This was another terrific year, maybe not quite as thrilling as last year, but at its heights it was dizzyingly good. It seemed to me that we chose the epic and the tragic to make sense of our world. While last year I thought there were great things in all areas of theatre, looking back, this year I think the directors have it. There were some exciting plays, but nothing Pomona-like (well, apart from the return of Pomona) that made me feel I'd got a glimpse through the looking glass into a new world. In fact, new worlds weren't quite the thing this year; instead, we looked into our future by looking into our past. The Greeks, as I wrote earlier in the year, seemed to have the resources we needed to understand what our 'civilisation' is becoming. There was a great deal of bold popular theatre with a brain and a heart. Of the theatres, the Orange Tree was once again thrilling, with shows as different as Alice Birch's Little Light (directed by David Mercatali) and a captivatingly funny French Without Tears (directed by the AD Paul Miller). The Almeida continued to thrill with a vastly ambitious and on the whole brilliantly successful Greek season. I had two brilliant evenings at the Old Vic this tear and Matthew Warchus's artistic directorship looks like making the Vic an essential venue for new theatre.
New plays, though. I should say that I missed a couple of the shows which I suspect might have got into this list. debbie tucker green's hang I had tickets to but an emergency took me away. I didn't catch Hangmen and may even miss it in the West End. Elsewhere at the Court, I hugely enjoyed How to Hold Your Breath. I was slightly traumatised by Violence and Son and still am not sure if I loved it or hated it. Later in the year I found the plays a bit undercooked. At the Bush, I enjoyed Islands very much, and admired the idea of The Angry Brigade, though the production seemed a bit clumsy. The National's new plays didn't really grab me in the first half of the year, kicking off with Stoppard's stodgily undigested The Hard Problem; it won't end up in most people's end-of-year lists I suspect because there is something defiantly old-fashioned about it, but Patrick Marber's The Red Lion, in an exquisite production by Ian Rickson, was a fucking beauty, detailed, textured, truthful and with possibly the best cast of the year. Someone should force Ian Rickson to direct more.
Whittling the list down to Top Ten has been unusually difficult because of the diversity of what has been good this year; diverse in style but all good in diverse ways.
10. When the Terror Has Ended The Victims Will Dance (Platform Theatre)
Mark Ravenhill is one of the most tirelessly inventive writers we have and, you know what? I worry we take him for granted. He seems to try something radically different with everything he does; short plays, long plays, oratorios, sketches, monologues, adaptations, operas, and now this. This play was written for the acting students of the Drama Centre and is a large-scale, epic, pretty damn Brechtian piece about the (possibly mythical?) bals des victimes of the 1790s, in which, supposedly, aristocrats whose parents were guillotined during the Terror held ghoulish balls, recreating the lost dances, music and traditions of the ancien régime. Ravenhill has found in this something about victim culture and selfie culture, about narcissism and civilisation, and the thirst for revolution. Brilliantly choreographed and with original music, it was a staggering showcase for those acting students and a pretty great play in its own right.
9. People, Places & Things (National Theatre)
In Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, Mark goes into rehab and comes out with a ludicrous patter that pathologises some of the most positive human feelings. Duncan Macmillan's play follows a successful actress into rehab where she struggles with her contempt for the intellectual vacuousness of the therapy, the banal revelations, the coercive openness of the groups. At heart it's asking how do we know when are us and when we are not us? And how can we know? Perfectly, Macmillan does this by exploiting theatre itself as the metaphor and, like a lot of shows this year, it expresses a certain tiredness with the conventions of theatre as the springboard to go into something new. At moments, I had doubts about a certain mannerism in the dialogue - dialogue that is almost too good, too smart, too speakable - but you forget all that when you see that Macmillan has written a superb part for an actor, and what an actor they found. Denise Gough tears up the stage, intense, ferocious, spitting blood, sometimes raging with fury sometimes utterly lost in the world and herself. Gough has been around a while - as she's pointed out! - but this showed how corrosive her presence can be on the stage. In the white sterility of Bunny Christie's wonderful set, Gough burns like acid flung against a plastic wall. She honestly burns through this show. Catch it in the West End next year; you'll remember it always.
