I mean no disrespect to Maggie Smith. She was frankly spellbinding alone on stage throughout Christopher Hampton’s A German Life at the Bridge Theatre in London. To give the appearance of supreme calm while replaying a lifetime of insight and denial in Nazi Germany was an extraordinary feat, not least of memory from the 84-year-old living legend.
But some roles arrive with ‘Awards Contender’ sewn into the lining. Almost all the performances that have stayed with me in 2019 have been from actors who, though given less prominence and stage time, have shone as strongly in my memory as during the moments I witnessed them.
I’m thinking, principally, of Cecilia Noble in Downstate. Bruce Norris’ transfixing drama (my play of the year, alongside Laura Wade’s superbly inventive The Watsons) held audiences in rapt silence as he forced audiences to (re)consider their sympathies for a group of convicted paedophiles. Director Pam MacKinnon elicited minutely calibrated performances from the entire Steppenwolf/National Theatre company, but I’m still in awe of Noble’s quiet, empathetic balancing act between the beady and the benign, the comic and the raging. Her body alone, collapsing into a chair, portrayed her deep-boned weariness while her spectacular timing showed a caring at war with her impatience.
The dramatist whose work most illustrates the notion that ‘there are no small roles’ is Chekhov. It’s usually Masha, the most extravagantly unhappy of the Three Sisters, who is in the limelight, but in Rebecca Frecknall’s Almeida production I couldn’t take my eyes off Elliot Levey as Masha’s husband. Longing to make his disaffected wife happy, his portrait of beaming, undying hope was heartbreaking.
‘I’m still in awe of Cecilia Noble’s quiet, empathetic balancing act between the beady and the benign’
In a completely different register, Liza Sadovy made comic mountains of not one but two molehills in the London Old Vic’s revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. Magnificently Swedish as Miss Erikson – has anyone ever been so doomily domestic? – she then didn’t so much appear as Lady Saltburn as pay a deliciously preposterous state visit. Matthew Warchus’ near criminally enjoyable production also wins Line Reading of the Year for Indira Varma bringing the house down with her sensationally withering: “You poor dear, you must be absolutely congealed.” Designer Rob Howell also wins Best Wigs for both of Sadovy’s characters and Best Trousers for Varma’s Liz.
Andrew Scott, meanwhile, took Coward’s line about his character “peacocking about” and went for Olympic gold. Comedy performances almost never win awards but Scott deserves everything going for finding touching vulnerability beneath the appallingly enjoyable shrieking narcissism of the role Coward wrote for himself. Scott and Warchus turned what was hitherto a star vehicle into a real play.
From my perspective, it didn’t feel like a vintage musical theatre year. Andy Nyman’s stern Tevye (and designer Robert Jones) were the standouts in Fiddler on the Roof, which was highly praised elsewhere but, for me, never matched the vision and scope of Daniel Evans’ 2017 Chichester production. And although I was otherwise disappointed by Trevor Nunn’s awkward production of The Bridges of Madison County at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, Jenna Russell’s performance was a beacon of truth.
You could spend the entirety of & Juliet waiting for emotional truth but Miriam-Teak Lee doesn’t simply deliver on The Stage Debut Awards promise, she rips up the entire auditorium. I’ll also never forget Cassidy Janson dropping her deliciously droll Anne Hathaway persona to erase Celine Dion from the memory with That’s the Way It Is.
Best Double Act of the Year goes to Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley in, of all places, the Royal Opera’s production of Death in Venice. Alive to every thought and nuance in both text and music, the two thoughtful singing actors kept this flawed, problematic work fascinatingly present, once again slaughtering the lazy misapprehension that opera singers cannot act.
Speaking of double acts, not one but two of this year’s most memorable theatrical nights featured the collaboration between designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Neil Austin.
No one would argue that The Night of the Iguana is peak Tennessee Williams – the interminable first act offers definitive proof that exposition is the enemy of drama – but the play has strengths, most notably the role of strangely repressed Hannah, played here by an absolutely incandescent Lia Williams in a career-best performance.
But it was Smith and Austin who were the true stars. Together, they made audiences believe they were high atop a vertiginous Mexican hillside, complete with tropical rainstorm. But even that paled beside their design for Ian Rickson’s production of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm.
Austin turned light into a character. He made the actors loom out of darkness and he and Smith brought the outside world on to the stage. As Smith unexpectedly and thrillingly flooded the stage with water rising from the fateful mill-race beneath Austin’s ferocious light, everything turned shockingly surreal and Ibsen came out glowing.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict