Tag Archives: Barbican Theatre

London stage, 2016: a year for the women

Best female performances: Jade Anouka, Adelayo Adedayo

It’s been a rich year for female roles. Denise Gough in People Places and Things (Wyndham, transferred from the National Theatre) as the lying, addicted anti-heroine deservedly got an Olivier, but even her performance was one of many great ones this year. After her Medea last year Helen McCrory is cornering the market in gruelling female roles; her Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea was all cut-glass desperation. Lia Williams and Juliet Stephenson were, of course, splendid in Mary Stuart at the Almeida. Kathryn Hunter played no fewer than ten parts in The Emperor (Young Vic), Anne-Marie Duff anchored The Almeida’s Oil, and Harriet Walter was morosely magisterial as Prospero in The Donmar’s The Tempest.


Jade Anouka

My two standouts, though, were the glorious Jade Anouka as Ariel in The Tempest, one of those actors you miss when they’re offstage, and Adelayo Adedayo in the Young Vic’s wrenching play on female genital mutilation, Cuttin’ It. Adedayo played Muna, a streetwise schoolgirl who has herself undergone FGM and is desperate to protect her younger sister from the same experience. Her realisation that she had failed had the audience in tears.


Best male performances: Gary Avis, Edward Watson

It wasn’t a year for the chaps. I liked Timothy Spall’s seedy, wheedly Davies in The Caretaker at the Old Vic, but compared to my favourite male performances of 2015 – the divine Rufus Sewell in Closer and Simon Russell Beale as the agonised cleric in The Temple (both Donmar in 2015), the star names didn’t quite deliver this year. Dominic West was a competent libertine in Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar, but shakiness on his lines made it a nervous experience. The most memorable turns were in supporting roles, notably Johnny Flynn’s unsettling outsider in Hangmen (Wyndham), Arinze Kene as Sam Cooke in One Night In Miami (Donmar) and Fisayo Akinade’s fey, cowardly Dauphin in Saint Joan (Donmar).


Gary Avis

But the two standout performances for me this year were at Covent Garden and actually made me rethink my prejudices against narrative dance. Edward Watson as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (Royal Ballet) buckled under his own jealousy, and Gary Avis in Macmillan’s The Invitation as the conflicted, predatory older man, who found extraordinary emotional complexity in a character in sexual crisis.

Best rewrite of a classic: Fagin’s Twist

Fagin’s Twist at The Place was a superb dance revision of Oliver Twist and reframed Fagin as the good guy and Oliver as a calculating disruptor. Having vowed never to sit through another fossilised Godot, I found Dave Hanson’s comic rewrite (two perpetual understudies in WFG bicker in the dressing room) a diverting corrective, though Waiting For Waiting For Godot (St James’ Theatre) doesn’t seem to have been popular with many critics.


Fagin’s Twist, The Place


Most uncomplicated evening: Once In a Lifetime, An American In Paris, Roundabout, How The Other Half Loves

It was wonderful to see some vintage Ayckbourn in How The Other Half Loves (Theatre Royal), while JB Priestley’s early and under-performed Roundabout was a great rediscovery by Park Theatre. The Young Vic’s revival of Hart and Kaufman’s Once In A Lifetime was one of those productions you just relax into – a perfect pre-Christmas outing and a must for every Singin’ In The Rain fan. I was lucky enough to see An American In Paris on a rare New York trip, and I’m booking again for its London transfer. The perfect Hollywood tale brought to the stage by Christopher Wheeldon with the swooniest Gershwin numbers. Bliss.

Best ensemble: The Tempest

How I loved Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (National Theatre), the comic and touching adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos, which traces the stories of six schoolgirls on a choir trip to Edinburgh. It’s not often you hear gorgeous versions of Mendelssohn and ELO in the same evening. The Boys In The Band was Park Theatre’s hugely successful revival of the 1968 play – Mark Gatiss was the big draw, but this was very much an ensemble piece. The Isango Ensemble’s Man of Good Hope at the Young Vic was a largely musical tracing of a young man’s journey from Somalia to South Africa, and which avoided all sentimentality about migrants. Saint Joan at the Donmar had one of the best casts I’ve seen all year, and managed to transform Shavian speechifying into urgent debate. But the most outstanding ensemble was at Donmar King’s Cross for Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female staging of The Tempest. Like her previous productions of Henry IV and Julius Caesar, Lloyd set this within a women’s prison. A-fizz with energy and beauty – and quite the clearest verse-speaking of the year (I’m looking at you, RSC).

Best play set in the Amazon: Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

Complicité’s The Encounter (Barbican) was no doubt the most aurally inventive and immersive play of the year. The audience dons headphones and watches Simon McBurney create extraordinary sounds to accompany his narration of a photographer’s trip into the jungle and encounter with a lost tribe. If only he’d trimmed it by 20 minutes it would have been astonishing. I actually preferred Don’t Sleep There are Snakes, at Park Theatre, which had a similar dramatic premise. A missionary-linguist lives among an obscure tribe not only to learn their language but also to impart the word of God. How does grammar shape concepts of time, and how do you translate religious metaphor? A great little production strangely overlooked.

