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Year in review: 145 shows that defined theatre in 2016

Declan Bennet (front) and Tyrone Huntley (back, centre) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Tristram Kenton Declan Bennet (front) and Tyrone Huntley (back, centre) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Natasha Tripney

It’s been a hell of a turbulent year: 2016 has seemed intent on claiming some of our most beloved people and showering power on those least deserving of it. If ever there was a good time to escape into a dark room and the solace of storytelling, it’s been this year. There have been rays of light on stage – 2016 was the year in which the various conversations around gender, diversity and performance that have been bubbling up for a while started to gather momentum.

Audiences had the opportunity to see some of the country’s best female performers tackle some of the greatest stage roles.

Glenda Jackson in King Lear. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Glenda Jackson in King Lear. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Glenda Jackson made a triumphant return to the stage to play King Lear in Deborah Warner’s production at the Old Vic and we also got to see Michelle Terry’s commanding performance in Robert Hastie’s production of Henry V at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. This autumn saw the culmination of Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy for the Donmar -Warehouse. Working in collaboration with Clean Break, these three productions – Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, all starring Harriet Walter – were an adrenalin shot and a battle cry for theatres to be more adventurous in the way Shakespeare is cast and staged. The trilogy was about more than just gender – it was about race and body type too, it was about opening up all the roles and exploring the way different casting decisions could affect the emotional terrain of a play.

Other memorable performances included Billie Piper’s -ferocious turn in Yerma at the Young Vic, Maxine Peake’s delicate, eloquent Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, and Paapa Essiedu’s charismatic and fresh young Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a performance that recently netted him a UK Theatre award. The RSC also experimented with motion capture technology in its recent production of The Tempest starring Simon Russell Beale (perhaps aptly in this stormy year there were an awful lot of Tempests) and Erica Whyman forged ties with the country’s amateur dramatic companies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation, in which a different amateur company performed as the -Mechanicals in every venue. The RSC’s best show, to my mind, was one of its less experimental: Loveday Ingham’s lively, vibrant -production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, featuring a magnificently lascivious, leather-trousered Joseph Millson.

The most unexpected news of the year was the departure of Emma Rice from Shakespeare’s Globe. Having kicked off her inaugural season with an energised rewiring of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the former Kneehigh artistic director programmed intelligent, accessible productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Cymbeline – the latter “renamed and reclaimed” as Imogen – before it was announced she would step down after her second season so the theatre could focus on producing ‘shared light’ productions again. It was clearly a complicated situation. Rice invigorated the Globe – though it was far from fusty under Dominic Dromgoole, it had a different energy under Rice – but evidently alienated those who felt the space’s purpose was for original practices and exploration and research into the theatrical techniques of Shakespeare’s day. It’ll be interesting to see who takes the role next.

Some of the year’s most exciting work came out of this year’s fascinating and eclectic London International Festival of Theatre programme, including one of the best shows of the year, Lola Arias’ extraordinary Minefield, a devised piece created and performed by men who had fought on opposing sides in the Falklands War.

Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen in Amadeus. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen in Amadeus. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Other highlights included The Hamilton Complex, a thorny exploration of adolescence performed by a company of teenage girls at London’s Unicorn Theatre, and Open for Everything, a fascinating dance piece about Roma cultures. The National Theatre had an absolutely cracking year with Michael Longhurst’s tremendous Amadeus one of many highlights. A lavish, ambitious celebration of Peter Shaffer’s masterwork with performances to match, it made superb use of the Olivier stage. The same can be said of the revised version of Sally Cookson’s joyous take on JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, with Anna Francolini a silver-toothed Captain Hook and Madeline Worrall a wonderfully sensible Wendy. Cookson’s productions are pleasure-generators and this one was no exception.

Carrie Cracknell’s atmospheric production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea was also memorable, and Annie Baker’s The Flick was one of the most intriguing pieces of new writing to be staged this year. One of the boldest shows took place earlier in the year, with Katie Mitchell’s compelling and repellent production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, exquisite in its precision and featuring a potent and exposing performance from Michelle Terry. Frustratingly, most of the headlines surrounding the production focused on the use of stage violence and the fact that a number of people in the audience fainted.

London’s Royal Court also had a pretty stellar year, certainly its strongest with Vicky Featherstone at the helm. Highlights of 2016 included the programming of the London run of Anna Jordan’s Yen, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, Al Smith’s unsettling Harrogate, Alistair McDowall’s X, EV Crowe’s The Sewing Room and Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, which returns next year. The standout show for me was Anthony Neilson’s devised piece, Unreachable, a play that was as much about art, perfectionism and unattainability as the film industry, and featured an absolutely huge, scenery-swallowing -performance from Jonjo O’Neill. Both The Children and Escaped Alone also provided meaty and complex roles for women over 50, something I hope the Court continues to develop.

This year’s new writing highlights? Simon Longman’s Sparks, staged at the Old Red Lion, marked him out as a name to watch, but it was Stuart Slade’s BU21, at Theatre503 that really stood out. The story of a terrorist attack on UK soil, it found humour in the most unlikely places. A rich and questioning piece of writing, it built on the promise Slade showed in 2014’s Cans. It gets a deserved West End run at the Trafalgar Studios in January and would be a fine way to start 2017.


Best and worst

Lou Armour in Minefield. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Lou Armour in Minefield. Photo: Tristram Kenton

BEST OF THE YEAR

Minefield (Brighton/Royal Court)

First seen in the UK during the Brighton Festival, this LIFT co-commission was an extraordinary project. Co-created with theatremaker Lola Arias and six Falklands War veterans – three from each side – who also perform, it was a little bit like a therapy session coupled with an exorcism – with rock music. Like nothing else I’ve seen all year.

WORST OF THE YEAR

Reasons to Be Happy (Hampstead Theatre)

Tedious conveyer belt man-wiffle from the over-prolific Neil LaBute with some of the most poorly written female non-characters on the London stage this year. The charming Tom Burke failed to save this tissue-thin sequel to LaBute’s earlier Reasons to Be Pretty resulting in something too tepid to even get properly cross about. 

BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Maxine Peake in A Streetcar Named Desire (Royal Exchange Theatre)

Peake’s Blanche DuBois, in Sarah Frankcom’s production for Manchester’s Royal Exchange, was such a complete performance, from the turn of her ankle to the twist of her wrists. She was brittle, seductive, and vulnerable – often simultaneously – and she was captivating.

EVENT OF THE YEAR

The Shakespeare Trilogy (King’s Cross Theatre)

While the individual plays had their strengths and weaknesses, Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female, prison-set Shakespeare Trilogy for the Donmar Warehouse – Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest – were glorious to behold when staged in rep at the King’s Cross Theatre. The relish with which the cast attacked their roles was almost palpable.

Natasha Tripney is reviews editor and joint lead critic of The Stage. Follow her on Twitter @NatashaTripney

Now read: Mark Shenton’s best and worst shows of 2016

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