A MIXED year, with Shakespeare’s Roman plays inevitably reflecting the political chaos of our own times. Outstanding was Antony and Cleopatra, largely owing to Josette Simon’s queen, whose “serpent of old Nile” shifted moods mercurially and magisterially stage-managed her own suicide.
Two new plays by Richard Bean bookended the year — The Hypocrite in the RSC’s The Swan, a combined Hull Truck/RSC production celebrating Hull’s City of Culture 2017 — and Young Marx, opening London’s splendid new The Bridge Theatre. Both marked the playwright’s characteristic treatment of farce at the heart of history.
The former, dealing with the political chicanery around England’s 17th-century civil war, lends itself to a pantomime treatment in which the royalist Prince Rupert and the Duke of York are spies disguised as fishmongers who are planning to blow up parliamentary Hull’s armoury.
Young Marx starts in a similar vein with Rory Kinnear’s penurious and inebriated revolutionary escaping the law by scaling London’s rooftops or hiding up his own chimney. Nicholas Hytner’s production skilfully draws the audience into the real world of Marx’s domestic tragedy with the death of his son. Yet his dedication to the work which was to provide a beacon of understanding of the capitalist system for future generations shines through.
My most memorable production of the year was undoubtedly Arthur Kopit’s Wings at The Young Vic. In the end the essential success or failure of any play in production depends on the acting and Juliet Stevenson’s performance as a stroke victim struggling to understand and escape from her imprisoned mind and body was astonishing.
For most of the play’s hour and a quarter, she conducts her desperate battle with language — both her own and that of those trying to help her. Literally whirled aloft on a harness and often tumbled upside down in a nightmare experience, she battles with the monster that has taken over her existence. Natalie Abrahami’s production, with superb lighting and sound effects, turns what could have been viewed as a fascinating neurological case study into a compelling tragic drama.
Another five-star production, South African director Yael Farber’s free adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome at the National Theatre, was equally visceral in its power. Total theatre, it merged music, movement, lighting, dialogue and action and transmuted Wilde’s paean of erotic passion into a defiant statement of the dominant male narrative expunging women from history.
Isabella Nefar’s Salome, at the core of an international cast, was no sexually perverted and frustrated woman demanding the head of John the Baptist in revenge for his rejection of her advances but a political activist in the battle for independence against both Rome and male domination.
Edinburgh’s festival this year offered few outstanding moments but Minefield, a powerful documentary drama in which British and Argentinian veterans relive their personal experiences of the Malvinas conflict merged theatre and reality more powerfully than any TV coverage.
The obvious comradeship of this group of ex-combatants from varied walks of life brought home the ghastly idiocy of war. Finally, Kneehigh’s touring production of The Tin Drum, an adaptation of Gunter Grass’s magic-realist novel, carried the burden of German public and personal guilt, embodied in the memories of those who lived through the nazi nightmare and the weight of history on younger generations.
Dramatising any novel always presents problems and, if staging the inventive complexity of Grass’s work proved at times bewilderingly confusing, I was grateful to this courageous company for encouraging me to reread a marvellous book.