I don’t want realism, I want magic

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Despite being a fully grown adult with the extreme good fortune of doing something I love for a living, there are still days when all I really want from life is to go back in time and work on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. As an awkward, bookish teenager, those movies – and slightly later on the books, in the form of a battered but beloved doorstop-sized volume passed down from my dad – meant everything to me. I spent much of the time I should have been revising for my GCSEs compulsively watching the DVD special features; my best friend and I had regular and passionate debates about who was better, Legolas or Aragorn (Team Aragorn all the way); and my bedroom was littered with dozens of carefully drawn, sub-Middle Earth maps of dreamed-up worlds for all the novels I was constantly planning (and failing) to write.

Looking back, I think it was about more than just an escapist love of fantasy and the sight of Viggo Mortensen wielding a sword (not that either of those things should be underestimated). I think it also had something to do with the idea of making something; of dreaming up an entire, meticulously constructed fictional universe (not to mention whole fucking languages), or of assembling a mind-boggling number of people in New Zealand to somehow haphazardly piece together a hugely ambitious bit of cinema. My unthinking, unprocessed reaction as a teenager was simply “I want that”. I wanted to be one of their gang. I wanted to make something.

This weekend, I said goodbye to Secret Theatre. The weekend before, some friends and I spent all of Sunday watching the extended edition Lord of the Rings DVDs back to back (that’s just under twelve quality hours in Middle Earth). And I’ve started to think that perhaps my steadfast, pulse-racing love for the two things isn’t all that different.

I can recognise that not everything about The Lord of the Rings is an unqualified triumph. The books are, if I’m entirely honest, a tad longer than they need to be. As for the films, there are plenty of moments where the pace flags; I never fail to roll my eyes at the is-this-the-end-oh-no-it-isn’t quality of The Return of the King‘s final half hour; and I remain irritated to death by Liv Tyler’s underwritten, maddeningly breathy Arwen. In fact, women in general don’t get much of a look in, an absence that isn’t made up for by Galadriel and Eowyn’s (admittedly cheering) badass moments. Similarly, at times I’ve been critical of numerous elements of the Secret Theatre project, from individual shows to its much-discussed secrecy. That doesn’t mean I’m not still bursting with love for both endeavours.

A lot has been said and written recently about fandom and tribalism. Matt Trueman followed up his column on fan culture last year with a new blog on the subject for WhatsOnStage; Megan Vaughan, whose end-of-the-year fanzine was perhaps my favourite Christmas present (it’s between that and my smoothie maker), penned a kind of parting love letter to Secret Theatre; and Stewart Pringle wrote brilliantly in praise of tribes and head-banging. Tribalism isn’t without its problems, particularly in the small world of theatre. At times it can be blinkered and exclusive, stoking the idea that the art form is the realm of an elite few. But I find myself agreeing with Dan Hutton, in yet another piece on Secret Theatre, that “we need some fucking tribalism now and again”.

Tribalism creates allegiances, it makes you feel part of a community, it means that you have something at stake. When you have something at stake, you can’t just shrug off the disappointment of a Show 6 (I can’t quite pin down why, but it just didn’t work for me) or the anticipatory dread of what look like mediocre, money-spinning prequels (I still can’t quite bring myself to watch the Hobbit films for fear that it’s going to be Star Wars all over again; a girl can’t cope with that kind of heartbreak twice in a lifetime). And as unfashionable as it may be for a critic to be anything approaching a “fan”, if nothing’s at stake then what’s the point?

I’ve just finished reading Hatchet Job, Mark Kermode’s latest book, and while it isn’t about to shatter the foundations of how I think about criticism, it does prompt a refreshing rethink of why on earth any of us bother doing it – not to mention offering a lesson (as most of Kermode’s writing does) on how to be at once entertaining, intelligent and accessible. Though nominally about the cruel pleasure of the scathing critical attack, Kermode’s book is drenched in a sincere and at times unapologetically sentimental love of the art form he writes about. He’s a fan in the true sense of the word, someone who melts at the memory of his favourite films and weeps for days after rediscovering a bit of beloved celluloid that he thought had been lost. At that point I wanted to reach through the pages and hold his hand, or at least say “I know. I know.”

