Four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare still provided the year under review’s biggest blockbuster: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. Given the Sherlock star’s combination of superstardom and stage kudos, tickets went within hours – the fastest seller in London theatre history, it was claimed – and resale prices reached £1,500. Fans queued overnight for day seats and scrums formed at the stage door, despite the actor making ‘no promises’ about post-show appearances. When he did pop out, it was to plead with fans not to film him mid-show.
Such was the clamour, three national newspapers reviewed the show’s very first preview – a major break with convention. While the Daily Mail fawned, The Times junior critic Kate Maltby derided it as ‘Hamlet for kids raised on Moulin Rouge’. The justification given by the papers (if you believe it) was that producers were charging full price, something producer Sonia Friedman later admitted was a mistake. A year later, she had learned the lesson: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – bigger even than CumberHamlet – previewed at reduced rates, with arts reporters invited early as long as critics held off.
Even on official opening, the critics were not kind to Hamlet. However, overloaded though it was, Lyndsey Turner’s production had a logic to it – a Hamlet repeating the rebellions of the past who, on the battlefield, realises the realities of war and finds a purpose of his own. Cumberbatch’s hotchpotch Hamlet was a living, breathing identity crisis – scholarly one minute, silly the next – and hit the interval dressed in four costumes at once. After it, he returned to rescue a ruined Elsinore, only to be cut down in the chaos. It was a complex re-reading but, for all his charisma, Cumberbatch could not quite pull it together.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) had a Hamlet of its own: Paapa Essiedu, the first black actor to play the part in Stratford and, at 25, the youngest since Ben Whishaw. His Hamlet – a firecracker presence – returns to Ghana from Ohio’s Wittenberg University as an art student rebel, graffitiing royal portraits and staging African-inspired experimental shows, but Simon Godwin’s staging never entirely justified its setting. Meanwhile, the Globe’s globe-trotting Hamlet world tour came home, 197 countries (out of 206) under its belt; it marked the moment with a private performance for US President Barack Obama.
Global politics were best caught by ‘the histories’ though. Again and again, that famous cycle – from Henry VI’s dithering to Richard III’s dictatorship – was used to reflect the way Machiavellians come to power. The BBC’s Hollow Crown built to Benedict Cumberbatch’s camera-confiding crookback king, but Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War put the case most starkly. Set in a bunker, it unravelled from Ramsey Nasr’s Blair-like Henry V and his ‘foreign quarrels’ to Hans Kesting’s overgrown schoolboy Richard, first lumbering and thuggish, then gleeful, murderous and, finally, alone. Box-set theatre at its absolute best.
A far cry then from Sir Trevor Nunn’s revival of John Barton and Peter Hall’s The Wars of the Roses. Nine hours of alarums and swordplay, it was a theatrical relic – and not least in its casting. Nunn’s all-white company of 22 caused howls of protest. He claimed ‘historical verisimilitude’. Equity called it ‘whitewashing’; actress Tanya Moodie decried it as ‘historical revisionism’. (In January 2016, a University of Warwick report showed how rarely Shakespeare’s major roles go to non-white actors.)
History was at the heart of the Almeida’s Richard III, where director Rupert Goold opened on an open grave: that S-bend spine pulled from that Leicester car park. Ralph Fiennes slammed history’s hunchback into literature’s villain – a shadowy, sinister showman. In the elision, Goold’s self-aware staging caught something of these post-fact times. Defeat, he argued, needs plain-speaking goodness and Tom Canton’s Richmond was a knight in shining armour. So too was Alex Hassell’s hunky Henry V for the RSC – though he proved less a hero than a spoilt brat, who led his army ‘once more unto the breach’ with a squeak.
Michelle Terry’s Hal in Regent’s Park was more complex, torn between ‘military necessity and natural instinct’, as The Guardian’s Michael Billington put it. She kissed the traitors she condemned and turned tub-thumping speeches into personal pleas. Her soldier king was the first in a line of high-profile gender-swaps. Within a year, we will see Glenda Jackson’s Lear, Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia and Dame Harriet Walter’s Prospero – not to mention Kathryn Hunter’s Cyrano. Katie Mitchell gave Ophelia a play (and a room) of her own at the Royal Court in Ophelias Zimmer, with Jenny Konig locked up a long way from the action, bombarded by mixtapes from an infantile Hamlet.
