What can one say about a theatre year that in May premiered what seemed by all accounts to be an instant comedy classic (One Man, Two Guvnors) only to conclude in December with the comic classic of old (Noises Off) to which the newer play had been often compared? Only that one laughed a lot across the year, though not always intentionally: Step up the musical version of Ghost, the year’s most risibly self-serious entry. On the other hand, One Man was a genuine joy (and has remained so across the three occasions I have now seen it, including once on a cinema screen courtesy NT Live and then in its commercial transfer to the Adelphi Theatre.) A farce that flirts with chaos in the very best traditions of the genre, Richard Bean’s adaptation of Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte template also concludes with the sorts of multiple unions and comminglings that one associates with Shakespeare – or, indeed, with Bean’s other theatrical entry of 2011, The Heretic at the Royal Court, a play ostensibly about climate change that in fact was about making a fractious family newly, and affectingly, whole.
To see both defining comedies, their actual premieres separated very nearly by 30 years, was to be aware of a romantic impulse in One Man that is entirely absent from Noises Off. Instead, Michael Frayn poses profoundly existential questions about the slide into chaos of which humankind is at risk every day, in this instance bound up in the woebegone (mis)fortunes of an itinerant theatre troupe that is bedevilled by errant cues, misplaced props and some treacherous malfeasance involving shoelaces. Lindsay Posner’s ensemble boasted especially bright turns from Janie Dee, Jamie Glover and a commendably savage Robert Glenister, the last-named bringing to the part of the director-within-the-play something of the vaguely camp fury one still associates with the late John Dexter, of Equus and Metropolitan Opera fame.
At the same time, Nicholas Hytner’s staging of Bean’s murderous, and often murderously funny, play found the director’s onetime History Boy, James Corden, in fiercely frenetic and ever-commanding form, alongside Oliver Chris as a spectacularly fatuous and self-absorbed swell – might there be a Supporting Actor Tony in Chris’ future? – and a bug-eyed newcomer, Tom Edden, playing a waiter possessed of a first-hand acquaintanceship with the abyss.
One Man has joined the onward march of War Horse in suggesting the peerless producing skills of the National, though back at their home base by the River Thames, the sailing was not always so smooth. Greenland was one of those plays by committee that is worthy and little else, while both The Veil and Juno and the Paycock in differing ways honored the Irish literary and dramatic traditions without in either case delivering the knockout blows expected. Mike Leigh fared better with his latest collaborative effort, Grief, a faux-Rattigan exercise whose rather predictable arc nonetheless allowed for a slew of first-class performances, not least from David Horovitch as a family doctor whose unquenchable good cheer began to seem vaguely chilling well before the play’s inevitably grievous end.
The real Rattigan McCoy was on view twice over on the West End, passably so in a clunkily directed revival of Cause Celebre from Thea Sharrock, which couldn’t begin to compete with memories of the same director’s superlative discovery of this writer’s After the Dance at the National the year before. (Sharrock was on sub-par form with a concurrent go-round of Blithe Spirit notable for containing hardly a single laugh but lots of undue smiling from its Elvira, Ruthie Henshall, and grimacing from its Madame Arcati, Alison Steadman.)
Conversely, Trevor Nunn delivered his wisest, most moving stage production in years with a Haymarket reappraisal of Flare Path, whose second act proffered a letter scene in which co-star Sheridan Smith nightly reduced audiences to a near-avalanche of tears, the Legally Blonde Olivier Award-winner joined in a remarkable ensemble by Sienna Miller, Mark Dexter and James Purefoy, all of them in top-rank form (Rome star Purefoy especially so). The remainder of Nunn’s season included a bearded Ralph Fiennes bringing vigor, authority and pathos to a production of The Tempest that didn’t deserve his presence center-stage and Robert Lindsay suggesting himself at a possible Lear-in-the-making in an otherwise superfluous staging of James Goldman’s daft The Lion In Winter that showed off his distaff lead, Joanna Lumley, as a genuine beauty and personality but, alas, not much of an actual actress.
Shakespeare buffs had plenty to choose from beyond Fiennes’ blazing star turn, not least Charles Edwards and Eve Best as the Benedick and Beatrice of this or any season in a Shakespeare’s Globe staging of Much Ado About Nothing that marked out the director, Jeremy Herrin, at his most vibrant. (Conversely, the less said about Herrin’s end-of-year Royal Court entry, the abysmal Haunted Child, the better.) The same Bardic comedy surfaced on the West End in a starry, surprisingly vulgar go-round from the director Josie Rourke that paired Doctor Who stars David Tennant (who was acceptable) and Catherine Tate (who was not). Eddie Redmayne offered up a Richard II at the Donmar that suggested the social debilities afflicting this divinely anointed monarch in a stupendously moving production that also signalled the director Michael Grandage’s farewell to the playhouse he had called home for most of the preceding 10 years. (Grandage’s penultimate staging, a rare sighting of Schiller’s Luise Miller, marked a stylish take on, to be truthful, a rather silly script.)
But as previous years had been before it, 2011 was set alight by the third separate go-round in London of Jez Butterworth’s seismically powerful, funny, angry Jerusalem, which returned to Shaftesbury Avenue following an extended berth on Broadway that brought Mark Rylance his second Tony for Best Actor in almost as many years. Revisiting the play in London for the fourth time (including once in New York), I was dazzled anew by a play that both honors its theatrical forbears – here’s a script that alludes gracefully and unself-consciously to such disparate sources as the Henry IV duo, Stoppard’s Arcadia and Brian Friel’s Translations – even as it breaks with tradition in wilfully embracing a moral complexity (and three hour-plus running time) that one rarely encounters anymore. At the curtain call, an ecstatic and seemingly un-enervated Rylance became famous for the little jubilant dance he did following his bow, as if to allow the audience direct access to his own exhilaration and release. And by the time I caught the play