After looking back at my television highlights of 2015, it’s time to look at what television treats we can expect in 2016. There are exciting dramas returning to the screen, as well as some new offerings which I’m curious to try. So, here are my top choices of programmes to tune in to this year. As I’m in the UK, this list refers to dates and channels on which the shows will be aired here (if known).
The X-Files (Channel 5 – early February)
Anyone who knows me will have expected nothing else to be top of my teleevision choices list for 2016! The X-Files was my first addiction and would probably still be my category if I were ever to go on Mastermind. Therefore, it’s fantastic that it is returning to our screens, albeit for only six episodes. With David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson back in such iconic roles, Chris Carter back at the helm and stories also from Glen Morgan, James Wong and Darin Morgan, this is already very promising. I sincrely hope this delivers for all the fans, but also pulls some new viewers in too. Remember, The Truth is Still Out There!
The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (BBC Two)
In the hope this would air in 2015, this was also on last year’s list, but we can expect the second series of the BBC’s Hollow Crown some time in the next few months. Entitled The Wars of the Roses, this captures Henry VI and Richard III, with some of Britain’s brightest acting talent involved. Alongside Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard, there’s Dame Judi Dench, Sophie Okenedo, Andrew Scott, Tom Sturridge and Michael Gambon to name but a few. If the quality is as high as the first series (recommended if you missed it), then we are in for a treat.
Happy Valley (BBC One)
I came late to Happy Valley in 2014, but it impressed me almost immediately, with Sarah Lancashire playing such a strong and complicated character as Catherine Cawood. After the traumatic events of the first series, it will be interesting to see what writer Sally Wainwright has in mind for her next. I’m sure it will prove to be just as exciting and engaging as before and especially when the teaser trailer just released includes James Norton as the awful Tommy Lee Royce!
Line of Duty (BBC One)
Line of Duty quickly became a success (with help from social media fuelling interest) and with two strong series, both with separate stories, the possibilities are endless of Jed Mercurio’s drama. After focussing on Lennie James’s Tony Gates in series one and Keeley Hawes’s superb multi-faceted performance as Lindsay Denton in series two, the bar has been set very high for the next instalment. With Vicky McClure and Martin Compton being joined by Daniel Mays and Will Mellor, I’m already very excited to see this and will be going to a BAFTA preview screening of episode one on 8th February, so we can expect this some time in the near future.
Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, 25th April)
Although the last series was a bit of a mixed bag (but made up for with Hardhome!), I’ll always look forward to my return to Westeros. Now that we are in uncharted territory, with the majority of characters past book positions, anything could happen in series six and in a show where no one is safe, that is very exciting indeed. Filming photos suggest there will be some wonderful sequences in the new series and I’m looking forward to finally moving forward with the story (seeing as who knows when we’ll get book six from Mr Martin)!
James Norton will be back on our screens again for the second series of Grantchester, in which he plays the lovely vicar, turned detective Sydney Chambers, in stories based on the novels by James Runcie (the opposite end of the spectrum to his character in Happy Valley thank goodness). This was a lovely drama when it aired in 2014, with some interesting charcater relationships and a great partnership in James Norton and Robson Green. Anyone mourning the end of Lewis can take comfort in this series as a worthy replacement.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, 15th April)
I admit to being a person who prefers dramas to comedies, on both film and television, but after two friends raved about this Netflix series last year, curiosity got the better of me and I’m so pleased that it did. You cannot fail to warm to the ever optimistic, innocently naive Kimmy Schmidt, as she adjust to life in the real world after 15 years spent in an underground bunker. The scripts are witty and sharp, the characters are fun (who doesn’t love Tituss Burgess’s loveable Titus Andromedon!) and the acting is very good indeed. If you haven’t been tempted yet, give it a go – I guarantee you’ll be humming the theme tune all day.
The Crown (Netflix)
“Two houses, two courts, one Crown.” The first trailer for this upcoming, ambitious new Netflix series has just been released (see above) and it looks very promising. The Crown will chart the two key istitutions of Britain – the monarchy and the government, from the 1950s onwards. Written by Stephen Daldry (writer of the acclaimed play The Audience), with a huge £100 million budget and starring some excellent actors, particularly Claire Foy as the young Elizabeth II (last seen playing Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall), Matt Smith as Prince Philip, Alex Jennings as Prince Edward, Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and John Lithgow as Churchill, this could be a historical drama to rival the BBC if the quality is there.
Queen Victoria (ITV)
Staying on the historical theme, ITV will later this year be casting a light on the young Queen Victoria in their new eight part drama series. Fresh from her time on Doctor Who, Jenna Coleman is the young Victoria, as the series charts her life from accession at 18, through to her marriage to Prince Albert. It has a fantastic cast including Tom Hughes (as Prince Albert), Rufus Sewell, Peter Firth, Eve Myles and Nigel Lindsay. I still really only know about Queen Victoria’s later life and reign and therefore I’m looking forward to seeing a new aspect of her story.
House of Cards (Netflix, 4th March)
Everyone loves Frank Underwood right? Or is too scared not to?! In the series which undoubtedly helped Netflix become the success it is now, Kevin Spacey has become so iconic in this role and his partnership with Robyn Wright is always glorious to watch. Now occupying the Oval Office, it will be interesting exactly what lies in store for them in the next series.
Death in Paradise (BBC One – started Thursday 7th January)
Another heart-warming and fun series that blows away the winter blues is Death In Paradise, which returned this week. I didn’t see the first two series, but as a fan of the lovely Kris Marshall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching Humphrey settle in to island life. How can anyone not love him?! It’s fun, entertaining and is Sherlock Holmes on a tropical island, as Humphrey seemingly solves murders using clues that no one else can see. Yes, your parents may watch it, but so what? This is a brilliant winter tonic!
The Night Manager (BBC One)
Coming soon in 2016 is this six-part adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel, in which a former British soldier (Tom Hiddleston) is recruited by intelligence agent Burr (Olivia Colman) to infiltrate the arms trade being run by Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie). I haven’t read the book, but I love a good spy thriller and with such a strong British cast I have high hopes for this series.
Undercover (BBC One)
As a fan of the BBC’s legal drama Silk, it’s wonderful that its creator Peter Moffat has a new series coming this year. Sophie Okenedo leads the show as the first black Director of Public Prosecutions, who discovers her husband (Adrian Lester) has been lying to her for years. I’m intrigued enough to tune in!
In the Pipeline / Awaiting a UK network…..
I always enjoyed Prison Break, although admittedly the first series was certainly the best. News that it is the next show to be revived is a bit of a surprise, but I’ll tune in to see what direction the story takes next. I believe it will be set as though the finale (in which we said farewell to one character for good) didn’t occur. After watching them act together in The Flash it’ll be great to see Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell back in the roles they are most famous for.
Of Kings & Prophets (starts in the US on 8th March on ABC)
I imagine the makers of this new biblical series are hoping it’ll attract the same audience as Game of Thrones. Its success will depend on whether it’s decent and can attract an audience fast enough. The pilot has already been partly recast and reshot, but the trailer looks promising. With established actors including Ray Winstone (as Saul, King of Israel) and Nathaniel Parker, hopefully the acting quality will be strong. For me though the biggest attraction is its young, male lead, playing David (as in David vs. Goliath, future King of Israel) Oliver Rix. He was Aumerle to David Tennant’s Richard II in 2013 for the RSC and proved what a fantatstic actor he is. I hope this does well (but doesn’t keep Oli away from the stage for too long)!
