fail to see because I'm too slow (e.g. Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire). I rarely venture out of London to see theatre, unfortunately. I tend towards theatre, rather than live art. I rarely see a new musical. Mainly can't be arsed with the West End. Oh and it's not even the end of the year yet. Haven't seen Hope yet, for instance. If you want to see the headlines, my top 10 is at the bottom of the page.
But let's start with new work. I was intrigued by a pervasively apocalyptic turn this year in subject and style. The year started with a pair of plays at the Court exploring the nature of evil. John Donnelly's The Pass and Simon Stephens's Birdland were only superficially plays about football and rock music. In fact they were both about unimaginably rich young men with moral vacuums where their hearts should be. Stephens's play eventually punished its Baal-like anti-hero; Donnelly's play stripped him bare, brutally exposed him. In both plays, I felt I was present at a kind of enquiry into the values of our culture, in fact, obliquely, into the values of this government, comprising as it does very rich youngish men with moral vacuums where their hearts should be. Money has removed any gap between desire and satisfaction for Donnelly's Jason and Stephens's Paul and, as a result, satisfaction has ceased to satisfy and desires spread like wild fire from peach to underage girl, from a cuddle in a hotel room to an orgiastic destruction of the same. This gives each of these characters a kind of apocalyptic omnivorous quality (a little like the boys in Posh). The tone of both plays seemed nihilistic though they also seemed distanced from that nihilism in their desperate search for some guttering flame of goodness in the darkness of their hearts. (May I also say that Andrew Scott's performance in Birdland was possibly the performance of the year - in a crowded year [Whelan, Strong, Walker, more] - and when we came out of the theatre I had the same feeling as first seeing Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. Yeah, that good.)
If images of extreme nihilistic destruction were a way of characterising the values of our culture, similar images were used to imagine its overturning. The title of Alice Birch's remarkable Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again beautifully exemplifies everything that is explosively original, intensely excessive, and formally inventive about this play which calls for unending revolution of art, language, the body, marriage, and theatre and does so in a series of compelling, funny, unsettling scenes that seemed both to be episodes from the end of a culture and also, troublingly, recognisable glimpses of our world. Chris Goode's Men in the Cities was blisteringly powerful, sad and exhilarating. Its concern was masculinity, but wait come back, it's so better than that sounds. It interweaves a series of stories of men, broken and brutal, both insufficiently and excessively articulate, through the complicated melancholy of a city. Throughout though, movingly, the problem of Goode's own authorship becomes a tormented concern; he is horrified by his own responsibility, his power (which begins in the classic omniscience of telling us a dream that the dreamer himself has forgotten and ends in the triumphant omniscience of the author killing a truly despicable character). But in the middle he agonises through narrating a suicide, engages gingerly with his father, and he also gives us a great cut down the middle of theatre which is a jaw-droopingly beautiful speech by Brian to a Gay Twink Angel which was screamed almost inaudibly over music and made me feel like I was touching heaven. The useless magnificence and the necessarily unnecessary brutality of the ending seemed to articulate together this left-apocalypticism that I felt I saw everywhere this year. Rory Mullarkey's The Wolf from the Door upstairs at the Court showed us the country consumed by violent destruction and enjoyed the spectacle, particularly as it was the little platoons of middle England pulling the trigger. It was a stunning production from the ever-fascinating James Macdonald and it solved the problems of the play's violence (how do you show someone being beheaded? should you show someone being beheaded?) and comically abstracted these moments, giving us the gesture of appalling dystopian violence but at a scrutinising distance.
In my article on Pomona at the Orange Tree, I noted this apocalyptic strain too. Character after character wishing it all to go away, all of us not to wake up, imagining a return to the hated city in flame and burning it all to ash, covering the city in shit and cum. But in this, perhaps more so than in any other play, this apocalypse was happening to a world both completely original in its imagination and rigorously recognisable as our own. Pomona was a huge and violent and achingly beautiful and absurdly funny statement about who we are and where we're going. In my article I didn't single anyone out, but having seen it again, I do want to send huge waves of joyful appreciation to Sam Swann as Charly, Rebecca Humphries as Fay, and Sean Rigby as Moe. Everyone was good; everyone was great. But these three were out of this world.
Christopher Brett Bailey's This Is How We Die (pictured above) was a blistering monologue which tore apart just about everything, a motormouthed scorched-earth assault on the culture, queerer than queer, hipper than hip, the cadences taking me to 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' via Burroughs and Kerouac and Dennis Cooper. It's coming back to the Battersea Arts Centre next year so, if you didn't see it, go see it and don't read the rest of this paragraph, because at the end they do this thing where they play this incredibly loud Velvet Underground kind of rock grind and the lights blind you and you feel entirely consumed and it's really just as fucking unbelievably good as everyone said. Honestly, it's incredible. It's transcendent. Go.
Tim Crouch's Adler and Gibb was a very different kind of play: a play that wrestled with the very idea of representation (there were fraternal bonds between it and Men in the Cities). It divided audiences like all the best stuff this year (Mr Burns, Pomona, this) but it joined in the apocalypse party by asking whether there is something brutal in the very act of representation. The story was a brilliant pastiche, a meticulously constructed fake history of two avant-garde 1970s New York conceptual artists, and the play and performance carried off a series of powerful theatrical inversions. The stage and the actors began the play stripped almost bare but as the scenery and the costumes and the props were brought on, it felt, designedly, like a kind of violation, a stripping away rather than a clothing, an impoverishment rather than an enrichment. As the play got more conventional, in narrative terms, the less satisfactory it seemed. For some critics this was a flaw. For me, that was the whole point and it was a beautiful, austerely serious, profoundly smart and challenging evening. I was also mesmerised, horrified and thrilled by Philip Ridley's Dark Vanilla Jungle, another writerly reinvention, a ferocious and cruel monologue (think a one-hour Not I), performed with jaw-dropping commitment by Gemma Whelan, in which, once again, a world is built up and destroyed before our eyes and ears. It was heartbreaking stuff.
And then there was Mr Burns at the Almeida, which again imagined the apocalypse, and the renaissance of culture from the ashes of our own, constructed out of its half-remembered fragments and passing from pastime to commerce to a religion of high culture. It both gloried in our end and affirmed the permanent value of storytelling. Visionary and hilarious theatremaking and one of the high points of a year of high points for the Almeida.
Yep, the Almeida, which for a couple of decades has occupied a position as offering wealthy, safe, stylish versions of European classics to its wealthy, safe, stylish clientele. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's probably just as wealthy and stylish but it seems much less safe. The first play I ever saw at the Almeida, in 1988, was Howard Barker's The Possibilities; this year, I really saw the Almeida's possibilities. Under Rupert Goold, it seems to have embarked on a pell-mell cannonball run through versions of what a contemporary theatre might be. I say more about its revivals below, but in terms of new work its Schumpeter-style creative destruction also gave us Little Revolution which neatly side-stepped directly showing us the riots but instead looted the theatre, remodelling its shapes, flooding it with, gulp, young people, filling the stage with noises. It also gave us King Charles III, by Mike Bartlett, a play about the imagined near-future of our monarchy in mock-Shakespearean style complete with iambic pentameter, ghosts, comic subplots and more. I saw this advertised and immediately thought, that sounds like the worst idea ever. Was I ever wrong. It was triumphant. The adoption of the Jacobean mode stayed just the right side of thin pastiche and it was just a delight; everything just worked: the production, the language, the performances.
Shakespeare's example was around quite a bit this year. It haunted Rona Munro's The James Plays, a retelling of the first three Scottish kings which began directly in Shakespeare, emerging from an episode from Henry V before telling its own stories in its own style, though retaining the grandeur, the mixture of private and public, a certain elevation of language. The trilogy, each part in a rather different form, engaged directly and elliptically with the Scottish referendum, performances in Edinburgh before the vote electrified by the debate, performances in London after it welcomed, it seemed to me, with tearful relief. A third piece which found a Shakespearean model to tell, its story was David Eldridge's Holy Warriors at the Globe; the first half in Elizabethan History Play mode, the second half spiralling off into something immensely powerful and strange, a kaleidoscopic collage of the West's dealings with the Middle East. Once again, it confirmed David Eldridge as our theatre's great shape-shifter, a brilliant writer, continually exploring and renewing his own craft, his signature being only his intense, beautiful, sincere compassion for people.
