(nb: most of this was written on the train on New Year’s Eve, so “last night” = Dec 30th.)
In 2016 I saw 41 plays (and three staged readings, which were interesting but it feels unfair to put in with the rest because they’re not supposed to be fully realised pieces of theatre). Drunk Theatre stalwart Louisa and I tried to clear out the bottle-ends in the booze cabinet before the New Year, and carried out the immense task of force-ranking all our 2016 plays with Post-It notes. (for the record if you are also looking to clear out your drinks bottles, the “Monkey Gland”, a 1920s? cocktail involving grenadine and absinthe, was surprisingly all right.)
Bottom to top:
41. “Comeback: Die Karl-Marx-Musical” (Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate). I admire and try to follow the theatre blogger rule of not picking on individuals, which is actually easy in this case because literally every single aspect of this production was bad. Except for two: Chorus Member #2, who was working so hard and really selling it, and the part where they brought out a bathtub on wheels and a bubble gun. The bubble gun was underused.
40. “Beyond the Fence” by Android Lloyd Webber (The Arts Theatre, Covent Garden). “The world’s first-ever computer-generated musical!”, about the women at Greenham Common and an American guard at the base. The acting and staging were perfectly fine, and the song where they broke in to drape fairy lights around the military base was a lovely moment of collaborative subversion. However I feel confident in saying human composers have nothing to worry about.
39. “Welcome Home, Captain Fox!” (Donmar Warehouse). VERY GOOD FROCKS but oh my goodness so sexist! When you’re updating a play but it still ends up with women crawling on the floor in shame having been rhetorically trounced and humiliated by the smug lead man, maybe think about updating it a little more!
38. “Sunset at the Villa Thalia” (National Theatre). Ben Miles and Pippa Nixon were, as expected, great but the whole production felt a bit like an IKEA bookshelf – all the parts fit together perfectly and it does what it’s intended to do, but you can see all the joins and there’s just a lot of flat surfaces and right angles. There was a really exciting moment towards the end of the second act, when all the characters started coming out with revelations and recriminations, and I was baffled because, what they were saving for the third act? But it turned out there was no third act and we all got to go home early! Or in my case to the NT cocktail bar. Woo-hoo!
37. “King John” (Rose Theatre, Kingston). One of my favourite moments in all Shakespeare is in this play, when everything’s kicking off onstage between mothers-sons-cousins-aunts-uncles-grandmothers-the French-the English and then someone points offstage and goes, “Here comes the holy legate of the Pope!” and a Cardinal stomps in in a fancy outfit to yell at everyone. That scene did not disappoint. But I am often frustrated by the way Trevor Nunn tries to iron out the weird stuff in Shakespeare. Just let it be weird, Trev! Lisa Dillon as Constance was solid but this was overall not an interesting production. However we did have drinks with one of the people involved afterwards and gossip a bit which is always fun.
36. “Bubble Schmeises” (Camden People’s Theatre). A preview of a one-man Edinburgh Fringe show by a Jewish Londoner (who also happens to be a friend of mine), about schvitzing in the East End of London, and London Jewish culture more generally, including very strong opinions about the pronunciation of the word “beigel”. Oh my god it’s so warming and inspiring to go to European Jewish theatre that has good jokes and isn’t about the Holocaust. Also there was free fruit.
35. “Henry V” (Regent’s Park Theatre). This was the one Michelle Terry was in as Henry, and she was strong but it kind of felt like the production went, “Well, we have cast a woman in a traditionally macho male part, job done!” and stopped there. The Dauphin was amusing and there was a good bit during the St Crispin’s Day speech where Henry said, “He that hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart,” and Williams went “OK!” and hoisted his bag and started to walk off, but aside from that it didn’t feel like there was a big idea behind this production. NB I saw it two days before the EU referendum and it was very hard to think about anything else.
34. “Our Lady of Perpetual Succour” (National Theatre of Scotland at the National Theatre, London). A group of teenage girls are down from their Catholic school in the Scottish islands to Edinburgh for a day, for a music competition, and spend most of the time rustling up alcohol and men – the young women were so self-assured and filthy it came all the way around to almost transcendently beautiful. I had a slightly hard time following the story as most of the actors played multiple parts (it started as a fringe show), but I also know I was zonked out tired that day. This was a very good one to see with a friend from that part of Scotland.