Damian Lewis is back on television is this new US series, playing hedge fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, who is trying to be brought down by US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti). Having just started in the US on Showtime, I’ll be keeping an eye how this series is received. Given the pull of the two stars, if it is successful hopefully it’ll soon appear here in the UK.
His Dark Materials (BBC One)
I’m quite excited by the prospect of the BBC adapting Philip Pullman’s popular trilogy of books in to a series, especially after the success of last year’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Admittedly, this may not make it on to our screens until next year, but just in case, I wanted to include it here, as I’m sure it will prove to be a wonderful series for all the family, whether a fan of the books or not.
So those are the shows I’m most excited about watching in 2016 from the ones we know about this early on in the year. Who knows what else could be coming to our screens over the next 12 months! Feel free to let me know what you will be watching. I’m always looking for recommendations!
The Olivier Awards is a strange awards ceremony. As a celebration of theatre, rather than film or television, it’s the one for which I am able to form a better view of who I think should win and who I think should have been nominated. Then again, although it’s the most prestigious theatre awards in the UK, it doesn’t cover national theatre, or even all London theatre. To be eligible for the Olivier Awards, a show has to be on for at least 30 performances in London, but at either a SOLT (Society of London Theatre) theatre or an “affiliate theatre”. As it’s always hard to know which theatres are included in the list for consideration, it’s therefore always hard to know what has been snubbed, or what was simply ineligible! I personally still think there needs to be a ceremony for theatre like the BAFTAs for film and television – one that covers all British theatre, but that’s a fantasy I know will almost certainly never happen.
Grumblings aside, anything celebrating theatre on television is guaranteed to get me excited and I was thrilled to be able to see the highlights of this year’s ceremony on ITV, albeit on so late that I already knew all the winners! From the highlights show this evening, it looked to be a wonderful celebration of London’s status as the greatest city for theatre in the world and the musical numbers were lovely to see. As someone who missed out on seeing her as Grizabella in Cats this year, I thought Nicole Scherzinger was fantastic singing Memory and medleys from Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon were fun too. I was very disappointed that the performance by the City of Angels cast was cut from the televised show, but we did at least get to see Kevin Spacey bring the house down with his rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water with Beverly Knight. I certainly hope the stages of London won’t be without him for long after he leaves the Old Vic.
As for the awards themselves were there any surprises? Perhaps a couple and of course such awards will always be subjective, with a clear winner for some not the same for others. With that in mind, my thoughts are based on the shows and performances from the last year that I loved and felt deserved to win.
Best New Play = King Charles III – I’m thrilled that Mike Bartlett’s superb new play about the Royal Family post Queen Elizabeth II was awarded Best New Play. Without a doubt it was my favourite production last year, one which had me leaving the theatre, after just its second preview, knowing I’d seen something truly exciting and different (you can read my full thoughts on the play here).
Best New Comedy = The Play That Went Wrong – Perhaps a surprise winner is that of best new comedy, with The Play That Went Wrong beating two shows that perhaps were given a higher profile, Handbagged and Shakespeare In Love. It’s a play I’ve been meaning to see and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has now been reminded that they must book a ticket while it’s still running!
Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre = Bull – Of the four nominees in this category (one which I’m not hugely clear about whom is eligible!), I’d only seen Bull so I’m pleased Mike Bartlett picked up his second award of the night for this production. I saw its premiere in Sheffield and also its London transfer to the Young Vic (which is on a roll for productions these days). It may only have been 50 minutes long, but it’s a play filled with powerful and uncomfortable performances, highlighting the very worst in office politics and certainly deserved this recognition (you can read my full review here).
Best Actor = Mark Strong (A View From The Bridge) – For me this was the toughest set of nominees, while still missing out the brilliant Ben Miles for Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies, whose performance of Thomas Cromwell should have been nominated. All four performances were outstanding and among some of the finest I’ve seen to date on stage. I was torn between James McAvoy’s incredible turn in The Ruling Class (you can read my full review here) and Mark Strong (with Richard Armitage close behind for The Crucible!) and so I’m happy that one of them was successful. A View From The Bridge was a production of the highest quality and his performance was breathtaking. If there is another chance to see an NT:Live Encore cinema screening of it – go!
Best Actress = Penelope Wilton (Taken At Midnight) – I have to admit that this was one of the surprises of the night for me, on top of the surprising fact that Helen McCrory was not nominated for Medea. I did not see Penelope Wilton in this role, but I am genuinely amazed that the award did not recognise Gillian Anderson for A Streetcar Named Desire or Kristin Scott Thomas for Electra, both of which demonstrated just how important strong, powerful roles are for women on stage. Had I been voting, I’d have picked Gillian. Yes, I’m an X-File / long-term Gillian fan, but that’s not the main reason. Personally, hers was the performance which left me at the end feeling emotionally exhausted and buzzing the way only a truly fantastic night at the theatre can make me. She gave everything in to the role of Blanche. Perhaps she’ll have better luck at the Tony Awards after the show appears on Broadway next year.
Actor in a Supporting Role = Nathaniel Parker (Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies) – Nathaniel’s interpretation of King Henry VIII in Wolf Hall / Bring Up The Bodies was very good and a worthy winner. However, I think my vote would have gone to Richard Goulding, whose performance as Prince Harry grew in depth and quality over the course of the run of King Charles III, resulting in a believable and multi-layered character, with whom you felt true sympathy by the end of the play.
Actress in a Supporting Role = Angela Lansbury (Blithe Spirit) – It seemed a foregone conclusion to me that Angela Lansbury would win in her category. She is 89 years old, performing 8 shows a week in a London run and has never won an Olivier before. They couldn’t not give it to her! She was wonderful in Blithe Spirit, entertaining and full of fun and with a clear love of her job, but she wasn’t the best of the nominees in my opinion. All four nominees were excellent, whether the chillingly disturbing girls in The Nether or Phoebe Fox in A View From The Bridge. However, I would have loved to have seen Lydia Wilson win for her role as Kate in King Charles III, a performance which was full of confidence and charisma and stood out in a production filled with cracking performances. Her Kate Lady Macbeth-style power behind the man performance was wonderful to watch and I’ll certainly expect to see her nominated more at these awards in the future.
Best Director = Ivo Van Hove (A View From The Bridge) – The director shortlist was another incredibly tough choice, with all four helping bring to the stage some of the best theatre of the year. I was lucky enough to see all four productions and I’m not sure I’d have been able to choose a clear winner, or would have changed my mind as soon as I’d voted! I’m not surprised that Ivo Van Hove took the award though, as his claustrophobic, stark vision of Arthur Miller’s classic received glowing reviews from audiences and critics alike and through it he was able to generate some truly breathtakingly powerful performances.
Best Lighting Design = City of Angels – A thoroughly deserved win for Josie Rourke’s Donmar revival. All four productions were worthy nominees, as the lightning of each certainly added to the drama and quality of each one, creating such unique atmospheres, whether the candlelit Almeida, the Tudor halls of Wolf Hall or the stark atmospheric mood of A View From The Bridge. However, City of Angels would not have been the show it was without Howard Harrison’s lighting, creating the glitz and colour of one world, compared to the black and white of the other.
