CHANGING THE TUNE
The West End had to wait for it. Two years after bedding in on Broadway, where tickets had at one point reached re-sale prices of $1,150, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary musical Hamilton reached London. History in hip-hop, it raps through Alexander Hamilton’s life – as civil warrior, founding father and cheating husband. It came clutching a Pulitzer, a Grammy and 11 Tony Awards, but there were no guarantees that the British public would go for an American history lesson told in American street-song.
Its host, super-producer Cameron Mackintosh, clearly knew better. He revamped the Victoria Palace Theatre and its 1,550 seats at a cost of £50m, but hit delays over drains installed by George III, Hamilton’s colonial nemesis, that pushed opening night back by a fortnight (16 previews were pulled). On opening night, British critics kowtowed, with the Evening Standard splashing ‘Believe the hype’.
Miranda’s music and lyrics were bound to dazzle. Some of hip-hop’s biggest stars had taken them to heart, contributing cover versions to The Hamilton Mixtape. In the flesh, however, Thomas Kail’s staging looked slightly old-fashioned on its timber-frame set. But a British cast shone: recent RADA graduate Jamael Westman made a hunkier Hamilton than Miranda’s original brainiac. His hubris loomed large over his chief rival Aaron Burr – a smouldering Giles Terera was the Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart. It swept up awards as it had back home.
But Hamilton was not the only game-changing American tuner in town. Fun Home, a musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, arrived at the Young Vic to equally universal acclaim. A coming-out tale offset by a closeted father, Jeanine Tesori’s book split its protagonist into three: a ten-year-old tomboy, a student stumbling towards sexual awakening and an adult author assessing her life. Lisa Kron’s shapeshifting score, including an effervescent hymn to housekeeping, seeped out of the story, and another crack cast – especially Jenna Russell’s jittery mother and Zubin Varla’s conflicted father – made an innovative, understated musical their own.
America’s invention has spurred the Brits on. Handed the keys to Bob Dylan’s back catalogue, Conor McPherson fine-tuned the jukebox musical. Girl from the North Country left a lot out – no ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, no ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ – to catch the timbre of times a-changin’. In a Depression-era guest house in Duluth, Minnesota, down-and-outs drift through Dust Bowl America: two-bit pulpit preachers, convicts on the run, the disabled and the dependent. Heartfelt in hard times, it wrung you out with Sheila Atim’s wrenching ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’, Sam Reid’s loving lament ‘I Want You’ and Shirley Henderson’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ as a woman with early-onset dementia. Other musical compilations paled in comparison: The Band trotted through Take That’s career, while Tina and Dusty loaded lumpen scripts onto stellar leads: as Turner and Springfield respectively, Adrienne Warren and Katherine Kingsley both had big hair and even bigger voices.
Experiments abounded during the year under review. Committee set parliamentary process to song at the Donmar, with Tom Deering scoring a transcript of the tribunal into the collapse of the charity Kids Company. John Tiffany brought giant puppets to Pinocchio, turning Disney’s film into a commedia-inspired spectacular. Emma Rice turned an obscure French romcom about anxious lovers into a chocolate-box chamber musical, Romantics Anonymous. None of them troubled a West End starved of new musicals. The English National Opera revived the overblown Cold War tuner Chess, celebrating its score yet losing the plot, while a sumptuous Broadway staging of The King and I took up residence in the long-empty Palladium.
By contrast, straight plays have had a revival in town. For the first time in years, new plays premiered in the West End – Simon Stephens’ uncertain science play Heisenberg launched Marianne Elliott’s new commercial company, while James Graham’s look at Labour Party history, Labour of Love, opened at the Noël Coward Theatre despite losing its lead, Sarah Lancashire. Tamsin Greig stepped in, but Graham won the headlines with three plays in the West End over the course of the year. Ink, his story of The Sun newspaper, and his take on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal, Quiz, both transferred into town.
Plenty of playwrights did likewise, including Nina Raine’s legal drama Consent and David Hare’s Glyndebourne origin story The Moderate Soprano. By contrast, traditional fare faltered. Former Globe boss Dominic Dromgoole presented a season of glitzy Oscar Wilde plays that simply seemed out of keeping with the times, while star vehicles – Orlando Bloom in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, Stockard Channing in Apologia, Christian Slater in Glengarry Glen Ross – all struggled to make much of a splash. Theatregoers were seeking something new.
