National, Old Vic, Barbican (inc RSC), Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe
Along with almost every other theatre in London, the National continues both to delight and frustrate even its biggest fans.
In top gear, it is capable of delivering plays that are close to perfection. The Lehman Trilogy written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power was indisputably the best work of 2018 by some considerable distance. Pleasingly, the energetic acting trio of Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley will be returning to their multiple roles in the West End in 2019.
Covering over a century of the history of a company that expanded from immigrant shopkeeping to a position where it practically ruled the world, the piece managed to combine a good deal of psychological insight with humour and commentary on both local and global affairs in a deeply satisfying fashion. Although what was likely to be a wonderful production benefited immeasurably from the presence of Sam Mendes, one of the best directors around, making a rare stage contribution.
The topsy-turvy responses to work on the South Bank might best be summed up by the year’s three Shakespeare productions.
Simon Godwin’s revival of Antony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo managed to make the most of what can be a tricky and sometimes disappointing play, thrilling audiences throughout a sold-out run.
In an interesting experiment in community theatre inspired by New York’s Public Theater, a gigantic local cast was recruited to deliver a heart-warming version of Pericles, much to the joy of friends and family but also regular patrons.
Rufus Norris took the reins of a modern take on Macbeth that starred Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. Despite pleasing many members of the paying public, it met with almost universal critical opprobrium, which some might in retrospect regard as unfair to a modern production that was far from perfect but contained many striking images and fresh interpretations.
Ian Rickson delivered one of the year’s big hits in an atmospheric and deeply moving new revival of Brian Friel’s Translations. Viewers could almost imagine themselves transported back to the 19th century and across the Irish Sea into a harsh land where famine beckoned and colonial soldiers threatened.
David Hare’s latest drama with political leanings, I’m Not Running, featured a stand-out performance from Siân Brook as a career politician, well supported by Joshua McGuire playing her right-hand man. What was a strong piece about personal ambition failed to please the critics, seemingly because the initial hype apparently tried to promote a highly political work attacking the Labour Party that was very different from the much more personal play that finally made it to the stage.
Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell with Kate Fleetwood playing Christine for director Joe Hill-Gibbins contained some good performances without setting the world on fire.
The rarely performed Exit the King by Ionesco in a new version from Patrick Marber proved to be quirky and intermittently amusing.
The National tends to steer clear of musicals and, under Rufus Norris, has favoured Americans in when entering this field. The 2018 offering was the equally unusual Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell, developed with hot director Rachael Chavkin. Once again, this was a far from conventional musical that had its moments but was never likely to set the world on fire.
Polly Stenham’s modernised version of Miss Julie, which distinguished itself from the original by losing the “Miss” never found focus or quite established its purpose, despite the efforts of Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrera.
The venue’s smallest space, now named the Dorfman, is where succeeding artistic directors have been willing to experiment, secure in the knowledge that if their commissions did not come off, there would not be too great a commercial disaster. That policy has continued in 2018 with perhaps predictably mixed results, although several productions subsequently transferred to the West End.
The pick of the year came relatively early with Francis Turnly’s immaculately conceived and written vision of relations between the United States and North Korea, The Great Wave. This production directed by Indhu Rubasingham was a real triumph for Rufus Norris and the team at the National, presenting a highly intelligent view of family lives on each side of a political divide that can still seem as wide today as it did when the nations were at war.
Annie Baker, who has done so well on both sides of the Atlantic with plays such as The Flick, brought a new piece, John to the Dorfman. This gave viewers an opportunity to ponder at great length American society today, through the medium of a young couple staying in a very strange guest house near Gettysburg.
Any visit from Peter Brook is welcome and The Prisoner, co-written with Marie-Hélène Estienne, was an archetypal example of his work, simultaneously demonstrating simplicity and humanity.
Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling was a co-production with Theatre Clywd that starred Katherine Parkinson and proved to be quirky fun with a feminist edge.
Nina Raine’s Stories looked at the predicaments of those desperate to have a child before the biological clock runs out.
To end the year, The Tell-Tale Heart adapted by Anthony Neilson from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story was a horror story that was genuinely scary and brought back memories of the playwright / director’s early days when was so closely associated with In-Yer-Face Theatre.