These were one-offs. Emma Rice made it official Globe policy to redress the gender imbalance in Shakespeare. Taking over from Dominic Dromgoole, whose superb decade in charge ended with an indoor Tempest, record profits and annual audiences of half a million, Rice proved immediately controversial. Like her predecessor, she had only directed one Shakespeare before starting. Unlike him, she started by saying the unsayable: ‘A lot of Shakespeare feels like medicine.’ In other words, all change. Her opener was a modern dress Midsummer Night’s Dream, played under a neon sign: ‘Rock the Ground’. That it did. Katy Owen’s lusty Puck rampaged through the crowd. Cabaret star Meow Meow vamped as Titania. Globe ushers stormed the stage as ‘the mechanicals’. Beyoncé and Bowie got a look in. A canny sex change too: not Helena, but Helenus, chasing a closeted Demetrius. All the abuse became apparent.
Perhaps it was the push for greater accessibility, but this year saw a portfolio of Dreams. Russell T. Davies delivered a sci-fi version for the BBC, while The Donkey Show was styled as ‘a midsummer night’s disco’ and set in a nightclub. Following King John, Trevor Nunn polished off his full set of Shakespeares with a British Raj-themed staging, while Simon Evans delivered an ultra-stripped back one in Southwark – ‘the grandchild of Peter Brook’s legendary white-box’. Meanwhile, the RSC worked with amateur groups around the country, with a professional company of lovers and fairies teaming up with locally sourced mechanicals in Erica Whyman’s production – a radical, contemporary approach.
The proliferation of productions demonstrated Shakespeare’s place in the national consciousness, as did the volume of events marking the 400 years since his death. The RSC hosted a televised gala – a variety show live from Stratford-upon-Avon of speeches, sketches and songs that showed Shakespeare as playwright and progenitor. Elsewhere, others went completist: the Globe showed a short film from each play, shot on location, along the banks of the Thames; Forced Entertainment staged the complete works using household objects (a bottle of balsamic as Hamlet and Iago as a pack of fags) and the clowning troupe Spymonkey dished up every death the Bard ever wrote – right down to the fly in Titus Andronicus.
WEST END GIRLS
Shakespeare even found his way into the West End. The Kenneth Branagh Company began a year-long residency at the Garrick with a chocolate box Winter’s Tale. More than 50 years after playing Perdita for the RSC, Dame Judi Dench won her record-breaking eighth Olivier as a sage Paulina. Another half-century gap saw Romeo and Juliet back in the West End, with Branagh creating a hot-headed, hot-blooded Verona. Against a Felliniesque backdrop, feelings went off like fireworks as Lily James’ expressive Juliet fell for Richard Madden’s Romeo – the James Dean of Little Italy.
Sir Kenneth Branagh’s ensemble, following the Michael Grandage and Jamie Lloyd companies, fared well in the West End, proving to be catnip to commuter belters and theatre tourists. The old-fashioned actor/manager mode made for old-fashioned theatre though. The Painkiller, Sean Foley’s version of Francis Veber’s French farce, paired Branagh’s hitman with Rob Brydon’s hapless paparazzo for door-slamming, trouser-dropping delirium. More dated was a ratty old Terence Rattigan comedy, Harlequinade – a kind of proto-Noises Off with Branagh as a dandyish darling in charge. It was an introspective programme. Adrian Lester reprised his award-winning turn as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet, before Branagh rounded it off with his Archie Rice – heir to Olivier, indeed – in The Entertainer.
In fact, theatre about theatre was commonplace. Ian Kelly’s bioplay about the one-legged playwright Samuel Foote hobbled into the West End, David Hare served up a potted history of Glyndebourne in The Moderate Soprano and the Windmill Club film Mrs Henderson Presents was made into a stripped-back musical. Jamie Lloyd’s fare, by contrast, felt fresh and contemporary. The hip young thing has an eye for on-the-money casting: Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington butt-naked as Doctor Faustus, Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) and Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat) in Jean Genet’s The Maids, and Gemma Chan (Humans) in The Homecoming. Showy and superficial as these shows were – The Homecoming physicalised all of Harold Pinter’s subtext – Lloyd pulled a new young crowd to the West End. All the more damning then, when he labelled it ‘corrupt’ in May, attacking producers that exploit the profiles of big-name stars with premium ticket pricing.