Best Costume Design = Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies – As a regular visitor to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I’m so pleased that its brilliant and dedicated costume team won for their contribution to the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning books. The costumes certainly helped bring Tudor history to life in sumptuous, beautiful detail and I can’t think of a better choice from this shortlist.
Best Set Design = The Nether – Until a few weeks ago my choice for this category would have likely been City of Angels. However, that was before I saw the Royal Court’s production of The Nether, currently playing in the West End. It is without a doubt one of the most unique and impressive sets I have ever seen and one which had an incredibly difficult task, bringing the virtual world and the real world together so convincingly. Each time we, as an audience, enter The Nether you genuinely believed you were entering another realm. The combination of set and video graphics were perfect and it would have been a crime had it not won.
I didn’t see most of the nominated musicals so it would be unfair for me to comment on the winners and losers in most of these categories, with the exception of the revival and audience award. I must try and see the Hampstead Theatre’s Sunny Afternoon (currently in the West End), which took best new musical, best actor and supporting actor in a musical. The night has also fuelled my intention to finally buy a ticket for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (winner of best actress and supporting actress in a musical) and I’m thrilled for Katie Brayben, who was fantastic in both American Psycho and her smaller roles in King Charles III.
Best Musical Revival = City of Angels – First of all, I still think it’s criminal that none of the actors in this Donmar production were nominated in either main or supporting musical categories! This is already one of the highlights of this year’s theatregoing calendar for me – wonderful songs, incredible sets and lighting, an engaging story and some truly excellent acting and vocal performances, from some of the finest talents in musical theatre. Due to these omissions, I’m thrilled the show won Best Musical Revival. Now, if only it could have a West End transfer too!
This Morning Audience Award = Wicked – Akin to the Radio Times Audience Award at the TV BAFTAs, this award is an opportunity for the public to vote for its favourite musical (why it can’t also include plays I do not know). Musicals of course attract loyal fans, who go to see them again and again and these awards are a chance for them to show their support for such long-running shows. Of the shortlisted four, my vote went to Matilda, a musical I hoped would go on to greater success after I first saw it one snowy Saturday afternoon in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2010, but I’m not surprised Wicked won, as it probably has the strongest fan base of the four nominees.
With already some strong performances and productions hitting the stage in 2015, I’m sure the Olivier Awards will continue to generate discussion and debate when next year’s nominations are announced. One thing that isn’t in debate however is that we should all be very proud of the level of quality found in the theatres of London, but also around the rest of the country. Maybe one day my wish for an all-encompassing set of national theatre awards will become a reality.
After looking ahead to what’s coming to the stage, cinema and TV screen in 2015, as well as picking my favourite theatre of the year, I thought I’d look back at those television moments in 2014 that had the biggest impact, whether for good or shockingly terrible reasons, especially if you didn’t see it coming.
Here are my top ten.
1. Line of Duty episode 1 – Farewell to DC Georgia Trotman
I hadn’t watched the first series of Jed Mercurio’s police drama and it was only the buzz on Twitter as series two began that motivated me to catch up and I’m certainly glad I did. This definitely was one of the strongest dramas of the year – superbly written to keep you guessing as to guilt or innocence of Keeley Hawes’s DI Lindsay Denton. However the moment that stands out for me and had me stunned was the murder of new cast member Jessica Raine’s DC Trotman. Just as you felt you were getting to know her and she was settling in, she gets thrown out of a window! Goodness knows what series three will have in store.
2. Sherlock: The Empty Hearse – Sherlock & Molly
January saw the much anticipated return of the BBC’s Sherlock after two years! Yes it was only around for three weeks, but in three episodes it reminded us how much better it is than most shows on television. I could have picked so many moments from series three (the stag night, the best man’s speech, the game of Operation), but the one I have to go for is the fantasy Molly/Sherlock kiss from The Empty Hearse. I first saw it at a preview screening and the reaction from the audience was brilliant. For a few seconds I really wondered what on earth was going on! Not only was the whole sequence a wonderful way to open the episode, but it is one of the hottest kisses on the big or small screen.
3. Game of Thrones – The demise of the Red Viper
Ahh Game of Thrones, it can always be relied on to bring some truly shocking moments to the screen. As someone who has read the books, it’s great to anticipate the scenes that you know will shock and see how well they are executed. Only choosing one is tough and a close second is Tryion’s superb speech during his trial, but it really had to go to the fight between the Red Viper and the Mountain and its unexpected and brutal end. Could this really be as shocking as it was to read? In short – yes. In fact it was more gruesome than I imagined it would be and is a great moment to watch with those who have no idea what’s about to happen.
4. The Good Wife – the tragic death of Will Gardner
It’s refreshing that a series in its fifth year only continued to get stronger and I loved the latest twists and turns in The Good Wife, as we saw Alicia leave to start her own firm (the whole episode where everyone finds out is superb). However nothing could beat the tragedy of Will’s unexpected death. Sadly due to the gap between US and UK air dates (about five weeks), I found out what was in store and so the surprise was lost on me. However the moment Alicia hears the news was still beautifully played by Alan Cumming and Juliana Marguiles. Series six will certainly be interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing what direction it will take.
5. Life Story – Barnacle goslings leap from their nest 400 feet up to follow parents
I don’t watch all nature programmes but the BBC’s Life Story was wonderful and filled with stunning moments. The one that stands out though is the story of the Barnacle goslings, who only days after birth must either follow their parents in their 400 feet leap or starve. Watching each chick leap off and plunge all that way, before hitting the rocks and bouncing to a stop was terrifying and astonishing and reminds you how incredible nature is.
6. Happy Valley – Catherine is almost killed saving the day
I missed this superb drama on its original airing and have only recently caught up after so many people raved about it. They were certainly right. I’m still not a fan of shows with young women in danger, but I couldn’t stop watching this thanks to Sarah Lancashire’s superb performance as Catherine Caywood. She’s such a fantastic character. The moment for me has to be after she has found Ann and after a frightening struggle with James Norton’s horrid Tommy, is dragged, bloody and hurt out in to the street. It was shocking, but some of the most realistic and powerful television I’ve seen for a while. It’s great to hear a second series in on the way.
7. Doctor Who – Fear is a superpower
2014 saw us welcome a new Doctor in to the TARDIS as Peter Capaldi became the Twelfth Doctor. I loved series eight, for its strong run of episodes and its slightly darker tone and I was torn between three moments that stick out. Runners up are the alley scene from Deep Breath, in which the new Doctor demands a homeless man (played by Elisabeth Sladen’s husband) gives him his coat and the scene from Flatline in which the Doctor moves the mini TARDIS to safety with his hand. However, my favourite moment is from Listen when the Doctor explains to a young Rupert why being afraid is a good thing because “Fear is a superpower.” I really knew at this point how wonderful Peter was going to be as the Doctor.
8. The Blacklist – Red’s monologue about death in “Anslo Garrick”
Okay, I admit that this is a bit of a cheat as this moment was actually aired in 2013. However, as I only started watching The Blacklist this year and this moment has stayed in my mind, I thought I’d include it anyway. In this two-part story, Red ends up locked in the secure holding box with Agent Ressler to escape from the terrorists who have entered the FBI facility to kill him. As he tries to save Ressler’s life, in an impressive scene by James Spader, he explains why he doesn’t intend to die then and paints a vivid picture of everything he wants to do before he does die. It’s a really beautiful moment and was when I knew I was hooked on the story of this intriguing character.
