The National, the Old Vic, the Barbican and the Globe

In his last full year as the National Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sir Nicholas Hytner continued to take risks on the South Bank. His judgement is so good that they paid off far more often than not.

This year too, the building itself has received a tasteful but exciting refurbishment that not only sees a newly-named auditorium but also many obvious improvements to the front of house areas throughout.

There were some absolute bankers, which inevitably enhance the reputations of all involved, starting in January with King Lear directed by Sam Mendes and starring Simon Russell Beale as a thoroughly modern version of the titular figure.

Moving in time from the 1940s to the current era, it allowed Russell Beale to capitalise on his last major role at this theatre in a time-travelling Timon of Athens. There was good support all round particularly from Anna Maxwell Martin, Kate Fleetwood and Olivia Vinall as the three daughters, Adrian Scarborough playing the Fool and Tom Brooke, appropriately Poor Tom/Edgar.

Equally certain to succeed was the secret play by Richard Bean that only became Great Britain five days before opening.

The reason for the subterfuge became obvious to viewers on that Monday night who discovered themselves watching Billie Piper taking us hilariously through the murky world of the gutter press. The opening came in the wake of a long-running court case that had to end before the play could be announced. The limited National run was immediately followed by a West End transfer.

The James Plays by Rona Munro, directed by Laurie Sansom for NToS, lasted all day and had a post-Shakespearean feel. They made for fascinating viewing in Edinburgh prior to their London transfer.

Looking even further back, director Carrie Cracknell and playwright Ben Power came together to create a novel, modern vision of Medea starring Helen McCrory giving what must be one of the strongest performances of her career.

Under the direction of Bijan Sheibani, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey may be grim. However, it allowed the astoundingly assured Kate O’Flynn to strut her stuff as a pregnant teenager before they became fashionable to considerable effect, given a helpful foil by Lesley Sharp taking the role of her inadequate mother.

Sean O’Casey is nowadays best known for his Dublin trilogy but while The Silver Tassie may be less accessible, it is a fantastic portrait of Irish life during the Great War and was brought to the stage with great aplomb by Howard Davies.

He also directed one of the best new plays of the year, 3 Winters by Croatian writer Tena Štivičić. This is a piece that tracks backwards and forwards in time between 1945 and 2011, stopping in between at 1991, all significant dates for Yugoslavia and subsequently Croatia.

What starts as a family drama eventually took on the qualities of a high-class political and social allegory.

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Sir David Hare attempted to do something similar for contemporary India but somehow despite creating a series of memorable characters, the play never quite took off.

Similarly, while Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk was poetic and beautiful, featuring a standout performance by Cillian Murphy, many of those who saw it struggled to find hidden meanings.

Joining Shakespeare, Euripides and O’Casey in the revivals market was Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business. This was a classy and very funny comedy which allowed Nigel Lindsay to make the most of his role as a small-time gangster.

After the long period of reconstruction, the Cottesloe Theatre reopened as the Dorfman. Its opening production was Here Lies Love, an import from the Public Theater in New York that did for Imelda Marcos what Evita did for Eva Peron without the strength of story. Instead, the atmosphere resembled that of an upmarket nightclub with half the audience obliged to bop along.

During 2014, Kevin Spacey announced that he would be handing over the reins at the Old Vic to Matthew Warchus. In the meantime, the theatre continued to please, concentrating on quality rather than quantity and delivering a series of well-judged performances.

Having been reconfigured in-the-round could have been a mixed blessing but the two plays delivered before the proscenium arch came back into play both made the most of the intimacy and shared experience.

The Crucible has always been a powerful play and thanks to the insightful verve of South African director, Yaël Farber the Old Vic’s presentation was unforgettable.

It helped to have a cast that was strong from top to bottom led by film favourite Richard Armitage and Anna Madeley. However, it will also be remembered for a sensational stage debut by Samantha Colley who seems likely to figure on numerous awards lists both this year and in future.

Prior to that, in the same set-up Mr Spacey had imported Other Desert Cities by his compatriot Jon Robin Baitz. This intense but quirky Lincoln Center hit enjoyed the benefit of an international cast with William Gaunt, Sinead Cusack, Clare Higgins and especially American actress Martha Plimpton shining under the direction of Lindsay Posner.

Electra would have been a good rather than outstanding event but for the intoxicating skills of Kristin Scott Thomas in the title role.

You never know what to expect at the Barbican these days except when the RSC visits. The theatre’s international programme is always adventurous and inevitably, contains the odd disaster in amongst the gems.

Under the direction of Deborah Warner, Fiona Shaw gave a tour de force in a stage adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s post-biblical novel The Testament of Mary.

The big venture was an Ibsen retrospective which started with an ultra-modern, but entirely believable version of Enemy of the People from Schaubühne Berlin directed by Thomas Ostermeier.

A French version of Peer Gynt could not maintain the pace but the final work in the trio, The Wild Duck brought across by Simon Stone of Belvoir Sydney was equally modern but worked far better theatrically.

The RSC excelled in providing delightful endurance tests for those who like serious theatre.

At their old stamping ground, the Aldwych, they transferred two of the year’s highlights. These were Mike Poulton’s stage adaptations of the Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

What could have felt like a master class in tedium turned into a joy thanks to the direction of Jeremy Herrin, aided by strong casting with Ben Miles leading the way as Thomas Cromwell.

For those who like their history direct from Shakespeare, Gregory Doran’s traditional versions of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the Barbican, starring Sir Antony Sher as Falstaff were nearly as good.

During 2014, Dominic Dromgoole brought to fruition a long-desired ambition to create an indoor theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe. The candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened with unexpected casting as Gemma Arterton was asked to play the Duchess of Malfi.

Out in the open, it was very much business as usual. Eve Best, who has become a favourite at the venue, delivered her usual high quality performance in the company of Clive Wood in Antony and Cleopatra.

In addition, the season saw an appropriately confusing but frequently funny romp in The Comedy of Errors and a low-key but very bloody version of Julius Caesar directed by Lucy Bailey.