It began with a bull fight. Mike Bartlett’s Bull at the Young Vic – a horrifying image of bloodthirsty corporate competition – was the first show of 2015 to really kick me in the gut. And it kicked hard. I might have had my problems with it, but the image of those three suit-clad figures circling one another, shiny and hard as Soutra Gilmour’s arena-shaped design, stayed with me. Right at the start of a new year, it was a brutal, damning perspective on the state of things.
But 2015’s theatre wasn’t all grim. Now, at the end of the year, the arrival of Megan Vaughan’s fantastic zine reminds me how many of the shows I loved in the last twelve months were tender and intimate and exposed (in every sense of the word). Or, to put it another way, how many of those shows involved nudity (no sniggering, now) not just as part of the plot, but as an aesthetic in its own right. Bodies – uncovered, meeting, parting – were central to three of my favourite shows of the year: Peter McMaster’s 27, The Mikvah Project at The Yard and, again at The Yard, the first public incarnation of Chris Goode’s new Ponyboy Curtis ensemble. Honourable mentions too, while we’re on bodies, for Igor and Moreno’s straining calves as they unrelentingly leapt up and down in Idiot-Syncrasy, and for all those sex dolls in the Young Vic’s brilliant Measure for Measure – a production of Shakespeare’s play that, crucially, embraced rather than attempted to solve its problematic strangeness.
The health of Political Theatre (capital P, capital T) is often, for better or worse, considered a barometer for the state of the art form. In the run-up to May’s general election, some complained that the stage was offering little in the way of topical critique. (The highest profile bit of election theatre, James Graham’s The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse and streamed live on TV, was really about the quirks of British democracy, more interested in the act of putting that cross in a box rather than what the boxes themselves might stand for). But I’d argue it all depends where you were looking.
On election day itself, I found myself reflecting on the theatre that refracted politics through the (all too often difficult) lives of ordinary people: the zero-hours workers of Beyond Caring, the everyday activists of Stand, the carers who told their stories in Turning a Little Further, a gorgeous piece created as part of the Young Vic’s ongoing Two Boroughs project. Meanwhile another community show, London Bubble’s Hopelessly De-Voted, offered a multi-faceted view of the way in which the workings of democracy are viewed by and impact upon residents in its local area around Bermondsey. This theatre all served as a reminder that politics is about people, not just parties and politics.
I found out the result of the election while in Berlin, at a distance that made it feel all the more unreal. I drowned my sorrows with fellow Brits, heaving an inward sigh of relief that I was at one remove from the messy post-vote dissection. The reason for being in Berlin was Theatertreffen, a festival I’ve gazed at enviously from afar in recent years. Thanks to the online scramble for tickets, I only saw two of the selected shows in the end, but one of them remains one of the best bits of theatre I saw all year. Common Ground, a partial and fragmented account of the break-up of Yugoslavia, confronted all the tangled complication of conflict, eschewing simple narratives of right and wrong, victim and perpetrator. And somewhere in there, emerging from the wreckage, was the slightest glimmer of hope.
There was a similar kind of complication and complexity at the heart of The Beanfield, the astonishing debut show from young company Breach. It also shared with Common Ground an interest in opening up its own process, with as much interest arising from the company’s flawed documentary techniques as the subject of their investigation: The Battle of the Beanfield, when police enforced a crackdown on the annual Stonehenge Free Festival. Breach continue the current outpouring of talent from Warwick University: fellow graduate companies Barrel Organ and Walrus Theatre also stood out this year, with the (lengthily titled) Some People Talk About Violence and Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons respectively. (Disclaimer: I know members of all three companies, but I reckon I’d consider them all sickeningly talented regardless.)
The Warwick Triumvirate (replacing last summer’s Chris Trilogy) were among the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Another was Ross and Rachel, a witty and eventually devastating duologue-for-one written by James Fritz (whose Bruntwood Prize Judges Award-winning play Parliament Square is one to look out for in the future). Brilliantly performed by Molly Vevers, it cleverly used the iconic on-again-off-again couple from Friends as a springboard to interrogate relationships, cultural notions of romance and the problematic language of love. There was at the same time a similarly brutal look at love from Made in China, whose Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me put Jess Latowicki and Tim Cowbury’s relationship under the microscope in order to explore ideas of authorship and power.
