Review of the year 2012, theatre in the West End and beyond
17th December 2012
Theatre 2012: review of the year
It was a year when theatre both celebrated its own brilliance – and began to worry about where the money was coming from to fund that brilliance in future. First published in the Daily Telegraph, Dec 17, 2012.
To a great extent, it was all about the money, money, money this year in our theatre. How could it not be? We’re obsessed with what we had, what we lost, what we need to get us back on our feet, whether we ever will, really.
Celebrated as one of the best possible advertisements for what the performing arts, and theatre especially, can do, Danny Boyle’s 2012 Opening Ceremony gave a comforting reminder of the UK’s reserves of creative capital, but, of course, it was underpinned by a huge injection of public cash. How that success is sustained when the cupboard remains relatively bare, funding-wise, is the challenge – as a special conference convened at the National in November, with Boyle its outspoken figurehead, confirmed. A line-up of gloomy-sounding regional artistic directors painted the stark picture that for all the rhetoric about our booming arts economy, there are many theatres outside London that are on a knife-edge and may go under without a major effort to support them. I might carp that a few of them are so insipidly run, their absence would be little noticed, but the whole ecosystem is far greater than the sum of its parts, and is worth fighting hard to protect.
At the National itself, Nick Hytner’s own production of Timon of Athens was bang-on-the-deficit. I wrote in my five-star review in July that it seemed as if Shakespeare’s play had been “freshly minted for the credit crunch generation”. Hytner’s modern interpolations undoubtedly helped that: Simon Russell Beale’s profligate anti-hero was presented as the sort of status-hungry benefactor who opens art-gallery wings to the chink of champagne-glasses and the air-kissing of fawning sycophants. The fact that this modern-day Athens was battling what looked like incursions from Occupy London further rammed the point home, without being crude about it. Shakespeare, Hytner reminded us, is ever our contemporary, asking the big awkward questions. As ever too, Simon Russell Beale proved masterful in the role, shading over-eager geniality into excessive misanthropy almost without you noticing. Production of the year.
Elsewhere at the National, the impecunious state we’re in kept cropping up. In the Cottesloe, James Graham’s superb This House, charting the behind-the-scenes dramas of the House of Commons whips during the troublesome reigns of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, hit the jackpot in rekindling our fascination with the skint Seventies. Lucy Prebble’s effervescent The Effect, also in the Cottesloe, was about the confusions of heart and mind that ensue when a drugs trial sets two young volunteers in an aphrodisiac spin, but you gleaned that it’s the money imperative that made them turn guinea pigs. In the Lyttelton, Alan Bennett’s People made his own droll contribution to the cash-flow debate. Showing a dilapidated stately home in which everything has a sell-on value, even the porn shoots conducted to help it pay its way, he asked us whether there’s nothing we won’t stoop to now. If there’s hope maybe it lies in Bennett’s brand of outspoken eccentricity: Linda Bassett and Frances de la Tour were priceless as the mouldering ladies of the manor.
Hytner, who directed that, will stay on as kingpin for a while longer, which is good news. Elsewhere it was a busy year for departures and arrivals. At the Donmar, Michael Grandage handed on to Josie Rourke. She hit the ground running with a glorious revival of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer that filled this small space with the heady incense of ensemble excellence, lent added piquancy by the versatile abilities of Nancy Carroll in the cross-dressing lead. At the Tricycle Indhu Rubasingham got off to a flying start too with Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti starring the latter’s husband Adrian Lester. At the Bush, Madani Younis took over from Rourke with an agenda to be radically minded but left many critics underwhelmed by his initial choices; it’s early days, though. At the Almeida, Michael Attenborough – who steps down in 2013 – capped a solid year by programming Nick Dear’s first-rank play about the 1913 meeting between Edward Thomas and Robert Frost: The Dark Earth and the Light Sky.