Revisiting my two favourite Secret Theatre shows – A Streetcar Named Desire and A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts – yesterday felt a bit like that. I hadn’t seen Streetcar since it was first staged by the company, right at the beginning of their journey together, and coming back to it was like greeting an old friend: discovering that you’ve both changed a bit, but that what you have is even better than you remembered. After all that time on tour refining and inhabiting it, the production just feels that bit more confident and that bit less in the hulking shadow of Three Kingdoms. Things that I liked first time round I loved on a second viewing: the coloured lights, the balloons, the sexy blasts of music. Also, who needs Gillian Anderson when you have Nadia Albina? I seriously doubt I’ll ever see a better or more heartbreaking Blanche.

Then there’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. Deep breath. I’ve adored this show from the start and probably went from critic to ardent fan from the point at which Leo Bill’s name was pulled out of the hat the second time I saw it and I did an involuntary fist-pump, swiftly sacrificing any last shred of professionalism. Yesterday was my fifth time and, rather aptly, Leo was once again the protagonist. So what do I love so much about it? Too many things to list here. But I think the “Proud Mary” moment kind of sums it up. It’s a scene of such bittersweet joy and exhaustion and community and love and sheer, fleeting ecstasy that it manages to capture a whole kaleidoscope of emotion in one brilliantly silly dance. Last night I spent the whole thing with my face stretched in a smile so wide it forbid the tears that sat poised in my eyes, a deluge just waiting to be unleashed.

We try and fail and try and fail and try and fail again. But still we dance. (*wipes tears from eyes*)

If teenage me could have seen Secret Theatre, maybe I would have spent those clumsy, formative years following the company on tour, making bad devised theatre with my mates and agonising over who was my favourite between Leo and Sergo (undoubtedly a much harder choice than that between Aragorn and one-facial-expression Legolas). And I really, really hope that thanks to Secret Theatre’s ballsy, glorious, messy existence there’s at least one teenager out there who’s caught that bug, who wants to be part of that gang, who wants to make something. Even if, as a fully grown adult aching with nostalgia, she only ends up writing about it.

All together now …

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A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic

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“I don’t want realism. I want magic.”

In Secret Theatre’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche’s famous line raised a light, knowing chuckle from the audience. The character might have been referring to her inclination towards fantasy and illusion, but her words could well have been a mantra for the production, which turned Tennessee Williams’ play and all its well-worn visual tropes inside out. Those words, spoken in that context, also posed an implicit question. Why, on the stage, do we settle for realism when we could have magic?

I’m reminded of the frustrated words of Eugene Ionesco: “I personally would like to bring a tortoise onto the stage, turn it into a racehorse, then into a hat, a song, a dragoon and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre and it is the place where one dares the least”. In theatre, where one thing always stands for another – when the relationship is one of metaphor – why do we still insist that those two things look alike?

Partly liberated by the secrecy bound up in the project (show titles are not released in advance), Secret Theatre’s Streetcar somehow freed the play of all its – and particularly Blanche’s – baggage, presenting us instead with its exposed innards. It understood theatrical representation as metaphor in its most playful sense; chunks of watermelon stood in for poker chips, and Blanche’s endless glasses of liquor became liberal drenchings of water. It was not quite magic, but it certainly wasn’t realism.

By comparison, Benedict Andrews’ new production feels sort of drab, dull even. First, let’s be clear: Andrews’ take on Streetcar isn’t exactly realism. There’s a stylishly skeletal revolving set, garish washes of coloured light, scene changes underscored with Swans and Chris Isaak. But in between the vivid flashes of colour and music, it’s naturalism by another name. Matt Trueman has coined the perfect term for it: “realishism”.

That “ish” is apt. This Streetcar is interesting-ish, elegant-ish. It puts a slight spin – both literal and figurative – on Williams’ play, but never enough to leave us giddy. Or put it this way: if you were expecting another classic done in the same vein as Andrews’ storming, vodka-fuelled Three Sisters, prepare to be disappointed.