In June, Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night announced a transfer from the National – the first play by a black British woman to reach the West End. Set in a British Jamaican household after a death, over the nine-night wake that tradition demands, it laced a clever examination of first-, second- and third-generation immigrant experiences through a broadly comic script. Even if it followed the formula of funeral dramas too closely, audiences lapped it up. Arinze Kene’s gig-theatre solo show Misty, a self-aware critique of the way that black writers address the issue of race, was another unlikely West End transfer – a mark of British theatre opening up to a more diverse range of voices. Recent schemes are bearing fruit. The Eclipse Theatre Company’s Black Theatre Live debuted with Testament’s lyrical and layered Black Men Walking, a tale of three black hikers pacing the moors, while the Bush Theatre’s push to revive canonical black plays delivered a gorgeous, long-overdue revival of Winsome Pinnock’s 1987 family drama Leave Taking.
STATE OF THE NATIONAL
Under Rufus Norris, the National Theatre has blown hot and cold. For every West End transfer, there’s been an in-house flop. Rory Mullarkey’s somersaulting Saint George and the Dragon, a state-of-the-nation spin on a Russian folk play, was the third Olivier misfire on the trot, after an obtuse Salome and the bewildering Common. It raised questions about how to use the National’s main space – it came as no surprise that the surefire hit War Horse was recalled to mark ten years of globetrotting success.
Yet, the National’s smaller spaces delivered hit after hit. Lucy Kirkwood slammed two sisters together at CERN in Mosquitoes, a thrilling exploration of the limits of human and scientific knowledge. David Eldridge’s tender will-they-won’t-they romcom Beginning, set in the wee hours after a housewarming, waited for two heartbroken singletons to rediscover their mojo. Annie Baker’s John went the other way: a disjointed couple break up in a Gettysburg B&B, watched by an audience of vintage dolls. It asked questions about the ghosts haunting a divided America.
Norris’ National has been strong on the subject. Having sent its Angels in America to Broadway for a Tony-winning run, theatre’s equivalent of selling coals to Newcastle, it imported Oslo, J. T. Rogers’ dramatisation of the Norwegian negotiations that brought peace to Palestine. Ivo van Hove’s staging of Paddy Chayefsky’s classic screen satire Network, with a real restaurant onstage, asked if fake news wasn’t making Americans mad as hell; Bryan Cranston’s unanchored anchorman deployed inflammatory tactics reminiscent of one Donald J. Trump. Dominic Cooke, meanwhile, made a superb case for Stephen Sondheim’s Follies with an opulent, diamante-encrusted staging that set a showgirls reunion against a chorus of ghosts. Its crumbling theatre, all faded former glories, looked like a metaphor for the nation at large.
The Lehman Trilogy offered an explanation. Tracking the history of American capitalism through that of its fourth-biggest bank, Lehman Brothers, it showed expansion and collapse. Sam Mendes turned Stefano Massini’s sprawling play into a nimble three-hander told by the German-Jewish brothers – Henry, Emanuel and Mayer – who set up the fabric shop that grew into a giant of global finance. Ben Power’s translation accelerated with the markets, as Es Devlin’s revolving design span dizzily on. Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley trickled down the generations of the Lehman clan, delivering mercurial performances in multiple roles.
Norris’ naysayers found a new home upriver. Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre, a mile from his old offices at the National, opened in October 2017. Designed by Haworth Tompkins, the architectural practice doing more for British theatre than anyone since Frank Matcham, it’s a beauty: a flexible, 900-seat state-of-the art space. Two galleries wrap around the open auditorium and madeleines are baked, fresh, at the bar. Hytner and his producer Nick Starr have another theatre lined up: a 600-seat studio is set for Kings Cross.
