Star critics run through what’s impressed them this year
MY LANDMARK productions for the year must start with Tom Morton Smith’s Oppenheimer, the tragedy of the scientific genius who as the “father of the atom bomb” realised that “now I am become death” and changed our world.
Angus Jackson’s innovative production in Stratford’s Swan Theatre had all the power of the RSC’s house dramatist’s great tragedies, with John Hefferman’s memorably tortured portrayal of a man, trapped in the cross-currents of history, who’s driven to create his own Frankenstein monster.
Death of a Salesman, the company’s commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Arthur Miller, was as starkly relevant today as in its 1949 opening. Its message — “the only thing you’ve got in the world is what you can sell”— captures the essence of a system which at the same time deludes and destroys its universal victims.
At the centre of Gregory Doran’s painful and superb production was a towering performance from Antony Sher as Willy Loman, a gravelly voiced walrus hiding from his fears and recognition of business and family failure behind a carapace of words.
Equally powerful in its exposé of a dehumanising world was the London Old Vic’s bold revival of a 1922 work by another master of US drama, The Hairy Ape (above).
Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist portrayal of the alienation of modern man trapped in the industrial machine of modern capitalism left the audience exhausted but strangely elated by Bertie Carvel’s explosive Yank, whose pride in his own brutal energy as the dominant stoker on a cruise liner blinds him from understanding his role as no more than a disposable cog in that machine.
Credit for this production of O’Neill’s “comedy of ancient and modern life” was shared by director Richard Jones and his choreographer, Alette Collins.
From Complicite Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival came Simon McBurney’s amazing The Encounter.In his one-man theatre treatment of an epic journey into the unknown, the audience was taken into a polyphonic world of shifting reality in which McBurney recounted and performed the experiences of the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre.
In 1969 he found himself lost in the Amazon with a primitive tribe seeking the “beginning,” which he realises is death.
As he finds an uncanny ability to communicate subliminally with the headman the audience — equipped with multiple-messaging headphones — were led to question many of the basic individualistic assumptions of Western culture.
Immediately before the disastrous general election, Bristol Old Vic’s well-worked revival of David Hare’s The Absence of War, based on Neil Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat, captured all the wheelings and dealings within a Labour Party machine struggling to present a plausible alternative to the Tories while futilely trying to manage the ubiquitous right-wing media.
At least Jeremy Corbyn offers more hope than Hare’s despondent leader, whose answer to defeat is “Let’s all join the Tory Party. And then let’s all fuck it up.”
Trevor Nunn’s updating of Ben Jonson’s Jacobean comedy Volpone at the RSC’s Swan Theatre featured Henry Goodman’s tour-de-force portrayal of the dying magnifico, gulling his avaricious neighbours into believing themselves his lone beneficiary.
Master of disguise, he easily transforms into an opera-singing snake-oil salesman in order to seduce the wife of one of his willing victims. Nunn uses Ranjit Bolt’s free-wheeling adaptation of the script to go for the jugular in a production which left the audience with uncomfortable recognition of our present day, even while they laughed.
Finally, Welsh National Opera’s delightful production of Stephen Sondheim’s opera-cum-musical Sweeney Todd again revealed how theatre can make us think about our state of affairs. None more so than when the demon barber preparing the fillings for those tasty pies poses the question: “It’s man devouring man out there. So who are we to deny it in here?”
By Gordon Parsons
iN RECENT years, works of good anti-capitalist fiction shone like isolated stars in the dark and moribund vastness of corporate publishing.
But 2015 was a time when the genre went supernova, with an explosion of excellent novels that addressed the current class assault by the rich and big business against the working class both in contemporary terms and with reference to previous but recent eras of storm and stress.
In addition to my six stand-out novels of the last 12 months, space alone forces me to merely mention Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea, Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon, the late Ronald Fraser’s Drought and Elia Kurniawan’s Man Tiger.