On the main stage of the Young Vic, Stella and Stanley’s cramped, claustrophobic apartment is a metal husk of a building. Magda Willi’s set strips out walls, leaving only the framework of the rooms through which an audience can peer. The characters are at one level exposed and at another trapped. This is the cage that Blanche knocks against, that Stella has no desire to get out of.

Andrews’ production sets this space in almost perpetual motion, turning it clockwise, anti-clockwise and back again on the wide revolve. It’s slightly reminiscent of Ian MacNeil’s smoothly spinning set for A Doll’s House on the same stage, but while that design offered fleeting, cinematic tableaux between scenes, this keeps everyone queasily turning throughout. The sensation is one of constant shifts, but the only direction in which any of it can go is round in dizzy circles.

Like any repetitive cycle, however, this one begins to get boring. In the first half, the pace is swift and the tension tight, coiled like Stanley’s unpredictable temper. But the momentum drops away after the interval as the production follows increasingly familiar tracks. Andrews might half-heartedly update Williams’ play, kitting it out with Ikea furniture and skinny jeans, but Gillian Anderson’s Blanche is just as we expect her: flirtatious, fragile Southern belle, all carefully composed but rapidly cracking mask. Her downfall is competently conveyed, but never quite tragic.

While Anderson fails to break the mould as Blanche, Ben Foster’s war-damaged Stanley is an intriguing take on the role. Rather than picking up the obvious cues from Williams’ descriptions of the character as primitively animalistic, Andrews and Foster seize on Stanley’s military history, suggesting a man broken by conflict. When his first major outburst arrives, it is truly explosive because it seems to come unbidden; this is not a man of naturally violent passions, but one shot through with an anger he is unable to control.

Stanley’s reconciliation with Vanessa Kirby’s Stella, immediately following this scene, is another of Andrews’ successes. Their bodies meet in a rush of passion, their movements adopting a tango-like quality under the hot red glow of Blanche’s Chinese lampshade. The production is studded with little moments like this, small scenelets that elevate the quality of the rest. They are too sparsely positioned, however, to entirely rescue the bland expanses in between.

It’s unclear, meanwhile, just what Andrews’ updating achieves. His Three Sisters wrenched Chekhov’s play out of any specific temporal context, brilliantly locating it on a timeless, abstract plane. The setting for Streetcar, on the other hand, is recognisably modern, but with few concessions to that modernity in Anderson’s performance. What the time shift does highlight, however, is the play’s gender politics. Watching, I’m more aware than ever of the limited borders of Blanche’s horizon. As she says at one point, her role as a woman is to entertain, to be beautiful. And the beer-drenched masculinity of Stanley’s poker games is not much of an alternative, trapping men within a system of rules and expectations that is just as restrictive, if endowed with a bit more power.

These hints at an implicit gender critique, however, dissolve into obvious and borderline offensive imagery. To leave us in no doubt of either Blanche’s troubled mental state or the pressures of femininity heaped onto her, Andrews puts Anderson into a candy pink dress and wonky tiara, hair ruffled and face smeared with make-up. Southern belle transformed into dishevelled Barbie princess. It’s the crashingly unsubtle culmination of a dismayingly uninventive telling of this character’s trajectory, casting little light on its themes of mental health and sexual politics. From a director whose interpretation of Three Sisters was so bursting with invention, it’s a bitter disappointment.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Not Working But Wandering

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“Walking, ideally, is a state of mind in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Walking has always been my cure of choice. When feeling beaten down or uninspired, I have a habit of taking my frustrations outside, of treading my anxieties into pavement or path. Even living in London for the past year and a half, where walking for its own sake feels less natural (especially – oh, how I hate that this remains the case – as a woman), wandering has been a refuge.

Slowly reading my way through Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, then, is an amble of delight and recognition. I love the unapologetic subjectivity of its voice; I love its idiosyncratic approach to the narrating of a history; I love its easy traversing of different terrains, moving fluidly through anecdote to literature to politics. And in its very form it finds the harmony of thought that walking allows, its intellectual rambling at once free and yet absolutely grounded in the landscape of the world we live in.