Old Vic Theatre
These days, the Old Vic tends to aim for quality rather than quantity, challenging viewers with carefully chosen productions.
Stephen Beresford’s stage adaptation of Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film, worked surprisingly well on stage, allowing viewers to wallow in nostalgia, while harking back to childhood.
Mood Music proved to be one of Joe Penhall’s best plays for a considerable time, pairing a sleazy old rocker played by Ben Chaplin with an up-and-coming singer songwriter, Seána Kerslake in a satisfyingly wide-ranging exploration of a dangerous relationship that prefigured a number of controversial revelations across the world later in the year.
Sally Cookson’s stage version of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls viewed the adult world through the eyes of a 13-year-old and proved to be heartbreakingly accurate in its depiction both of a mother and her young son at a time of extreme stress.
Having escaped from the torments of the Globe, Emma Rice took on a new branding but delivered an old product with her adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children. Bearing all the hallmarks of this singular director, the work told a story of show folk in unusual and sometimes captivating style, although some might have thought that it overstayed its welcome.
The Barbican now serves dual purposes, operating partly as the most significant of the RSC’s London homes and also as a receiving house for the kind of international productions that would be marketed as arthouse were they presented in cinemas.
The theatre looks far and wide for its international material. The atmospheric Picnic at Hanging Rock travelled with its cast all the way from Australia for a brief residency, which practically coincided with a new TV series based on Joan Lindsay’s novel that is now best known thanks to the iconic Peter Weir movie. The material about girls from a posh school who take a wrong turning in the outback seemed as good as ever in this simple but haunting stage version.
A French language production of Pericles presented by Cheek by Jowl was short, sharp and amusing, ensuring that what can be a difficult play was accessible and enjoyable.
The RSC’s recent season was seen at its best in Romeo and Juliet, with Karen Fishwick particularly catching the eye in the latter role, opposite Bally Gill in a production directed by Erica Whyman.
The high-profile Macbeth starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack under the direction of Polly Findlay was stylish and modern. It was also novel (with children playing the witches) and well worth watching, although whether it will live in the memory alongside so many iconic productions of the past will only be determined by the test of time.
Sir Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge is undoubtedly one of the best-designed theatres in London. The venue is still struggling to establish its identity, mixing absolutely sublime moments with some that miss the mark by a considerable margin.
Top of the Pops was a gripping, promenading new version of Julius Caesar, which immersed its groundlings in a modern war zone that could be almost literally terrifying, thanks in considerable part to the design skills of Bunny Christie. A thrilling production that was best enjoyed by those with promenade tickets benefited from a very strong cast led by Ben Whishaw and David Morrisey.
Allelujah by Alan Bennett proved to be an amusing meditation on old age but never quite managed to hit the peaks of which this writer is capable.
A similar conclusion could be drawn regarding A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter by Martin McDonagh, which was off-beat and original but didn’t get under the skin in the same way as so much of this writer’s finest work on stage and screen.
Barney Norris’s Nightfall seemed like an odd play to present in such a large space, needing the intimacy of a small studio to enhance a low-key everyday tale of countryfolk.
The Globe welcomed new Artistic Director Michelle Terry, who arrived at the venue with a mission to turn it into a gender neutral and gender equal theatre, even if this noble intention sometimes conflicted with artistic perfection.
That was particularly noticeable in one half of the opening salvo, As You Like It. There can be no question about the gender balance but considerable doubts regarding the validity of the resulting production.
Hamlet fared rather better, primarily thanks to the skills of Miss Terry herself, who played the title role as if born to it.
Amongst other productions, a rare sighting of The Two Noble Kinsmen, theoretically owing a considerable amount to Shakespeare but, in practice, probably largely penned by John Fletcher, proved to be great fun, thanks to the imaginative directing efforts of Barrie Rutter.
A memory of summers past emerged in the shape of Mark Rylance, making a welcome return to the theatre that he did so much to establish. This time around, under the direction of his wife Claire Van Kampen, he proved to be a suitably evil, if intermittently Chaplinesque, Iago playing foil to American actor André Holland’s Othello.