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A glorious year of theatre

Sue and I agreed at the end of March last year that we would go to the theatre at least once a month for the next year.   I don’t think I’ve ever managed that before in my life, but we’ve now achieved it and it’s been a glorious year.   There are links below to my reviews of each play, but overall we’ve seen some wonderful theatre and some outstanding performances.

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Certainly it helps that we’re close enough to visit Stratford regularly, and we’re rarely disappointed by anything we see at the RSC.  I’ve enjoyed visiting the theatre there for many years, but it seems to me to go from strength to strength.   The new stage is just brilliant and a massive vindication of all the effort that went into transforming the theatre and the associated fundraising.   One of the most striking observations for me over the year has been how restricting the proscenium arch stages in other theatres are in comparison with the thrust stage at Stratford.   It’s given huge freedom to the directors there and they’ve seized the opportunity with both hands.   Even the highest priced seats at other theatres can sometimes offer a view that’s disappointing in comparison with the cheapest seats at Stratford.  We sat in the Upper Circle last week and had a fantastic view of a production that was constantly entertaining as well as thought-provoking.   The quality of acting and of speaking is invariably high, from the leading actors down to the smallest part, there’s almost always live music to support the productions, the sets and the costumes are beautifully done and the overall standard of production is superb.

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The thrust stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford

When we’ve strayed further afield though we’ve found plenty to delight us.  Three very enjoyable trips to the Theatre Royal in Bath and one to the Everyman in Cheltenham to see touring productions, and two fantastic productions at the National in London.   If what we’ve seen over the last year is at all representative of the current standard of theatre in Britain, then it’s in rude health.

So what were the highlights?   In terms of individual performances, seeing Anthony Sher play both Falstaff and Willy Loman has been hard to beat, although Simon Russell Beale as King Lear may have run him close.  In terms of productions, it’s even harder to choose.   ‘Great Britain’ at the National Theatre was certainly a highlight, as was Sher’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, but overall I’m not sure there was anything I enjoyed more than the combination of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘Much ado about Nothing’ played with a single cast and a single setting at Stratford.   Not Shakespeare’s finest plays, and not played with a stellar cast, but both of them a visual delight, beautifully produced, directed, acted and spoken and hugely entertaining throughout.

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Much ado about Nothing in the RSC production 2015

The other question then is what next?  The year may be finished, but the appetite has only been whetted, and I hope to see many more plays over the next twelve months and beyond.  Maybe a bit less obsessively scheduled as at least one every month, but still regularly seen, and if I can manage it, still regularly reviewed on this blog.

Full list of plays seen with links to the reviews

Moon on a rainbow shawl (Errol John) – Theatre Royal, Bath

King Lear (Shakespeare) – National Theatre, London

The roaring girl (Decker & Middleton) – Swan Theatre, Stratford

Wolf Hall & Bring up the bodies (Poulton / Mantel) – Aldwych Theatre, London

Great Britain (Richard Bean) – National Theatre, London

Henry IV Part I (Shakespeare) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Henry IV Part II (Shakespeare) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Regeneration (Barker / Wright) – Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl et al) – Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London

Love’s Labour’s Lost (Shakespeare) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

The Christmas Truce (Phil Porter) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Much ado about Nothing (Shakespeare) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Arcadia (Tom Stoppard) – Theatre Royal, Bath

Oh what a lovely war (Joan Littlewood et al) – Theatre Royal, Bath

Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

King Lear at the National Theatre

I used to live no more than 10 minutes’ walk from the National Theatre, but these days a trip up to London to the theatre is a rare treat. And all the more so when it’s to see Simon Russell Beale playing King Lear at the National in a production by Sam Mendes. The last time I saw Lear was at Stratford in 2007 when Ian McKellen played the lead (possibly more at the right age), so it’s a tough comparison for Russell Beale, but he delivers a storming performance, with a lot of subtlety and even tenderness mixed in with the rage.

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It’s a production that seems to me to emphasise the drama and the emotion over the speeches and the words. When Lear rages, his delivery is too fast and loud to follow the detail of the words (and he’s not the only one), but the emotion and the general meaning is never in doubt. It’s a large scale dramatic production in several respects, from the sheer size of the supporting cast of soldiers, to a raised cliff in the storm scene that is more reminiscent of Les Miz than Shakespeare. There’s plenty of gore too with the ripping out of Gloucester’s eyes added to by Lear bludgeoning the Fool to death in a bath, in what seems like a surprisingly casual episode of violence that provokes little reaction from the other characters. Much the same is true when Edgar kills his brother Edmund. Understandable as the killing may be, it seems to come out of nowhere and to provoke little reaction from a large crowd on stage. By then there’s quite a collection of dead bodies littering the stage, and it seems to be just another one to add to them.

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Kate Fleetwood (Goneril) and Olivia Vinall (Cordelia)

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Kate Fleetwood (Goneril) and Olivia Vinall (Cordelia)

The whole cast is strong and there are other memorable performances. I enjoyed Tom Brooke as Edgar and Stanley Townsend as Kent in roles that both seem to me quite difficult to get right. Funnily enough the last memorable Edgar I saw was Simon Russell Beale himself, many years ago at Stratford. Kate Fleetwood played Goneril entirely plausibly as a chilling but regal Wallis Simpson figure, but for me Anna Maxwell Martin was far less plausible as Regan and hit several jarring false notes. Overall though, a great day out, a production that will live long in the memory, and all rounded off by a ride up to the top of the Shard (totally over-priced, but an amazing view) and dinner at Jamie’s Italian (an unalloyed pleasure).