33. “No Man’s Land” (Wyndham’s Theatre). Entirely up this far because of Sir Ian and PStew. Please can they do a chewy good play that isn’t by an annoying postwar man next. The set design was eerie and unsettling, especially that round swirling icy ’70s carpet, and the creaking frosty trees. I did get a bit into it in the last scene but may just have been drunker by that time. I think I’ve now seen all the Pinter I ever want or need to see.
32. “Richard III” (Almeida Theatre). As I said earlier that rape was REALLY NOT NECESSARY and DIDN’T EVEN MAKE DRAMATIC SENSE but Aislín McGuckin was a good spiky Elizabeth Woodville, and this is a few spots further up than it otherwise would have been because of how during the interval, Oscar Isaac said “Excuse me” to me when my hair looked really good.
31. “Hedda Gabler” (National Theatre). Male director doing a classic, adds a male character violently sexually assaulting the play’s most self-assured woman for no reason: Part Two. Chuk Iwuji and Ruth Wilson: ✔️✔️✔️.
30. “The Threepenny Opera” (National Theatre). This was fine, a bit bougie. Rory Kinnear was Rory Kinnear (good), Peter de Jersey was Peter de Jersey (VERY GOOD), the opening number was solid joke-wise but I didn’t think the Brecht was Brecht enough. Kurt Weill really can write ’em, can’t he!
29. “The Seagull” (National Theatre). Actually in the light of day I might put this below Threepenny, but the official ranking must stand. There was a splashy lake onstage which was fun, and Olivia Vinall was the first time I felt I got Nina (this may also be because I was younger when I last encountered the play). It was VERY ANNOYING that Konstantin shot himself on stage. Really enjoyed Geoffrey Streatfeild as Trigorin and Anna Chancellor as Arkadina.
28. “Macbeth” (Shakespeare’s Globe). “The thing about some of the plays we see,” Louisa said cautiously, “is that sometimes it’s hard to remember all of them, or, like, the last half.” We started out drinking gin fizzes in the returns queue, and a significant amount of this production is a hazy rust-red memory for me. Tara Fitzgerald’s acting and hair were great as Lady Macbeth, an angry pointy medieval warrior goddess, and I remember Malcolm and the Porter also good? Was there a hallucinated toddler in this?
27. “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester). I love Maxine Peake and this was probably as good a production of Streetcar as I’ll see, but maybe I don’t need to see any productions of Streetcar for a while. Ben Batt as Stanley also memorable, compact and scrappy.
26. “Cymbeline” (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). Jolly crisp production of a silly play – it skipped over some of the emotional beats in favour of comedy, but this is fine because it was the first week of January ie panto season. Emily Barber’s posh enthusiastic schoolgirl Innogen was fun, and the bit where Pauline McLynn came down from the ceiling dressed as Jupiter to yell at everyone was divine.
25. “Shitfaced Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice” (Udderbelly, South Bank). Again one that is a bit fuzzy (this is the one where I nicked a pint of lager and hid it in my handbag, then fell asleep on the wrong branch of the Northern line) but I am a GREAT fan of Shitfaced Shakespeare and especially the part when drunk Bassanio (Jewish actor) had a go at Shylock for being an anti-Semitic stereotype.
24. “Hamlet” (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, US). A solid witty one with several fun and interesting touches: Hamlet (Danforth Comins) as a metal guitar enthusiast; Ophelia (Jennie Greenberry) centred and going “Hey, this is FUCKED UP” to everyone in earshot, but no one listening; the Players an eruption of yellow-red energy into silver-and-black Denmark; the Ghost (Richard Howard) as a kind of VCR playback dredged out of the Elsinore moat and come to life (done with a live actor and white noise projections). The most impressive bit was when Gertrude was poisoned and Robin Goodrin Nordli flailed around the stage for several minutes without spilling her wine glass, and died holding it upright (rigor mortis!) so Hamlet could pry it loose and poison Claudius. ACTING.
