Category Archives: Δεκαετία 2000-1009

The decade in theatre

  • From Times Online, December 21, 2009
  • “The Decade From Hell” proclaimed a recent Time magazine. Not for the British theatre

Samuel West, Tim Pigott-Smith and Amanda Drew in Enron


  • Benedict Nightingale

The Iraq war might not have been good for the world, but it wasn’t bad for the British theatre. It wasn’t just that a profoundly controversial conflict was the subject of several new works, such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens, and shaped some revivals, such as Katie Mitchell’s brilliant modernisation of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. It seemed to encourage a fresh interest in politics on the part of our playwrights. And the result wasn’t the clockwork Marxism of the 1970s, but a more questing and questioning drama, such as Robin Soans’s Talking to Terrorists, one of many “verbatim” plays that appeared during the decade — and a piece that meant what its title said.

Fresh British dramatists appeared: among them Simon Stephens, Roy Williams, Alexi Kaye Campbell, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Polly Stenham, Charlotte Jones and Lucy Prebble, author of the money play Enron. But there were also worries. Apart from the dangerously funny Martin McDonagh, who is there who now has as distinctive a voice as, say, Osborne and Pinter? Who has the staying power to replace Churchill, Frayn, Bennett, Stoppard and Ayckbourn, all of whom are in their seventies?

The quality of acting remained undiminished, with Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Clare Higgins, Mark Rylance, Henry Goodman, Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter, Greg Hicks, Roger Allam, Jennings and other middle-aged thesps reinforcing their claims to the thrones occupied by Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench.

Was it possible to discern a new physical power in an acting community once critised as over-reliant on vocal beauty? With the rise of a robust younger generation that includes Eve Best, Victoria Hamilton and Rory Kinnear, maybe so. In the digital age there will be a growing appetite for human contact, for the sheer immediacy of theatre, and our performers must satisfy it.

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Not that technology is necessarily the enemy. More and more directors profitably embraced it during the decade. Think of Mitchell’s experiments at the National, Rupert Goold’s wildly inventive Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Complicite’s marvellous The Elephant Vanishes. That’s a trend that will continue, but needs watching, in case it substitutes for the lower-tech inventiveness of, say, the National’s War Horse or Robert Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon, a piece that did what theatre now must: exercise our most underused muscle, the imagination.

It was increasingly evident that the West End, like Broadway, was a home for musicals, not straight plays, most of which opened in subsidised theatres. Impresarios tried with mixed success to lessen risk by importing film and TV stars: a trend that, with imports varying from Christian Slater to Macaulay Culkin, David Schwimmer to Kathleen Turner, became more marked during the decade. And yet, despite a fearsome recession, the commercial theatre flourished, with the West End likely to end 2009 by breaking box-office records for the fourth year running.

Meanwhile, it has been a decade of successful takeovers at Britain’s principal subsidised theatres: Nicholas Hytner at the National, the Michaels Grandage, Attenborough and Boyd at the Donmar, Almeida and RSC, the last-named rescuing his company from the doldrums and soon to reopen a Stratford theatre that is having a £100 million makeover. “The Decade From Hell” proclaimed a recent Time magazine. Not for the British theatre.

  • Face of the decade: Nicholas Hytner

He had successfully staged work from The Madness of George III to Miss Saigon but never run a playhouse when he took over the National in 2003. Since then he has not only directed memorable productions, such as The History Boys, but programmed ambitiously and often daringly, introduced the £10 Travelex ticket scheme that has brought new and younger audiences to the Olivier, and launched NT Live, transmitting performances to more than 300 cinemas in England and abroad.

The best theatre of the decade

  • From The Sunday Times, December 13, 2009
  • We saw puppets centre stage, Scottish soldiers lift the lid on Iraq, Douglas Hodge in a dress and Doctor Who as Hamlet

War Horse

(Mark Ellidge)

War Horse at the Olivier theatre

1 War Horse National 2007

This adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book was the theatrical event of the decade, starring a life-size puppet of a horse. The story was sublimely simple: a farm horse, Joey, is drafted to the western front, and Albert, the boy who loved him, goes off to France to rescue him. The effect was beautiful and devastating.

2 Jerusalem Royal Court 2009

As Johnny “Rooster” Byron, Mark Rylance gave the performance of the decade in Jez Butterworth’s superb, hilarious play. Rooster is a wild, wicked old gypsy livin in a caravan in Wiltshire, full of cider and speed, a dubious friend of the local school kids and a bitter enemy of all the suffocating forces of modern conformity.

3 The Norman Conquests Old Vic 2008

This revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy from 1973 proved it to be solid theatrical gold, still astonishingly fresh and funny. Filled with painfully accurate portraits of marriages and affairs in various states of decay, it also had a fantastically complex structure that was nothing but pleasure.

4 RSC Histories RSC, Stratford 2006-08

Covering a messy period of our history, from Richard II through to Richard III via the interminable Wars of the Roses, this was a ferociously bloody, fast-paced and powerfully acted Shakespearian vision of England’s medieval past.