8. How to Hold Your Breath (Royal Court)
This got slaughtered by some of the critics. I'm not sure why, though it feels like there has been a concerted attempt by some to undermine Vicky Featherstone's leadership at the Court, Zinnie Harris's play is a kind of anti-Faust, in which the devil tries to do a deal with a reluctant earth woman. This sets the woman on picaresque journey across a decaying and crumbling Europe, ending up in the spectacle of refugees dying in their thousands in the Mediterranean. It was magical realism; it was bold and ambitious and messy and strange. Don't we want all theatre to be a bit like that?
7. High Society (Old Vic)
Okay maybe not all theatre. Sometimes the theatre achieves a kind of astonishing perfection that is entirely about itself. When I love musicals, it's not when they try to say something significant about the world but when they raise pure theatre to its highest power. I've not seen a huge number of musicals this year but I've been lucky with the ones I have. Anything Goes at the end of last year and Show Boat at the end of this one, both up at the Crucible, both directed by Daniel Evans with a perfect eye for balancing the musical's brilliant dumbness with concern for the characters and their fates. Gypsy in the West End has a magnificent performance at its heart and the thing zings along. But the one that gave me the most joy was High Society at the Old Vic; expertly re-madeby Maria Friedman, with a blistering dance and song break down at the start of the second half as they turned 'Let's Misbehave' into an extended number with tap dancing, piano duets, bluesy improvisations and it was just joy itself. The whole production was held together by the brilliant, intelligent, sparky, witty presence of Kate Fleetwood as Tracy Lord and again the balance, so important in a Cole Porter musical, between deep feeling and self-cancelling frivolity was done to perfection.
6. The Notebook (Forced Entertainment)
Am I right in thinking this is only the second time Forced Entertainment have performed a pre-existing text, the first being Sophie Calle's Exquisite Pain. The Notebook is more exquisite pain, this particular pain being the horrors of the second world war and the exquisiteness coming from a text apparently written by two Hungarian boys sent to live with their grandmother who numbly record everything they see around with a dispassion that makes the overworked stories of occupation and collaboration newly horrifying again. Standing and sitting on a stage with only two chairs and a couple of bottles of water, Richard Lowden and Robin Arthur, dressed identically, sometimes alternating, sometimes speaking in unison, speak a brilliantly filleted version of Ágota Kristóf's novel, with Forced Ents's characteristic flat, affectless clarity, unfolding an imaginative world of endless pain and trauma. It is sometimes funny, occasionally flintily graceful, but ultimately the evening has spiralled out in your mind into something completely, devastatingly shattering. The simplest of means with the maximum effect; it was theatre at its purest this year.
5. Here We Go (National Theatre)
It's been a terrific year for Churchill revivals, with a dazzling Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at the National, a bright and sharp A Number at the Old Vic and, by all accounts, a dazzling rediscovery of The Skriker at the Royal Exchange. But a new Caryl Churchill play is something else and this piece, barely 45 minutes in the playing confronts the unconfrontable: death. It's three scenes take us after and before death, both scenes pressing at the firmly closed door, showing us the banal patterings of a life remembered and the life nearing its end. In the middle we have death itself, thrown away in a gesture of representation defeated, a comic monologue about the afterlife. But the whole thing didn't feel as nihilistic as that sounded; as important was the desire to cherish life, alongside the acknowledgement that sometimes it is difficult to cherish a life, impossible to encompass it, that sometimes even living it is hard. It was the most moving and most profound 45 minutes I've spent in a theatre this year.