He had a point. Commercial theatre has grown hard-edged. Three years after it was sold to a private equity firm, Ambassador Theatre Group parted company with its co-founders, Sir Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire. Tickets hit a new high: £240 for Elf: The Musical. Quality often took a sharp downturn. Broadway import Hand to God, about a possessed sock puppet, was as facile as it was puerile, while Friends actor Matthew Perry’s self-penned play about an unrepentant alcoholic, The End of Longing, only exposed Perry himself as a star vehicle with the wheels falling off. Fortunately, Jesse Eisenberg’s play The Spoils fared better. It is a contemporary comedy of manners that body-checked its protagonist’s privilege, though Eisenberg still wrung sympathy for a smart rich kid paralysed by his own possibilities.
The defence to the accusations of price gouging is that costs (rent, repairs, talent fees) have risen. Inevitably, alternative commercial models have sprung up in response. The King’s Cross Theatre, specially built for Mike Kenny’s adaptation of The Railway Children, took in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical In The Heights for an unlimited run. In an upstairs room in the old Foyles building, Found111 squeezed big-name stars into small-scale productions. Andrew Scott and David Dawson scintillated as the Collyer brothers, eccentric hoarders both, in Richard Greenberg’s American gothic The Dazzle, before Kate Fleetwood and James Norton got under the skin in Simon Evans’ revival of Tracy Letts’ Bug, a study of drug-induced paranoid delusions.
Back in the West End proper, women did the big box office. As English National Opera moved into musical theatre, attempting to bridge a big budgetary shortfall, Glenn Close returned to a role she claimed had haunted her for 23 years: Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. A semi-staged production on a spidery wrought-iron staircase, it made the most of its music: a full orchestra unleashed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score and Close, all the stranger as a 69-year-old star in the shadows, stopped the show ‘With One Look’. Sheridan Smith almost stopped another, stepping out of Funny Girl for two months on account of stress. It was a shame, as she made a role that has belonged to Barbara Streisand for half a century her own. Her Fanny Brice was all camaraderie, letting us into her jokes and her secrets. Another American import, Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, brought Nicole Kidman back to the London stage, 18 years after her infamous ‘pure theatrical viagra’ turn in The Blue Room at the Donmar. The less she did as Rosalind Franklin, the uncredited key to the discovery of DNA, the more she registered; she was a still, serious presence surrounded by blustering, babbling men.
STATE OF THE NATIONAL
On 12 March 2016, after seven years in London’s West End, War Horse galloped off the stage. It has been a boon for the National Theatre, seen by more than 2.7 million there and almost 7 million worldwide, and helping to push income over £100m for the first time. Its closure marked the end of an era – one that was immediately felt. Rufus Norris announced Sunday shows would stop, the Temporary Theatre – formerly the Shed – would close and critics would no longer receive ‘plus ones’ on press nights, a move that ignited gossip columns.
Sections of the press took against Norris. ‘Wobbly’ was the Sunday Times’ verdict, while The Times argued that the National was ‘lost in Dismaland’. It did not help that his headline show, wonder.land, a musical that put an online spin on Lewis Carroll’s fantasia, flopped badly. Against a visual feast fit for the Mad Hatter himself, Damon Albarn’s score scarcely registered and Moira Buffini’s book – about a mixed-race teen Aly and her picture perfect avatar – was light as a dreaming dormouse. Aiming for accessibility, Suhayla El-Bushra’s update of Nikolai Erdmann’s The Suicide was damned for dumbing down, but elsewhere, experimentalism put critics on edge. Wallace Shawn’s sprawling, conscience-mauling Evening at the Talk House, a self-lacerating spoof about self-indulgence, struggled to find an audience to attack, while Katie Mitchell’s revival of Cleansed – Sarah Kane’s National Theatre debut – triggered both walk-outs and fainting, much to the mainstream media’s delight.
In fact, Cleansed exemplified the sheer quality on display at Norris’ National. Mitchell directed with real control, representing Tinker’s tortures with such forensic attention that they seemed too real to be credible. Dominic Cooke brought out the best of August Wilson’s ‘Century Cycle’ play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, mining its rhythms (and blues) to pick up the best revival Olivier, while Yaël Farber buffed up Les Blancs so that Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished epic, an examination of the injustices of colonialism and the impossibility of restoring power to the people, looked every inch a modern classic.
