Top Ten Plays of 2016

 

1. Kings of War, TGA at the Barbican. Ivo Van Hove’s compilation of Shakespeare’s Henry V and the first tetralogy was the best of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations and proof that sometimes it’s better to not be reverent to Shakespeare’s text. I feel slightly guilty for liking it so much, because Toneelgroep Amsterdam has a long way to go in terms of diversity, but this is genuinely the best play I’ve seen all year. I’ve never seen video projection used so well. Deliberately cinematic, the sprawling set, semi-film studio, semi-real government isn’t as beautifully striking as TGA sets can be but it fits the production so well. My favourite part, though, has to be the final third: Richard III. Hans Kesting is a wounded, malicious, childlike and mournful Richard. No one can ever do it better after him. My favourite moment: Hans Kesting as Richard, delivering a soliloquy to his mirror, while a camera relays his reflection in the mirror live to the audience. Or perhaps that birds eye shot of the tart on the coffee table as characters take slices from it. Or maybe the mini-reference to Henry IV at the very beginning, where we see Henry V take the crown from his father’s bed. Or just every moment when they roll out the red carpet and perform a coronation, holding the crown above the king’s head, but never actually putting it there. Clearly too many to choose from.

2. The Dazzle, Soho Theatre at Found 111. Piles of trash. Piles and piles of trash. Not trash, but trinkets. Stuff. Lang (Andrew Scott) collects stuff and makes piles of it in his house. The set, which everyone sees up close (sat on an array of old chairs, the audience is basically in the set) is one of the most immersive and visually striking things I’ve ever seen. But Milly (Joanna Vanderham) feels slightly like the kind of unrealistic female character that gets written by men. Milly is unassertive and only knows how to use her body to attract Lang. SPOILER: when Lang tells Milly he won’t marry her, I just wished she would shake him on the shoulders and tell him that he was marrying her, no matter what. It would have worked out alright. Maybe. But then it wouldn’t have been such a good play. I saw it twice, and both times round didn’t know who to feel for more: Lang, living with a disability in a world that expects marriage and money, his brother Homer (David Dawson), who has given up his life to look after him or Milly. Favourite line: ‘what do you like about me?’ ‘I find your money thrilling, and I’m fond of your hair’.

3. The Flick, National Theatre. Some people didn’t like Annie Baker’s at speed-of-life play. But if you insist on calling my generation ‘millennials’ then this is a play for millennials. Student loans, living with your parents til you’re thirty, paying rent, kids doing summer jobs versus adults whose life this is: this play has it all. And it’s good too. Not as many of the plays on this list as I would like have strong, independent female characters. When Sam confesses to Rose that he’s in love with her, he doesn’t care what she has to say. He doesn’t pause to let her talk, won’t even look at her. But it feels so good when she tells him ‘it sort of seems like it has nothing to do with me’. Sad, but good. Ann Treneman, theatre hater, complained about how many pauses there were but I’m pretty sure there are a lot of pauses in her life. Icke’s Vanya showed us that people aren’t sure about whether their life could be a comedy or a tragedy. Annie Baker’s play showed us that our lives are both comedies and tragedies.  Favourite line: ‘What do you wanna like be when you grow up?’ Pause. ‘…I am grown up.’ ‘Oh. Yeah. I guess I just mean / like –’ ‘That’s like the most depressing thing anyone’s ever said to me.’

4. The Encounter, Complicite at the Barbican. This is one of those ideas so good you kick yourself for not thinking of it. If you open your eyes and take your headphones out, it’s just Simon McBurney waving some bin bags round a big stage, but close your eyes and put those headphones in and you’re in the Amazon. The story, told using a binaural technology (aka sometimes you can hear things in your left ear and not in your right ear) is based on a not very interesting book called Amazon Beaming. But McBurney transforms it into a reflection on what it is to be an author, an adapter, a parent, an explorer, a performer. There are layer after layer of narrators: Simon McBurney, past pre-recorded Simon McBurney talking to his daughter late at night in the kitchen, Loren McIntyre, Petru Popescu, every single character in the story/performance who speaks (McBurney does voices for each of them). This beautiful complex unfolds like a bud. And I have so much respect for the stage managers so this show, seriously.  Favourite quote: ‘Some of us are friends’.

5. Mary Stuart, Almeida Theatre. Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson decided who would die and who would live by tossing a coin in this Robert Icke show. Maybe Icke will never again make something quite as good as his Oresteia. Maybe he doesn’t want to. But this comes very close. James Graham said ‘I think [Brexit] is going to be the main occupying idea in all writers’ heads for the next five or 10 years’ and he was right. Icke’s Schiller reboot includes Brexit inspired lines that the Almeida’s Islington audience love to laugh at like:

‘A majority does not prove a thing is right.
England is not the world.’

and:

‘To serve the people is to be a slave.
I’m tired of flattering them, when – honestly –
I hate them. Really hate them. I have to respect
their unrefined opinions, their approval
and satisfy a fickle population’

Love it. Full review here.

