Review of the Year - The London Stage

Reporter: Philip Fisher

Dateline: 29th December, 2017

Old Vic and Barbican (including RSC)

At the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus concentrated on quality rather than quantity. In doing so, he had one of the year’s greatest hits in Girl from the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson and featuring the music of Bob Dylan.

With a well-deserved West End transfer impending, this was a totally intoxicating evening that took viewers to John Steinbeck country in the dirt bowl during the Depression. The show cleverly combined song and dance delivered by a talented ensemble with a cracking story that will have resonance today. Shirley Henderson proved to be the stand-out thanks to fine acting and an unforgettable singing voice.

The general response to the prospect of yet another version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is likely to have been a not very well stifled yawn. However, the Old Vic’s Yuletide special directed by Warchus and adapted by Jack Thorne was something else.

Featuring Rhys Ifans as Scrooge, a highly inclusive staging with an enthusiastic cast led to an uplifting evening that showed the novel and its subject matter in a new light.

The Old Vic has long been famous for its Shakespearean productions but the closest it got in 2017 was a new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Sir Tom Stoppard.

This was certainly high-profile, as Joshua McGuire was paired with one of the hottest names in the entertainment industry, Daniel Radcliffe, not to mention the stage-stealing David Haig.

Director David Leveaux ensured that the jokes hit home and audience members will have noticed far more than the presence onstage of their idol.

Jack Thorne has been busy, since he also adapted Woyzeck by Georg Büchner for the theatre. This wild, modern version directed by Joe Murphy starred John Boyega, alongside Nancy Carroll, Steffan Rhodri and Sarah Greene and delivered hard-hitting fun, although it undoubtedly divided audiences.

The Barbican is once again the main London home of the RSC, as well as continuing to welcome a selection of the best avant-garde theatre from around the world.

The RSC managed a considerable coup by persuading Sam Mendes to team up with Simon Russell Beale in staging a version of The Tempest that was graced with absolutely stunning computer-generated graphics.

It goes without saying that Russell Beale turned in a wonderful appearance as an immensely humane Prospero and was well supported by Jenny Rainsford playing Miranda, while the comedy side was particularly funny, primarily thanks to the double act of James Hayes and Simon Trinder.

The RSC ended the year with Shakespeare’s Roman quartet of which this reviewer caught Coriolanus. Angus Jackson’s vibrant modern interpretation brought the play into the 21st century, with several reference points to political events today.

On the global front, there was a real treat in store for those who have a taste for different experiences. The late Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth is a legendary production which combines a Japanese aesthetic with Shakespeare’s tragedy. The mixture was visually stunning and absolutely spellbinding.

Ivo van Hove decided to take on the staging of movies by Bergman and Visconti, with great results.

Obsession, produced by Visconti in 1942 was a gritty film (stage) noir experience featuring Jude Law as a drifter who worms his way into the home of a bar owner and his wife in an atmospheric production that was frightening but also contained the odd heartfelt song.

Later in the year, the director followed this up with a double bill of Bergman’s After the Rehearsal and Persona.

The former shines a light on the difficulties face by young actors trying to make the grade, particularly where their older directors regard them as fair sexual game, in addition to recognising their talent. In this case, Bergman stretches the human interest story back a generation injecting mystique and psychological depth.

There can be little question that Jan Versweyeld’s unforgettable set for Persona was the most spectacular on the London stage in 2017. The actors were placed on an island and surrounded by water, with breath-taking visual effects in the background.

In that setting, the performers played out an edgy drama about an actress who has been stunned into silence while on stage and the nurse who attempts to bring her voice back.

Beware of Pity was the latest offering from Simon McBurney and Complicite. This adaptation of a Stefan Zweig novel follow the fortunes of a young Austro-Hungarian Lieutenant who believed that he had crippled a wealthy young woman.

Thomas Ostermeier’s interpretation of Richard III made its British debut at the previous year’s Edinburgh Festival prior to this brief stay at the Barbican.

It was primarily distinguished by a stunning performance from Lars Eidinger, who was truly barbaric in the title role. To quote from the original review, it “is gripping, funny and chilling in equal proportions”.

Woyzeck in Winter, adapted and directed by Conall Morrison, was an unusual theatrical presentation, combining Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle with Büchner's iconic play. Featuring a strong Irish acting team led by Patrick O’Kane and Barry McGovern plus cabaret star Camille O’Sullivan, this was yet another entrancing new take on a play that just keeps coming back, given that other version by Jack Thorne at the Old Vic.

In the Barbican Silk Street Theatre, Cheek by Jowl presented an unusual, Anglo-Irish interpretation of The Winter’s Tale. This modern version was largely successful and, as so often with this play, fell into place with charming results at the dénouement.

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