23. “Romeo and Juliet” (Garrick Theatre). Again I would maybe put this below the “Hamlet” if I were doing these more thoughtfully, but Lily James’ take on the “what’s in a name?” speech (SO HARD!) and the poison-drinking speech were strong, and I remember being really quite moved at the ending, which is difficult when it’s so familiar.
22. “The Merchant of Venice” (Compagnia de’ Colombari, Venice, Italy). I mean, it’s “The Merchant of Venice” IN ACTUAL VENICE, like in the actual Jewish ghetto square, and also Ruth Bader Ginsberg was there, !!!!!!!. On the other hand there was no interval. The audience was a bunch of breezy looking mostly white mostly Americans who had clearly donated piles of money to something and made me feel very sweaty, unbrushed and poor. The production had a few ideas that could have been developed more (or, maybe better, left in the rehearsal room), but the setting did so much that it’s very possible the production’s interesting parts came off as distracting by comparison. The moment when Jessica swung open the windows of her father’s house – again, from an actual first-storey house in the ghetto square – was astonishingly good. Towards the end I was counting scenes left to go until we all got to the loo, but there weren’t any I would have skipped. That fifth act argument between Lorenzo and Jessica was lovely under the stars.
21. “Red Velvet” (Garrick Theatre). Adrian Lester as 19th century Black Shakespeare actor Ira Aldridge. Any time Adrian Lester is on stage near you, you get tickets. DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO, GET THE TICKETS. This play single-handedly kicked off the broad change in thinking around Aldridge in the past few years, re-centring him in British theatre history – for example with Coventry promoting his connection with the city to show their cultural cred, and the British Library using his image to advertise its Shakespeare exhibition last year. A story worth telling, well told.
20. “Uncle Vanya” (Almeida). This bumped many more plays than I think was really deserved, because we kept coming back to the bit where Tobias Menzies dances around in his underpants to “Lust for Life”. The rest of it was all quite good as well, even if Chekhov + Robert Icke = bring plenty of food and water so we don’t have to resort to cannibalism before we get out.
19. “Guys and Dolls” (Savoy Theatre). Slick, fun, no problems, good dancing, peppy sets, great tunes. Slightly dampened by an attempted Manhattan(?) accent. Or, as hypothesised, did he just have a cold? The world may never know. Miss Adelaide’s line about “streptococci” may be one of my favourite lyrics in all musical theatre.
18. “King Lear” (Old Vic). GLENDA! Rhys Ifans! Celia Imrie! White-box nihilism, fresh clean character work from most of the ensemble, and the blue plastic chairs were very good blue plastic chairs. I think the problem I always have with Lear is that there is one scene too many of everything. Lear rages tremendously in the storm with a bunch of men, then comes back out and does it again. Lear wanders around being mad beautifully, then comes back out and does it again. It’s all fine words and speaking but I feel like one of each would suffice. It was a bit mean to make Simon Manyonda do jump-rope and push-ups and tough yoga all through Edmund’s “Now gods, stand up for bastards” speech, and very mean to have Harry Melling’s Edgar get his cock out FAR DOWNSTAGE for like SIXTEEN LINES while he explains his Poor Tom plan. As if anyone’s going to be paying attention to what he’s saying! Last verdict on this to Louisa: “There’s just too much dick in Lear.” TRUER WORDS, LOUISA.
17. “People, Places and Things” (National Theatre at Wyndham’s). For Denise Gough c r u s h i n g it, for the amusing awkwardness at the interval bar as everyone pondered our passive British alcoholism and tried to figure out if it was insensitive to order booze in a play about a recovering addict, and particularly for being a wise and witty story about art and humanity told so well, about a woman but not About A Woman.
16. “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). James Garnon, so good! The play, so goofy yet also so moving! Of the late goofy-moving plays I like Pericles much better than Cymbeline, possibly because you don’t have to figure out how to work with a lead character’s love interest being a violent misogynist, and because Thaisa and Marina are lovely and Pericles is one of the more likeable Shakespeare title characters. The music was a capella sea songs with open fifths, and the staging was transporting: candles and ropes and canvas sails.