9. GBBO – Alaskagate!
Although series three of the Great British Bake Off has yet to be bettered for me, in terms of contestants and creations, Alaska-gate from the latest series had to be mentioned here! Along with a large portion of the country I was appalled when Iain discovered Diana had removed his baked alaska from the freezer. When she says “Well you’ve got your own freezer haven’t you?” I was livid! Fair enough it may have only been taken out for a few seconds and been edited to make it seem worse, but that comment from Diana seemed wholly unacceptable to me and very rude. Poor Iain.
10. House of Cards – Did you think I’d forgotten you?
Last but not least is a moment from the first episode of the second series of Netflix’s political drama House of Cards. No, it’s not the death of Zoe Barnes, as I could see it coming a mile away. Instead the moment for me is from the very end of the season opener, when I’d forgotten that Frank Underwood tends to speak to camera every so often. After him not doing it for the whole episode, it’s quite creepy when, all of a sudden, he looks in to the bathroom mirror and says: “Did you think I’d forgotten you?” Kevin Spacey is so good in this role and his monologues are some of my favourite scenes, with this one certainly top of the list.
So those are my television moments of the year. Hopefully the next twelve months will be filled with many more.
As 2014 is almost over, it’s time for my look back at my theatregoing year. I’ll start by saying it’s been far shorter than I’d have liked, as due to breaking my ankle, I’ve not been able to get to a theatre since August. As I try not to think about the productions I had to miss, I can at least look back at a nine months filled with some truly superb shows. In 2014, I managed to make it to 38 live productions, of which I returned to see 7 productions more than once, giving a total of 58 theatre trips. I also managed to tick another two productions off my archive list, by visiting the V&A archive to see the RSC’s 2011 production of Cardenio and the Royal Court’s 2007 production of Rhinoceros.
After much thought and in no particular order (apart from my number one, as ranking them further would be too big a challenge!), my top ten is below.
Top 10 Favourites
1. King Charles III (Almeida Theatre)
Top of my list this year is the superb King Charles III, which I saw during its original run at the Almeida. I’m a big fan of both Mike Bartlett’s work (his recent play Bull made it on to last year’s list!) and Rupert Goold and found this to be a refreshingly new and exciting play (see my full review here). A bit of a slow burner, but as the story progressed I became absorbed by it, wondering what direction Bartlett had chosen to take in this alternate United Kingdom. The brilliance here is also structuring it in the style of a Shakespearian History play! Filled with fantastic performances, particularly Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, Adam James and Lydia Wilson, I loved that it dared to do something different and the ending was incredibly powerful. I must try and see the current cast at the Wyndams Theatre before it ends in January if I can.
2. The Pass (Royal Court Theatre)
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I headed to the Royal Court Upstairs in February for The Pass. However, it didn’t take long for me to know that this was something very special indeed. The Pass centres on two friends at the early start of their professional football careers and follows their different paths, while also superbly raising the issue of what it would be like to be in such a world and perhaps by unsure as to what you really wanted in life and what really will make you happy, sexually or otherwise. Russell Tovey was truly incredible as Jason and commanded the stage throughout.
3. Birdland (Royal Court Theatre)
More from the Royal Court, this time downstairs for Simon Stephens’s (whose Seawall topped last year’s list) new play Birdland. We are drawn in to the world of Paul, an international rock star whose 15 month world tour is reaching its conclusion. He can have anything or anyone he desires, but is that really enough anymore? Andrew Scott is always mesmerising on stage and he gave an absolutely phenomenal performance as Paul, tackling every imaginable emotion over the course of the play. He effortlessly moved from lighter moments to those which suggest a dangerous, darker side to Paul lurks just below the surface. It takes great skill to be able to be both emotional and emotionless in so short a time and Andrew Scott was more than up to the task. The set was also very clever and I left the theatre feeling very excited at seeing something new and powerful (feel free to read my full review here).
4. Once (Phoenix Theatre)
I’d always quite liked the sweet indie film Once and had been meaning to go and see the stage version. Unbelievably it took me over a year but I’m so pleased I made it this year, especially during the time of Zrinka Vitesic and Arthur Darvill. They were both utterly superb. Zrinka had been in Once in London since it opened and this year justifiably won the Olivier award for her portrayal of this heart-warming character. She brought a perfect blend of playful humour, bossiness and tender emotion to the role and you instantly connect with her as soon as she steps foot on the stage. Arthur was also excellent as the Guy, who is at first bewildered by this whirlwind of a woman who has entered his life. After playing the same role on Broadway for a number of months he clearly understood the soul of the character and his chemistry with Zrinka was beautifully tender and romantic. Its warmth and magical spirit will make you laugh, smile and cry and will leave you feeling deeply moved. Try and see it if you can (my full review is here).
5. A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic)
It’s been a fantastic year at the Young Vic and the two standout productions for me both make my top ten. First is Tennessee Williams’s classic production starring Gillian Anderson and Vanessa Kirby. I’d never seen Streetcar before and this was certainly a superb production to start with. I loved the staging. As an audience member you can’t help but feel as if you are intruding on the innermost lives of the characters and there is a wonderfully effective, voyeuristic quality too, due to the rotating stage. I’ve admired Gillian Anderson for years and she was absolutely incredible. She drew the audience in so much to Blanche’s disintegration that by the end of the production I certainly felt exhausted and incredibly moved after having watched such a powerful and emotional performance (my full review is here).
6. A View From A Bridge (Young Vic)
Another incredibly powerful night at the Young Vic this year was for the stunning production of Arthur Miller’s A View From A Bridge. Everything about this production was superb – the claustrophobic box set, the lighting, but above all the performances of the cast. Nicola Walker does a fantastic job as Eddie’s wife, who is growing ever more concerned about his attachment to their niece (also wonderfully played by Phoebe Fox). However, the standout performance is by Mark Strong, who is breathtakingly intense as Eddie. It is such a nuanced performance, through which we really see the depths of his character and he is certainly one of the finest actors I have seen on stage. This production is transferring in to the West End next year, so make sure to grab a ticket fast.
7. The Crucible (Old Vic)
From the Young Vic, to the Old Vic up the road for another Arthur Miller classic (and another first for me – my full review is here). This superb production also stands out for me as it was the last production I was able to see before breaking my ankle! South African Director Yael Farber’s powerful production particularly benefited from the current configuration of the Old Vic stage. Playing such an intense story on a smaller stage, surrounded by the audience was an inspired decision. Its deeply atmospheric, sparse staging by Soutra Gilmour, the effective use of light and shadow by Tim Lutkin, mist-covered entrances and terrifyingly eerie music score by Richard Hammarton, are all enhanced greatly by the almost claustrophobic atmosphere created by having faces gathered all around the stage. Richard Armitage has an incredibly powerful presence on stage and you could not fail to be moved by his portrayal of Proctor, as he moves from moments of sorrow, to weakness, intense anger, rage and delicate emotional vulnerability.
8. Rapture, Blister, Burn (Hampstead Theatre)
I thoroughly enjoyed Gina Giofriddo’s latest play, focusing on the choices available to women today – career or family? marry or remain single? – and whether any of these possible choices will make you feel fulfilled or whether the grass is always greener. I found the scenes in which the history of feminism, the role of women and their relationships with men are debated incredibly absorbing and thought provoking and the performances of all five actors were excellent. However it was Shannon Tarbet as Avery who stole the show with some truly sharp and witty one-liners and who you couldn’t fail to like. A highlight I wasn’t expecting too much from before I went (my review is here).
