Telling Stories: The Year in Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As anarchically demonstrated by Forced Entertainment in The Coming Storm, stories are fragile, false and shifting objects. In the hands of the frantically competing performers, these narratives falter, clash and implode, truncated by interruption upon interruption. Yet still we insist on telling them. Any narrative of the year in theatre is condemned to the same failings; it is inevitably partial – both in the sense of being incomplete and in the sense of being subject to an individual bias – and its trends are essentially arbitrary, collapsing in upon themselves. And still, stubbornly, the fashion persists.

While my own personal look back at the last twelve months is just that – personal – there is a more widely acknowledged feeling that 2012 has found itself situated at a cultural tipping point, though whether the shifts that have been felt this year do rock us over that precipice into whatever might lie below is still to be seen. It is a year in which, driven largely by the Olympic effect, different theatrical cultures from around the globe have converged and collided, in which spectacle has been celebrated and questioned, in which theatremakers have reached for new vocabularies to explore political themes in an extraordinary and often farcical climate. It has felt like a year of small tectonic shifts, but maybe that’s just me.

The central point around which my own theatregoing year has pivoted is the small phenomenon of Three Kingdoms, a production in which global politics, cultural identity and aesthetic virtuosity all violently and thrillingly met. It was here that I first felt the tipping point, as both British theatre and British theatre criticism met with a challenge that could potentially mutate their future form. In this hallucinatory, boundary-crossing tour through a repulsive yet visually dazzling web of human trafficking and capitalist exploitation, understandings of Europe were stretched and pummelled, while audiences became grubbily, voyeuristically complicit with the crimes being depicted. This was watching as implicit consent, spectacle as political.

Spectacle itself, most vividly conjured by the potent emotive force of the Olympic and Paralympic Opening Ceremonies, felt partly reconfigured by the forms it found in the past year. Eschewing the traditional national narrative, Danny Boyle’s inclusive – if not entirely unproblematic – variation on patriotic spectacle offered an appealing vision of a cosmopolitan Britain. Elsewhere, the idea of theatrical extravagance was startlingly realised through language in Gatz’s breathtaking indulgence in prose; the already spectacular space of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall morphed from canvas to stage as Tino Sehgal’s mesmeric These Associations took up its fleeting, dynamic residence; and most recently, Shunt delighted and frustrated audiences in equal measure with the offer of a baffling spectacle in which they were passively trapped, providing a fitting if disturbing metaphor for the state of the nation.

At the opposite end of the theatrical scale, retreats to the simple or intimate offered up equally striking visions of the world. Ryan Van Winkle’s Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel, a gentle one-on-one poetry performance,provided a nostalgia-tinted pause at both the Edinburgh Fringe and the Battersea Arts Centre, while a similar interlude from Fergus Evans punctuated my hectic visit to this year’s Pulse Festival. Rewinding to the beginning of the year, one of the unexpected triumphs of the London fringe was Greenhouse Theatre Company’s visceral, emotionally skewering revival of Mercury Fur, administering an electric jolt of theatrical power each night in the tiny space of the Old Red Lion, transformed into a claustrophobic dystopian wasteland.

The small also fared well in Edinburgh, where many of the most memorable shows were two handers or solo offerings. These included an impressive pair of plays from Luke Barnes, the Pro Plus-fuelled Chapel Street and the raw rage of Bottleneck, and Charlotte Josephine’s muscular yet moving Bitch Boxer. Unexpectedly, one of the most powerful episodes of my Fringe experience didn’t take place in a theatre space at all, but in the bar of the Traverse Theatre, where I was almost reduced to tears in the mid-morning by Rosie Wyatt’s unembellished, barely rehearsed reading of Spine, Clara Brennan’s short response for the latest incarnation of Theatre Uncut – an unshowy but quietly extraordinary pairing of script and performer.

While a focus on the individual threatens to elide the multiple arts involved in theatre-making, the virtuosic performance was a recurring feature of my year. Scott Shepherd turned recall into an art with his seemingly effortless memorising of the entirety of The Great Gatsby, while Jim Fletcher followed up his unobtrusive turn as Gatsby with an astonishing performance of Tim Etchells’ free falling monologue Sight is the Sense That Dying People Tend to Lose First. The ever-compelling Lucy Ellinson repeatedly dazzled inTenetOh the HumanityA Thousand Shards of Glass and The Trojan WomenKate Tempest charged the air of the Council Chamber at BAC, conjuring modern day gods and kebab shop heroes; Hattie Morahan tapped out an increasingly frantic dance as Nora in the Young Vic’s new version of A Doll’s House. Eclipsing all of these, however, was the astounding Silvia Gallerano, a performer stripped literally and metaphorically bare inThe Shit, Cristian Ceresoli’s open wound of a monologue.

Performances are not short of recognition in both awards and annual round-ups, but one less celebrated component is design – an element with the potential not just to enable but also to excavate a production. Many have listed Constellations among their favourite plays of the year, but for me Tom Scutt’s beautiful design of clustered balloons – hinting at hope and fragility, floating possibilities and punctured moments – was the piece’s greatest strength. Likewise, Desire Under the Elms falls far short of my 2012 highlights, but I was utterly seduced by Ian MacNeil’s set design and the way it flirted with the coveted yet fragile nature of property, in much the same way that he subtly married the naturalistic and the conceptual in his revolving design for A Doll’s House. Mention too must go to Ene-Liis Semper for her visually stunning work on Three Kingdoms and, of course, those now iconic deer heads.

The space of the political within a theatre context was also, to an extent, redesigned. Storytelling, a form as old as humanity, was injected with not just the invigorating pulse of techno music but also with a vital shot of political impetus in Kieran Hurley’s Beats, a narrative of the 90s rave culture and an ode to the subversive power of the collective. Another surprising rendering of the political came courtesy of Greyscale in Tenet, an exploration of the radical in both mathematics and society that united the unlikely figures of Evariste Galois and Julian Assange. Questions about the ethics of historical narratives were brought into painful collision with current issues around disability and political correctness in Back to Back Theatre’s fearlessly provocative Ganesh versus the Third Reich, while in an inversion of the political sphere and its rhetoric of the public, In the Republic of Happiness brings the present cult of the individual under the satirical microscope.

In attempting to make a list of the productions that stood out for me over the past twelve months, memory upon memory soon came tumbling from the fog. Those neglected above include Monkey Bars’ gently profound exploration of childhood experience; Headlong’s startlingly youthful revamp of Romeo and Juliet; the vodka-drenched anarchy of Benedict Andrews’ take on Chekhov in Three Sisters; the appropriately quiet but tender triptych of Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar Warehouse; the audio and visual inventiveness of Sound&Fury’s Going Dark; irresistibly playful, inclusive fun in The Good Neighbour at BAC; the tender father-son relationship poetically and often hilariously captured in I Heart Peterborough; fallible global narratives in What I Heard About the World; the baffling, divisive but somehow compelling clash of the Wooster Group and the RSC in Troilus and Cressida; the grit and glitter of Shivered, Philip Ridley’s fragmented and typically strange new offering; love, loss and hard drives in Tom Lyall’s Defrag.

It feels appropriate to end on a production from Camden People’s Theatre’s Futureshock season, a programme of work offering theatrical visions of what might be still to come. At this point in the narrative it’s customary to look forward, to offer predictions for the year ahead, but for now I’ll restrict myself to the past and present. After all, it’s always better to be surprised.

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