As 2018 edges towards its completion, it’s an appropriate time for reflection and consolidation of the year’s cultural highlights.
Here’s to a fresh new year full of similarly punchy, provocative and button-pushing theatre which sits in your thoughts and subverts convention. With love.
8. December: The Tell-Tale Heart, The National, Southbank
Our first favourite of the year was Anthony Neilson’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart at the Dorfman Theatre in the concrete confines of The National. Neilson transplants the key components of Poe’s work- a tenant (Tamara Lawrance) and an overbearing landlord/lady (Imogen Doel), into an airy Brighton flat. Neilson embellishes characters and narrative threads with the addition of a complicated love story and the depiction of the protagonist as a drug-addled writer, all the while scattering self-referential swipes at the National.
There’s a thematic fixation on bodily components in isolation, zooming in on eyes, hearts and mouths. This occurs both on a visual and linguistic level, using the body in isolation as the site of abject horror, seen in flashes of dismemberment and a nod to David Cronenberg’s body horror adaptation of Naked Lunch as we see the writer’s typewriter fold away to present a glistening human heart. It’s a campy horror which succeeds in summoning laughs and cries in equal measure.
7. October: Wild Duck, The Almeida, Islington
Robert Icke’s Almeida production of Henrik Ibsen’s Wild Duck has never failed to leave my thoughts since first viewing the production back in October. Reworking Ibsen’s 1884 play, Icke devilishly paints a wholesome portrait of familial love before metaphorically torching the still-wet canvas. Without a doubt, this was one of the most affecting responses to theatre I have ever had, owing much to my lack of prior knowledge of Ibsen’s plotline. There is no stranger feeling than having puffy-eyes and tears streaming in a room full of strangers who are concurrently trying to conceal their own bleats before you all sniffle off into the night together.
6. October: Wise Children, The Old Vic, Waterloo
The inimitable Emma Rice’s theatrical recasting of Angela Carter’s haunting novel was fated to land a spot on this list after I reviewed it back in October. The show was a gloriously gender-bending bohemian pantomime with lingering melodies and a dreamy set design. This truly was one of the best plays of the year, to the extent that I found myself uncharacteristically interjecting stranger’s conversations on two separate occasions – in the canteen of a prominent publishing house and the women’s toilets on the sixth floor of King’s College’s Virginia Woolf building- shamelessly offering my praises. I made my Grandparents buy tickets for the production’s tour to Bristol in the new year, crossing my fingers that in the midst of the beguiling musical numbers, they’ll forgive its dark suggestions.
5. August: Three Sisters, Rashdash, The Yard, Hackney Wick
A sharp, musical reimagining of Anton Chekhov’s play by the all-woman feminist three-piece Rashdash, at the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick. We meet three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irena; each pointedly one-dimensional as a complaint against the pervading misogyny of the original text’s author.
Rashdash are punky, Pussy-Rioting artists, fighting against and reclaiming the canon through their creative outputs on stage and on paper; their accompanying programme is an iconoclastic zine which disrupts and reframes the female form in exotic, idealised locations. Rashdash are monstrously messy and marvellously modern.
4. July: A Womb of One’s Own, Wonderbox Productions, King’s Head Theatre, Islington
In the midst of July’s blistering heat wave, I was lucky enough to catch Wonderbox Productions’ A Womb of One’s Own at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. Written by the company’s resident writer Claire Rammelkamp and directed by Holly Bond, A Womb of One’s Own induces roaring belly laughs whilst exploring a subject matter which is rarely explored so candidly – abortion.
We meet Babygirl, a plucky fresher who enjoys a short-lived sexual liberation at university before falling miserably pregnant and choosing to opt for a termination, a decision which is shared by 1 in 3 British women. A Womb of One’s Own establishes a much-needed dialogue and paves the way for open discussions around abortion, when conversations are either absent or loaded with secrecy and euphemism.
3. March: Misty, The Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush
The third favourite production of the same month (and third by chronology alone), was Misty at the Bush Theatre, written by, produced by and starring Arzine Kene. Having recently earned its West End stripes, Misty is infused with live music and spoken word. As Arzine goes through the motions of crafting his performed self, he is overcome by the moral and political weights of his work. As literal meaning dissolves into metaphor, the ‘virus’ of gentrification tightens its grip, indiscriminately engulfing every living thing in an abstract, anarchic, barrage of balloons.*
*Owing to my credentials as a scruffy and repulsively disorganised writer, I missed the entire first act of the press night due to misreading the email, so had the unique experience of reading the first act before sinking a vaguely consoling glass of house white and being blown away by the powerful second act. Shortly after house white #7 and a mouth full of tiny press-appeasing brownies, I found myself gleefully shaking Kene’s hand and gushing over his part in Girl From the North Country before half-heartedly trying to bop along to the dancehall like a complete idiot. Welcome to showbiz, baby.
2. March: The Inheritance, The Young Vic, Waterloo
March’s second-best was the Young Vic’s production of The Inheritance, written by Matthew Lopez and directed by Stephen Daldry with an exceptional cast including Vanessa Redgrave. Following the play’s successful debut, it soon garnered a reputation as a modern classic and has been extensively compared to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. The Inheritance dissects love, pain, loss and creative struggles with the ever-present, malevolent backdrop of AIDS. The play is performed in two parts which can be seen as standalone works, and if seen together, these total seven hours. Despite its tremendous length, each narrative strand is deeply moving, poignant and intensely absorbing – a mark of genuine brilliance.
1. March: Not I, Touretteshero Productions, Battersea Arts Centre, Battersea
March was a blessed month which hosted a greedy ⅓ of the annual picks, kicking off with Jess Thom’s Touretteshero production of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at the Battersea Arts Centre. It took a frosty uphill scramble from a partially defrosted Clapham Junction station but it was worth every inch of the journey. For those who are unfamiliar with the play, or perhaps Beckett, Not I is a fast-paced monologue delivered by an elevated speaker (‘Mouth’) who recounts a fractured saga of suffering and trauma. Thom’s reading of Mouth as a disabled person (who, like Thom, has tics which suffuse into her speech) is ingenious, and frames Beckett’s work in an exciting new light.