9. Wolf Hall (RSC, Swan Theatre)
I have owned Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels for a few years now and have never had time to read them. However I was thrilled to hear that Mantel herself was to adapt them, together with Mike Poulton for the RSC and what a brilliant production it was. I preferred Wolf Hall out of the two, but both this and Bring Up The Bodies were excellently acted, directed and conceived for the stage. On the smaller stage of the Swan, the plays seemed even grander, almost too big for the space, while keeping a wonderfully intimate feel. Ben Miles was utterly superb as Cromwell, who for each 3 hour production barely leaves the stage. I hope this finds just as much success on Broadway next year.
10. Analog.ue (National Theatre, Lyttelton)
Choosing a final production has proved quite difficult, with so much I’d enjoyed this year. In the end the top ten had to include Daniel Kitson’s latest part theatrical, part art installation show at the National Theatre as it was certainly a highlight for me and one which has stayed with me ever since. It was a unique story, which weaved together memories from the past with the present. It was incredibly moving and beautifully reminded me of the power of memory and how important memories of our past will be to us as we grow older or to those who come after us, offering them a glimpse in to a time long past. I even dug out an old recording of my grandparents, which I hadn’t listened to for years after seeing this. My full review is here.
Narrowly missing out on the Top 10
These are the productions that almost made it in to the top ten.
- The Knight of the Burning Pestle (The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) – A quirky, comic and fun production from the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Having the grocer and his wife within the audience throughout is such a brilliant device, especially in such an intimate setting and truly engages the audience in a whole new way. You can read my full review here.
- Richard III (Trafalgar Studios) – Martin Freeman’s intelligent Richard simmered with menace in another great Shakespeare adaptation from Jamie Lloyd.
- Clarence Darrow (Old Vic) – Kevin Spacey was superb yet again as human rights lawyer Darrow in this impressive one-man show (see my review here)
- 1984 (Almeida Theatre) – Another brilliant production for Rupert Goold’s theatre, as Headlong perfectly brought such an atmospheric and iconic book to the stage.
- Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse) – Another of the Bard’s plays ticked off my list in an engaging production with a strong cast led confidently by Tom Hiddleston.
- Red Velvet (Tricycle Theatre) – After missing it the first time around, I loved Adrian Lester’s passionate performance as Ira Aldridge (see my review here).
Wonderful repeats from previous years
There are always productions I can’t help but see again another year, although this year there were only two, both of which were on last year’s top ten:
- American Psycho (Almeida Theatre) – Rupert Goold’s first production in charge of the Almeida was a gloriously refreshing and exciting production, brilliantly led by Matt Smith. I still wish there had been a cast recording!
- Richard II (RSC at Barbican Theatre) – This was certainly a production that grew over its run and by the time it reached London the cast were on fine form. David Tennant may not have been as strong as he was in Hamlet, but his Richard II was still wonderful to watch. Although for me, the stand out performance remains that of Oliver Rix as Aumerle.
Disappointments of the Year
- A Small Family Business (Olivier, National Theatre) – Although there were some good performances, this play was too dated and dull for me and far too long.
- Mr Burns (Almeida Theatre) – Although I enjoy seeing something that dares to be different, the third Act of Mr Burns was just too weird for me, making me wish I’d left after Act 2.
- Slava’s Snowshow (Royal Festival Hall) – I was simply bored by this. Perhaps it’s more for kids.
- The Mistress Contract (Royal Court Theatre) – Another production that was just a bit dull for me, despite two good performances.
Memorable moments in Theatre
There have been some wonderful moments that I’ve witnessed or experienced at the theatre during 2014, which included:
– A West End return – Seeing Angela Lansbury’s return to the West End stage at the age of 88 in Blithe Spirit and from the front row for only a tenner too!
– Martin Freeman commits brutal murder – Just when Martin Freeman’s Richard III didn’t seem that frightening, he kills his wife by strangling her over a desk with a telephone cord! After watching him cruelly stalk her around the room, watching him finally kill her was very chilling (especially from my stage seat).
– Kevin Spacey captivating an audience – Watching how at home Kevin Spacey looked, sitting in an armchair, at the centre of the Old Vic, surrounded by a rapt audience.
– The thrill of a first preview – Attending the first performance of Birdland and being reminded yet again how incredible Andrew Scott is on stage.
– Discovering a new young talent – Discovering Shannon Tarbet in Rapture, Blister, Burn, who I’m excited to watch in lots more to come.
– Site specific theatre in gorgeous surroundings – Experiencing voyeuristic theatre at the Langham Hotel for The Hotel Plays.
– The thrill of knowing you’ve seen something new and utterly brilliant – By the end of my first trip to King Charles III (on the second preview), it was thrilling to feel the excitement of seeing a superb new play, especially by the time it reached the glorious last scene.
– Visiting a new, fantastic theatre – My first trip to the Park Theatre, a theatre I’m sure I’ll be visiting a great deal in the years to come.
– Saying an emotional farewell – Joining in the emotional applause at the final performance of Once for Arthur Darvill and Zrinka Vitesic from the front row.
– Enjoying phones being used in a theatre – Enjoying the quirk of actually using your mobile phone during a production at the Donmar for Privacy. I doubt I’ll ever think that again!
All in all it’s been a fantastic, if somewhat curtailed year of theatre for me, in which I’ve seen some wonderful moments on stage by some of the finest actors working today. I am thoroughly looking forward to what surprises 2015 will bring (and I’ll post my top choices for 2015 soon)!
As 2014 draws to a close, it seemed to be the perfect time to look at what television treats we can expect in 2015. There are certainly lots of exciting dramas returning to the screen, as well as some new offerings which I’m curious to try. So, here are my top choices of programmes to tune in to next year. As I’m in the UK, this list refers to dates and channels on which the shows will be aired here.
1. Broadchurch 2 (ITV, starts 5th January 9:00 p.m.)
Series one of Broadchurch was a television highlight in 2013 and now series two is almost here. Starting on 5th January, I truly hope that our return to this little community meets the expectations that we all have. With the plot still much of a mystery, which is certainly a good thing, it seems a safe bet that the cast will be just as brilliant as before, with David Tennant, Olivia Colman and many of the cast returning, together with new additions including Eve Myles. From the trailer, will this revolve around Carver’s old case Sandbrook, is one of the new cast his ex wife (Eve Myles maybe?) and will we meet the character mentioned in the tie-novel, Jocelyn Knight, which I thought was the clue teased at. All will soon be revealed, but in case you missed it, here’s the trailer!
2. Wolf Hall (BBC Two, air date TBC)
I’ve owned Hilary Mantel’s pair of Booker Prize-winning novels for years and have never quite had time to start them. However after a February trip to the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the adaptations by Mike Poulton and Mantel herself, led by the superb Ben Miles, I am now very much looking forward to this BBC dramatisation. It’s an impressive cast, including the fantastic Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and no one quite pulls off a period drama like the BBC do. Maybe I’ll try and read those books at long last before it starts!
3. The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses (BBC Two, air date TBC)
More period drama coming to the BBC next year is the second series of the excellent Hollow Crown. After the success of Ben Whishaw’s award-winning Richard II and Tom Hiddleston’s Hal in Henry IV and Henry V, 2015 will bring us Henry VI and Richard III, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard and a starry ensemble cast including Dame Judi Dench. As with Wolf Hall, the cast and directors attached to the project are very exciting for a Shakespeare fan and hopefully these television dramatisations will continue to bring a whole new audience to some of the finest plays ever written.