For days now I have been wrestling with how to write about all the things I have not been writing about, the shows that have been accusingly piling up behind me while work is tugging my attention in other directions. Until, devouring another chapter of Wanderlust in the snatched moments before sleep the other night, I thought of turning this too into a wander – a liberating meander rather than a joyless trudge towards my destination.

And how apt that two of the pieces of theatre that have been itching at my mind are about landscapes both literal and metaphorical, places to be walked and thought through. Both were seen at the caravan showcase in Brighton, where I was busy blogging and tweeting for Farnham Maltings, doing my best to act as a window for the outside world. Over the course of three days, I packed in as many shows and discussions as possible, punctuated by frantic tapping at my laptop keyboard.

So when I saw Landscape II, the new Melanie Wilson show that I had been kicking myself for missing ever since its run at BAC last year, I was tired. A small detail, but an important one. Because Landscape II, Wilson’s delicate tapestry of the lives of three women, requires a certain quality of concentration – one that I found myself struggling to give it. Its exquisite layering of story, sound and video offers a sort of sensory overload; as an audience member, you are required to sift through the information even as the narrative runs on. But strangely, at the same time as the mind scrabbles to piece things together, the pace of the show itself feels gorgeously unhurried. Time does funny things.

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Reflecting on the piece now, a couple of weeks after seeing it, I find it hard to draw together all its separate strands. What I remember is that it is about three women, separated by time and brutal circumstance, their stories overlapping with one another, the personal and the political bleeding together. Wilson narrates these stories from a desk to the side of the stage, the majority of which is dominated by an off-white, roughly textured wall – much like that of the cottage that is central to the action – which vividly blooms into life thanks to Will Duke’s projected video (perhaps the most stunningly simple use of projection I’ve seen used in a theatre). There is also a beautifully textured sound design, manipulated live on stage by Wilson, lulling and occasionally jolting us in our seats.

Wilson has a very particular quality as a performer, a quality that is not easy to render in words. It is something about her presence in the room – her half smile, the way she holds herself – but it is mostly about her voice. Gentle, hypnotic, almost sustained at one level tone, but peppered with the lightest of inflections. Sometimes, dangerously, soporific. During Landscape II, that mesmerising mode of delivery found me drifting. Not unpleasantly, I might add, and I wonder if that is the very experience the piece invites, though I would like to see it again and focus more intently on its different elements. While drifting, I found myself thinking about Gertrude Stein and her comments on the doubled, dislocated time of theatre, demanding as it constantly does an effort on the part of the spectator. I also thought, aptly, of her “landscape theatre”. Perhaps Wilson’s various landscapes invite a sort of imaginary walking, in which wandering off the path can be just as rewarding as sticking closely to its tracks.

There was a similar quality, I found, to the experience of watching Ours Was the Fen Country. Again, I was tired. Before seeing it, I had heard Dan Canham’s show described as “verbatim dance theatre”, a concept that intrigued me all by itself. What might that look like? As it turns out, this hybrid genre manifests itself as a series of recordings, performed interview material (using the same headphone technique that Alecky Blythe is now well known for), sound and movement. It all stems from Canham’s research in the Fens, a fading landscape that is evoked on stage by its words and images and a careful physicalisation of its atmosphere.

Like the place it explores, Ours Was the Fen Country is strange, haunting, sometimes bleak and sometimes beautiful. As with Landscape II, it is possible to drift in and out, at some times tuning in to the words of the Fen inhabitants, at others to the movements of the performers. I would have loved to have seen more of that movement, which suddenly elevates the piece each time it breaks through. There is one particularly magical moment, early on in the piece, where the leap from spoken to embodied history elicits a collective shiver. Words fall into a rhythm, pattered out by one pair of feet, then more, until all of the performers are moving as one. It is dance, but it is also work and walking and tracing the same steps day after day, animating the landscape as a collective body.