Best history lecture: Patriotic Traitor

A mixed bag here: modern history plays are a little bit too much exposition and not enough theatre. The Trial of Jane Fonda (Park Theatre) fell into this trap; the presentation of Fonda’s confrontation with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s was entirely unconvincing, but it was an efficient enough primer on US foreign policy. Patriotic Traitor, also at Park Theatre, was the story of the relationship between Petain (Tom Conti) and de Gaulle (Laurence Fox) and condensed fifty years of French history into the relationship between two men. The Emperor (Young Vic) dramatised the last days of Haile Selassie through ten characters all played by Kathryn Hunter, bringing to life multiple viewpoints based on original testimonies.

Worth leaving at the interval: The Alchemist, Painkiller

The Alchemist (Barbican) was the very worst of the RSC on show: frenetic, shouty, the actors careening through their lines as if comedy was all about pace rather than timing. The same mirthlessness was evident in the Branagh vehicle Painkiller (Garrick), which established top volume in the first scene and stayed there. Leaden.


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Rhinocéros, Barbican Theatre; Saer Doliau, Finborough Theatre


A strange and wonderful feature of London theatre is that you can see plays from non-English language traditions. Last year’s multilingual World Shakespeare Festival at the Globe proved there was an audience for this. And oddly enough, in the last week I’ve seen a play in French and another in Welsh, so my ears have been spoilt by theatrical richness. The Welsh voices among the audiences at the Finborough and the French chatter at the Barbican are testament enough to the heteroglot London theatre crowd, but I also suspect there were many audience members glad of the surtitles. However, what unites the productions I saw is not the fact they’re staged with accompanying translation but that they’re both part of a broad stream of European absurdist drama.

The plot of Ionesco’s Rhinocéros is simple: over the course of the play, the inhabitants of a French town turn into rhinoceroses, one by one. The only person left at the end is Bérenger, defiant yet impotent and flawed. Rhinocéros, like Camus’s La Peste and Sartre’s Les Mouches, is usually read as an allegory of fascism and a study of the psychology of collaboration, but there’s no lapse into myth-making here since Bérenger is never knowingly heroic.

If the rhinoceros represents fascism, there is no leader of the herd. Ionesco is interested less in theories of charisma than in human frailty. This is a slow disintegration of community; instead of seeing the threat for what it is, the characters argue among themselves about whether African or Asian rhinos have one or two horns, or indulge in localised power play of office politics even as one of their number, transformed into a beast, is rampaging on the floor below.

The staging, with its mobile sets, is fabulous; the rhinoceroses exist as violent sound and movement as the set and characters shake at the animals’ approach, but they’re also depicted through the characters’ reactions to crisis. When Daisy (Valérie Dashwood) capitulates at the end and joins the beasts, she says she hears singing when Bérenger (Serge Maggiani) can only hear ugly roaring. And the sound, interestingly, here, is indeed one of faint singing; does that mean that we, the audience, are being seduced too? This penultimate scene between Bérenger and Daisy ends with their being watched by crepuscular, disembodied rhino heads before Daisy makes her choice to join them.

Straightforward political allegories appeal too much to audience certainties, and never make a particularly challenging night out. So this was where this Théâtre de la Ville production, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, scored so well. There’s no escaping the political dimension, but the most disquieting moments revolved around the sense of the body not being right – my daughter was most taken with the similarity to Metamorphosis, and certainly those resonances were one of many directorial features that lifted this into total theatre and far away from agitprop.  When Bérenger goes to visit Jean (Hugues Quester) the latter is on the verge of transformation, his hoarsening voice and movement conveying the physical pain and panic of metamorphosis even as he mentally embraces the instinctive power of the beast.

Saer Doliau (Doll Mender) at the Finborough is a different proposition; no big set, no big cast, and it’s in Welsh. A tightly-constructed three-hander written in 1966 by Gwenlyn Parry, the plot is simple. Ifans the doll mender (Seiriol Tomos) is alone in his workshop. All we can glean from the first ten minutes is that there is something (“Fo”, or “him” – it’s very much in North Walian dialect) in the locked cellar of which he is afraid and a boss, or the Gaffer, whom he calls on the phone to complain about his tools.  A mysterious woman (Catherine Ayers) arrives; she inspects the workshop and imposes modern equipment, electricity and a young and feckless apprentice (Steffan Donnelly) on him. Over the course of the play the two take control, dismissing ‘Fo’ and the Gaffer as mere fantasy. The play ends with the violent death of Ifans, whereupon the apprentice takes over the workshop and the cycle clearly starts all over again.

Imagine Pinter in Pwllheli and you’ll get the idea. It’s a very different articulation of power from Ionesco’s, but it’s still an unsettling experience; the sense of menace is not from the crowd or from collective unreason, as in Rhinocéros, but in the fact that authority is unanchored.  And that authority is at once disruptive and static, residing in the female stranger and in the two offstage presences –“Fo” in the cellar and the Gaffer on the other end of the phone.

It’s clear that Parry is having a pop at the dread certainties of post-war chapel culture, but the fact that the apprentice is left in charge at the end and embraces the belief in ‘Fo’ and the Gaffer means that there is no resolution and no change, just eternal substitution.

Saer Doliau has sold out and is coming to the end of its run on 19 February; ditto Rhinocéros, which was only on for three days at the Barbican. Bravo to the Finborough for staging a play in Welsh, and bravo to the Barbican for luring the Théâtre de la Ville company over here for three days. More, please.

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