It’s incredibly refreshing that a drama entering its sixth year only seems to get stronger. I’m currently avoiding all spoilers as this new series has already started in the US, but hopefully a UK air date on More 4 will be announced soon. After the tragic loss of Will last year, I’m excited to see if Diane will now indeed join forces with Alicia and what exactly will happen between her and Peter, not to mention seeing more of Matthew Goode’s Finn Polmar, as well as a return by Michael J Fox and the superb Alan Cumming.
5. House of Cards (Netflix, available 27th February)
Netflix certainly did well to bring this brilliant series to the screen. Based on the UK original, Kevin Spacey has become an iconic television character as Frank Underwood, who by the end of series two has successfully schemed and manipulated his way to the very top. I still see echoes of his Richard III when I watch the show and its twists and turns will no doubt keep us gripped yet again when the drama returns in February.
Another highly anticipated return is to the glorious world of Westeros as the series makes its way further through George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Books four and five split the narratives of the characters up, with some only appearing in four and some only in five. However, the television producers have sensibly decided to merge these for the screen, meaning we’ll get to follow all our favourite characters throughout. Whether like me you’ve read the books and are looking forward to seeing certain moments brought to life, or are simply enjoying the series as it unfolds each year, no doubt the production quality and cast for series 5 will be as high as ever. Winter is indeed coming (probably in April).
7. The Blacklist (series one returns to Sky Living in 2015)
I was a little late to the party watching The Blacklist, but after having caught up this year, I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of series two, when Red Reddington returns in 2015. If you haven’t yet watched it, The Blacklist centres on Raymond “Red” Reddington, a former government agent, turned master criminal, who voluntarily surrenders to the FBI. He offers to help them catch dangerous criminals (some of whom they aren’t even aware of!), with the agreement that he will only talk to a rookie, young profiler Agent Elizabeth Keene. James Spader is superb as Red and it’s his mysterious link to Keene that really grabs your interest and attention. Catch up if you can.
8. Fortitude (Sky Atlantic, January)
Set in the Arctic town of Fortitude, a shocking murder rocks this usually safe, close-knit community. Sky Atlantic’s new drama has an incredibly impressive cast, including Richard Dormer as the local Sheriff, partnered with Stanley Tucci’s out-of-town DCI Morton, as well as The Killing’s Sophie Grabol, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston and two of my favourite young actors Luke Treadaway and Jessica Raine. The plot reminds me of both Broadchurch and nordic hit The Killing and I’m truly hoping this will be as good as it sounds. You can watch the trailer here.
9. Sherlock (BBC One, Christmas 2015 Special)
Although we won’t be getting a full series until at least 2016 (something I try not to think about!) due to the crazy schedules of those involved, we can at least look forward to a Sherlock Christmas special a year from now! With filming due to start in January, no doubt more information will start to be revealed (and I hope to at least see a bit of filming if I can!). So far we have the above photo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, suggesting some nod will be made to a period-style Holmes and Watson. I do however hope that not everything is revealed as for me Sherlock is a series that is so much better the less you know before you watch it. I’m confident enough to say already that this will be a television highlight of next year’s festive season!
I was disappointed to hear that this series has already been cancelled in the US after 13 episodes. Created by Rand Ravich (who also created one of my favourite shows Life starring Damian Lewis), Crisis revolves around the kidnapping of a number of students at an elite Washington D.C school, whose parents include some of the most powerful and influential people in the country. However, as a Gillian Anderson fan, I’m thrilled that it’s at least being shown over here on Watch and I’m still looking forward to watching it. The trailer is here.
After a strong first series (see my thoughts here), Peter Capaldi will be back in 2015 for series 9 of New Who. With filming to start in the new year, not much is known as yet. The opening episode is to be called The Magician’s Apprentice and the good news is that series nine will also be aired as one block, rather than split in two (which I think is much better for the show). Whether Jenna Coleman will be back will no doubt become clear after Christmas Day’s special Last Christmas, the trailer for which you can watch here.
I have never read Susannah Clarke’s fantasy historical novel, but I’ll certainly be tuning in to this new BBC adaptation. It tells the story of an early nineteenth-century England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, in which magic exists but has been largely forgotten. That is, until a young recluse (Norrell) displays some remarkable magical skills, kick-starting an expansive period tale of a society in flux, which includes fairies, war, and magic. I’ve always heard great things about these books and I’m definitely looking forward to this seven-part series starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan, to air some time in 2015. So far all we have is this teaser clip to whet the appetite!
I thoroughly enjoyed the first series of ITV’s Grantchester, based on the books by James Runcie and was thrilled to hear that it’s been renewed for a second series. For anyone yet to catch up, the series stars the brilliant James Norton as Sydney Chambers, the clergyman of the sleepy village of Grantchester, who seems to spend more time solving crimes with Inspector Keating (Robson Green) than working on his sermons. Hopefully series 2 will appear some time next year.
This new drama by Kudos has been written by the brilliant Abi Morgan (The Hour) and stars Stellan Skarsgard as John River, a brilliant police officer whose genius and fault-line is the fragility of his mind. He is haunted by the murder victims whose cases he must lay to rest. As stated by the BBC he is “a man who must walk a professional tightrope between a pathology so extreme he risks permanent dismissal, and a healthy state of mind that would cure him of his gift.” Also starring Nicola Walker, Eddie Marsan and Lesley Manville, this sounds very interesting indeed.
15. The Game (BBC One, air date TBC)
Oddly this BBC drama has debuted in America first and as yet has no UK air date! It is a Cold War spy thriller set in London in the 1970s, in which the head of MI5 sets up a secret committee to investigate the existence of a Soviet plot code-named Operation Glass, whose existence was revealed by a KGB officer seeking to defect. Written by Toby Whithouse (Doctor Who, Being Human) and with a great cast including Brian Cox, Tom Hughes and Jonathan Aris, this six-part drama sounds very promising. Here’s the BBC America trailer.
…And here are a couple that better reach the UK in 2015!
Aquarius (UK channel and air date TBC)
After the success of Californication, David Duchovny is returning to television with Aquarius. Set in 1967, LA Police Sergeant Sam Hodiak is investigating the disappearance of the teenage daughter of a respected lawyer. Needing help, he partners with an undercover cop and along the way they encounter a small-time cult leader, who will go on to become Charles Manson and the series will delve in to his cat-and-mouse game with the police. As yet there is no UK channel or air date, but I’m keeping all my fingers crossed that we will get to see this some time in 2015.
I still maintain that series one of Heroes is an excellent season of television. It had a fresh and interesting premise, great characters and lots of drama and tension to engage the audience. Yes, the show did become a bit ridiculous and although I’m glad I watched all four seasons, it did become weaker by the end. I’m therefore intrigued as to what to expect from this new 13-part miniseries. It has the potential to be brilliant. All fingers are crossed!
…….With all this to look forward to, 2015 looks to be a fantastic year for high quality television!
Since he became Artistic Director of The Old Vic in 2004 Kevin Spacey has continued to take to the stage of his theatre and last night I went to see his latest production – David W Rintel’s play, Clarence Darrow, about the famous American civil rights lawyer, directed by Thea Sharrock.
