Let me start with a confession. We have a two-year-old boy and, frankly, I haven’t been to as much theatre this year as I used to. Having an evening out involved either babysitters or some pretty tough couple negotiation. So there are plenty of things I wished I’d seen this year but simply didn’t manage. Principal among these Misty , The Inheritance, Fun Home, Home I’m Darling, and Summer & Smoke (though thanks to the theatre gods I may still have a chance with some of these) . There were a couple of shows I’d booked for but babysitter failures meant I couldn’t go, which included Nine Night and Super Super Close Up. All end-of-year lists are partial but this is more partial than most. Also sometimes the list distorts itself: there were glorious shows I saw this year - John, Absolute Hell and The Lehman Trilogy at the National, Rita Sue and Bob Too and Pity at the Court, Beginners at the Unicorn, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch at BAC, An Adventure at The Bush, and others - but because they didn’t so clearly connect with other things I saw, they felt orphaned on this list. I also read and loved (but did not see) a couple of things, notably the marvellous Snowflake by Mike Bartlett, but I think if I didn’t see them, I shouldn’t put them on here. So with all these caveats, here I go.
This felt like a very good year, particularly for politically engaged theatre. I saw more brilliant out-and-out feminist work than I’ve seen for years. I’ve seen some wonderful, elusive pieces about Britain, its past and future. I’ve seen one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen about British and American culture and its viciously entangled racial politics. I’ve seen work about fake news, the value of every kind of love, how we judge a previous generation’s moral crimes, and all of it has been theatrically sophisticated, complex, subtle, smart, funny and beautiful.
You guys know the drill; I’m all about playwriting. But I’ve seen some wonderful blurring of the edges of what counts as a play, in which that very investigation has produced some profound and profoundly moving thinking about the world we live in.
I’ve done a top ten, but you’ll see there are more than ten shows in here. Don’t trust the order. Tomorrow I’d do it differently, but maybe this is a handful of tendencies that I’ve cherished this year.
10. Mike Pearson If My Memory Serves Me Well (Aberystwyth Arts Centre)
This is a bit of a cheat. You’re unlikely to have been able to see this. It was a special performance at a theatre conference and a 4hr15m non-stop show by the extraordinary performance maker, Mike Pearson (founder of Brith Gof and other things), in which he discussed 51 randomly-ordered performance photographs projected onto a screen behind him for precisely 5 minutes. It was both a one-man history of performance art, increasingly a beautiful personal reminiscence, and, somehow, despite the random order of the images, an expertly designed structure that took us into the most profound perplexities of performance, memory and hope. We were allowed to come and go as we pleased, but I arrived in the first few minutes and could not tear myself away. It was a captivating feat of endurance and entirely convincing. It is not the most personal one-man show on this list.
9. Chris Goode Mirabel (Oval House)
Chris Goode’s latest show is a solo performance piece so it follows from his sublime Men in the Cities and the achingly, wonderfully perverse The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley. This is a different proposition, though not nearly as different as it might initially have seemed. We appear to be in a post-apocalyptic children’s story, but in reality we’re in the world of desperate hope, queer communities, environmental catastrophe and, more prosaically, friendship, and suffering, and wondering how long we can live like this. It made me think of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia and The Wizard of Oz and a strange ITV children’s programme I saw when I was 9 called King of the Castle. And in the middle of all the uncanny is Chris Goode, a marvellous presence, an even more marvellous voice, and surely our generation’s Virgil into and out of our very particular Inferno.
8. Rashdash Three Sisters/Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play/Royal Lyceum’s The Creditors/Almeida’s The Wild Duck
As some of you will know, I’m working on a book on Naturalism in the theatre. My contention is that Naturalism is so taken for granted that it is barely ever looked at. Well, this year in the theatre kind of proves me wrong, because there have been so many smart, thoughtful investigations of what Naturalism - or particular Naturalist plays - are doing that the theatre is writing at least a chapter of my book for me. Last to the party was Robert Icke at the Almeida asking some great questions about the nature of Ibsen’s commitment to truth; he’s picked the great transition work, The Wild Duck, a play in which Ibsen teeters between his previous belief that the truth should be told even if the heavens fall and a new compassion for those whose lives might be intolerable in the full glare of honesty. Icke’s contention is that these people might include Ibsen himself. The Lyceum’s version of Strindberg’s The Creditors was a wonderful revelation. When I saw this play, in David Greig’s version, at the Donmar a decade ago, I thought the play fascinating but morally reprehensible, a viciously misogynistic piece, that gloated as it fantasised the success of gaslighting and negging, with all the horror of a pick-up artist with a million YouTube followers. This new version, directed by the brilliant Stewart Laing, turned my perceptions of the play inside-out, showing finding in it a play that anatomises the faultlines and fragilities of masculinity and misogyny and does so with immensely entertaining horror. Here we had Stuart McQuarrie in the lead, brooding and complex, but someone unafraid to relinquish the audience’s love and the play came into stunning focus. More playful were the interventions of Dead Centre and Rashdash into Chekhov. The former had been around for a couple of years but this was my first chance to see it and it was an extraordinarily funny examination of Chekhov’s first play and then a slightly less funny examination of being real in the theatre and then it really wasn’t funny any more. Rashdash were funny and furious and fucking brilliant, asking really challenging questions about the role Chekhov plays in our theatre, in our canon, in patriarchy, but also somehow did it by finding all these questions in Chekhov’s work. It was fiercely funny, respectfully irreverent, punkishly classical. The person who didn’t come out of it rethinking their views of theatre has probably got no views of theatre.
