Dramatic Memory Loss

At every year's end there's a rush to nominate and then vote for the UK Critics' Circle Drama Awards, and every year I suffer from the same sudden memory failure. What and whom have I seen in 2009 that merits a gong? Good though my short-term memory is for the details of performances and sets, by a few days after the review has appeared I'm fortunate if I can remember the name of the play or its author. This gives me an opportunity, though not always a welcome one, to try to look through my year's output. This would be easier if only I had had the sense to organise my Wall Street Journal   theatre reviews by their date (which is my easy-to-keep New Year's resolution). 

Now having completed the exercise, I see that the real problem isn't my memory, which can be refreshed, but the categories in which we're allowed to vote. No best production or best play - only "best new play" and best actor, actress, director and designer. No awards for supporting roles; and, as happened this year (in my estimation) best new play and "most promising playwright"  are two sides of the same coin. 
I've got much more to praise than I'm allowed to vote for; and in the category, "most promising newcomer other than a playwright" I'm voting for a big box-office Hollywood star though he was making his West End début in Sam Mendes's very great double-header Bridge Project at the Old Vic in June.
In January we had a slick revival of Oliver that was outstanding only for Rupert Goold's direction and Matthew Bourne's choreography of the crowd scenes. At the National, though, there was a brief, totally wonderful revival of André Previn and Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, with first-rate performances by Toby Jones, Joseph Milsom and Dan Stevens. In the Donmar West End season's Twelfth Night Derek Jacobi gave the year's best Shakespeare performance as Malvolio; while Greg Doran directed the excellent Royal Shakespeare Company production of  A Midsummer Night's Dream.
If I'd been able to choose a best play, it might well have been Lindsay Posner's fantastic A View from the Bridge, which opened in February, as did the only musical I can be bothered to cheer this year, Spring Awakening. In March there was a perfect Old Vic production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, and a less successful version of Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, mixing period and contemporary staging and costumes at the National. In April the Hampstead Theatre celebrated an anniversary by reviving Michael Frayn's play about a newspaper, Alphabetical Order. Can't see anyone making anything so funny about an online blog.
Good though the Arthur Miller was, I think I'd have to give the best production edge to Beckett, as Sean Matthias's Waiting for Godot in May starred Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart as Estragon and  Vladimir, and Simon Callow as a more-than-usually preposterous Pozzo and Ronald Pickup as a truly magnificent Lucky. This luxury casting was echoed by Stephen Brimson's elegant setting - if you can imagine using the word in connection with anything about Godot. There were fine sets, too, for the Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of Ben Traver's Rookery Nook; ditto for director Rupert Goold's revival of the slightly wacky J.B. Priestley Time and the Conways at the National. 
A potential best new play was certainly Wallace Shawn's Grasses of a Thousand Colours at the Royal Court, where the playwright/protagonist asks only for more "time alone with my dick." And Gillian Anderson could easily have won my vote for best actress as Nora in the new Zinnie Harris version of  A Doll's House at the Donmar.  Except there were even more outstanding plays and performances in 2009. 
Jude Law's Hamlet was almost, if not quite, one of these, directed by Michael Grandage in the Donmar West End Season. A second terrific Stoppard revival, too: David Levaux directing Dan Stevens as Septimus in Arcadia, with splendid Hildegarde Bechtler sets. But June was also the month of the Bridge Project at the Old Vic, where Sam Mendes directed Anglo-American productions of Cherry Orchard and Winter's Tale,  both so fine that they are good candidates for awards for best everything of 2009, and with simply staggering performances by, among others, Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke as a raucous Autolycus. And good though the women were, they stood no chance because, just down the road at the National, Dame Helen Mirren was starring in Racine's Phèdre, eclipsing anyone else's hopes of best actress of 2009. This was that gut-wrenching (hers, not the audience's) realisation of a role that every critic is storing up to describe to his grandchildren. Nicholas Hytner directed and Bob Crowley's sets might well win him the title of best designer.
