2017: Best plays of the year
Alongside politically charged dramas about race and gender, standout works this year have included searing, re-imagined classics and a menagerie of onstage creatures. Natasha Tripney picks the plays of the year
With its West End transfer announced before it even opened at the Royal Court in May, Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman was framed as a hit from the beginning. And so it proved to be. More than three hours long and featuring live geese, bunnies and babies – and an ending engineered to rip the audience apart – Butterworth’s intricate Irish family drama is already on its third cast change at the Gielgud Theatre.
The other highlight of the Royal Court’s 2017 programme was Alice Birch’s devastating Anatomy of a Suicide. Directed by Katie Mitchell, this portrait of three generations of women was a thing of great precision and incredible emotional power. The Court also gave increasing prominence to international writing, with Natalya Vorozhbit’s Bad Roads, Guillermo Calderon’s B and Goats by Syrian playwright Liwaa Yazji. Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone also proved herself a leader for our times with her proactive handling of the sexual harassment allegations that tainted the latter half of this year.
James Graham is well on his way to becoming a one-man political playwriting machine. Labour of Love and Ink have already followed This House into the West End, while Quiz, his play about TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the ‘coughing major’ scandal, will transfer from Chichester next year. Ink, which originated at the Almeida, contained two superb performances by Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle as Rupert Murdoch and Larry Lamb, the men behind the rising of the Sun. The Almeida has had a superb year, though, Anna Washburn aside, its programming has been solidly male.
While the National Theatre struggled to fill the unwieldy Olivier (with equally unwieldy plays Common, Salome and Saint George and the Dragon on the receiving end of critical drubbings) the programming in the Dorfman has been a delight, with highlights including David Eldridge’s bittersweet, pragmatic romance Beginning, Lucy Kirkwood’s wonderfully idea-stuffed Mosquitoes and Inua Ellams’ glorious Barber Shop Chronicles. The latter was one of the new-writing highlights of the year, an invigorating, continent-hopping play that used the barber shop as a lens through which to explore masculinity, fatherhood, and immigrant identity.
In the Lyttelton, Ivo van Hove’s Network, adapted by Lee Hall from the film by Paddy Chayefsky, saw the director at his experimental best; Obsession at the Barbican, meanwhile, was him at his most uninspiring: a stodgy, slow-moving piece in which Jude Law flailed around on a treadmill and, once again, a woman ended up on the floor being doused in sticky liquid.
In September, actor, director, playwright and former artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage Kwame Kwei-Armah was announced as the new artistic director of the Young Vic. It was one of a number of major appointments, with Nadia Fall taking over from Kerry Michael at Theatre Royal Stratford East and Michelle Terry appointed the new artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe. Though Emma Rice’s two-year run there was a rocky one, it resulted in some truly joyful programming. Ellen McDougall’s inaugural season as the Gate Theatre’s artistic director also looks exciting.
Dominic Dromgoole began his year-long celebration of Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre with A Woman of No Importance, a gentle – some might say sedate – production but one that nonetheless argued for the play’s progressiveness, and Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr opened their handsome, madeleine-scented Bridge Theatre with the distinctly middling Richard Bean play Young Marx.
This year’s major revivals included a double dose of Albee. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? featured a dazzling turn by Imelda Staunton back in March, and there was a gripping account of The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? starring Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo at Theatre Royal Haymarket. While Tom Hiddleston’s RADA fundraiser Hamlet got a lot of people excited – in part because the tickets, available only by lottery, were so hard to come by – it was Robert Icke’s Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre that left the deepest marks. An astonishing piece of theatre, it featured a performance of great emotional intricacy from Andrew Scott as a palpably grieving prince. Icke’s unstitching of the play, line by line, was masterful and made the words feel fresh. A remarkable production, it made a well-deserved transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre, its magic only infinitesimally dimmed by the change of space.
During this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the National Theatre of Scotland programmed a double-bill of work about the trans-lived experience – Adam and Eve – which captured something of the mood of this year’s event. Selina Thompson’s Salt was another highlight, a solo show composed of moments of grace as well as anger. Nassim Soleimanpour’s new piece, Nassim, as with much of his work, written to be performed by a different person every time, was a genuinely poignant piece about family, distance and language. Monica Dolan’s The B*easts, in which she also performed, was a bold, provocative debut, and Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers was an intelligent interrogation of radicalisation that integrated WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging technology into its performance. These last two are both part of the Bush Theatre’s 2018 spring programme.
Best and worst
BEST OF THE YEAR
(Almeida Theatre; Harold Pinter Theatre)
Andrew Scott gives the performance of his career in Robert Icke’s captivating and humane account of the play.
WORST OF THE YEAR
Cynical, misjudged revival of an early Christopher Hampton play featuring a criminally under-directed cast with panic in their eyes.