Year one put the Bridge through its paces. Young Marx found the father of communism (Rory Kinnear) living his best life in London, boozing and carousing with best buddy Friedrich Engels. Cue Victorian japes and scrapes – but Richard Bean’s farce fell quite flat. Hytner fared far better with a Julius Caesar that put populist politics in promenade. Starting as a Trump-like rally – Make Rome Great Again – it saw David Calder’s balding Caesar dispatched by his liberal elite. Ben Whishaw’s studious Brutus was no match for David Morrissey’s man of the people, Mark Antony. Rome plunged into a civil war that enveloped the audience.
My Name is Lucy Barton brought stillness instead. Alone on a thrust stage, Oscar-nominee Laura Linney brought Elizabeth Strout’s pensive novel to life. Playing a woman in a hospital ward, looking back on her life, she found sadness beneath sunshine. Like The Lehman Trilogy and John, Richard Eyre’s simple staging suggested America as an amalgam nation scarred by the traumas of its wars, both military and cultural.
Barney Norris’ Nightfall looked at the blemishes of Brexit Britain. Set on a grief-stricken family farm, divided down the middle by an oil pipe, it argued that the trickle of riches had dried up. It was not convincing, though; normally such a careful, humane writer, Norris overloaded the play with bulky Brexit metaphors.
It was one of a harvest of countryside dramas – theatre’s attempt to look beyond the so-called liberal elite. The best was the bleakest: Simon Longman’s Gundog, staged at the Royal Court on mounds of mud, let year blur into unchanging year as a once-proud farming family slowly caved in to crime. Joe White’s rural romcom Mayfly offered another look at a young generation leaving the countryside behind. Phil Ormrod’s scrapheap-set Isaac Came Home from the Mountain suggested otherwise at Theatre503, as an old poacher took a troubled teenager under his wing. Its point – that industrial decline has left Britain broken – was echoed by a spate of industrial plays: Maxine Peake’s Queens of the Coal Age, Ray Castleton and Kieran Knowles’ Chicken Soup and National Theatre Wales’ We’re Still Here, made with the steelworkers of Port Talbot.
But it was Mike Bartlett’s Albion that best summed up the state of the nation. A sprawling Chekhovian character play, it gave us the garden of England: a green and pleasant lawn gone to seed. Victoria Hamilton’s grieving mother sought to restore an iconic garden to its former glories, but in the process, effectively privatised public land.
In such divisive times, it made sense that, on the Shakespeare front, this was the year of King Lear. Ian McKellen began his second stab at the role by slicing up a map of the UK with golden scissors. Dressed in royal ceremonial reds, surrounded by deferent civil servants, McKellen’s senile king suggested that the stable, ever-sensible British establishment had lost its marbles. Jonathan Munby’s staging was full of ominous imagery, including a cracked white cliff and a once-plush red carpet now soiled. At its centre was McKellen’s brilliant portrayal of dementia, never linear in its decay. At Shakespeare’s Globe, Kevin McNally’s Lear fell foul of that – a plummet from royal pomp to park bench.
Macbeth provided another nation in disarray. At the National, Rufus Norris set it in some nameless fallen state afflicted by civil war. A right witches’ brew, his production shot for spectacle but made little sense. With no power structure, Rory Kinnear’s nutcase Macbeth had little to aim at, no matter how slyly Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth egged him on. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) countered with a Macbeth framed as tight psychological horror, with Christopher Eccleston in the lead as a born solider always primed for attack as a digital clock turned time against him.
Even so, this was not a vintage year for the Bard. Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh, played to just 120 people a night, a fundraiser for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art with little new to say. Shakespeare, today, has to speak to our world, but his plays can pose a diversity problem. In Liverpool, Golda Rosheuvel played a lesbian Othello – the first actor to play the part as a woman – and an all-black Unicorn production reframed the play’s racism as ‘shadeism’ (discrimination based on degree of skin tone) and xenophobia. Matthew Dunster took Much Ado About Nothing to Mexico – the sort of screwball staging that Emma Rice’s Globe did best.
Her successor at a still-split organisation, Michelle Terry, announced an in-house ensemble – a collaborative company where anyone could play any part. Her tenure began with her own Hamlet – a mad clown figure – as doubled with a gender-swapped As You Like It, which incorporated the British sign language of Nadia Nadarajah’s Celia.
