It was a year of rebirth and re-imagining, cultural transformation, hits such as The Lost O’Casey and Nine Night and misses: step forward Macbeth. Natasha Tripney shares her pick of the best plays of this year
To my mind, two of the most significant plays of the past year were Ella Hickson’s The Writer and Arinze Kene’s Misty. Though they could hardly be more different in their stylistic approach, they’re both at heart plays about the systems and frameworks within which we make art – and, by extension, live our lives – written from the perspective of a white woman and a black man respectively.
UK theatre can be remarkably restrictive in the stories it chooses to tell and the way it chooses to present them. Both plays railed against this, slitting theatre open from the inside, The Writer on the Almeida stage, Misty at the Bush and eventually in the West End. Both were timely and essential.
Other welcome West End transfers included Nine Night, Natasha Gordon’s hugely moving and very funny family drama; The Inheritance, the Young Vic production of Matthew Lopez’s EM Forster-inspired two-parter about the continuing impact of the Aids crisis on a generation of young gay New Yorkers; Summer and Smoke, Rebecca Frecknall’s atmospheric staging of one of Tennessee Williams’ more slippery plays, first seen at the Almeida; and The Jungle, Joe Robinson and Joe Murphy’s play about the Calais refugee camp, also first seen at the Young Vic.
In the subsidised sector, the National Theatre had something of a wobbly year. The Dorfman continues to be the most consistently exciting of the three spaces, housing Nine Night, An Octoroon and Annie Baker’s majestic, slow-burning John, while the Lyttelton housed Joe Hill-Gibbins’ revival of Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell, which I liked even if no one else did, and The Lehman Trilogy – now headed to New York. Rufus Norris’ Macbeth, in the Olivier, turned out to be one of the year’s biggest duds, but Transformations was a triumph and the decision to get Chris Bush – on fire this year with Steel and The Assassination of Katie Hopkins – to write its first community project Pericles was an inspired one.
The Almeida, belatedly awakening to the fact that it’s possible to programme more than one woman in any one season, had a belting year, with Summer and Smoke, The Writer, a revival of Sophie Treadwell’s modernist Machinal and Clare Barron’s Dance Nation (one of two plays about the energy of teenage girls, along with Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves at Stratford East). Oh, and it also staged Robert Icke’s stunning take on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.
Shakespeare’s Globe, under new artistic director Michelle Terry, tried out a new ensemble model that didn’t quite deliver. The show that ended up making the biggest impact of her first season was not by Shakespeare, rather it was about the life of the woman who may have been his muse, Emilia Bassano Lanier. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play shook the wooden ‘o’ – quite literally, so loud was the cheering.
While not everything it staged was a success, the Royal Court was never complacent in its programming, it never sat still, culminating with Debbie Tucker Green’s astonishing Ear for Eye.
Around the UK, Manchester’s Royal Exchange continued to deliver the goods, with RashDash smashing up Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Don Warrington starring in a nuanced reframing of Death of a Salesman, and Kendall Feaver’s intense debut The Almighty Sometimes. Theatr Clwyd was also programming ambitiously, with new plays by Laura Wade Home, I’m Darling (who had quite a year with this and The Watsons) and one of the most formally intriguing new musicals of the year: The Assassination of Katie Hopkins. Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum performed strongly with an exuberant Twelfth Night.
Nottingham Playhouse, under new artistic director Adam Penford, had the most remarkable year. The venue felt completely re-energised, combining lavish crowd-pleasers such as Penford’s production of The Madness of George III, with a locally resonant revival of Beth Steel’s mining drama, Wonderland.
New-writing highlights of the year included Vinay Patel’s sweeping An Adventure and Ben Weatherill’s compassionate Jellyfish, both at the Bush Theatre. Simon Longman also cemented his reputation as a writer of lyricism and delicacy with the moving Island Town and bleak Gundog. Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton at Theatre503 was knotty in the best way.
Breach’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, a verbatim account of the 16th-century rape trial of artist Artemisia Gentileschi, ended up becoming one of the most powerful and resonant shows of the year, particularly in light of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings ahead of his confirmation to the US Senate.
It was a year of rebirth and re-imagining, with Battersea Arts Centre’s grand hall reopening after the fire that all but destroyed it with a beautifully restored space and an exciting opening programme that featured Bryony Kimmings’ aptly titled I’m a Phoenix, Bitch. The New Diorama embarked on a new programming model that increased the level of financial and practical support it could offer companies. Hull’s Middle Child launched a similarly ambitious scheme to support artists in their hometown, while continuing to make galvanising gig theatre.
More than anything, it feels like we’re in a period of cultural transition. Kwame Kwei-Armah and Nadia Fall have started their tenures at the Young Vic and Theatre Royal Stratford East respectively. Madani Younis is moving to the Southbank and Lynette Linton has been appointed artistic director of the Bush Theatre in his stead; Rachel O’Riordan is coming to the Lyric Hammersmith, Roxana Silbert to Hampstead Theatre and Justin Audibert is now at the Unicorn. The map is being redrawn. The landscape is changing. Roll on 2019.
BEST OF THE YEAR
The Lost O’Casey (Dublin Theatre Festival)
Hands down, the best thing I experienced all year was Anu Production’s extraordinary piece of immersive theatre performed to an audience of four people at a time on the streets of Dublin as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
WORST OF THE YEAR
Macbeth (Olivier, National Theatre)
Rufus Norris’ murky Macbeth somehow managed to sap all the drama from the play, drew dull performances from Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, and featured a spectacularly crap onstage rave.