Drama: the rules chafe

The annual UK Critic's Circle drama awards nominating forms arrived (electronically) over the holidays; they always give me pause to reflect, and to re-read (and sometimes re-think) my theatre reviews for the year. The rules are strict: every production nominated must have been new in 2008, not transferred to London from somewhere else; and only one nominee is allowed in each category. I found both these rules irksome this year. The first, because easily the best play I've seen this year is "Black Watch, " but it was the big hit of the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, and has now toured everywhere from a warehouse under Brooklyn Bridge to a former train factory in Sydney.

However, because John Tiffany's National Theatre of Scotland's production "Black Watch" was conceived for a traverse stage, it only arrived in London in July, in the converted Barbican Theatre as part of bite08, and returned to NY in the fall. Black Watch is a masterpiece - there's no other word for this amalgam of narrative, dance, callisthenics and music - but it's not eligible for the Best New Play award. Neither (on my reading of the rules) is Steppenwolf's "August: Osage County," a huge, ambitious play of the sort I don't think we've seen here since Kevin Spacey knocked our red cashmere socks off in "The Iceman Cometh" at the Almeida in 1998. Among those eligible that I valued were Katie Mitchell's multi-media "some trace of her..." based on a cut-up, boiled down version of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," starring a dreamy Ben Whishaw, at the National Theatre; and Lee Hall's elegantly staged "The Pitmen Painters" based on a ground-breaking book by my friend and former colleague, art critic William Feaver, that tells the apparently unpromising, but actually riveting tale of an adult education course in art for a group of miners.

My choice for Best Actor was difficult, because there was Kevin Spacey's tour de force as Charlie Fox in "Speed the Plow," Simon Russell Beale as Undershaft in a lavish production of "Major Barbara," Michael Gambon as Hirst in Pinter's "No Man's Land" and Ben Whishaw as above. As Harold Pinter only died last week, it was tempting to vote for something related to our greatest only-just-no-longer living playwright in every category possible. But, in fact, there is no award for Best Playwright (though there is for Most Promising Playwright), or for Best Production, so I and my fellow critics were deprived of the chance to pay posthumous tribute to Pinter.

The only other rubric in which I had too many choices was that of Best Director. I found it hard to decide among Declan Donellan for the Cheek-by-Jowl lateral-stage production of "Troilus & Cressida;" Katie Mitchell; Rupert Goold for "No Man's Land;" and Matthew Warchus for a stunning staging of the entire trilogy making up "The Norman Conquests" at the Old Vic. And this reminds me that, much though I was inclined that way, I could find no category in which to vote for its playwright, Alan Ayckbourn.

I'm not intentionally being coy about whom I did vote for, but it would obviously be a breach of etiquette to reveal my choices before the awards are made (and possibly even more wrong to do it after). However, it was interesting to note that I was confronted with an impossible choice for Best Designer, both because the play I thought merited my vote (the NT revival of the wonderfully wacky Peter Handke "The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other") had separate, but I thought equal, designers for sets, costumes and lighting, and because I could think of half a dozen other worthy candidates.

Another lesson I learned from this exercise, was that I strongly considered people for awards in two different categories for Joanna Murray-Smith's comedy, "The Female of the Species" (that was so clearly about Germaine Greer, though all parties including Prof. Greer denied it vehemently), despite the fact that it was by no means a perfect play. And though I've seen upwards of thirty productions this year, obviously I don't get out enough: I had a hard time naming anything I'd consider "Best Musical," and ended up nominating something I'd actually seen in an opera house. I hope that doesn't disqualify it.

December 29, 2008 4:42 PM | | Comments (0)

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