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Perhaps one of the reasons I love walking is because it offers one of the few interludes when I feel completely untethered from work. I like the idea, articulated by Solnit, that “walking is an amateur act”. When walking as an act in its own right rather than as a way of propelling myself from A to B, I am aimless in the best of ways; no destination or deadline directs the rise and fall of my feet. Elsewhere, I am either working or feeling guilty about not working, but when I walk I am absorbed by the gentle physical activity, comfortable in my thoughts and my body.

Recently I have been thinking a lot, both personally and academically, about work. I repeat to myself the words “work is not a moral good” (I think I need a sign to put up somewhere in my room) but I still act as though it is. I write these sentences in a paper about artistic labour, knowing as I do that they uncannily describe my own relationship to my work:

“In many ways, cultural work presents an ideal example of immaterial labour, marrying as it does often intangible outputs with precarious working conditions, ever-lengthening hours and the insidious erosion of distinctions between work and life – all of which is endured and even celebrated under the banner of creativity, self-expression and flexibility. Love for one’s work becomes an agent of one’s own exploitation.” 

I do love my work, but I also love the moments around it, the moments that are not work in any real sense but that feed richly into both work and life. The time that I am lucky enough to spend in rehearsal rooms (time that has happily found a bit of space in my life again in the last few weeks) seems to fall into that latter category. There is something about those spaces – at least, the spaces that I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed into – that feels freeing, weightless almost. I’ve almost always experienced an atmosphere of calm of the kind described by Chris Goode, even when the making itself might be at its most frantic. As when walking, I feel that I am in a place somehow apart, yet still closely connected with the world outside. And then, of course, there’s that breathless thrill of witnessing the moments when stuff really happens, when discoveries are made for the very first time and the thinking in the room suddenly shifts.

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I wonder if part of the reason why I loved Secret Theatre Show 5 so much was that it takes place in a rehearsal room – more specifically, the rehearsal room at the Lyric Hammersmith, where the Secret Theatre company have been experimenting for the past year. This space could not be more appropriate for the company’s latest show, which feels in many ways like the absolute expression of the collective way of working that the ensemble have been playing with over a process of months. It is a piece which is clearly born from this particular group of people and from the room that they have created together; the room that we now sit in, with them.

Walking in, everything about the framing of the piece immediately appeals to me. The intimate sharing of the space, the inbuilt risk and spontaneity, the visible traces of the company’s process on the very walls of the room. And watching it produces the palpable sensation of sharing a room with a group of people just having a brilliant time together – a sensation which is fiercely infectious. It’s thoughtful and complex and messy, but also joyful and chaotic, full of music, play, dancing. Oh, the dancing. Rarely (if ever) have I grinned and gurned so much during a piece of theatre.

Speaking to Joel Horwood (who acted as dramaturg on this show) afterwards, he told me that the starting provocations for the piece were community, hope and transcendence. Add joy and anarchy to that list and – without giving any more away – that just about captures what the company have produced.

I can’t pretend that Show 5 is perfect. When I see it, still early in the preview run, there are moments that stutter, while I wonder if it needs a slightly more robust dynamic at its heart to drive it along. But its imperfections only make me more fond of it. Not for a minute to dismiss its intelligence, my reaction to Show 5 operated firmly on the level of feeling rather than intellect. It made my heart skip, sing and burst. It made me want to go back again and again and again, both to watch the shifts in the piece and to be swallowed whole by it once more. I just fucking loved it.

There is, as ever, more to write about. I want to pin down why I was so utterly, strangely compelled by A String Section and everything it so implicitly yet so powerfully says about being a woman; to capture the spine-tingling marriage of music and storytelling in The Bullet and the Bass Trombone; to unpack the almost unbearable tension that pervades Ivo van Hove’s astonishing production of A View from the Bridge, which I finally saw on Friday night; to write once again about what a tight, gripping piece of writing Grounded is and how much of a rock star Lucy Ellinson is in it.

But every wander comes to a halt, and I fear I have already rambled (in both senses of the word) too much. So I will bring my (metaphorical) feet full circle and end, as I began, with Solnit:

“Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.”