15. “Nell Gwynn” (Apollo Theatre). Jessica Swale, Gemma Arterton, a catchy song, a show-stopping doggy! Aside from a brief moment when we were sat under That Balcony and I became convinced it was going to come pitching down on our heads again, it was A Great Night Out. Also many good frocks and a truly spectacular hat. I’m so pleased Gemma Arterton has decided she likes doing London theatre as much as she does, she’s magnetic.
14. “The Winter’s Tale” (Royal Opera House). Shakespeare goes BALLET! Winter’s Tale is a wonderful one for ballet because it’s goofy yet moving lyrical and pastoral and weird. This production was kind of Gothic and slanted and trees-backlit-by-lightning and there was a bit where Polixenes (Valeri Hristov) swooped dramatically onto a boat and pointed vehemently with his first finger, “AFTER THEM!”, while his cape billowed back, which was awesome. Paulina (Itziar Mendizabal) had a move where she stepped up to Leontes (Bennet Gartside) and scrunched up her face and made a gesture with both her hands that communicated both “Go away!” and “Fuck off everyone hates you!”. I practiced it in the mirror at home but it’s not as good if you’re not en pointe.
13. “The Tempest” (Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross Theatre). The third show of the Donmar Trilogy of all-women Shakespeare. The main scene I took with me was Ferdinand and Miranda’s wedding, which had giant balloons and a video montage of nature that you realise is being corrupted into industrial capitalism, which sounds wanky but they didn’t yell about it, they just had shots of beaches and beautiful mountains turning into mountains with roads on them, then cars on the roads, then McDonald’s (okay maybe they yelled about it a little). Then Prospero went around angrily popping the balloons. Everything that was generally good about the other two (of which more later!) was also good about this one.
12. “Kings of War” (Barbican). Notes from last night’s ranking discussion read: “+ sheep, + jokes, + Henry [V] being a dick, + the bit with Richard and the rug, ++ the bit with the cherry cake. – LONG”. That bit with the cake though, oh my god. I love that the entire thesis of the four and a half hours was, “look at these assholes. what is wrong with your country that these people are still in charge. literally what is wrong with you fuck’s sake”.
11. “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On” (Sedos, Capstan House). Immersive production of The Tempest in a big disused office block in the Docklands. There was sand! There was a bar with sea shanties and bartenders prescribing a cure for dreams! Shakespeare pulled me into a timbered room with black feathers on the walls and wrote part of a sonnet for me! Sycorax started a rave! A lot of what made this night great theatre was the context – it was April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday and 400th deathday, Bowie and Prince had just died, it was exactly the right time for a really positive and cathartic and creative night about art and negotiation and loss and reviving, which is what this was. And I got glowsticks.
10. “Margaret of Anjou: A new play by Shakespeare” (By Jove, Gallery on the Corner). Everything I said in November stands. I’m still so delighted and amazed that this little thoughtful piece of work could takes a character and text I’m so familiar with and pick it up and shake it out and re-fold it and make me go “Oh! OHHHHHHHHH.”
9. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Globe). This summer, no fewer than three people from different parts of my life – my work, my synagogue, one of Ewan’s friends – came up spontaneously to me and said, “I know you’re into Shakespeare, I just had to tell you, I saw the Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe and it was SO GOOD, I had the BEST TIME, I didn’t realise Shakespeare could be like that!” At the interval when we saw it, one of my friends turned to me and said, delighted, “Well this is happening!” Joy, music, weirdness, Oberon being explicitly a creep, Katy Owen’s clarion Puck, the glorious parody-of-burlesque scene where Titania (Meow Meow) is dancing and trying to pull off neverending layers of stockings and it’s so loose and joyful but so skilled and precise, that is ART. So many men got huffy at this production and they are all wrong.