At the Royal Court, Dominic Cooke began the end of his distinguished era – he’ll be gone after April – with another round of work that shows what a keen eye he and his team have for plays that address where we are without forcing the issues. At odds with the Court’s recent middle-class tendency, David Eldridge’s In Basildon ingeniously traced the source of an Essex family breakdown to the last big recession of the early Nineties. Vivienne Franzmann’s The Witness was a dazzlingly assured follow-up to her dazzlingly assured debut (Mogadishu), this time making significant ethical points about the modus operandi of war-zone photographers within a believable domestic drama.
There were two arresting “what-if?” plays. Joe Penhall’s Birthday, given a well-rounded central performance from Stephen Mangan, wondered how a couple would cope (not well) if the man took the starring hormonal role of baby-bearer. And Nick Payne’s Constellations had fertile theatrical fun with the notion of a multiverse in which a couple might have countless ways to say hello, goodbye, I love you, or not. Transferring to the West End, along with April De Angelis’s Jumpy, starring Tamsin Greig as a mum in midlife meltdown, showed the commercial clout the subsidised sector can have when it pinpoints the zeitgeist.
We’ll see what incoming artistic director Vicky Featherstone does, but to judge by this year’s standout show from the National Theatre of Scotland, Enquirer, directed by her and dealing in a documentary fashion with Fleet Street’s travails, there’s no doubting her ability to spot a breaking story.
At the Royal Shakespeare Company, we had to say goodbye to Michael Boyd – the architect of the company’s revived fortunes – and hello to his deputy, Gregory Doran, now installed in the hot seat. Reminding us of his mettle with an impressive African-set telling of Julius Caesar and a spellbinding account of the Chinese “Hamlet”, The Orphan of Zhao, Doran rightly seems to sense that after the power-surge of the London 2012 Festival we run the risk of being Shakespeare’d out; doing less, better is going to be his credo. We should be grateful, all the same, for the embarrassment of Shakespearean riches this year – beginning with the Globe’s Globe to Globe festival, which gave a polyglot perspective on what our greatest playwright means to countries around the world, through to the must-see Globe and West End reprise of 2002’s all-male Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance’s onnagata-style Olivia making merry opposite – on this occasion – Stephen Fry’s commendably lofty Malvolio.
Further considering the commercial sector, it was a decent rather than a vintage year. Overall, box office held up despite the wobbles caused by the Olympics. David Hare’s South Downs, paired with The Browning Version, gave us valuably contrasting shades of English repression. There was a heroic attempt to bring in David Edgar’s RSC play about the King James Bible, Written on the Heart, but it didn’t quite hit its moment. A new revival of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring David Suchet, found favour on Shaftesbury Avenue, and Kevin Spacey’s regime at the Old Vic continued to go great guns, with sterling work from Eve Best in The Duchess of Malfi and Sheridan Smith in Hedda Gabler.
Some of the most eyebrow-raising evenings, though, happened on the fringe. Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall, never seen in London, was a coup for Jermyn Street and was blessed with a terrific performance from Eileen Atkins. Southwark Playhouse, closing its doors at London Bridge this month, kept on delivering the goods, including Nicholas Pierpan’s compelling play about London bankers, You Can Still Make a Killing. In Earl’s Court, the Finborough kept unearthing forgotten fascinations, most topically J B Priestley’s Cornelius (1935), which delicately lifts the lid on a dying small business.
In the regions, one could find flare-ups of brilliance. It was an inspired idea by National Theatre Wales to investigate the early youth of rogue soldier and WikiLeaks cause célèbre Bradley Manning. Ian Brown departed the West Yorkshire Playhouse with an all-black production of Waiting For Godot – a belated landmark. But in terms of steady output, the commitment to quality at Sheffield under Daniel Evans remains breathtaking – the Michael Frayn season there rightly saw a West End transfer for Democracy. Elsewhere, Laurence Boswell is doing remarkable things with unusual plays at the Ustinov in Bath. Best out-of-London show of 2012 for me, though, was Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, revived by Jonathan Church at Chichester and featuring a career-best performance of glinting malevolence from Henry Goodman as the Hitler-esque mobster Ui. Another dark reminder, if one were needed, of the downward spiral into chaos that can happen when the money runs out.