Clarence Darrow is a role Spacey is rather familiar with already, having played the role in the 1991 television film Darrow for American channel PBS and again on stage at the Old Vic in 2009 in the superb Inherit The Wind (in which Darrow is known as Henry Drummond). The latter was in fact my first trip to The Old Vic. I loved Inherit The Wind, not just for Spacey’s and the other superb performances (including David Troughton), but also due to the incredible story it told. I was therefore thrilled to hear Mr. Spacey was revisiting Mr. Darrow before his time at the theatre was over. Tickets sold rapidly for this short three-week run (slotted in to Mr. Spacey’s schedule before he films series three of the brilliant House of Cards) so I felt lucky to have managed to secure one at all.
The play itself is based on the book Clarence Darrow for the Defense by Irving Stone and is a one man affair, in which Darrow reflects on his career, from his beginnings in the law, his first successes with the Labour movement, through darker periods and his more famous cases, including the Scopes “Monkey” case (around which Inherit The Wind is based). However, despite there being only one person on stage, the play is written so that through his reflections, Darrow brings to life other characters – as if going back in time, he examines and cross examines witnesses and has conversations with, for example, his wife, in a way that, although we don’t hear the other half of the dialogue, we hear it in our minds. Aided by timely sound cues, whether of a jeering crowd or gunshots, this is very effective and adds an additional dimension to the play, meaning what could have been a fairly dry monologue-style play becomes something much more engaging.
Darrow is a key figure in American legal history and arguably the greatest trail lawyer of the 20th century. His brilliance and passion in court and his career-long battle against the death penalty (over 50 years he saved 102 people from the death penalty) set him apart. Added to this is his role in three of America’s most famous trials of the 1920s (the Leopold and Loeb murder trial, the Scopes “Monkey” case and the Ossian Sweet trial, all of which are covered in Clarence Darrow). In light of his achievements in defending the weak and endeavouring to make mankind see that death is never the answer no matter the crime, it is hard not to admire him. It was clear last night just how much Kevin Spacey admires him through his superb performance.
In its current configuration as a theatre in the round, this play finds the ideal setting. The stage is a small circular space within which sits Darrow’s study/office. Boxes and files are everywhere and throughout the show, Spacey roams about the place, shifting a box here and there. As he moves around, Spacey gives us a true insight into this extraordinary man. We see his anger at the treatment of miners working 14-hour days with only a potato to nourish them, we hear his wit and charisma as he recalls moments in court in front of juries whom he desperately persuaded to see crime and its punishments differently and we see his despair at his own struggles, most notably when falsely accused of bribery. Spacey handles the content of the play brilliantly and I can’t think of many actors who could so easily capture the attention of a theatre in such a way. Throughout the two 45 minute acts, he is witty, passionate and moving, delivering some of Darrow’s most famous courtroom speeches with emotional depth and resonance. He also engages with the audience, addressing them at times as if the jury and clearly reveled in the atmosphere and engagement (one woman’s hand –raising request to join his jury at one point was met with a “I’ll come to you later” response).
Interestingly he is far less made up here than he was for Inherit the Wind (at which time Darrow was in his mid 60s and Spacey was suitably aged), but in light of the style of the play it didn’t matter to me. This is arguably the Darrow of Darrow’s own mind and therefore he could reasonably be from any time in his life in terms of appearance.
This style of production and play may not necessarily appeal to everyone but I certainly enjoyed Clarence Darrow. It was insightful and thought provoking, whilst still containing moments of humour and wit (Darrow clearly had a quick wit to go with his sharp mind). Perhaps in lesser hands it wouldn’t work as well, but with Spacey in the role, it’s an impressive display by, in my opinion, a superb actor. Although I think theatre in the round is tough in terms of engaging with everyone (for the most part, all the big emotional speeches are delivered facing forward, which would no doubt have been frustrating for those seated on the stage side), I loved this intimate setting. It felt appropriate for such a play and in my view allowed the audience to be drawn to Darrow much more effectively. There was also something lovely about seeing Kevin Spacey, who has unquestionably transformed The Old Vic over the last ten years, sitting in a comfy chair at the centre of an audience hanging on his every word. To be able to remember so much dialogue and single-handedly carry a production is quite an achievement and I am certainly glad I was able to see it. I only hope we see Mr. Spacey on what has become his stage once more before his time as Artistic Director ends next year.
(Image edit by Vineeta via the Shakespeare In Action blog)
Wednesday 23rd April 2014 marks the 450th birthday of England’s most famous playwright William Shakespeare. It is incredible to see how important his work remains today and I wanted to mark his birthday by looking back at my own Shakespearean theatre highlights. I admit up front that I have yet to see them all (I have nine left on my list) and I have only the last few years to draw from, but the wonder of Shakespeare is that there is something in his work for everyone and you are never to old or too young to start. So many themes in his work are relevant today and it is crucial that we continue to encourage children to experience Shakespeare (through for example the RSC’s Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign) and learn by doing rather than simply reading. Far too many adults feel Shakespeare is off limits as they view it as too difficult or dry. For those of us who are already passionate about his work, we need to encourage those people to give it a try – a well directed and performed production can change your whole attitude to the Bard if you are open to the possibilities.
I am also a firm believer that anything theatre companies can do to draw new audiences to Shakespeare can only be a positive step. I am always disappointed when, on the announcement of a famous TV/film actor, it is criticised by some as stunt casting. This frustrates me for many reasons but principally – most such actors have long theatrical backgrounds and the fact they are now known more widely for film or TV does not and should not belittle their casting or subsequent performance. Plus if such casting brings a fan base to Shakespeare not usually there then surely that is something we should applaud?! It’s incredibly insulting to suggest that all such people will never see anything else. I say this as one of them! Although I enjoyed the theatre and saw a few shows a year, it was David Tennant as Hamlet that prompted me to return to Stratford-Upon-Avon for the first time since school and reacquaint myself with Shakespeare’s work. Six years later and I am a passionate theatregoer and proud supporter of various theatres. I also know so many people whose love of Shakespeare grew from such a start and I think that’s fantastic!
So, as his birthday slips away (being out for World Book Night means this post is a little delayed!), here are my special Shakespearean moments so far. I have no doubt that there will be plenty more to come!
My first live Shakespeare – Romeo & Juliet (RSC, 2000)
It’s only right I start with my first live Shakespeare, which was Michael Boyd’s 2000 production starring David Tennant and Alexandra Gilbreath (isn’t that a coincidence?!). As an A-Level English trip, it was fantastic to visit his birthplace and see his work live for the first time.
The closet scene – Hamlet (RSC, 2008)
It took me eight years before the next Shakespeare play, which brought me back to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see a familiar face as Hamlet. This will always be a special production to me. It reignited my love of theatre and led me to meet so many wonderful friends. Directed by Greg Doran, it was a wonderful ensemble of actors, each perfect in their roles. Every Hamlet I’ve seen since there has always been something I’ve not liked, whether a performance or setting and that’s why this remains the benchmark for me. It was also clear and accessible and funny (something I never realised about Hamlet). I could have picked many moments but I’ve gone with the scene that I always looked forward to on each visit to the show and that’s the closet scene. I found it thrilling each time and the power, pace and emotion invested by David Tennant and Penny Downie was superb.