Another couple putting their lives on stage this year were Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn in Fake it ‘Til You Make It, a brave, careful and unapologetically personal look at male mental health. It was a show I first saw in scratch form a year ago at Forest Fringe, reducing me (as so much did that Fringe) to tears. A year on, it still pricked at the tear ducts, as well as arguing passionately for a society in which outdated understandings of masculinity are discarded in favour of openness and care. Masculinity was also implicitly critiqued in Lines, another powerful offering from The Yard that has haunted me despite an initially ambivalent reaction. The bleakest view of twenty-first-century masculinity, though, was to be found in Gary Owen’s Violence and Son, a piece as meticulously constructed as it was horrible. In the play’s all too believable world of casual sexism and irresistible violence, as I put it at the time, patriarchy shits on everyone.
This year Owen also offered us Iphigenia in Splott, a monologue that was defiant, devastating and spitting with rage. And the knotty father-son relationship in Violence and Son was just one of many complicated families encountered on stage in 2015. Alice Birch’s early play Little Light showed us a family caught in a cycle of pause and repeat, lives frozen in the icy grip of grief. Two sisters had a spiky, strained reunion in Sparks at the Old Red Lion. The sheer joy and silliness of Jamie Wood’s O No! was dotted with interruptions from his own growing family, while Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) brilliantly (and tear-jerkingly) transformed from an eccentric take on Milton’s epic poem into a startling portrait of the hopes and fears of parenthood. Even Robert Icke’s modern reworking of Oresteia – the best of what I saw of this year’s Greek takeover – was as much about a splintering family as it was about the political and divine forces surrounding them.
In March of this year, my theatregoing landscape suffered a casualty. I was sitting at home when images of a fire at Battersea Arts Centre first popped up on my Twitter timeline, making my stomach drop away. For long, long minutes I feared the whole place was lost. In the end, despite the complete destruction of the Grand Hall, the rest of the venue was saved and back up and running just the next day, and BAC was overwhelmed with support from those, like me, who love the place and the work it does. Plenty of theatres were on good form this year, but I want to treasure BAC in particular because it felt so close to disappearing. Alongside the already mentioned Stand, shows I saw and enjoyed at the old town hall this year included Song of the Goat’s Songs of Lear (honestly unlike anything else), David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s new binaural head-fuck Fiction, Laura Jane Dean’s delicate This Room, the time-bending double bill of Deborah Pearson’s Like You Were Before and The Future Show and, most recently, the Christmas reboot of Will Adamsdale’s hilarious life-coach spoof, Jackson’s Way.
Some of the most joyful hours I’ve spent in the theatre this year, meanwhile, have come courtesy of a genre I don’t see all that much of these days: the musical. After a couple of years of refurbishments (and following an emotional farewell to Secret Theatre), the Lyric Hammersmith reopened with an ecstatic production of Bugsy Malone, leaving me grinning from ear to ear throughout. I was also grinning for much of Shock Treatment, the wacky Rocky Horror follow-up given a gloriously kitschy staging at the King’s Head, while National Theatre Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour combined great, gulping laughs with real emotional depth. And Imelda Staunton smashed it again in Gypsy, belting out a stunning turn as Mama Rose.
As ever, when I look back at the year more and more shows emerge from the murk of memory. 2015 was the year I finally saw Tim Crouch’s conceptually dizzying An Oak Tree; it was the year The Gate continued an impressive run of form, most powerfully with Danai Gurira’s blistering Eclipsed; it was the year Simon Stephens’s splintered yet beautiful Carmen Disruption came to London, receiving an equally splintered yet beautiful production from Michael Longhurst at the Almeida. The year’s theatregoing also offered me the flickering precariousness of Fireworks at the Royal Court; the rage-laced laughter of Desiree Burch’s Tar Baby; the non-stop hilarity of Sonia Jalaly’s live-art-skewering Happy Birthday Without You; the quiet yet oddly powerful naturalism of Eventide at the Arcola.
And it ended with just a little bit of magic. I didn’t see all that much theatre in the final weeks of the year, but most of what I did see was aimed squarely at kids and families. And it was brilliant. I giggled my way through the National Theatre’s adaptation of I Want My Hat Back, gurgled with joy for most of Little Bulb’s adorable The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter, and loved the bold, gender-switched retelling of Sally Cookson’s Sleeping Beauty at the Bristol Old Vic. All three proved, once again, that it’s all in the telling.
The best of the best-ofs:
(Some of) the soundtrack of 2015’s theatre:
The Doors, “Break on Through to the Other Side” – 27
Will Smith, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” – Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Into My Arms” – Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)
“Fat Sam’s Grand Slam” – Bugsy Malone
The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows” – Oresteia (just try listening to that song in the same way after watching the show)
Main image from Lost Dog’s stunning Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me). May also be read as an expression of my feelings about the year in the form of contemporary dance.
Happy New Year!