DD Johnston’s The Secret Baby Room is a fine thriller set on a new Manchester estate being built on the remains of older, non-gentrified communities who have much to hide.
Johnston creates a vivid sense of place as the new buildings create uneasy intersections with the one remaining but condemned tower block, the old pre-war church house and various flyovers and pathways.
The implicit social observations mirror this sense of change being imposed on communities by the bullying rich and their client law-enforcers who worry more about protecting the establishment’s reputation than taking the concerns of citizens seriously.
Another libertarian communist, Rupert Dreyfus, also holds a shattered mirror up to contemporary Britain. The Rebel’s Sketchbook is an impressive collection of loosely-linked short stories, each a literary homage to Edgar Allan Poe.
They transgressively straddle the ordinary, grim everyday world of the unemployed or those on zero-hours contracts and a usually macabre alternative existence. The most frightening aspect of all is that the characters slip from the first into the second on the outcome of a single decision.
Dreyfus shows us a world dominated by vain politicians, witless synthetic celebrities and the sex-crazed and unlovable rich.
In The Single Feather, Ruth F Hunt affords us another panoramic view of the lives of those that capitalism either disregards or openly vilifies.
Rachel, a young woman with disabilities, dramatically escapes from an unexplained house arrest. She settles in an English town suffering from austerity as public services are cut and foodbanks open. In a bid to alleviate her isolation she joins the local art group.
This first-time author skilfully dissects the contradictions within the club to highlight the self-defeating ways in which the most vulnerable in society define themselves against each other, rather than the rich and powerful who totally despise them all.
Yet the book is essentially an optimistic work that believes passionately that if we truly spend time to get to know each other, we will see there is more that brings us together than separates us.
Tomas Byrne looks at the world from the arrogant vantage point of the corporate capitalist. In Skin in the Game, Byrne uses the template of a standard thriller to reveal the complex mutualised web of interests that allows privatised armies, global investment houses, conniving Western governments and terror groups to call the metaphorical and actual shots in the modern world.
Mainly oscillating between events a few months apart, the book centres on Joe Hawkins, a US terrorism expert who has retired from front-line work to take up an academic post at Oxford.
In the odd chapters, Hawkins starts out on his dangerous quest to investigate the disappearance and then murder of his investment banker brother. The even chapters are set in an interrogation facility where complicit spooks seek to pharmacologically torture Hawkins into madness and amnesia.
A Very British Ending also looks at how the capitalist Establishment seek to neutralise even the most benign challenge to their supremacy.
Edward Wilson’s novel interweaves fictional characters within the fabric of reported history to show how Harold Wilson was a marked man the moment he delivered Rolls Royce engines in return for food and timber to Stalin’s embattled country in the 1940s at the behest of Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps.
Through the eyes of William Catesby, a fictional and utterly sympathetic left-wing British agent, the plots to stymie Wilson and the socialist wing of the Labour Party are exposed in all their duplicitous and serpentine detail.
Author Wilson does for his namesake what DM Thomas does for JFK. This novel shows Harold Wilson as a good and decent man, beset by rogues, traitors and the combined might of the military-industrial complex.
So much for the now or near-now. Fluence takes our society forward a few more years where the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has utterly triumphed.
Think forward a little to a country which is run for and by five big multinationals who have replaced all state functions and where its inhabitants are constantly monitored and their status and income — the fluence of the title — is measured through their compliant popularity on social media.
Novelist Stephen Oram offers us two flawed protagonists, Amber and Martin, who each in their way challenge the control and assumptions of a corporatised society.
He takes these characters on a Dantesque journey into a world devastated by fear and greed, from the patrician “reds” down to the “outliers,” those who have opted out or been pushed to opt out of corporate society. Both Amber and Martin suffer from the physical and mental sadism that allows those at the top to exercise their warped fantasies upon those at the bottom without redress.
The world of Fluence may soon be upon us. We must act to stop a pulsating piece of fiction becoming our terrible reality.