Fringe highlights of the year

Silvia Gallerano in La Merda. Photo:Valeria Tomasulo
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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Perhaps surprisingly, 2012 proved to be an incredibly strong theatrical year – but what took gold? I’m going to have to widen the podium to allow both Greenhouse Theatre Company’s Mercury Fur and Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters to share top spot.

Ned Bennett’s empathic staging of Philip Ridley’s oft misunderstood Mercury Fur exploded on to the Old Red Lion stage in May and has sent ripples through theatregoers’ memories ever since. ‘One to watch’ Olly Alexander was part of an electric cast, while the intimate setting enhanced this fearless production’s power. Disturbing but profoundly moving, this was theatre that left its mark.

Benedict Andrews’ audacious Three Sisters at the Young Vic prompted Michael Billington to “realise, all over again, why I love Chekhov” – no mean feat. A radical reimagining of the gloomiest of the Russian’s works, Andrews infused Three Sisters with a lightness and wit that was revelatory. Incisive and expansive, this production opened up a play about decay and set the resulting dust alight.

But what about the rest? Under the same roof, The Changeling and A Doll’s House won critical praise and a wash of award nods for the Young Vic. Matching Andrews for rigour was Owen Horsley, who took a scalpel to The Duchess of Malfi at the White Bear to reveal the smiling skull beneath. Lucy Bailey showed that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel with her exhilarating Uncle Vanya at The Print Room and at the same venue Robyn Winfield-Smith proved you don’t need the Wrestling School to do Howard Barker justice, with her sharp production of Lot and his God.

Just down the road at the Gate, Greyscale’s Tenet threw Julian Assange and a 19th century mathematician together with charm and panache. And an only slightly more incongruous pairing took place at the Barbican in the courageous and empowering Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.

In Edinburgh, the Traverse showed its mettle in a stonking season, with almost every show having its champions. But for me it was Rob Drummond’s dangerous Bullet Catch that won out, due to the uncertainty it brought to an art form that prides itself on its liveness but often doesn’t deliver it.

The Shit/La Merda topped Summerhall’s adventurous programme, taking The Stage’s best solo performer award for Silvia Gallerano, who bared herself and her soul in this visceral satire. Yael Farber’s South African Mies Julie at Assembly Hall got us all hot under the collar, while the innovation award goes to Forest Fringe which, in place of an actual venue, asked artists to contribute to a book of DIY performances called Paper Stages.

Another step forward came from Simon Stephen’s Three Kingdoms at the Lyric, which cocked a snook at English theatrical sensibilities and caused a critical furore. As shocking for me was Ten Billion, which saw Katie Mitchell bring a cold dose of reality into the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. But science was also at the heart of 2012’s most touching play – Nick Payne’s Constellations, at the Royal Court.

Meanwhile, Kneehigh’s mischievous take on Cinderella, Midnight’s Pumpkin, at Battersea Arts Centre, proved that Kate Middleton is not the only princess to have won the hearts of the public.

Read Honour Bayes’ online column, www.thestage.co.uk/columns/ fringe-focus