If one definition of a classic is that an old, familiar text is seen to resonate anew, 2016 was a classic year on the London stage. Time and again, from the start of the year to its conclusion, one or another time-tested title was minted afresh. You might have thought you knew all there was to know about King Lear, or Hedda Gabler, or more contemporary plays like Tom Stoppard’s Tony-winning Travesties – first seen in London in 1974 before hopping the Atlantic. But those were just three shows that emerged once more in our midst to shake up our collective theatrical memory, asserting along the way that there are no dead texts as long as there remain inspiriting artists to bring them to renewed life.
In several cases, one had every right to expect predictable results given the talent brought to bear. The director Deborah Warner, for instance, had twice directed Lear before having a third go, this time with a woman in the title role, and not just any old gal at that. On hand to play the monarch who arguably can be said to acquire too little wisdom too late was none other than Glenda Jackson, the twice Oscar-winning actress who spent nearly a quarter-century abandoning her chosen profession in favor of the separate rhetorical fireworks that come with politics. She was a Labor MP for the very north London constituency, in fact, where I happen to live.
And so it was that the rare performer, at 80 years old, seized command of the Old Vic stage to test her three daughters’ love. The production itself, staged as if in an advanced state of rehearsal, took multiple liberties, not all of them to all tastes, and asked its Edmund (Simon Manyonda) to embrace a level of physicality that one doesn’t tend to see in that part. (He pleasures himself while delivering the character’s signature soliloquy early on.) But even that gesture was part of an approach to a hallowed text that shook the Bard up, and why not? When you have as fearless a figure as Jackson driving the event, surely you should see to it that her colleagues follow the take-no-prisoners template set by the play’s still-shining star.
Much the same level of courage lifted the Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s National Theatre debut with Hedda Gabler, in which double Olivier Award-winner Ruth Wilson communicated a feral intelligence to Ibsen’s volatile general’s daughter that couldn’t easily find a place for itself amidst her new marriage to the bookish Tesman (Kyle Soller, performing very well in an American accent) and the dubiously intended come-ons of Rafe Spall’s sinuous and ultimately scary Judge Brack, an authority figure whose apparent loucheness couldn’t stanch the danger that lay just beneath. Thrilling stuff all round.
The men fared scarcely less well. Travesties announced itself as a play catering not just to the head but to the heart, and the funny bone as well, not least when Freddie Fox’s slicked-haired Tristan Tzara was holding court amid a motley community of expats to 1917 Zurich presided over by a minor consular official, Tom Hollander’s witty yet wounding Henry Carr (John Wood’s Tony-winning part some 40 years ago). Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen found the manic ardor in their adversarial relationship as Salieri and Mozart in the National Theatre’s mighty reclamation of Amadeus, a revival that both honored the memory of Peter Shaffer (who died at age 90 in June) and forsook ready-made rhetorical fireworks for something far more dangerous.
Danger, too, marked out the extraordinary contributions of Paul Rhys, returning to the stage to play a Vanya forbiddingly close to meltdown in Robert Icke’s superlative Almeida Theatre reappraisal of Chekhov’s most bruising play, and O-T Fagbenle as the fatally aggrieved trumpeter, Levee, in a National restaging of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which set a new bar on an era-defining August Wilson play that I have loved ever since its Broadway premiere in 1984. (Saddening to note was the death during the year of the inestimably fine Howard Davies, the director who first brought Ma Rainey to the National in 1989.) The Wilson revival confirmed its director, Dominic Cooke, as perhaps the most empathic Englishman out there when it comes to the American canon, especially now that Davies is no longer around to offer competition in that select category. Cooke turns his attentions this coming fall to the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies at this same address.
I would be remiss not to cite the bracing new fare that may one day prompt comparable revivals all their own, the Royal Court leading as per usual from the front with a terrific triptych of premieres beginning with Caryl Churchill’s New York-bound Escaped Alone and concluding at year’s end with Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children. Both plays were directed by the quietly expert James Macdonald and featured among their ace ensembles the invaluable Deborah Findlay, who would be better known than she is were her career not entirely about the work and not oriented toward self-promotion of any kind.
And as proof that often the most memorable evenings in the theater come where least expected, one had to look no further than Oscar and Tony nominee Stephen Rea scorching the intimate confines of the Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in a David Ireland play, Cyprus Avenue, which shone as unforgiving a light on bigotry as I think I have ever seen on stage – its sources and its consequences, in equal measure. I’d like to think that riding the fearsome roller coaster that was Ireland’s play prepared those who saw it for the epic ructions, political and social, that were still to come in 2016 at the time that Cyprus Avenue opened in London. Alas, I’m not sure any art could shore up our defenses against the seismic shifts to all our lives promised by the political upheavals that later took place. In which case, let’s have even more art in 2017, so that its enquiry into behavior across the spectrum can offer assistance – as Cyprus Avenue did so vividly – as we attempt to comprehend the vagaries of this thing called life.