4. Carmen Disruption (Almeida)
Michael Longhurst directed the production of A Number at the Old Vic as well as Simon Stephens's remarkable moment-by-moment excavation of Bizet's Carmen. Stephens's text is an like intricate scaffolding placed around a venerated building that his since been destroyed leaving only the scaffold standing. Carmen is explored, investigated, reimagined in an unnamed city, bringing together a cast of opera singers, bankers, rent boys, and more to pass and collide as Europe dies around them. Images of a dying Europe were all over the theatre this year (more than half of this list has them) and it was never more bracingly caught than in the enormous gored bull dying at the centre of the Almeida stage. Longhurst's production rose to the challenge of Stephens's piece of lyric theatre writing, creating a whole landscape in which the fragments of European life trace their brutally meaningless journeys. But above the landscapes there remained an intense desire for contact, for touch, for those things that bind us together. It was a vision of a better theatre and a vision of a better life.
3. Lanark (Edinburgh International Festival)
David Greig is a good friend of mine and it's in deference to the delicate balance of a friendship that I can't bring myself to put two of his shows in my top ten, though last week I saw The Lorax which is completely bloody beautiful, a huge, joyful eco-musical that asks us all to speak for the trees, and does so with brilliant puppetry, giddily enjoyable songs, and the wittiest script of the year. There can be little higher praise to say that, even though I had a copy of The Lorax as a kid, in this show it was almost impossible to tell where Dr Seuss ended and David Greig begun. I also think it's a very characteristic dilemma that I should be weighing up whether to put Lanark or The Lorax into my top ten, one being a brightly coloured children's show, the other being a four-hour adaptation of an unstageable modern Scottish novel. Finally, I'm going with Lanark, if only because I've had four months to reflect on it and it's grown in my mind with every reflection. Lanark, by Alasdair Gray, is a magical-realist re-imagining of post-war Glasgow and Scotland. The book and the play takes us through the looking glass into Unthank, into the Institute, into a world where people turn into dragons, where plays turn against their authors. The novels multiple formal conceits were not rendered like-for-like but instead the whole adaptation (and the exquisite production by Graham Eatough) was filled with the brimming mischievous spirit of Gray's novel. Ceaselessly inventive, its chronologically disrupted acts each in quite different styles, all anchored by Sandy Grierson's sensational performance as Lanark. I hope something else happens with this; the Barbican's BITE seasons are all about showcasing the best of international theatre and London ought to see Lanark.
2. The Oresteia (Almeida)
1. Iliad (National Theatre of Wales)
I can't really split these. I blogged earlier in the year about the Greeks and how they had come to dominate our theatrical imaginary this year. There were fine Medeas at the Gate and the Almeida. The Barbican brought Juliet Binoche in Antigone and there was a roaring Oresteia at the Glove. Thrillingly the Almeida produced full readings of The Odyssey and The Iliad, available to follow live and online, the videos of which you can still watch for a year. But the two greatest evocations of the Greeks and, so it seemed to me, of ourselves came with Robert Icke's reworking of The Oresteia at the Almeida and Mike Pearson & Mike Brookes's theatrical reimagining of The Iliad for the National Theatre of Wales. Robert Icke reworked the story, set it in a monochrome post-war world and as it began to unfold I thought, this will never work: a prime minister sacrificing his child to propitiate the Gods' favour? But it all did, the prime minister 's advisors taking him through the cold electoral logic of murder, the medicalised 'painless' termination of Iphigenia's life, the cold conversations around the dinner table, the murders in a bath, the timestamps for every death, the remorseless countdowns that swept us along, and the beautiful austerity of the design (the best lighting of the year), this was unforgettable. And then, in Llanelli, we gathered in the Ffwrnes to see a four-part all-day staging of Christopher Logue's reworking of Homer's Iliad, courtesy of the National Theatre of Wales. The actors spoke the text, made and remade the stage around us, clashed and battled, while child Gods looked on from video screens. It was only lightly 'acted'; the performers had the text projected on screens around us, all dressed similarly in dark suits, made little attempt to inhabit character only to present character and relationship clearly and distinctly and seriously. As the siege of Troy concluded part one, with a long sequence in which (trust me on this) hundreds of white plastic garden chairs were thrown into a pile against a rear wall, my heart was racing until I thought it might burst. It felt extraordinarily thrilling and immense and terrible and extraordinary. It's the best thing I saw this year. It might just be the best thing I've seen in a theatre.