(The photos above were all taken on some of my favourite walks, and I also used a couple of them in my write-up of The Forest and the Field – a meander in prose if ever there was one)

The Rep Tide Turns

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Originally written for The Stage.

Repertory theatre might just be staging a comeback. While the Lyric Hammersmith undergoes major building work, the Secret Theatre company is occupying the untouched auditorium with a year-long programme of work driven by the ensemble. Elsewhere, Vicky Featherstone began her Royal Court tenure this summer with a festival featuring an ambitious weekly rep programme, while English Touring Theatre is exploring a repertory structure with Tonight at 8.30, its upcoming production of one-act Noël Coward plays.

The freshly vaunted advantages of the rep model will come as no surprise to The Faction. The company, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday, has been working towards this model from the moment of its conception, guided by artistic director Mark Leipacher’s passion for ensemble theatre and muscular versions of classical texts. The company’s ambition is bold but simple: a permanent ensemble, a home venue and a rolling repertoire.

While many have mourned the decline of the great British repertory theatre, which acted as a fertile training ground for the likes of Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, The Faction looks to the continent rather than to the past for its chief inspiration. The company’s model is drawn from that of German theatres like the Schaubühne in Berlin, where a large repertoire of plays is presented by a resident ensemble.

“The idea for The Faction was always an ensemble theatre company following the model of a German theatre,” Leipacher explains. “Because it doesn’t really exist over here; even when rep was alive and well, that’s not the format that our rep model had in the UK.”

What The Faction’s ensemble approach does share with the old British rep model, however, is its focus on the actor. At a recent conference, playwright Simon Stephens – who is currently working as a dramaturg for the Secret Theatre ensemble – suggested that the UK’s freelance culture “can stifle bravery in acting performance”. This is just what The Faction hopes to reverse.

“Any director will tell you it’s a requirement to try and make the rehearsal room a safe place,” says Leipacher, “so that an actor can arrive without the need for ego, without inhibitions, and have the confidence in order to experiment and to play. I think with an ensemble that’s inbuilt.”

Although The Faction is still some way from its ultimate aim of a permanent ensemble performing a repertoire of plays all year round, this will be the third consecutive year that the company has presented an eight-week rep season at the New Diorama Theatre. Leipacher tells me that these rep seasons are “essentially a small model of how we want to work full time”, with the plan being to slowly extend these towards a year-long programme. He admits that it’s a “gradual process”, but the final aim is unwavering.

This year’s programme represents a blend of old and new for the company. It is remounting its Peter Brook Award-winning production of Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers, which Leipacher describes as a “quintessential Faction show”, as well as returning to Shakespeare to tackle Hamlet for the first time. Completing the season is Thebes, an audacious attempt to weave together Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ accounts of the Oedipus dynasty. Unlike the more defined thematic threads of previous rep seasons, Leipacher says that “the only condition this year was that they had to be plays that really excited us as directors, as a company – meaty, big, epic material that played to our strengths, that pushed us into new areas.”

Epic is the key word there. This sense of scope – both in terms of narrative and emotion – is what keeps The Faction returning again and again to classical plays. Leipacher insists that “there is no better material”, citing the plays’ timelessness and “universal themes” in contrast to new writing’s preoccupation with the zeitgeist. “It’s much more about human experience, about jealousy, about love, about responsibility,” he continues, “something that’s applicable to everybody and to any time. The purpose of doing the productions now is to do them for this time.”

As much as Leipacher enthuses about what excites The Faction as artists, the company is equally focused on its audience. Leipacher is adamant that repertory theatre offers a richer experience for theatregoers, with whom the company is able to “extend a dialogue” over a longer period. Audiences also have the opportunity to see the ensemble in a range of different roles, which Leipacher argues allows them to “enjoy the craft of the production and the ethos of the company as part of their theatregoing experience”.

Geoff Colman, Head of Acting at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, is in agreement with The Faction about the advantages of the rep model for both theatre makers and audiences, describing it as “a place of experience, experiment, continuing development and trust”. He is also optimistic about the potential for bringing back rep under a new guise, adding, “I am convinced that other theatre makers will be looking at this reinvention of rep very closely”.

