Finance shot to the top of the theatrical agenda in the wake of free-market crises and capitalist corruption. What hit one about Lucy Prebble’s play, charting the rise and fall of a Texan energy company that ended with debts of $38bn, was the element of fantasy in the corporate world. “We’re not an energy company – we’re a powerhouse of ideas,” claimed Enron’s hubristic chief exec. Rupert Goold’s astonishing production heightened the Citizen Kane aspect of a play that beautifully blended political satire and multimedia spectacle.
Off the Endz (2010)
Bola Agbaje first attracted attention with the Olivier award-winning Gone Too Far!, which looked at sibling rivalry. This follow-up was an even richer play that showed a young, high-flying black couple caught in a pincer movement between economic recession and loyalty to a council estate mate just out of jail. As played by Ashley Walters, this last character became a charismatic fantasist tempting the couple with mad money-making schemes. Although Agbaje has been accused by some of stereotyping shiftless black males, it would be fairer to praise her for telling uncomfortable truths.
Few writers are better than Roy Williams at using sport as a political metaphor. He did it with football in Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. This time it was boxing, as we saw two black kids training in a south London gym in the 1980s under the tutelage of its Thatcherite owner. Seemingly liberated by success, they end up as pawns in the hands of white promoters for whom they are meal tickets. Daniel Kaluuya and Anthony Welsh were magnificent as the two fighters and Miriam Buether’s design turned the Royal Court into a boxing ring full of sweat and resin.
Howard Brenton, after a long sojourn writing for TV’s Spooks, has turned out a lot of plays in recent years: none better than this one, which offered a radically revised view of its heroine who was seen as Protestant champion rather than sexual predator. Secret meetings with Biblical scholar William Tyndale led her to procure a copy of a book that persuaded the Tudor monarch that a king’s prime allegiance was to God rather than the pope. Staged with Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe, Brenton’s emerged as much the more interesting play.
London Road (2011)
I’ve kept musical theatre out of my list but this verbatim piece, with book by Alecky Blythe and score by Adam Cork, was too outstandingly original to be overlooked. Comprising interviews with the residents of an Ipswich street that had witnessed the murder of five sex workers, it focused less on the horror of the situation than on the healing process. We saw a community reconstituting itself through floral competitions and quiz nights and, under Rufus Norris’s direction, Blythe and Cork brilliantly found a musical pattern in the fragmented rhythms of everyday speech.
One Man, Two Guvnors
Freely adapted by Richard Bean from a classic Goldoni play of 1746, this provided the funniest theatrical evening since Frayn’s Noises Off or Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests. It was also the making of James Corden who, as a failed skiffle player working simultaneously for a snooty toff and his disguised lover, showed a porpoise-like delicacy and profound geniality that has since served him well on American TV. Much of the evening’s joy was provided by Cal McCrystal’s physical comedy, which required an octogenarian waiter to serve a bowl of soup, fall backwards down a flight of stairs and bounce back like a rubber ball.
Written on the Heart
The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011 was marked by epic readings, modern updates and this fascinating play by David Edgar reminding us that the Bible is a product of its time and a composite of previous translations. Dramatically, the highlight was an imagined debate between Bishop Lancelot Andrewes and William Tyndale, a radical who wanted the scriptures rendered in a comprehensible vernacular. The moment I remember from this RSC production is when an aged cleric announced that “he who is without love and mercy shall never come to Christ”.
This House (2012)
James Graham has firmly established himself, in a tradition created by Hare and Edgar, as the liveliest recorder of our recent history. Following plays about the Suez crisis and Thatcher’s childhood, he turned to the perilous survival of the Labour government from 1974-79. This was a brilliant play about the daily process of politics with the government facing either a hung parliament or a wafer-thin majority. Although the play showed the sick and dying wheeled in to vote, it offered a surprising testament to the tenacity of parliamentary democracy.
Half the battle in drama is finding the right subject. Lolita Chakrabarti hit on an excellent one in recalling the prejudice faced by the African American actor Ira Aldridge when he played Othello at Covent Garden in 1833. His presence caused dissent in the company, hostility in the press and shock in the audience when he passionately kissed Desdemona. The play also reminded us that Aldridge was a theatrical pioneer, and it was fascinating to see Adrian Lester (who was about to play Othello at the National) magically combining innovative realism with 19th-century gestural acting.