The female Bastard – King John (RSC, 2012)
I wasn’t familiar with King John before my visit to the Swan and had no idea what to expect. This production was simply fantastic and was like no other History play I have ever seen (and with a soundtrack like no other either!). Set in a world I wouldn’t have expected, it was fun and exciting to watch. Alex Waldmann was excellent as John but it was Pippa Nixon as the Bastard who impressed me the most. Her performance in a traditionally male role was incredible and planted her firmly on my “must see” list.
Pizza and shots anyone? – Twelfth Night (Filter Theatre Company, Tricycle Theatre, 2010)
The Filter theatre company has a unique way of presenting its work, whether for example, Shakespeare or the use of sound or water, to introduce its audience to ideas they may not have explored before. My first Filter production was their unique interpretation of Twelfth Night. It was modern, quirky, dared to be different and made its audience sit up and pay attention and opened Shakespeare up to a whole new audience. Plus the inclusion of pizza for the audience seemed to go down very well indeed!
Mercutio dazzles – Romeo & Juliet (RSC, 2010)
After studying this play at school and then seeing it performed often, as well as screen outings, I’d started to become a little bored of it. Then along came Rupert Goold’s production to remind me how a production can make all the difference as to how we view a play! From the opening scene in which Benvolio is doused in petrol and almost set alight, this was clearly going to be something special. Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale’s relationship as the tragic lovers was a wonderful and modern interpretation. For me however, the shining star was Jonjo O’Neil’s bleach blonde Mercutio. He was magnetic on stage and burned so brightly I couldn’t take my focus from him.
Mark Rylance returns to the Globe – Twelfth Night (The Globe, 2013)
After missing it the first time around it was fantastic to see Mark Rylance’s revival of his all male Twelfth Night at the Globe last year. Although I enjoy trips to the Globe, I always find myself getting distracted by other audience members and my own fidgeting on the bench seating. This is still the only production during which I have been totally absorbed. Ryalnce’s Olivia, gliding around the stage was a joy, as was all the cast, but especially Johnny Flynn as Viola and Stephen Fry as Malvolio. It had a genuine magic in the Globe’s setting that I won’t forget in a hurry.
Loyalty and loss for Aumerle – Richard II (RSC, 2013)
As the production marking his tenure as Artistic Director of the RSC, Greg Doran should be proud of this production. I don’t think it was David Tennant’s finest work on stage (it’s still Hamlet for me), but this version of Richard II was brilliantly conceived and performed by everyone involved. As I find with most of Greg’s productions it was clear to understand and all the friends I took to see it had no problem following the story. As well as bringing another opportunity for me to see one of my favourites on stage, this production also included the Shakespeare master Oliver Ford Davies, a superb Michael Pennington and lots of new faces. The standout performance for me though was that of Oliver Rix, whose Aumerle was beautifully realised, and developed in depth and character over the course of the run. Oliver’s own understudy performance as King Richard was also a privilege to see and highlighted to me once again the importance of the role of understudy (see my previous post for more on this).
The power of evil Spacey – Richard III (Old Vic, 2011)
From one Richard to another, I was very excited at the time to see Kevin Spacey’s interpretation of evil Richard and although some aspects of this production disappointed me, his performance was not to be missed. He was a convincing Richard (although I admit to thinking about The Usual Suspects every so often when watching him!). It was a dramatic production with some interesting artistic choices. I loved the use of the projection screen for a scene and also the simple turning off of a bare lightbulb when someone was killed.
The partnership of Rory Kinnear & Adrian Lester – Othello (NT, 2013)
This was my first Othello and I think I’ve been spoilt! The relationship built between Kinnear’s Iago and Lester’s Othello was thrilling to watch and the whole production had an energy about it that drew me in from the start. I was very pleased Rory Kinnear was recognised for this performance at this year’s Olivier Awards.
Never has paint been used better! – Much Ado About Nothing (Wyndams, 2011)
Yes it’s another Tennant one (so what?!) and yes this was all a bit silly, but it was a production filled with fun and memorable moments. I thought the Gibraltar setting during the 80s was perfect for the style and tone chosen for this version and due to their already strong friendship, David Tennant and Catherine Tate were able to create a sparkling dynamic between as Benedict and Beatrice. I also loved the addition of Adam James to the cast as Don Pedro. He was younger an more playful than others I’d seen, but still carried an air of loneliness that, although subtle, was I thought clear to all. The moment has to be the paint scene. It still makes me laugh every time. David Tennant has excellent comic timing, which is on full display here and Adam, Tom Bateman (soon to be the Bard himself in Shakespeare In Love) and Jonathan Coy did fantastic jobs enhancing the utter farce of the moment.
A beautiful friendship – Henry IV (The Globe, 2010)
I will always be sad that I missed this production live, but thanks to The Globe’s DVD releases I was at least able to catch up and soon understood why everyone I knew who had seen them talked about them so much. There isn’t enough praise for Roger Allam’s Falstaff – funny and tragic, the loyal friend who is left behind for the greater good and every emotion felt genuine. The relationship with Jamie Parker’s Prince Hal was lovely and made the end so much more powerful. Although I enjoyed the current RSC Henry IV, this version is still the best for me so far.
Derek Jacobi as Lear – King Lear (Donmar, 2010)
The title says it all really! I’m not a huge fan of this play (I know I know that’s bad right?) as it’s always such an emotional slog for me, but I couldn’t miss Derek Jacobi in the role and this will no doubt be my favourite production of this play for some time. It was clear he was giving everything he had to the role and in such a small place like the Donmar, the power and emotion of the story seemed all the more vivid.
Corporate greed and excess as written 400 years ago! – Timon of Athens (NT, 2012)
Simon Russell Beale is a master of Shakespeare and is currently doing a brilliant job as Lear at the NT. The performance that makes my list though is this 2012 production. Set in a very modern world of corporate excess and greed, the play felt as if it could have been written in the modern day. This highlighted again how Shakespeare is not meant for a world of the past but will continue to be relevant for any age.
Berowne and a tree! – Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC, 2008)
It may have been Hamlet that drew me to the RSC in 2008, but Love’s Labour’s Lost was perhaps the bigger surprise for me. Another unfamiliar play at the time, the ensemble created a vivid, colourful world on stage and the scene in which David Tennant’s Berowne eavesdrops on the other men whilst sitting above in a tree was a definite highlight. I’ll always remember Sam Alexander’s huge book from within which he produced his musical instrument and began to sing! Priceless!
Flying books – The Winter’s Tale (RSC, 2009)
My highlight of the RSC’s 2009 season was this production of The Winter’s Tale. I loved the staging with its polished wood floor and towering bookshelves and Greg Hick’s performance as Leontes was excellent (my favourite of all the ones he did at the RSC that season). The moments before the interval as the books fly from the shelves and the bookshelves themselves start to crash down was something I’ll always remember.
Glastonbury-style fun – As You Like It (RSC, 2013)
I always think this is a strange play as there really isn’t much plot in the second half (Greg Doran made this point at a talk last year too!). Therefore for me to enjoy it, it has to be a strong production and my favourite so far is last year’s RSC one starring Alex Waldmann as Orlando and Pippa Nixon as Rosalind. It was engaging and entertaining and the strength of the two leads was clear, whose chemistry shone. The Glastonbury-style woodland setting was quite beautiful, adding to the fun and magic of the dancing at the end.
So those are my Shakespearean highlights. Not bad for only a few years of theatre trips! I’d be interested to hear about the productions you’ve loved over the years and I sincerely hope that people are still enjoying Shakespeare’s wonderful work in another 450 years time!