Even here there was something apocalyptic in the playing out of our orientalist endgame, the form and the content teetering constantly on the edge of chaos. This theme of apocalyptic destruction ran through so much interesting work this year it felt like a symptom and a warning of a society furiously facing crisis and, given the government we have and the system we have, I think it's profoundly positive sign of a theatre taking us to the edge of what our culture considers thinkable.
I can't remember a year with so many superb revivals. At the Almeida (again), Rupert Goold's new(ish) take on The Merchant of Venice is ferociously smart, transplanting it to Vegas, it solves some of the play's problems by finding a location where money is both overwhelmingly important and gaudily emptied of meaning. The test to win Portia's hand is translated intact as a tacky game show, which is just what it is, but the court room, brilliantly staged though it was, is allowed to be upstaged by foregrounding the subtextual gay relationship in the play. It is unsettling good fun. The Donmar's Henry IV was another strong reworking, with Harriet Walter a lean and brooding King and Ashley McGuire an adorable, contemptible, pitiful Falstaff. Apparently this is the second of a trilogy of all-women productions: I hope hope hope we're going to see Harriet Walter's King Lear. David Tennant was a really wonderful Richard II, his mixture of steel and playfulness for me more impressive than his Hamlet. At the Globe, I loved Lucy Bailey's Titus Andronicus (I missed it in 2006) and found the new indoor playhouse a wonderful machine for rediscovering a play as familiar as The Duchess of Malfi.
Mostly it was modern revivals that floored me. Lisa Dwan's Beckett Trilogy showed that, even within the tight parameters of Beckett's vision and his Estate's affordances, there is considerable room to rediscover, explore, invent. Not I and Rockaby were a kind of perfection and this is from someone who saw Billie Whitelaw (RIP) doing Rockaby at the Riverside in 1986. God I feel old. Bijan Sheibani's take on A Taste of Honey, with two blisteringly funny, lovable performances from Lesley Sharp and Kate O'Flynn at its heart, brought that old play as bright as a new pin, helped also by a spinning, rambling set from Hildegard Bechtler.
These were, dare I say, relatively conventional revivals, great though they were (and let's not get sniffy about great, straight revivals). But something else was going on. The influence of Three Kingdoms, and the Lyric's invitation in 2012 to young directors to rethink how they show the world, was felt all over. Carrie Cracknell's production of Birdland, with its elegantly abstract Ian McNeil set, gradually sunk the cast in dark water while bubbles of abandoned possibility descended from the skies. Abigail Graham's revival of Dennis Kelly's Debris, over at the relocated Southwark Playhouse, unfolded amid brickdust and girders and was hypnotically good. Hamish Pirie's production of Teh Internet is Serious Business (together with Chloe Lamford's impossible set) was a dazzling attempt to get virtual cyberspace into the foursquare material space of the Royal Court stage. There was in fact a fair bit of Adler & Gibbery around: Ellen McDougall's Idomoneus at The Gate found an exhilaratingly abstract language for this classical deconstruction; is there a better director than McDougall around at the moment? I seem to love everything she does. James Macdonald's abstracted The Wolf from the Door was Adler and Gibbish too. I felt this most strongly at Our Town at the Almeida (the Almeida? change the record, Dan) which took a play which I really didn't think I liked, pared it back and made it feel lean and thrilling. And when, in the last act, we suddenly get richly detailed Naturalist staging, just as in Adler & Gibb, it feels like betrayal and delusion. The ensemble was magnificent, the mostly British accents working just fine: there was a play and there was a production and we were fine with them being different.