There may be a trade war between China and America, but US president Donald Trump has described Chinese leader Xi Jinping as “just great”. That odd love-hate relationship lends extra pertinency to Lucy Kirkwood’s epic play about the parallels and differences between the world’s rival superpowers. In America, she shows a photographer being acclaimed for his tireless pursuit of a supposedly exiled Tiananmen Square demonstrator; in Beijing, a man pays a price for protesting about the smog-induced death of a neighbour. Rather than scoring ideological points, Kirkwood wittily and energetically shows why Niall Ferguson coined the word “Chimerica” to describe two nations joined at the hip.
No one, except those involved, knows what really happened at the weekly meetings between the Queen and Thatcher in the 1980s, but it doesn’t stop people speculating. What was just one episode in Peter Morgan’s The Audience became the subject of Moira Buffini’s hilarious and oddly plausible play. Her thesis broadly is that, given the Queen’s attachment to the Commonwealth, there must have been dismay at her PM’s unwillingness to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa and at her reluctance to accept majority rule in Zimbabwe. As in all modern plays about the monarchy – including those by Alan Bennett and Sue Townsend – the Queen came out on top.
Barney Norris, then only in his mid-20s, displayed a mature understanding of old age in his debut play. Set in a farmhouse on the edge of Salisbury Plain, it showed an elderly married couple falling into disrepair. Instead of displaying the pity that is often close to contempt, Norris focused on the security of married love and the ailing couple’s delight in a shared past. With beautiful performances by Robin Soans and Linda Bassett, the play won all kinds of awards, evoked memories of the quiet compassion of David Storey and signalled a promise fulfilled by Norris’s next play, Eventide, and his debut novel, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain.
King Charles III
Is it likely our future king would, within a month of assuming the throne, create a constitutional crisis by refusing royal assent to a parliamentary bill? Once you accepted the premise of Mike Bartlett’s play, it assumed an unstoppable momentum and acquired a tragic grandeur. That was partly because of Bartlett’s canny use of blank verse and evocation of Macbeth and Richard II. But it was also because of a magnificent performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, who sadly died after the play’s run but not before it had been recorded for TV. He invested Charles with a principled anxiety as he declared: “Without my voice and spirit, I am dust.”
The James Plays
“A king has no friends,” says James II in the central play of Rona Munro’s ambitious seven-and-a-half-hour trilogy, which reminded us of the inescapable solitude of monarchy. The great virtue of the trilogy, covering Scotland’s history from 1421 to 1488 under the rule of James I, II and III, was its vigorous, unsentimental portrait of a kingdom beset by fractious, feudal in-fighting: as Sofie Gråbøl’s sceptical Dane, marrying into the royal family, asked: “Who would want the job of ruling Scotland?” Jointly presented by the national theatres of Scotland and Great Britain, the trilogy once again showed a female dramatist defying gender stereotypes by displaying an appetite for the epic.
We are no longer surprised to see science on stage. This work by Tom Morton-Smith turned out to be the best play about nuclear physics since Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. What it caught excellently were the contradictions of the father of the atomic bomb and leader of America’s Manhattan Project. In John Heffernan’s performance, he seemed cold-blooded in his ability to ditch former sexual partners and communist associates yet fervent in his development of the bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All plays about nuclear physics raise moral issues. Morton-Smith’s also created a flawed tragic hero.
People, Places and Things
Sometimes it is hard to separate the play and the performance. Denise Gough rightly won every award going for her portrayal of an actor, fuelled by drink and drugs, who breaks down during a performance of The Seagull and checks into a rehab clinic: it was a brilliant performance in which Gough caught the addict’s mix of vulnerability and obduracy. Credit also belongs to Duncan Macmillan for showing the irony of the heroine’s resistance to the kind of confessional techniques she would have employed as an actor. As well as a fine character study, his play offered a fierce critique of a chaotic society that produces multiple forms of addiction.
The Moderate Soprano
The Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson looked for rapturous, single moments in a play. I had a Hobsonian experience watching David Hare’s play about the foundation in 1934 of a country opera house at Glyndebourne in Sussex. When Roger Allam as John Christie launched into a speech saying that his dream was to offer audiences a glimpse of the sublime, I was moved by his highly unfashionable endorsement of the power of great art. The play also told us a lot about Christie’s devotion to his wife and Glyndebourne’s dependence on European refugee talent, but it was the ringing defence of opera’s potential for ecstasy that made it memorable.
