2016: Top Plays – Regional and Touring
Of many regrets I have about 2016, one that is acute is that I did not get to see more work in regions or on tour. Especially this is true in terms of plays – the regions offer great work and effort should be expended to see it.
This list is very personal, based solely on shows I saw myself, and therefore is not long or comprehensive. Sadly. In this time of resolutions, I must resolve to see more plays in the regions or on tour.
There are many inspirational centres throughout the UK producing great theatre: Sheffield, Leicester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, and Plymouth to name but a few. And, of course, at Stratford-Upon-Avon, the RSC continues its work under Gregory Doran. The best productions at the RSC do not seem to travel anywhere – a great disappointment.
Not every show that tours the U.K. is worthwhile, but when good ones come along, they are invariably very good. So it was in 2016.
6. Don Quixote
James Fenton’s new play, The Ingenious Gentleman: Don Quixote, an adaptation of Miguel De Cervantes’ famous novel had its premiere at the RSC in a production directed by Angus Jackson. The glorious central performance from David Threlfall, as Don Quixote, was unmissable, but the RSC chose not to transfer the play to the West End. (This will be a theme – sadly). Funny and sad and thoroughly engaging, this production was well worth the trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
5. The Tempest
The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last full length play and one that is difficult to pin down. It is redemptive and romantic, comical and dramatic – and all within a mystical, magical framework that absolutely has to work. Gregory Doran’s revival for the RSC ensured that the magic was on full display and never in short supply. The visual pyrotechnics and extravagances were stunning. Happily, the story telling was crystal clear – this was a rewarding and exciting version of a difficult, but ultimately marvellous, play.
4. The Rover
Aphra Behn was England’s first female professional playwright and a writer steeped in early feminist themes. Loveday Ingram directed this fresh take on a Restoration comedy, and, with designer Lez Brotherston, created a sexy, very funny and inventive world in which the misadventures could occur. What made the production really stand out, though, was the extraordinary central performance from Joseph Millson – robust, virile and bravura in every way. (The RSC chose not to tour this production to London either)
3. A Tale Of Two Cities
In an England in the grip of Brexit, hard or otherwise, Charles Dickens’ marvellous A Tale Of Two Cities is startlingly relevant. Mike Poulton’s thrilling adaptation of Dickens’ book for the theatre was wonderful in every sense and James Dacre assembled a first rate cast for the UK tour. Everything looked and sounded quite magnificent, and the drama, intense, raw and personal, was spell-binding. Better than most productions playing in the West End, this really was the best of times.
2. A Streetcar Named Desire
Just make Maxine Peake a Dame already. She is one of the most versatile and brave, well, fearless really, female actors working on English stages. She makes you want her to play every role, such is her fortitude and bravura style. Peake made the part of Blanche DuBois entirely her own in a production that was peppered with stellar performances. Sarah Frankcom’s spare, visceral production of A Streetcar Named Desire was astonishing, lyrical and tragic – all at once and continually. Brilliant.
Hamlet is much performed; sometimes people argue that it is performed too often, that repetition dulls its power and that only when stars can enliven it should it be produced. Recently, London has seen such star turns from Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Sheen (neither successful) and soon Andrew Scott is to have his turn as the Danish prince. But at Stratford Upon Avon, in the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, was Simon Godwin’s thrilling, gripping and splendidly alive revival of Hamlet. I have seen more intellectual versions, more spectacular versions, more lyrical versions of this play, but Godwin’s production was a fresh, insightful and completely compelling take on the well known tale. Most importantly it boasted the best cast I have seen assembled for Hamlet – every person made the most of every role – and the characterisations were rooted firmly in the text. Inexplicably, the RSC chose not to tour this production to London, but preferred the tiresome Antony Sher King Lear instead. This was the best RSC production in some – actually, a very long – time.