The lack of female roles in the folio has led theatres to commission their own women-led historical dramas. Gina McKee played the famous Iceni queen in Boudica at Shakespeare’s Globe, in Tristan Bernays’ attempt to humanise an ancient British icon, while the RSC’s Queen Anne, as written by Helen Edmundson, ran in the West End with Romola Garai outstanding as her scheming rival Sarah Churchill.
Other theatres turned to the corseted camp of restoration comedy. The Country Wife, at Chichester, starred a colourful Susannah Fielding in a bawdy black and white city while, at the Donmar, James Macdonald faithfully dusted off The Way of the World, though the production was rocked by the sudden death of comic actor Alex Beckett mid-run. Two extant comedies written by women were put on display: Mary Pix’s lost 1700 play The Beau Defeated became a misfire foppery retitled The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich at the RSC, while Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem, a response to George Farquhar’s similarly titled play, was artfully over the top at the Lyceum in Edinburgh.
In a year in which women spoke up against sexism in the industry, new writers turned to female stories too. Alan Ayckbourn hardly helped their caused with The Divide, a gruelling six-hour sci-fi piece set in a society segregated by sex. The reason? A virus carried by adult women. A Netflix pitch of a play, a poor relation of The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, it was as overblown as it was under-cooked.
It was precisely the sort of drama that Ella Hickson lambasted in her Pirandellian meta-play The Writer – an assault on the way that women playwrights are curbed by an industry dominated by men. Following Romola Garai’s infuriated playwright, it looped in and out of her work and her life in five scenes that attempted a feminist story-structure. Sharpened by references to the Almeida regime that programmed it, The Writer made an impassioned polemic.
That it played as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum added weight, as it did to Dennis Kelly’s solo examination of patriarchal violence Girls and Boys, starring a superlative Carey Mulligan as a brilliant filmmaker stuck minding her kids, and to Joe Penhall’s recording studio ding-dong Mood Music, in which a middle-aged male producer manipulates a young female singer-songwriter. At the Royal Court, artistic director Vicky Featherstone organised a ‘day of action’ in response to #MeToo, out of which came a new code of conduct. The theatre was itself embroiled, when it was revealed that former artistic director Max Stafford-Clark had left his company Out of Joint over inappropriate remarks made to female staff members. The Court cancelled its run of Out of Joint’s touring revival of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, only to restore it after a public outcry – the irony being that a working-class woman’s voice would have been silenced.
Featherstone’s other key initiative was a season of plays by international writers. A response to borders tightening and protectionist politics, the Royal Court’s autumn season skipped from Syria to Chile, Ukraine to the US. Guillermo Calderon’s B cast a surrealist eye on the guerilla revolutionaries dotting Santiago with bombs – or trying to, once they had mastered convoluted codewords. Think Chris Morris’ Four Lions as written by Joe Orton. Liwaa Yazji’s Goats had a similar lunacy – a satire on President Assad’s policy of compensating martyrs’ families with a gift of a kid goat.
None of the plays wholly convinced, but Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome made a virtue of its strangeness. Twisted and surreal, it watched, unblinking, as two roadside Christmas-tree salesmen embarked on a killing spree. Chloe Lamford’s installation-style design spread small-town America across a series of rehearsal rooms.
America’s playwrights have hit their peak in recent years – a result, perhaps, of having plenty to write about. Many have crossed the Atlantic, none with more acclaim than Matthew Lopez. His sweeping two-parter The Inheritance lifted E. M. Forster’s Howards End out of Edwardian England and into the gay scene of today’s New York City. Admitting its own artistic debts – to Tony Kushner as much as to Forster himself – it asked what each generation owes to the next. It gave space to reflect on the legacy of AIDS and was a shattering day’s drama and, in Stephen Daldry’s spare staging, a towering achievement.
Christopher Shinn’s Against cast Ben Whishaw as a tech billionaire – half Mark Zuckerberg, half Elon Musk – atoning for his company’s sins with a listening tour of America in the wake of another school shooting. As his messiah complex kicked in, Ian Rickson’s sensitive, spare production practised what it was preaching: it was inclusive, progressive and refused representations of violence. Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night tumbled through Russian disinformation, diagnosing a nation detached from reality and turning President Putin’s tactics against him with an invented biography. Amy Herzog’s Belleville, about a fraying expat couple in Paris, was a millennial mental health horror, while Mr Burns writer Anne Washburn turned her attention on The Twilight Zone,finding worldly fears and paranoia beneath its cult sci-fi stories. What looked like pastiche became a cultural exegesis.