Just when one great play comes along in June, July brings the triple-crown winner, premiering at the Chichester Festival, before opening in the autumn at the Royal Court. It has to be Enron, the story of how we all got chewed up in the credit crunch. Best new play, it goes without saying; best new playwright, Lucy Prebble, of course; best director of 2009 -  Rupert  Goold, for Enron and at least three or four other plays. As for the acting, there was Tim Pigott-Smith and Sam West, supported by many, many others, including those play the roles of raptors and toxic debts. As brilliant a début as I can remember.
The Donmar's A Streetcar Named Desire was as memorable for Christopher Oram's ornate cast-iron sets as for Rachel Weisz's Blanche, which is to say, very.
Then we leap to October, when at the Old Vic Trevor Nunn directed the Old Vic's artistic director, Kevin Spacey, as Henry Drummond, the Clarence Darrow figure in Inherit the Wind. The revival was timely, as the Yahoos who are always with us are once again making fools of themselves, even if it's only watered-down Creationism now. The direction is brilliant, especially the credible revivalist hymn-singing; Rob Howells unfolding sets are ingenious, and David Troughton pushes the tragedy buttons with aplomb in the William Jennings Bryan role. But Kevin Spacey really rang my bell - he's gets my personal gong for best actor 2009.
Poor Sir David Hare made a mess on stage with his political/rhetorical The Power of Yes at the National - just say no.
Life is a Dream at the Donmar was quite good, and had an outstanding performance of the female lead by Kate Fleetwood. Simon McBurney directed himself as Clov, Mark Rylance as Hamm, Miriam Margolies and Tom Hickey, in the superlative Complicité production of Beckett's Endgame at the Duchess. If it were a lean year, or even a less fat one, they'd all win best of category. At Stratford-u-Avon the RSC Twelfth Night's gimmick was Richard Wilson as Malvolio - its strength, on the other hand, was its gorgeous Levantine sets and costumes. 
Then came the big one we'd all been waiting for, Alan Bennett's new play for Nick Hytner at the National, The Habit of Art. I'd been waiting with bated breath because it's the first time I've ever seen a play where one of the characters was (supposed to be) a close friend of mine. Because the subjects were W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, and as he was the biographer of both of them, my old mate, the late Humphrey Carpenter was the "device" Bennett used to do quite a lot of the work of exposition. I can't say I was not amused - or edified; it's a good piece of work. However Richard Griffiths, who had to be conscripted in the 11th hour to replace Michael Gambon (who looks a deal like Auden), now approaches self-parody, because of his astonishing girth. Indeed the best scene was "Humphrey" in drag playing a brass solo - which was also the closest the play got to portraying the real Humphrey. I had a feeling of unfinished business: I think there's a great play in there, struggling to get out, when Bennett gets around to the re-write.
Nation was a so-so new play at the National, to be treasured only for the part it provides for a filthy-mouthed parrot. Patrick Hamilton's Rope at the Almeida is not the Hitchock movie - but it is as experimental and not altogether successful as Hitchcock said his own film was. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the mostly black Broadway version. The acting's good enough that you wouldn't notice if the actors were green with purple polka-dots. So what's the point? Red at the Donmar is a good new play by John Logan about Mark Rothko making and deciding to revoke the sale of the murals to the Four Season's restaurant in New York. It's a two-hander for Alfred Molina as the painter and Eddie Redmayne as his studio assistant, directed by Michael Grandage, and beautifully installed by designer Christopher Oram. In another year it would take the laurels. And the same is very nearly true for Martin Crimp's smarty-pants new version of The Misanthrope, which uses (not always, but often clunky) verse to update Molière to present-day London, so that Thea Sharrock can direct Keira Knightley in this satire on her own industry and celebrity. Ms Knightley is actually fine, though Damian Lewis in the title role is even better, and the rest of the supporting cast is ace. Designer Hildegarde Bechtler could easily win an award for her cluttered upmarket hotel suite set.

December 23, 2009 12:44 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on December 23, 2009 12:44 PM.

Colours: Hodgkin, Kapoor and poor Tchaikovsky was the previous entry in this blog.

No need for the Cliché-killer is the next entry in this blog.

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