The idea that those things should, in some unspecified way, be the same is part of the naturalist inheritance of our theatre and I was struck by how many Naturalist classics were the crucible for thrilling reinvention. The Belvoir Company production of The Wild Duck (which took Ibsen's characters and story and wrote a contemporary play with them) was just great. I don't often cry in the theatre, but I did here because the ending was, as it should be, emotionally devastating. The epilogue, in which Hjalmar and Gina, a year on from the death of their daughter, find they can't reconcile, went straight to the heart of the play, stripped of its Victoriana and the anaesthesia of classic status. The play was in a glass box, virtually no props or furniture, but, in a kind of ironic nod to hyper naturalist staging, a real wild duck. But this was all to give us the debate, the emotion, the relationships, the loss. I'd love to see all Ibsen done like this, at least once. Ostermeier's An Enemy of the People was another contemporary transposition. Our Stockmann ends up ranting about the bankers and austerity economics - and then the baton is handed to us: the house lights are up and we're invited to speak. The night I went, it was extremely tacky. Some quavering earnest voices. A reference to the Scottish referendum. Someone stood up and denounced the real injustice being the woman who'd asked her to stop talking during the performance. It didn't work, but that's because we didn't work. It exposed, in a tiny way, the failings of our liberal democracy, through the daring failure of a moment of theatre. Katie Mitchell's The Cherry Orchard completed her cycle of productions of Chekhov's major plays but there was nothing climatic or monumental about it; this was, again, pared down, accelerated, the characters skittering on and off the stage as if they were on a ship being tossed on the sea. The scenes were all relocated to one room in the house, which was progressively denuded. The action was shifted from its original location, but, unusually for Mitchell, not to a precise alternative period; there was a modern suit, a seventies dress, a reference to the freeing of the serfs. It felt like a play in which the time was out of joint. It was an enervated production about living in precarious times. (As perhaps a side note, the reinvention of Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin as a piece of music theatre, at the Finborough and then Park Theatre, was, to my slight surprise, a complete triumph.)
And then, confounding all our binaries, the most faithful, textual, pared down, new-writing-style production of a play this year came from Ivo van Hove, the paint-throwing, punk-ass adulte terrible of European theatre, who took another American play that I didn't think I liked, A View from the Bridge, and found in it what it was aways intended to be: a modern tragedy. A deep thrust stage, white lights, almost no furniture or props (again - poor stage furniture makers; it's been a bad year): and the result was beyond words. In 1989, I saw Garry Hynes's Druid production of A Whistle in the Dark, which had transferred to the Royal Court. It's a story about an Irish family who come to Britain where a younger brother has emigrated with his wife. The clashes of personality, family, culture and class lead with a sickening sense of inevitability to a tragic conclusion. Before this year, it was my only experience of what I think Aristotle means by catharsis, my go-to example of theatre that evokes and somehow healthily reorganises our deepest most disorganised anxieties. And then I saw A View from the Bridge and I experienced it again. Again, all pared down, nothing extraneous, a gorgeous cast (led by Mark Strong and Nicola Walker, both captivating), building to the ending, where, in the only remotely flamboyant directorial intervention, the cast and stage are doused in blood and a shutter slowly hides their tragedy from us. It's a production that I will think about for the rest of my life.
There's no singular movement to see here, just a renewal of confidence and boldness, a new wave of directors, a new wave of writers, a couple of theatres taking risks and showing how exciting that can be again. The Almeida's my theatre of the year. I'm looking forward to seeing if the Orange Tree can hold its nerve and become, against the run of play, the most exciting theatre in London. Obviously we're all looking to Rupert Goold to see if he can make the National join this energy wave. There were great signs of nose-thumbing innovation at the Court. Of course, if the Tories get in again, they'll probably cut arts subsidy to almost nothing. The year's apocalyptic turn might be a last gasp, but I hope it's a fightback.
Everyone's doing top 10s this year, so here's mine.
- A View from the Bridge (Young Vic)
- Pomona (Orange Tree)
- This is How We Die (BAC)
- Idomoneus (Gate)
- The Wild Duck (Barbican)
- Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again (RSC)
- Adler & Gibb (Royal Court)
- The Wolf From the Door (Royal Court)
- Mr Burns (Almeida)
- Men in the Cities (tour)