Mostly, the methodology sought to make old plays feel newly minted. Ben Power compressed D. H. Lawrence’s mining trilogy into one, with Marianne Elliott placing a whole Nottinghamshire town onstage in Husbands and Sons. Patrick Marber tautened and truncated Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country down to a mere Three Days in the Country, with Mark Gatiss – fast becoming one of the most accomplished stage actors in Britain – giving a comic tour de force as the doctor Shpigelsky.
Meanwhile, Carrie Cracknell turned Terence Rattigan into Britain’s Betty Friedan. Her re-reading of The Deep Blue Sea shifted the blame from Hester herself – no impulsive free-spirit, but a worrisome waif wearing a brave face – to the social structures in which she swims. Helen McCrory’s fragile Hester still loved the husband she left, an unusually dashing Peter Sullivan, just not enough to stand in his shadow. She refuses him in spite of her heart.
Unrequited love was at the heart of Annie Baker’s The Flick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that observes three ushers, all riddled with insecurities, as they clean a cinema between films. Played out in real-time – too slow for some critics at three and a half hours – and heavy with silences, Baker’s play builds a careful thesis about visibility and invisibility, reality and art, and an increasingly mechanised, digitised society that neglects the people that drive it.
Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things showed quite how fragile people can be. Following an actress with a pillbox of dependencies through rehab, the play draws a connection between addiction and acting; both are ways of escaping one’s self. It was motored by a phenomenal, raw performance by Denise Gough; the sort that sends critics into a superlatives arms race. ‘A tiny neutron bomb,’ wrote one, ‘masterfully crafted,’ said another, ‘The greatest stage performance since Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.’
NEW WRITING: WOMEN AND THE WORLD
Gough’s performance was a product of a playwright penning a great female role. Jessica Swale provided another in recounting the life of Nell Gwynn, Restoration actress and mistress of King Charles II, with a comic brio matched first by Gugu Mbatha-Raw at Shakespeare’s Globe then in the West End by Gemma Arterton. James Fritz picked up the story of the ultimate Friends-turned-lovers in Ross and Rachel, as their on-off romance turned into ‘the one with the dead-end marriage’.
Strong female roles put audiences off, argued the Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone. She programmed several. Penelope Skinner’s Linda showed a middle-aged wife and mother engaged in a war in the workplace and, when Kim Cattrall withdrew on doctor’s advice, gained a mighty performance from Noma Dumezweni, despite only a week’s rehearsal. Caryl Churchill put four eighty-somethings onstage in Escaped Alone, a play of tea and catastrophe. Their back garden natter bumped into comic visions of environmental ruin; the inevitable end-point of patriarchal capitalism and its potential salvation, perhaps? Churchill had hit a purple patch: after a brisk meditation on death, Here We Go, came another short play, Pigs and Dogs.
As a mainstay of the Royal Court, she was a fitting pivot for its 60th anniversary. While Derby Playhouse revived the play that kickstarted it, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Featherstone kept forging ahead. Alistair McDowall’s X, set on Pluto, was a play that disintegrated. As time and space collapsed, its meaning multiplied: deep space became digital space, dementia and death all at once. Sense slipped out of reach. As it did in Anthony Neilson’s Unreachable, a riotous comedy about a film director seeking the perfect light – and much more besides. Ex-Doctor Who Matt Smith played Maxim, a man-child in search of a mother, who drives his pet project, an impossible masterpiece, into the ground. The play proved art can never be all it wants to be, that language can only ever fall short and that other people – let alone one’s self – are ultimately unknowable.
The Royal Court’s standout hit was Hangmen, Martin McDonagh’s black comedy – his first in a decade – about Britain’s last executioner, Harry Wade, after the abolition of hanging. Set in Wade’s backwards Bolton pub, bigots and crones hanging off the bar, Hangmen served up a Pinteresque pastiche as a corrective to history’s idea of the Swinging Sixties. This was the England we saw onstage again and again: not metropolitan movers-and-shakers, but rural types, minding their own. Bea Roberts dredged up the foot-and-mouth crisis in And Then Come the Nightjars; Richard Bean’s The Nap followed a local lad to the Sheffield Crucible’s snooker world championship; Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist traced a latter-day ‘pals battalion’ from Bristol to Iraq.