8. “Timon of Athens” (Oregon Shakespeare Festival). We walked into the theatre and the mock safety curtain was printed with giant block quotes from Marx, so right away this was either going to be great or terrible. It was great. For the banquet, Timon wheeled out a giant cow carcass and all the guests gleefully tore into it with their bare hands and shoved raw meat into their faces; the courtesans were puppets that did a tee-hee dance to ‘Puttin on the Ritz’, then the guests mimed all different kinds of sex with them and one enthusiastically pulled out red ribbons from the doll’s chest cavities and threw them in the air and held up her arms while the ribbons rained down. This still could have been terrible if they didn’t also knock the words out of the park, but fortunately OSF actors really know what they’re doing (special mentions: Anthony Heald as Timon, Vilma Silva as Apemantus, Jonathan Haugen as Alcibiades), and they did in fact knock the words out of the park. I hate Marmite in real life but love the theatre kind apparently.
7. “Tabletop Shakespeare: Henry VI Part One, Two and Three, and Richard III” (Forced Entertainment, Barbican). The one where they do Shakespeare with ketchup bottles and such. Witty and moving and surprisingly sexy? Also, crucially, a running time of 45 minutes for each part.
6. “The Taming of the Shrew” (Globe). I still can’t believe Aoife Duffin learned Kate in two weeks, she was a massive clear wall of an icy river knocking through everything in her path. Emma Rice’s commitment to casting at least 50% women meant that we got a delightful Tranio (Imogen Doel), a great comedy part that women don’t usually get to take a bite at. The songs, Irish trad style, were blisteringly angry and beautiful. Biting and brutal, and now I don’t have to see this play again for a while.
5. “Hamilton” (Richard Rogers Theatre, New York, US). I mean, it’s Hamilton. We booked this a year(?) ahead of time and not many of the original cast were in it, but it was exciting to see how the new actors shaped the parts slightly differently: Lexi Lawson as Eliza was a bit lighter at the beginning which made the second half hit hard when it dropped, and Michael Luwoye as Hamilton was younger and angrier than Lin-Manual Miranda comes across in the soundtrack. I was a bit drunker than I intended to be and remember holding hands with my friends and crying very meaningfully during “One Last Time”. Also the Richard Rogers serves Manhattans made with “Aaron Burr-bon” which is the kind of commitment to theatre puns I look for in my alcohol. Afterwards we found some empty Hamilton-branded cups on the ground and scooped them up as souvenirs. It was a pretty great night.
4. “Troilus and Cressida” (Public Theatre, Central Park, New York, US). JEEEESUS CHRIST. This show was a syringe of adrenalin about what you can do with Shakespeare when you don’t get all wanky and heritage about it. Until I saw it, I’d deluded myself into thinking we get a good variety of approaches to Shakespeare’s text in London’s major theatres – but actually it’s just that it’s hard to see outside the amniotic sac where the artistic directors are all floating around eating each other and the ghost of Peter Brook. Everything in the Public’s “Troilus and Cressida” was from the text, or plausibly deduced from it, but it was also searingly new: I don’t mean to say that either “from the text” or “new” are good just because, but that it was a jolt that they were both happening in the same show in this way. Ismenia Mendes’ Cressida was electrifyingly clear and the work in the scene where Troilus (Andrew Burnap) overhears her and Diomedes (Zach Appelman) was so precise, every breath and pause meaningfully ambiguous to both the men as Cressida tries and fails to negotiate a space for her right to refuse sexual consent. Really every piece of character work across the ensemble was fresh and very very clear and specific: Corey Stoll’s snake underbelly Ulysses, Alex Breaux’s easily provoked frat ox Ajax, Louis Cancelmi’s Achilles – dudebro, bro’s bro, bro about town – and John Glover’s gooseberry Pandarus. I had forgotten you could do this with Shakespeare and I had forgotten that the Shakespeare we get in London has its own house style. Which is obvious when I type it out but it was exciting to figure it out by having this electrifying production in front of me.