Discussing the experiments in ensemble theatre that are cropping up across British theatre, Leipacher says that “any movement towards that European model here in the UK is exciting”, but stresses the importance of longevity. It remains to be seen whether projects like Secret Theatre will go on to create longer term change, but Leipacher hopes that the Lyric and others will make the same commitment to ensemble theatre that is central to The Faction’s ethos. “Hopefully it’s the beginning of a tidal shift.”

Beginnings and Endings

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Let’s start with a beginning.

Sitting in the stalls of the newly plastic-swathed Lyric Hammersmith this September, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such palpable anticipation in the moments before a show. As suggested by the words “Secret Theatre”, most of us in the audience did not know quite what to expect. The curtain was eventually raised to reveal the performers in a line at the back of the stage, dressed in plain white shorts and vests. Accompanied by a sinister, clinical voiceover, these figures rushed forward to drink from bowls of water, scrambling over one another in a desperate, animalistic struggle. What followed might not have been the best show of the year, but it is hard to think of a more memorable opening.

As I attempt to craft some sort of assessment of the year in theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre project feels like an apt emblem for the change that is slowly pressing in on multiple sides. This time last year, writing another of these deeply subjective round-ups, I reflected that 2012 felt like a year of “small tectonic shifts”. While those shifts might not have precipitated a violent eruption of change across the landscape of British theatre, the last 12 months have nonetheless seen ripples of movement – just more gradually than perhaps anticipated.

Unlike the noisy, thrilling arrival of Three Kingdoms last year, the changes of 2013 have been subtle and structural, hinting more at future promise than present fulfilment. Chief among these changes is the exciting wave of new artistic directors who have either taken up post or been announced: Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, Rupert Goold at the Almeida, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, Sam Hodges at the Nuffield. Whether these appointments will really offer the shake-up they hint at is still to be seen – though the early signs of Featherstone’s tenure are encouraging – but the collective urge for new ways of working is clear.

The impetus towards change is also characteristic of one vein of work that has particularly stayed with me this year. The phrase “political theatre” always feels like a misnomer – isn’t all theatre political in some way? – but a clutch of angry, thoughtful and passionate productions in 2013 have dealt specifically with ideas of political change and protest. How to Occupy an Oil Rig playfully explored the demonstration (in every sense), while Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with my Father offered a decidedly personal perspective on protest – almost reducing me to tears in the process. And another kind of activism is at the heart of Bryony Kimmings’ bold and brilliant Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel project, which twice bowled me over with both its raw emotion and the galvanising ambition of its aims.

Elsewhere, the potential for future change was more lightly hinted at. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dan Hutton and I noted the theme of hope that threaded its way through several of the productions we saw, complicatedly paired with both critique and irony. Contrived as this narrative perhaps is, it is one that has retrospectively haunted many of this year’s shows, inflecting my way of watching and thinking about theatre. From its very explicit presence in what happens to the hope at the end of the evening to its troublesome ghost in The Events, the question of hope has been a key feature of much of the most interesting work I’ve seen over the past 12 months.

Chris Goode's The Forest and The Field ©Richard Davenport

Closely linked to hope is the idea of community, which is often vaunted as being at the heart of theatre as an art form. We share the same space in the theatre, after all, so we must be a community of sorts, right? This was tested in various ways by much of the best theatre of 2013, be it the stunning yet gentle intellectual interrogation of Chris Goode and Company’sThe Forest and the Field or the joyously communal celebration of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – which arguably nailed the whole thing by staging itself in a pub and throwing in some song and dance for good measure.

Similarly to Prudencia Hart, music was a key ingredient of the fleeting community forged night after night in Edinburgh by The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project; food took the same role in Only Wolves and Lions, reminding me of the simple community we build when we cook and eat together. It’s not insignificant that that last example was part of Forest Fringe, a gorgeous instance of transitory artistic community in the midst of this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. This community also offered up countless other small scale theatrical highlights of the year, among them Ira Brand’s delicate contemplation on ageing, a consideration of our addiction to virtual communities in I Wish I Was Lonely, and Deborah Pearson’s haunting The Future Show.