Welsh playwright Gary Owen took us into working class Cardiff in Iphigenia in Splott, a peppery monologue that lashed out at austerity Britain. Effy, an explosive Sophie Melville, hits one of life’s landmines and, with the welfare state all but wound up, finds herself alone and unsupported. The same could be said of the two teenage boys fending for themselves in Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood Prize-winning Yen, and of Liam, the 16-year-old traipsing through London in Leo Butler’s brilliant Boy, ignored, invisible and forgotten by society.
Memory was centre stage – a facet perhaps of a world forgetting the lessons of history. Amnesiacs led both Peter Quilter’s 4000 Days and Anthony Weigh’s Welcome Home, Captain Fox!, an American transposition of Jean Anouilh’s Le Voyageur Sans Bagage. Following The Father, others used form to convey the disorientation of Alzheimer’s: Nicola Wilson’s Plaques and Tangles glitched, while Nick Payne’s Elegy rewound as if erasing itself.
Elsewhere, new writing looked outwards, to the rest of the world. May Sumbwanyambe’s After Independence picked at post-colonial Zimbabwe, while Mongiwekhaya’s I See You showed similar racial resentments after apartheid in South Africa. Closer to home, David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue showed an ex-Ulsterman (Stephen Rea) unravelling as the identity he built around sectarianism lost its foundations post-peace. Other plays took audiences to North Korea (P’yongyang at the Finborough Theatre and You For Me For You at the Royal Court), Uganda (The Rolling Stone at the Orange Tree) and Pakistan (The Invisible Hand at the Tricycle).
It was, perhaps, a byproduct of the refugee crisis. Some writers reacted to it directly. In Lampedusa, Anders Lustgarten twinned a second-generation immigrant, struggling to make ends meet as a debt collector in Leeds, with an Italian ex-fisherman, now earning a living by pulling bodies from the Mediterranean. Stef Smith’s Human Animals imagined London under siege by animals; the play attacks the language of vermin and the rising tide of nationalism but nonetheless empathises with the natural instinct to protect one’s own.
REALITY AND COMMUNITY
Projects involving refugees embodied two of the biggest shifts in experimental practice. Queens of Syria at the Young Vic placed 13 Syrian refugees, all women, onstage; a chorus of modern-day Trojan Women. Interspersed with fragments of Euripides, they recounted their own experiences – a reminder that to be a refugee is not just to arrive, but to leave somewhere behind.
Real people made regular appearances onstage, particularly in the LIFT programme. Lola Arias’ Minefield brought together veterans of the Falklands War – three Brits, three Argentinians – in a moving reconciliation that both asked and demonstrated how art can aid recovery. Romany travellers danced in Open for Everything, sugary Japanese super-fans invaded the stage in Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker. Clare Patey let us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, while listening to their life story, at her Empathy Museum. Best, by far, was The Hamilton Complex by Lies Pauwels, which partnered 13 teenage girls with a bodybuilder in an examination of adolescent sexuality and sexualisation with a fierce feminist streak.
Such projects have one eye on the push for participation – a sense that theatre can play a role in its community, made with people as well as for them. National Theatre Wales worked with a community choir in Before I Leave, a play about a singing group for people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Slung Low led the people of Sheffield in a contemporary crusade in Camelot and Chris Goode delivered whatever Leeds locals asked to see onstage in Wanted.
On the centenary of the Somme, led by Jeremy Deller and the National Theatre, ghostly First World War soldiers appeared, silent but for a soldiers’ song, at railway stations all over the country. With no warning, commuters came face to face with the past. Approach them and you were given a card, bearing the name of the man they were standing in for, all dead and gone, never forgotten. Beautiful, elegant and ethereal, We’re Here Because We’re Here brought the fields of France back to life.
In a different way, so did the Good Chance theatre – a portable dome constructed in the Calais ‘jungle’ as an arts’ space for refugees. Set up by playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, it quickly became an emblem of hope in a desolate place – a pocket of humanity in an inhuman environment. While theatre companies like Complicite and Kneehigh visited, it was primarily a home for residents’ own creativity – poetry readings, painting sessions, music and dance. It made a fitting stop for the Globe’s Hamlet, itself nomadic, and proved that Shakespeare still speaks to everyone.