Escaped Alone (2016)
“Posh tosh,” said the critic of the Daily Mail. I’d beg to differ. Like most of Caryl Churchill’s recent work, this one had a packed minimalism. It said a lot in 50 minutes. We listened raptly to the seemingly random chat of four women sitting in a sunlit garden: they dwelt lovingly on old times, broke into a rendering of a 1963 Crystals hit and yet relished the benefits of living today (“whole worlds in your pocket,” said one of mobile phones). Their talk, however, was punctuated by a series of monologues envisioning global catastrophe. The mundane and the apocalyptic sat side by side in a way that was characteristically Churchillian.
Every so often a play comes along that leaves you profoundly shaken; Edward Bond’s Saved was one, Sarah Kane’s Blasted another. David Ireland’s play was in the same league. It was a study of a Belfast loyalist, rivetingly played by Stephen Rea, who believed that the Protestant cause was being destroyed by “the Fenians” and that his five-year-old granddaughter had the same face as Gerry Adams. While Ireland’s play was about a man uncertain of his own identity, it also vividly demonstrated the madness of sectarian hatred.
Ella Hickson’s epic boldly pursued one woman’s trajectory through a span of almost two centuries. Starting as a Cornish farmer’s wife in 1889, she ended up in the same county in 2051 depending for survival on a Chinese visitor’s miracle of renewable energy. Along the way, Hickson tackled empire, the environment and, above all, mother-daughter relationships. She seemed to imply that women’s progress was accompanied by a growing loneliness and sense of estrangement from family. Oil is a play that gnaws at the memory.
Lucy Kirkwood is the only writer to get two entries in this selection. Deservedly so, because this three-character play raised a host of big issues. Set on a Norfolk farm following a nuclear catastrophe, it brought together two long-separated female scientists responsible for building the contaminating plant. In the intervening years, one had borne four children, the other none. This allowed Kirkwood to explore topics including whether parenthood increases a sense of social responsibility and how people in the future will react to the poisoned legacy of the present. A humane triumph.
“Let’s kill all the lawyers,” says Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part Three. Nina Raine doesn’t go that far but she subjects them to fierce moral scrutiny in this probingly intelligent play. In particular, she asks if rape cases should be subject to point-scoring courtroom narratives and suggests that dealing with violent, dishonest people may have a corrupting effect on lawyers. Raine captures the clubbiness of the law and the sadness of a soured marriage while allowing the audience to make its own judgment.
A box office hit even before it opened, Jez Butterworth’s play deserved the accolades heaped upon it. Combining the gangland politics of Mojo with the rural rituals of Jerusalem, this was a story about the power of unspoken love. Down on a farm in County Armagh in 1981, a reformed IRA activist could never quite articulate his feelings for his brother’s wife while two aunts were haunted by the loss of their loved ones. The political and the personal seamlessly intersected, but it was the power of private passions that fuelled this multilayered award winner.
Barber Shop Chronicles
Inua Ellams – poet, graphic artist and playwright – had the bright idea of setting this piece in six barber shops in two continents on a single day: as it happens the one in 2012 when Chelsea beat Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final. The beauty of the play lay in Ellams’ ability to see that, for African men, the barber’s is a mix of pub, political platform, social centre and soapbox. The range of subjects covered was astonishing, the language racy and vigorous, and Bijan Sheibani’s production was like a party the audience had been invited to join.
Nine Night (2018)
Like Winsome Pinnock’s pioneering Leave Taking, Natasha Gordon’s exhilarating debut play showed a family acknowledging its Jamaican past while living in the London present. The title referred to the Jamaican tradition of a nine-night funeral wake, but what was cheering about Gordon’s play was its suggestion that you can inhabit two worlds simultaneously. The family’s bright, young graduate was happy to suspend her rationalist scepticism while her aunt – joyously played by Cecilia Noble – took an active part in traditional rituals and still ensured she got home in time for EastEnders. Resentment at Britain’s historic hostility to immigrants was combined with Gordon’s fundamental faith in a twin cultural existence.
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