3. “Henry V” (National Theatre). This is a cheat, but whatever, it’s my list. In February I went to the NT Archives and watched the archival video of the 2003 production of “Henry V”, staged a few months after the Iraq war started, with Adrian Lester as Henry, and Nicholas Hytner’s first production for the NT. It’s the opposite of, and an answer to, the 1944 Olivier film version, where all of Henry’s flaws or potential flaws are cut and ironed out: in this production, Adrian Lester’s Henry is impatient, resentful, autocratic, often grumpy, a knowing propagandist and a hair-trigger shot – everything that you could find to criticise in the character is here. The moment that made me gasp out loud, in the quiet NT Archives viewing room, with my headphones on, was the ‘Te Deum’: an over-the-top propaganda video of Lester looking brave and soldier-leaderly while a pop choir sings cheesy platitudes – “Deo gratias! We thank you, God / For victory!” – and a waving Union Jack is superimposed over his face. It was snide, and rightly so. I wouldn’t want every production of “Henry V” to be like this, but I’m glad this one was. I hate the idea that theatre graduates or grows up into films, but I wish there were a film of this to sit on the shelf next to Olivier and Branagh, because they need it. The video tape transfer also made something interesting happen in Kate and Henry’s ‘wooing scene’: the play was filmed on a single static camera with no lighting level adjustment, and the lights in that scene were so bright that Kate (Félicité Du Jeu), in a light-coloured dress, is almost entirely washed out. But her voice is sarcastic and skeptical, and I love that she’s basically erased from this story, which I feel Kate would want to be: she didn’t want to be in this Anglo rewriting of her history, and now she’s gone.
2. “Henry IV” (Donmar Warehouse). Each one of these plays left me flattened each time and I really never wanted to leave the theatre, and I also want to see Phyllida Lloyd do literally every play in the English-language canon like this. Clare Dunne was rosy and sharp as Hal, and Henry IV (Harriet Walter) and Worcester (Martina Laird) were two solid pillars of power squaring off at each other, but the greatest part (and my pick for role/actor of the year) was Jade Anouka as Hotspur: boxing, sparring, twitchy, restless, at one point doing chin-ups while speaking verse, a rich purple scratchy voice, unusually grounded for a Hotspur but just unable to not do it.
1. “Julius Caesar” (Donmar). OK, this is going to sound precious, or like I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I genuinely have trouble paying attention to stories where the only important characters are well-off men. I have tried several times to get Julius Caesar, but it just slides off my brain like water. Guys, it turns out this is a brilliant play! The way the opening scene is staged, with all the fun and clamour happening offstage while Cassius and Brutus have a secretive chat, Mark Antony’s move from Caesar’s cheerleader to a political entity in his own right, Octavian swooping in at the end, the part where the bloody assassins expect to be greeted as freedom-fighting liberators. I knew the Donmar’s Henry IV was adapted a little (basically to squeeze in the two most famous scenes from Part Two, Hal crowning himself and rejecting Falstaff), and I assumed Julius Caesar must have been updated as well because it rang so topical, but every line I thought was a tweak (like Brutus [Harriet Walter] shouting “Enfranchisement!” – surely I thought a reference to prisoners’ voting rights) was direct from the Shakespeare. I loved every moment and image of this show: the conspirators celebrating Cassius (Martina Laird)’s birthday with a tiny cupcake as they keep warm by handheld heaters, Caesar (Jackie Clune) joking with Cassius then suddenly not joking, shoving a doughnut aggressively in her mouth. The most beautiful few minutes I spent in a theatre in 2016, Brutus dreaming of Portia (Clare Dunne) in her wedding dress the night before Philippi: they dance as a disco ball throws out specks of light, then Portia slips away into the dark and Caesar steps in, and Caesar and Brutus dance for a long few moments, waltzing and turning, Brutus coming to appreciate the full possibility of what he’s lost. I was bawling and it was like eleven o’clock a.m. I feel pathetic because I can’t find better words for what it was like, but, if you’ll come with me on the metaphor, I felt like I saw God in that theatre that morning.
2016 and 2017
Last year was a pleasing year for women doing Shakespeare, and I hope that will continue in 2017: three of my top ten were all-women productions and I’m looking forward to as many of those as I can find and fit in this year. I’ll also be looking for more small companies and shows: there’s so much going on in London that I ended up defaulting to the big theatres more than I like.
Lots of love to everyone making and experiencing art this year.