7. David Edgar Trying It On/Maydays (RSC)
It could, let’s be honest, have been a disaster. Veteran political playwright, David Edgar, essaying his first one-man show, in which he stages a dialogue between him and his 20-year-old self in 1968, asking what happened between then and now. It could have seemed self-regarding, stodgy, politically backward-looking, pompous, awkward, even embarrassing. But, thanks to some surgically precise writing, it felt casual; thanks to a series of tense ironies in the construction, it felt urgent and painful in all the right ways; thanks to a smart series of staging decisions, it felt no more and no less important than it was, which was really quite important indeed, but not a grand statement, just a brilliant series of questions, perfectly asked. I saw it in Stratford at the Other Place in a double bill with Maydays, a revised revival of Edgar’s 1983 state of the nation play about how the left-wing radicals of the late 60s became the right-wing radicals of the early 80s. I’d never seen this play, being a bit too young for it in 1983, and had only read it and, let me confess, at the age of 21 thought it a bit ponderous. I feel a fool now, obviously, because I had not seen that Maydays is one of the great political plays of the post-war period: pacey, dialectical, informing, funny, challenging, wonderfully fleet-footed and entirely gripping. Martin Glass, the lead character whose agonising journey from left to right forms the spine of the play, is one of the great political protagonists of our theatre, absolutely up there with Susan Traherne and Gethin Price. It was judiciously cut and (in the last scene) brought up to date and nothing I saw this year felt as incisive and potent in its anatomy of where our politics has brought us.
6. debbie tucker green’s ear for eye (Royal Court)
Well maybe except this. Given the nervousness and uncertainty I feel about the world at the moment, I particularly enjoyed in the theatre this year confidence - artistic rather than political. green’s new play, in her own production, was a startlingly good play which brought the US and UK experiences of racial prejudice, of street harassment, and then of the effect that has within black communities and families, where the need for open revolt is both fearfully drawn away from but maybe also turned into a false god. The first act was a tapestry of scenes and groups, in which repetitions began to accumulate and eventually weave together to make a powerful, elegant and ferocious pattern. The second act, a series of conversations between a white lecturer and a black student, was acutely observed and thoroughly chastening in its skewering of white liberal privilege. And the final section, on video, placed it all in a longer historical privilege that made us doubt, though not despair, about how far we’ve come. The ensemble cast was superb, and it felt like a kind of occupation of that stage. The pacing was absolutely exquisite; the image of figures groping in the fog was heartrending. It was sensational.
5. Company (Gielgud Theatre)
This production has been so praised, it even gets a mention in another show. The camp detective in Anthony Neilson’s The Tell-Tale Heart (National Theatre) confesses that he expected to find it ‘fucking amazing’ but didn’t think it lived up to the hype and pronounced it ‘meh’. I don’t agree with him. This was a musical theatre event of the year for me. The careful transposition of the play to the present and the bold and subtle gender swaps in the cast were completely successful, to the extent that, as I watched it, I found myself not remembering how the original could have worked. The musical emerges as simply one of the most serious (‘Another Hundred People’), moving (‘Sorry-Grateful’), funny (‘The Little Things You Do Together’), painfully sympathetic (‘Not Getting Married’) and compassionate (‘Marry Me a Little’) musicals in the canon. It has always had a reputation for being waspishly chilly, hard-, even cold-, hearted, but this revival blows that suggestion away. Director Marianne Elliott and scenographer Bunny Christie have created something smart and seamless and aching. (This was a year, by the way, of boxes on stage: from Company to I’m Not Running at the Lyttelton to Dealing with Clair at the Orange Tree to The Creditors at the Lyceum (see above) and beyond, the theatre this year wanted to show us life in our silos and often to reach out to life beyond them.)
4. Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane (Royal Court)
On Twitter a few years ago, I think it was Sali Hughes who worried that the Super Furry Animals might be our generation’s Beatles and we just didn’t realise it. I feel a bit this way about Mark Ravenhill, that he really is a towering writer of our generation and perhaps we don’t appreciate him enough. Like a lot of playwrights now, perhaps on the Churchill model, he never repeats himself, but he’s taken this even further, writing panto and verbatim and historical and experimental and oratorio and Grand Guignol and adaptations and more so that he risks receding from identifiable view entirely. But he’s always good; he’s always interesting; he’s always taking risks and pushing the theatre and playwriting and the engagement of both of these things with politics and culture in new directions. So in some ways, it’s a particular pleasure to see him come back ‘home’, to the Royal Court Theatre, with a beautifully, brilliantly simple three-hander, which is also as complex and contradictory and maddening and terrifying as anything else I’ve seen this year. It’s a stunning achievement that feels both classical and contemporary, pellucid and opaque.
3. Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys (Royal Court)
I interviewed Dennis Kelly at a conference on his work a little over a year ago and I read this play a couple of months before it went on at the Court. I made the mistake of reading it on the tube and as I got to the end, I was sobbing so hard, a man sitting opposite me actually leaned forward to ask if I was alright. It felt a little absurd to tearfully admit “it’s the <sob> new <sob> Dennis Kelly play <sob>” so I just nodded and got off at the next stop. On the page it’s ‘just’ a monologue, which can feel like a simple theatrical form but the way he plays with our affections and our understanding - the main character being sometimes extremely dislikable, sometimes tearfully sympathetic, our sense of the story sometimes being ahead of her, sometimes behind - is masterful. And then the production: Lyndsey Turner is always an impressive and thrilling director and here she directs with extraordinary assurance, finding the pace of it, shaping the emotions of it, with beauty and power: there’s a moment almost exactly an hour in, after you’ve been laughing hard for almost all that time, when Kelly and Turner hit a key moment perfectly (a single line, I won’t give it away) and it really felt like they sucked the air out of the room and everything started falling vertiginously into darkness. A word too about Es Devlin’s set which somehow showed us memory, trauma, and hope in the form of a family home; the set alone was progressively more and more heartbreaking. Finally, Carey Mulligan: dear God, what a performance. She played the part with a stand-up’s confidence, toying with the audience, laughing with us, then admonishing us, then alienating us, then getting us back on side. Mulligan is usually cast in cute roles and this was very much against type, but she was breathtaking. At the end of the play, I was back on that tube train, sobbing and weak, so that I almost couldn’t join in the standing ovation for the play, production and performance.
2. Simon Longman’s Gundog (Royal Court)
I’d not come across Simon Longman’s plays before and I booked a ticket out of curiosity more than conviction, but this absolutely blew me away. It’s a rural play, both abstractly placeless and earthily particular, and it told a story about land, migration, memory and time. I devoured Longman’s other plays after seeing this and, boy, he can write. The dialogue is beautifully funny, speakable, caustic, shapely (brilliantly performed by a cast including my current favourite actor Ria Zmitrowicz whose stage presence is mystically perfect and seems to me to evoke a whole generation and attitude). Longman also does some quite brilliant things with time in the play, Jumping achronologically around his story and also fast-forwarding in a way I’ve never seen in a play before that evokes change and its opposite before moving towards an ending that was apocalyptic but hard-won, emotional and enduring. It asked who we are and where we are and what matters. It was the great Brexit play of the year, even though it was not about Brexit in the least. I have to also pay attention to Chloe Lamford here, who designed so many of my favourite things in 2018 (John, The Cane, this); she’s a ceaselessly, restlessly inventive scenographer who reinvents theatre as confidently and imaginatively as any director or playwright or performance company. It’s not often that I would buy a ticket to a show on the strength of the designer but I did it here and I found Simon Longman. She captured the plays ambiguities in a wonderful solid muddy, earth-filled set behind which mist swirled impermanently. It was a set that was both inside and outside, here and there, now and always. This is the real deal, a great new playwright, given a great production at the most important new writing theatre in the world.
1. Ella Hickson’s The Writer (Almeida)
There was a lot of great feminist theatre this year. I’ve mentioned Rashdash; there was also the inspirational Emilia at Shakespeare’s Globe (which is transferring folks) and the caustically adorable Dance Nation at the Almeida. This was the one that excited me the most; in fact, it seemed to me the play of the year that most represented how I feel about the world; not the views I have of it, but what it feels like to observe the car crash of a world we are witnessing. The Writer agonises about whether it is possible to write a play that can interrogate power, without duplicating it, without becoming involved in it, without mimicking its features. Each scene seems to tear up the previous one; it burns with anger; it tries things out and fails; it tries things out and succeeds; it is a play that wants to bring down patriarchy and capitalism and it doesn’t manage (seriously, look out of the window, it’s still fucking there) but it captures exactly the feeling of anger and despair that has been my experience of politics for the last two and a half years. It was given a superb, slinky, puzzle-box production by Blanche McIntyre and had a uniformly intelligent, confident, riddling set of performances by its cast including Lara Rossi, Romola Garai, Sam West and Michael Gould. As the play pulled Russian doll out of Russian doll, everything that happened on stage told us we were safe in their hands and as they took us into fantasy and fakery and out again, everything here captured the horror and fury and potential of 2018. I don’t know if it was the best play of the year but I know it was the most essential play of the year; the play that captured the year and gave it back to us in blood and tears.
And I commend this report to the House.