As ever, the wait for the end-of-year lists of favourite plays and performances has to continue until I’ve actually stopped seeing theatre in 2017. But in the meantime, here’s a list of 11 of my top moments in a theatre in 2017, the things that first pop into my mind when someone says ‘what did you enjoy this year’. For reference, here’s my 2016 list, 2015 list and 2014 list.
“There’s nowt so queer as folk”
Only about a week behind schedule, I wanted to round up my thoughts about the National’s Queer Theatre season – links to the reviews of the 5 readings I attended below the cut – and try a formulate a bit of a response to this piece by Alice Saville for Exeunt which rather took aim at the season alongside the Old Vic’s Queers (also I just want to point out too that there are two writers of colour involved – Tarell Alvin McCraney and Keith Jarrett). As a member of the ‘majority’ within this minority, I tread warily and aim to do sowith love and respect.
It feels important to recognise what the NT (and the Old Vic) were trying to achieve though. Queer Theatre looked “at how theatre has charted the LGBT+ experience through a series of rehearsed readings, exhibitions, talks and screenings” and if only one looked at lesbian women, two of the readings were written by women. Several of the post-show discussions at the NT talked specifically about this issue but in acknowledging it, also quite rightly pointed out that there just isn’t the historical body of work to draw from when it comes to wider LGBT+ representation. That’s where the talks and screenings came into their own, able to provide some of that alternative focus. Continue reading “Queer Theatre – a round-up”
#5 in the National Theatre’s Queer Theatre season of rehearsed readings
Last but by no means least in this queer season is the one play written by a straight person and perhaps the queerest of the lot. Mae West wrote The Drag in 1927 where its frankness about gay lives (and once again, drag ball culture!) scandalised its out-of-town Connecticut and New Jersey audiences so that it never made it to Broadway. But Polly Stenham has opted to revive it for this reading and to introduce it to a new (Alaska Thunderfuck-literate) crowd.
To be brutally honest, it isn’t the greatest play in the world, but what it does do is hold a fascinating mirror to early 20th century attitudes and how tolerance and intolerance existed side by side, then as now; the safe spaces gay men find in order to be their extravagantly true selves equally as timeless. And closet cases in marriages remain a sad truth, if not quite as dramatic as the son of a homophobic judge married to the daughter of a gay conversion therapist that we get here! Continue reading “Review: Queer Theatre – The Drag, National Theatre”
“‘I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding”
There’s something a little depressingly predictable about my inability to resist a neat bit of star casting – Marcia Gay Harden’s long-in-the-making UK theatrical debut being the guilty party here. It’s depressing because Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth is a play I wasn’t much of a fan of the one time I saw it before and the heart wasn’t beating any faster at the prospect of sitting through it once again.
And maybe there’s an element of self-defeating prophecy at work because I was bored rigid by Jonathan Kent’s production here for Chichester Festival Theatre. A quiet audience (never seen the upper seats curtained off like that before) sweltered in the stifling atmosphere but sadly, there was no heat being generated on the stage of Anthony Ward’s distractingly-conceived design. Continue reading “Review: Sweet Bird of Youth, Chichester Festival Theatre”
I think I have to admit to liking the idea of Katie Mitchell more than the reality. In the build-up to each appearance her productions makes on these shores, long-form pieces emerge, delving into her practise, and some of the mystery behind why she has become so totemic a figure in European theatre yet still regarded with some suspicion by parts of the British establishment (qv this piece in the Guardian). And I think yeah, she is different but maybe this time I’ll get it, maybe this time instead of just being challenged as an audience member, I’ll feel connected to her work too.
Safe to say though that Sarah Kane’s Cleansed was not the production for this breakthrough to occur. A notable event in marking Kane’s debut at the National Theatre and also a long-awaited return for Mitchell to the main programme on the South Bank after years of being frozen out by Hytner’s reluctance to let her loose on anything but children’s shows, it is naturally a hugely challenging event. Warnings abound of graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence, fainters have been reported at several performances (I reckon at least a couple of those must have been faking it just to get early release though), once again we ain’t in Kansas. Continue reading “Review: Cleansed, National Theatre”
“What must the king do now”
A late trip to the Globe to catch Richard II (for which I had a ticket months ago but was waylaid by an exciting game of tennis) at its final Friday matinee. It’s a little funny how this theatre programmes its runs well into Autumn, especially with the vicariousness of British weather, as there was a decided chill in the air even in the afternoon so heaven knows how it feels in the evening. It might be fine for a rip-roaring delight like Nell Gwynn but for the more measured qualities of Richard II, it’s a bit more of a challenge.