6. King Lear, Old Vic. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Shakespeare but King Lear is really easy to get wrong. At least, directors seem to have a history of getting it wrong. And by that I mean they look to King Lear’s massive performance history and decide that if they borrow one clever thing that one director did and everyone since then copied to sum up one dynamic within the play they’ve nailed it. And that is not the case. Deborah Warner, unfortunately, makes this mistake too (but not as much as Sam Mendes made it). In her Lear, Cordelia and Lear (Glenda Jackson) enter together in the first scene. Which is meant to tell us that Lear has a closer relationship with Cordelia than with his other two daughters. But that’s the only thing the actors do to tell us that. All that having been said (and ignoring the gross costumes and the portrayal of Edmund as a fitness junkie), this is by far the best Lear I have ever seen and one of the best Shakespeares. There’s something thrilling about seeing a woman as the main character in one of the most famous plays written by one of the most dead, white authors ever to exist. Icke wrote of traditional verse speaking in the introduction to his Mary Stuart: ‘the language is being spoken in a different kind of voice (posher and louder, usually) or explained (as if talking to a class of children, or someone hard of hearing)’. When verse is spoken ‘in a different kind of voice’ it isn’t the voice of most of the audience. When, in a play written by a man over 400 years ago, only men can be victorious in power, can be ‘the oldest’ who ‘hath borne most’, the women in the audience can feel alienated (or, at least, I can). 50/50 onstage representation is the way forward for Shakespeare. Shoutout to Glenda Jackson for reppin it so well. Favourite moment: everything Rhys Ifans said as the fool. The bin bag storm. And my all time favourite line of Lear, just because the audience always murmurs: ‘Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.’

7. Uncle Vanya, Almeida Theatre. When I first saw this I was disappointed, mostly just because I didn’t think it was as good as Oresteia. But over time Vanya has grown on me and now I wish I could see it again. Life goes at real speed, and we’re not sure if it’s a comedy or a tragedy. Or just a Chekhov play. Admittedly, this doesn’t get the whole ‘this is what real life is really like’ thing down quite as well as The Flick does. But I’ll forgive it for both how funny and tragic it is. In The Flick, there are moments that are funny, moments that sad, and sometimes moments that are both. But in Icke’s Vanya, there are moments that are both funny and sad, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Every scene is picturesque in a sort of barn conversion modern country life sort of way. Set on a rectangular wooden platform with the audience on three sides and pillars that deliberately obstruct the view (that’s life) as the platform rotates at snail’s pace, more and more furniture clutters each stage as every act progresses. The room looks much fuller as the play ends, but the characters sit in the same places, doing the same things as when the play began. Sonya and Vanya (renamed Uncle Johnny) feel like they’ve just had the lowest moments of their lives: but life goes on. Favourite line: ‘Don’t be bored. It’s contagious.’

8. Threepenny Opera, National Theatre. You know a show’s really good when you find yourself mourning the fact that the NT haven’t released a script or a soundtrack for it. It’s a mish mash of crime, musical, sex thriller and bizarre metatheatrical comedy. Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig) and Mack the Knife (Rory Kinnear) enter standing on a straight-out-of-a-panto model of a crescent moon, with Mack fucking Polly while she, in a monotonous voice, repeats ‘ow…ow…ow’. That’s what the humour’s like throughout Threepenny Opera. Simon Stephens’ adaptation stays fairly close to the vulgarity of Brecht’s text, even when this involves demeaning women (like when Mack pushed one of the prostitutes’ heads through one of the paper panels – quite forcefully) but women in this production also literally hold the key to men’s safety. The music was catchy, the sex scenes were semi-sexy, the set (paper strung between wooden frames on a rotate) was a sprawling East End and Rory Kinnear’s eyeliner was goals. Besides, this list wouldn’t feel right without more than one production from the NT on it. As well as Threepenny Opera and The Flick, I loved The Red Barn, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Les Blancs – making up for all the NT shows I didn’t like quite so much. Kudos to Rufus Norris. Favourite moment: the Balladeer singing ‘Mack The Knife’ while Mack’s silhouette appears behind one of the paper frames.

9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe. If only purely because of the massive challenge Rice posed to the old white men at Shakespeare’s Globe. Rosie Curtis has written brilliantly on the issues about consent that Rice’s production raises, so I’m going to skip over that and talk about the good bits. If you’re a white straight man you can talk as much as you want about the limits of diversity in period pieces or merit over positive discrimination but I’m done with that bullshit. As I said about Deborah Warner’s King Lear above, when you can see yourself in a production it’s so much more real, more painful, more funny (Icke’s Vanya could have done with a bit of this). Rice could have easily just ticked all the boxes for 50/50 gender equality onstage and diverse casting but she went a step further than that in making one of the couples gay and I love her for it. It’s not often you get to see bisexuality onstage (or onscreen). This production was a little glimpse at the future of Shakespeare performance in the UK and how far so many theatres have yet to come. Favourite moment: Puck (Katy Owen) jumping into the audience and kissing a groundling.

10. They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida Theatre. This play made me think a lot, and not just about the issues it raised, but also about the people who create theatre. It’s a play written by a white man, directed by a white man, with a white woman as the main character, that focusses on the problems white people face when trying to help black people. The publicity for Congo veered between trying to appeal to black audiences and, in slightly smaller font, explaining that this was actually a play about white guilt. But I loved They Drink It In The Congo for its office humour and the heartbreaking scenes in the actual Congo. The play is at its best when it is reminding us how privileged we are – and not in a ‘oh look this child doesn’t have any clean water to drink way’. In a ‘this girl the same age as your daughter sitting next to you just is about to get raped by her father and then have a bayonet inserted into her vagina’ way. Favourite (read: most heartbreaking) line: ‘Because if you have a child now you know where it’s going. Unless its father is a prince. Or a trader. Then you know where it’s going.’

Plays that probably would have been on my top ten if I had seen them: Cleansed, Yerma, The Children, Minefield, Amadeus, Shopping and F***ing.

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