The best theatre of the 21st century

25 April 2020

9:00 AM

25 April 2020

9:00 AM

Not looking great, is it? Until we all get jabbed, theatres may have to stay closed. And even the optimists say a reliable vaccine is unlikely to arrive before Christmas. As the darkness persists, here’s a round-up of my leading experiences over nearly two decades as a reviewer. There’s been a surge of output. More theatres have opened, especially on the London fringe, and several have created annexes for experimental work. Musicals have proliferated. The rise of the box-set has been excellent for the West End. Global hits such as Game of Thrones have created a host of British stars with enough clout to sell out a three-month run in London.

Shakespeare hasn’t fared so well. Increasingly the Bard has become a platform for directors to deliver fashionable pronouncements about racial and sexual equality. It’s rare nowadays to see a white English male playing a Shakespearean lead. Experimentalism, ethnic dogmatism and gender-blind casting have created chaotic, confusing productions loaded with conceptual abstractions: Elsinore transposed to a mental asylum or a police state; all-female versions of the Henrys set in a women’s prison; Richard II in a padded cell; the Dane dressed as Andy Pandy. Too many theatre-makers assume that Shakespeare is a promising bungler whose inadequate first drafts need to be rescued and clarified by directors who understand him better than anyone, even himself. The best Shakespearean performances I can recall were Jacobi’s delicate, poetic Lear and Jude Law’s angry but captivating Hamlet. Both were directed at the Donmar by Michael Grandage who asks us to listen to what Shakespeare is saying and never tells us what he thinks Shakespeare ought to have said.

It’s been a better time for Terence Rattigan whose centenary in 2011 reawakened interest in his work. At the National, Thea Sharrock directed a magnificent revival of his tragic romance, After the Dance, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll. It was one of the best evenings of my life. Trevor Nunn revived Rattigan’s wartime drama, Flare Path, starring Sheridan Smith and James Purefoy at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. This little-known masterpiece contains the most ingenious and harrowing scene involving a lost letter that you’re ever likely to see.

In the past decade or so, a cluster of young female talent has assaulted the London stage. Lucy Prebble’s study of corporate greed, Enron, debuted at Chichester in 2009 and hopped from the West End to Broadway where its anti-Americanism caused it to fail. Polly Stenham was just 19 when she wrote That Face, a tragicomedy about an upper-class family beset by alcoholism. It opened in the West End in 2008, starring Matt Smith, and enjoyed an acclaimed run in New York. Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood was a brilliant political thriller about the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre which scooped a host of Olivier awards in 2014. One of the best of these young writers, Anya Reiss, was still a teenager when she wrote Spur of the Moment (Royal Court), which dissected the social pressures faced by posh young girls making their way in London. But none of these dramatists has created a follow-up play of equal power. They’ve been seduced by TV or by lucrative offers to churn out adaptations of Chekhov or Ibsen for star-studded West End productions.

Only one youngster has turned an early success into a solid stage career — James Graham. He got his big break in 2012 with This House at the National which looked at Labour’s faltering grip on power in the 1970s. His subsequent plays — The Vote, Ink and Labour of Love — have established Graham as the foremost political dramatist of our time.

The prolific writer Richard Bean rose like a rocket, peaked with One Man, Two Guvnors, then dwindled into obscurity. Which of us today would sprint to the theatre to catch the latest Richard Bean play? Actually, I would, but he seems to have gone quiet since his weightless comedy, Young Marx, opened the Bridge Theatre in 2017. This new playhouse on the South Bank was built by Nicholas Hytner after leaving the National in 2015. It hasn’t quite become the hit-factory many were expecting. Perhaps his finest achievement so far, A German Life was a confessional narrative performed by Maggie Smith who recounted the memories of a stenographer working for Joseph Goebbels during the war. Hytner’s successor at the National, Rufus Norris, had a decidedly wobbly opening year. His recent output, still a bit patchy, has improved. One of his biggest hits was Duncan Macmillan’s addiction drama, People Places and Things, which transferred to New York and toured the UK.

Perhaps my outstanding memory as a reviewer came in 2013, when I climbed the rickety stairs at Soho Theatre to its tiny studio space. I watched a 50-minute solo show which seemed amazingly fresh, funny and honest about women’s sexuality. Terrible title, though. Fleabag.

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