One show that managed to be both small and epic was Grounded, the absolute standout production of the Fringe for me. The remarkable Lucy Ellinson once again looms large over my theatregoing memories of the year after her compelling delivery of George Brant’s tightly written, blistering monologue, all the while imprisoned within the striking grey cube of Oliver Townsend’s design (as an aside, cubes seemed to be big this year – see Chimerica). Ellinson also dazzled, though very differently, in #TORYCORE, a deafening, devastating scream of rage against the destructive policies of the coalition government.

And it was not only the politicians of today who found themselves criticised in theatres this year. Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, a number of pieces have already directly or obliquely approached her legacy. Theatre503’s quickfire offering of short plays produced a decidedly mixed bag, although Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho’s glorious drag queen rendering of the Iron Lady has deservedly lingered in my memory. The difficulty of discussing Thatcher’s legacy was addressed in all its complexity by Mars.tarrab’s brilliantly titled The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, while perhaps the most striking visual representation of Thatcher came courtesy of Squally Showers, a show that touched on her and her politics only indirectly. Yet somehow, in the image of a performer in a Thatcher mask holding aloft an inflatable globe while surrounded by the detritus of a wild party, Little Bulb wordlessly directed a powerful judgement at the world left to Thatcher’s children.

Little Bulb's Squally Showers

Squally Showers also provided plentiful helpings of sheer joy, a theatrical quality not to be underestimated. Alongside the charming eccentricity of Little Bulb’s latest show, the Edinburgh Fringe also offered the utterly bonkers but irresistibly endearing Beating McEnroe,which will forever leave me with the glorious memory of Jamie Wood pretending to be a tennis ball. An equally joyous moment to imprint itself on my mind this year emerged from Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, in which I screamed with laughter at the four male performers’ move by move recreation of the dance in the Kate Bush music video, while the final scene of rain-drenched anarchy in the RSC’s As You Like It topped off a production that was a delight from start to finish. And no assessment of theatrical joy in 2013 would be complete without pausing to remember Zawe Ashton’s frankly inspired rendition of ‘Where Are We Now?’ in Narrative, a show that achieved the rare feat of being both absolutely hilarious and intellectually meaty.

While it may not fit neatly within the thematic threads I’m attempting to loosely weave through my overview of the year, any consideration of 2013 has to include a mention for Headlong. The company has had a ridiculously successful 12 months, encompassing the slick, stylish storytelling of Chimerica, a bold and theatrically astute new interpretation of The Seagull and – best of all in my opinion – the complete headfuck of Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s stunningly intelligent adaptation of 1984. I’ve missed out on American Psycho,but from the outside it appears to offer a striking end to a fairly extraordinary year for Headlong.

As averse as I am to naming any one production “best”, when looking back over the year I find my mind dragged time and time again back to Mission Drift. For many this hardly counts as a “new” production, having first been seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, but this summer’s run at the National Theatre’s temporary Shed space was my first opportunity to see The TEAM’s dizzying trip through 400 years of American capitalism. Fast-paced, sexy and beautiful to look at, Mission Drift can also justifiably be described as epic, an adjective that I rarely find myself applying to theatre. Its scope, energy and excitement has become my personal benchmark against which to measure the year’s theatre, and very little in the subsequent months has equalled it.

As I opened this narrative with a beginning, I might as well close with an ending. Looking ahead to 2014, February will see the dismantling of The Shed, whose garish red silhouette on the South Bank has come to stand for vitality and experimentation at the heart of an institution often associated with tradition – as the narrative it spun to celebrate its 50th anniversary did little to challenge. One can only hope that The Shed’s spirit of innovation, together with that of Secret Theatre and Vicky Featherston’s Open Court festival this summer, finds a way to continue into the next 12 months.

I also contributed to a collective look back at 2013’s theatre with the rest of Exeunt’s writers.