Simon Godwin’s production has had quite strong notices and is blessed with the fine Charles Edwards in the title role, but something about it never quite gripped me and so I was a tad more ambivalent than amazed. It’s a singular interpretation of the role, flippant and fabulous to the gold-plated extreme but Edwards’ performance style is so far removed from the rest of the company that it almost feels as if it belongs in another play, the emotional complexity (from everyone really) that marks this venue’s best productions doesn’t quite feel present. Continue reading “Review: Richard II, Shakespeare’s Globe”
“The lady’s a wit”
As a director, Jessica Swale has proved herself one of the finest at reinvigorating Restoration comedies and as a writer, has demonstrated a clear interest in illuminating tales of historical women so it is only right that her latest play for the Globe combines these two worlds in a heady rush of delightfully comic theatre. Directed by Christopher Luscombe, Nell Gwynn brings to life an ultimate rags-to-riches tale of an East End orange-seller who became a long-time mistress to King Charles II, also finding the time to become the most famous actress of the era along the way, a vital and vibrant part of theatre history.
The Globe proves itself to be an ideal venue for a show about the theatre and from the moment Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s wonderfully self-possessed Gwynn first calls out from the audience in amongst the groundlings, we’re just as smitten with her as Jay Taylor’s Charles Hart, the leading man du jour who sweeps her under his wing from where she blossoms into the leading performer of their company, ruffling a fair few feathers along the way, especially once she attracts royal attention and discovers matters of heart are also now matters of geopolitics in one of the play’s most striking and amusing scenes. Continue reading “Review: Nell Gwynn, Shakespeare’s Globe”
The first series of Penny Dreadful may not have been perfect but I really rather liked it and was glad to hear a second season had been commissioned. And when I discovered the triple whammy of Helen McCrory and Simon Russell Beale being promoted to series regulars, Billie Piper’s distracting Oirish brogue being excised and Patti LuPone appearing as a guest star, I was in heaven. Saving up the 10 episodes to binge-watch on holiday also worked well for me, ain’t technology grand!
Having established its world of gothic Victoriana, John Logan’s writing picks up some of the strands of the first series’ finale – the consequences of sometime-werewolf Ethan’s bloodbath being chased up by a tenacious policeman and Victor Frankenstein’s newest creation inspiring an unlikely love triangle. But it succeeds most by re-introducing McCrory’s Evelyn Poole as a series-long villain as the head of a witches coven and maker of some of the creepiest puppet dolls you have ever seen – it’s no secret I love her but this really is a career highlight for this most superb of actresses. Continue reading “TV Review: Penny Dreadful Season 2”
It is hard to credit that the first series of Penny Dreadful managed to encompass something as sublime as Eva Green’s magisterial lead performance as the haunted Vanessa Ives as well as one of the worst accents ever committed to celluloid (or whatever it is these days) in the form of Billie Piper’s Northern Irish brogue which, without due care, could well ignite some Troubles of its own. The transatlantic Showtime/Sky Atlantic co-production aired this summer and was conceived and written by John Logan and with an executive producer credit for Sam Mendes, it is no surprise that it is a quality product, albeit not without its issues.
Penny dreadfuls were a British 19th-century invention, sensationalist fiction with often lurid subject matter, and Logan has drawn on these alongside more well-known tales from the time from authors such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. So the show is set in 1891 London in a world heavy with the supernatural where noted explorer Sir Malcolm Murray is searching for his kidnapped daughter Mina. He is assisted by a motley crew – Green’s prepossessed Vanessa, Josh Hartnett’s sharp-shooting Ethan, Danny Sapani’s enigmatic Sembene, Harry Treadaway’s tortured Victor – but they soon find that (to borrow a phrase), the night is dark and full of terrors (and unexpected gayness).
I won’t say much more about the story as it is full of clever little reveals within the overarching narrative and I loved these ah-ha moments, Logan balances them well against his primary storytelling and the general feel of Gothic horror is maintained brilliantly. As with anything to do with the supernatural, it is more effective in suggesting what lies in the shadows (thus the séance of episode 2 is way creepier than the possession of episode 7) but that said, the make-up and effects are highly superior and the composition of Xani Giminez’s cinematography is just beautiful as the Dublin locations are utilised to their full advantage.