National, Old Vic, Barbican and Globe
When he took over from Sir Nicholas Hytner at the National, Rufus Norris quickly established himself as a man willing to experiment.
Despite the odd misguided project, he has continued to programme adventurously in 2016 and this is greatly to his credit.
As so often in recent years, much of the best theatre in London has come from this hub. Norris has been greatly helped by the presence of two large theatres and one small, which together facilitate the kind of variety which other Artistic Directors could never risk.
So good is the work at the National that it can be difficult to know where to start. Some of the most remarkable productions have taken place in the smallest space, the Dorfman, where the greatest risks might be more commercially manageable.
At the beginning of the year, Katie Mitchell presented a rather unusual revival of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. Pleasingly, it proved that this playwright is still able to shock and create sensation so long after her tragically early death.
This production also showcased the remarkably versatile talents of Michelle Terry, soon after to become Henry V in Regents Park.
Not too long afterwards, young American playwright Annie Baker was given her first NT opportunity when The Flick, a play about three nobodies working in a cinema, received its UK première. Like Beckett, or more particularly Pinter, Miss Baker has the ability to portray people doing nothing and make it compelling.
Coming from rather closer to home, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, which had been the outstanding show of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015, was a hilarious, if sometimes shocking, delight.
Based on Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos, the play with music followed the fortunes of six convent choristers from Oban as they entered a music competition in Edinburgh.
This might sound like dull fare but you had to witness the sextet’s rampage through the streets of the Scottish capital to realise what Catholic girls were like when they swapped school uniforms for something more fashionable and started necking the vodkas and the fellers.
Love by Alexander Zeldin made for tough viewing but was compelling. It portrayed life in a hostel for the homeless today with chilling accuracy. As such, the play could be depressing but contain lighter moments and is the kind of piece that might just change society, if the right people could be persuaded to spend a couple of hours watching.
Moving on to the larger spaces and following the theme of great female performances, Helen McCrory was right up there in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Her tragic portrayal of a woman destroyed by love will long live in the memory.
Similarly, Ruth Wilson caught the eye as Hedda Gabler in Patrick Marber’s updated vision of the Ibsen classic. The actress depicted a truly tragic figure in a typical Ivo van Hove staging that was light on colour and props but fitted the contemporary setting almost perfectly.
August Wilson has long been a favourite and it was a pleasure to see the National reviving Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with Sharon D Clarke in the title role. Dominic Cooke’s production was a pleasure, giving viewers an opportunity to spy on Chicago during the jazz age from an atypical, black perspective.
A very different kind of music formed the backdrop to Amadeus, in which Lucian Msamati playing Salieri was pitted against relative tyro Adam Gillen in the role of the eponymous Mozart.
What would have been a moving production in any circumstances was taken onto a different level by the introduction of a good-sized orchestra weaving in and out of the actors on stage.
Not that we knew it at the time, but The Plough and the Stars was the final swansong for Howard Davies, indisputably one of the best directors of recent times.
With the assistance of designer Vicki Mortimer, it had his characteristic look, allowing the actors to bring to life Dublin during Easter Rising, exactly a century before.
Yaël Farber created an atmospheric and highly worthwhile revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, which considered issues of colonialism and racism head on to great dramatic effect.
The National has been more willing to work collaboratively with other theatres of late, both widening the scope of its work and keeping budgets tight.
The Young Chekhov Season from Chichester featured three Sir David Hare adaptations of early plays. The Seagull was the undoubted highlight, with Platonov not far behind in what was a very satisfying, if long, day.
Bristol Old Vic had made a welcome appearance the previous year with a memorable adaptation of Jane Eyre and Sally Cookson’s company returned with their enjoyable, if a little patchy, version of Peter Pan.
Amongst other productions, there was also a one-off revival of Sir David Hare’s Stuff Happens, a new production of The Threepenny Opera, starring Rory Kinnear and modern piece loosely based on The Suicide by Erdman, neither of which quite came off, plus a gently enjoyable family drama by Alexi Kaye Campbell, Sunset at the Villa Thalia.
Before it disappeared forever, the Temporary Theatre was home to Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State by Gillian Slovo, directed by Nicolas Kent. This was a Verbatim drama that brought home to viewers the tragedy of those whose children go off to fight for Islamic State. However, this play has much wider relevance and significance, since the plight of these women would be mirrored in many other countries and situations where war is on the agenda.
The Old Vic under Matthew Warchus goes for quality rather than quantity. Groundhog Day is covered under musicals.
If you ignore a barely intelligible but beautifully acted (by Lisa Dwan) set of Beckett shorts, No’s Knife, everything else featured big hitters.
In February, Warchus directed Ralph Fiennes in a new adaptation of The Master Builder by Sir David Hare. This first-rate production welcomed a wonderful international cast including American actress Linda Emond and Sarah Snook from Australia.
Under the same director, The Caretaker featured Timothy Spall alongside Daniel Mays and George Mackay in another highly satisfactory evening.
Things just got better and better as Glenda Jackson took on King Lear in a very modern but enthralling adaptation directed by Deborah Warner. The actress made the part her own, taking gender out of the equation in a fascinating evening that never lost the spirit of Shakespeare despite the contemporary setting.
Most recently, Warchus ended a busy year with a revival of one of his own greatest hits, Art, featuring a cast in which Rufus Sewell and Paul Ritter gave the kind of high quality performances that one would expect, while comedian Tim Key excelled and threatened to steal the show in which the value (in every sense of the word) of art is explored in intricate, amusing detail.
In recent years, the Barbican’s primary mission has been to bring top-quality overseas work to London.
The best example this year was Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium. This was an ethereal and sometimes dizzying dual biography of Jean Cocteau and Miles Davis, building upon a common connection between them which was hard drug use. In typical Lepage style, the two-hander was visually stunning and intellectually challenging.
The Barbican was for many years the home of the RSC and the company has returned there on several occasions this year.
They presented a double bill consisting of Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and The Alchemist by Ben Jonson.
The former, directed by Maria Aberg, opened with the leading actors, Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan lighting matches to decide which would play Faustus and which Mephistophilis. The pair then enjoyed a modern vision of the play with influences including the Weimar artists and A Clockwork Orange.
The Alchemist was great fun under Polly Findlay’s direction and saw Mark Lockyer and Ken Nwosu gulling a series of mugs led by Ian Redford playing the lusty but intellectually challenged Sir Epicure Mammon.
Towards the end of the year, Sir Anthony Sher played the title role in a traditional version of King Lear, directed by Gregory Doran. This proved a perfect complement to the modern production at the Old Vic.
With Edward Bennett and Lisa Dillon taking leading roles in both productions under the direction of Christopher Luscombe in a Wildean fin de siècle English setting designed by Simon Higlett, this proved to be a warm and hilarious double bill that cleverly throughout the parallels between the two plays.
The advent of Emma Rice at Shakespeare’s Globe proved to be more controversial than anybody had intended. Her deliberately populist style, drawing on decades of experience with Kneehigh, pleased some visitors but, judging by the experience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not this critic.
Sadly for all concerned, she and the board at the Globe also appear to have had differences meaning that 2017 will be her last at the theatre.