Under new artistic director Ellen McDougall, the tiny Gate Theatre in Notting Hill switched its attention from America to Europe. Her opening adaptation of José Saramago’s philosophical fable, The Unknown Island served as a manifesto for theatre itself. As its dreaming sailor woke and saw life anew, so, McDougall implied, should theatergoers. Jude Christian’s clutter-filled staging of Falk Richter’s anti-capitalist critique Trust saw the director live in the theatre for the length of the run, while French playwright Magali Mougel’s superb Suzy Storck sought our empathy for a working-class woman marooned in motherhood, pinned down by the patriarchy. Jean-Pierre Baro’s heart-wringing production had audiences on their knees, helping tidy toys off the floor.
International artists provided some of the year’s best shows, courtesy of Manchester International Festival and LIFT. The latter brought Anna Deavere Smith back to London for the first time in over 25 years. The verbatim performer’s Notes From the Field was a stunning staged essay on structural racism and a searing protest against America’s schools-to-prison pipeline and police violence. Alongside her, drag artist Taylor Mac offered the first act of a 24-hour song cycle charting the history of post-independence pop music, decade by decade. Always as playful as it was pointed, it built a picture of a nation built on novelty and division. Dries Verhoeven’s theatrical ghost train Phobiarama took audiences on a rollercoaster ride through the politics of fear, chased by bears, clowns and men of colour.
In Manchester, German director Thomas Ostermeier offered more nuance on the subject in Returning to Reims, transforming Didier Eribon’s sociological memoir about the rise of the far-right in post-industrial France into a layered theatrical essay. Staged in a recording studio, with Nina Hoss narrating a documentary voiceover, it offered a critique and a deconstruction of a simplistic media narrative; it was at once a reading, a drama, a film and a gig. Today’s world, it insisted, needs complex debate instead of simplistic answers.
If populism promises easy answers, it was unpicked onstage again and again. Effigies of Wickedness, at McDougall’s Gate, gave us a cabaret of songs banned by the Nazis as ‘degenerate art’. Conceived by baritone Peter Brathwaite, it ran in chronological order, listening as the bohemia of 1920s Berlin collapsed under the Third Reich. It was an undoing of historical wrongs, restoring songs that had been struck from the record, and a warning from history. Imperium, the RSC’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy, offered another, showing the decline of democracy in Rome and the rise of an opportunistic autocrat, Julius Caesar. While epic in scale, it lacked theatrical imagination.
Kneehigh could never be accused of that. The company’s staging of The Tin Drum, based on Günter Grass’ darkly ambiguous satire on Nazism, starred a puppet Oskar who drowned out the Fuhrer with his tiny toy drum. Rita Kalnejais’ inventive This Beautiful Future preferred to listen, showing a tender romance between a teenage Nazi soldier and a young French girl at the end of the Second World War. In daring to humanise Nazism, it exposed its irrationality.
The refugee crisis also recurred as a theme. Vox Motus shrunk the issue to scale in Flight, a story of movement told through a series of stills. A rotating diorama, like a 3D graphic novel, unfolded Caroline Brothers’ story of two Afghan brothers making their way to Calais. Its miniatures made you lean in. Theatre Rites’ The Welcoming Party fused personal testimony with puppetry to capture the enormity of the journey, while David Greig’s version of The Suppliant Women, staged with a community chorus, found echoes of a contemporary crisis in antiquity.
Written by the founders of the pop-up theatre Good Chance, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, The Jungle took you into the heart of the Calais migrant camp. Set in its on-site Afghan Flag restaurant, realised in Miriam Buether’s immersive design, it recounted the settlement’s history – from its impromptu beginnings to its eventual destruction on orders of the French courts. Telling the stories of refugees, traffickers and British volunteers, it humanised an issue often portrayed from afar.