5 Hamlet RSC, Stratford 2008

David Tennant made the transition back to the theatre with absolute conviction, giving us a bravura performance of the tormented prince as a skinny, hyperactive, wide-eyed student that was both deeply moving and often startlingly funny.

6 Black Watch Edinburgh 2006

Gregory Burke’s play, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, was based on interviews with soldiers from the Black Watch regiment who had fought in Iraq in 2004. It powerfully evokes the foul-mouthed camaraderie and horrific reality of modern warfare, as well as the intractable difficulties of simply “coming home”.

7 Mary Stuart Donmar 2005

Janet McTeer’s doughty Mary battled it out with Harriet Walter’s icy Elizabeth in this exemplary production of Schiller’s classic, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

8 The Far Side of the Moon National 2001

Robert Lepage’s magical solo show inventively reflected on the mysteries of space while exploring the rivalry of two brothers. Created with Complicite, one of the key innovators in changing our idea of drama.

9 That Face Royal Court 2007

Polly Stenham’s play was a brilliant debut, a bitterly funny portrayal of a dysfunctional middle-class family, with the father selfishly absent most of the time, the two teenage children skidding off the rails and Lindsay Duncan on top form as their self-absorbed, manipulative lush of a mother.

10 Stovepipe Hightide/National/Bush 2009

Expertly staged in the deliberately discomforting environs of a concrete basement in Shepherd’s Bush, this was one site-specific and promenade performance that really worked. Adam Brace’s play about mercenaries — sorry, “private military contractors” — was one of the most coldly observant and convincing accounts of the 21st century’s interminable war on terror.

11 Much Ado About Nothing RSC 2006-07

Ever wondered why other audience members find Shakespearian comedy funny, but you sit there stony-faced? You didn’t in this staging directed by Marianne Elliott. Sizzling and sexy, Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson were a 1950s Cuban Benedick and Beatrice, sparring it out with rum cocktails in hand.

12 A Streetcar Named Desire Donmar 2009

A Tennessee Williams revival of the highest quality: you were gripped all over again by the immemorial conflict between thuggish reality and dreamy flights of thought. Rachel Weisz’s Blanche was faultless, endearing and deeply moving.

13 God of Carnage Gielgud 2008

Yasmina Reza’s play was a savage delight. Beneath polite bourgeois conversation seethes the Darwinian struggle in all its ferocity, as two sets of middle-class parents meet to discuss the fact that their children have been hitting each other in the playground. Tamsin Greig, again, and Ralph Fiennes were on superb form.

14 The Pillowman National 2003

Martin McDonagh’s last UK stage work before his move to an Oscar-winning film career, this extraordinary piece — a brutal, unsettling allegory about a playwright’s relationship with his characters — marked the high point in a CV that includes The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Leenane Trilogy.

15 Avenue Q Noël Coward 2006

A kind of Sesame Street for adults, this dotty, silly and frequently very rude musical concerns a New York neighbourhood inhabited by such characters as Lucy the Slut and Kate Monster. Years on, you will still remember the lyrics to Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and picture two life-size puppets going at it on a kitchen table.

16 The Voysey Inheritance/Waste National 2006/Almeida 2008

Harley Granville Barker’s 1905 The Voysey Inheritance has the scope and richness of a Victorian novel, and was superbly revived by Peter Gill. Another excellent Granville Barker revival, Waste, felt uncannily relevant, dwelling on such high Edwardian topics as the disestablishment of the Church of England, along with grittier stuff. Samuel West’s production did it handsome justice.

17 August: Osage County National 2008

Cancer, incest, suicide, drug abuse and parental cruelty — and it’s a comedy? Well, of a kind. Tracy Letts’s blisteringly, blackly funny account of a family reunion in rural Oklahoma felt like a kind of despairing Chekhov of the plains. Yet along with its emotional violence and unflinching honesty, it remained sympathetic to its characters.

18 Frost/Nixon Donmar 2006

Peter Morgan’s version of the television interviews David Frost conducted with the disgraced Richard Nixon works as a comic thriller and as a psychological study. Michael Sheen’s wheeler-dealer Frost and Frank Langella’s oily, sweaty ex-pres were brilliant creations.

19 LA Cage aux Folles Menier 2007

The Menier spruced up this pocket musical a treat: the chorus line’s antics alone are worth the price of entrance. Then they went and made it a world-class event by casting Douglas Hodge as Albin, the drag star, a sassy scrapper whose falsies conceal a truly tender heart.

20 The Seafarer National 2006

Conor McPherson’s deliciously dark comedy about redemption among ducking-and-diving Dublin drunks not only had a crack cast, but was one of the best new plays of the decade.

Actor of the decade: Mark Rylance

A mercurial force in British theatre, with a seemingly limitless range and a charismatic presence. As first director of the Globe, until 2005, he helped to create a national treasure; there he was a memorable Hamlet and Richard II, and a pretty, Olivier-winning Olivia. He played a Stan Laurel-like innocent in 2007’s Boeing Boeing (and won a Tony when it moved to New York); this year he has triumphed as wild “Rooster” Byron in Jerusalem and as a histrionic Hamm in Endgame.