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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
LOOKING BACK AT 2012

HE' ALIVE, HE'S ALIVE(THE BARD THAT IS)
By MATT WOLF

  Simon Russell Beale in Timons of Athens/ Ph: Johan Persson

Alan Bennett was responsible for one of the most disappointing plays of the year (People) as well as two of the most engaging (Hymn and Cocktail Sticks); musicals were thin on the ground and the only ones that were any good happened to be by Stephen Sondheim; and the Royal Court generated one astonishing new play premiere after another to solidify its title as London playhouse of the 2012 theater year bar none – unless you happened to be watching Shakespeare in one or another of many languages at Shakespeare’s Globe.
 
That last, of course, was the singular – and unforgettable – Globe to Globe season at the Thames-side reconstruction of Shakespeare’s one-time playhouse, which preceded its annual in-house summer lineup with the sort of event unlikely ever to be repeated, at least in my lifetime. Under the auspices of Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole and his indefatigable festival director, Tom Bird, the theater was given over for six weeks last spring to the Bard’s entire output of 37 plays in as many languages, including a Henry VIII in Spanish that turned a musty old text into a fiery marvel and an Israeli Merchant of Venice that was met with wounding protests, both inside the theater and out. Never before have I watched a theatergoer be quite literally pried out of a seat and taken away – a sight that was immensely saddening for all sorts of reason, not least by contrast with stagings that offered one thrill or insight or cultural appropriation after another – a true marathon that primed the culturally minded for the athletic thrills of the Olympic summer that followed.
 
Shakespeare was everywhere to be feasted on anew across a year that saw the sexiest-imaginable RSC touring version of The Taming of the Shrew from Director Lucy Bailey (David Caves and Lisa Dillon were her Petruchio and Kate) and, later, the most moving at Shakespeare’s Globe during their own regular season. That one saw Toby Frow directing a semi-clad Simon Paisley Day as Petruchio opposite his damaged yet spirited Kate, played by the ever-delicious Samantha Spiro. And for once, a play that has generally been made ironic in order to work, at least to modern-day sensibilities, earned its stripes anew by being played simply for truth: a wonderful evening that showed, once again, the extent to which a venue once-dismissed as a tourist trap is eminently capable of nuance.
 
Continuing with the Bardic theme, Jonathan Slinger cut a complexly human Prospero in an RSC Tempest that found the same astonishing talent mining far more from Malvolio in Twelfth Night than tends to be the norm these days. Simon Russell Beale followed up his prize-winning Josef Stalin in Collaborators with a National Theatre Timon of Athens that was all but ripped from the gut. His first-act finale gave a vivid flavor of the Lear that this actor has been rumored to be preparing with longtime chum and colleague, Sam Mendes. And the Bard exerted his commercial muscle, as well, in a late-autumn pair of West End transfers from the Globe in the Mark Rylance-led stagings of Richard III and Twelfth Night, the latter (and better) of the two all but stolen out from under Rylance’s black-clad, geisha-like Olivia by Paul Chahidi’s cunning, impish Maria – a supporting turn to treasure.
 
I was less taken than some by Jonathan Pryce’s oddly hearty and unmoving King Lear, but cheers, and cheers again, to Phyllida Lloyd and her faultless all-female ensemble in the Donmar’s Julius Caesar, dominated by Harriet Walter as a fierce Brutus who seemed to give way in front of our eyes; her final sobs have lingered to haunt me still. So, on a non-Shakespearean front, there was the sight of a rampaging Helen McCrory in full and furious flow in The Last of the Haussmans, the one-time actor Stephen Beresford’s imperfect but hugely entertaining authorial debut, and the glorious Hattie Morahan charting a febrile path through the doll-like maze of designer Ian MacNeil’s shifting set for A Doll’s House, which emerged despite strong competition as the revival of the year. Carrie Cracknell and her ace cast return with the play to the Young Vic in April.
 
Musicals seemed to be on hold, pending a flotilla of the form during 2013. Singin’ in the Rain far outshone the directly comparable Top Hat in almost every regard, while the Jonathan Kent-directed Sweeney Todd had only grown in power since an unbalanced Chichester debut that had found its footing, and how, by the time Imelda Staunton, Michael Ball and the company reached the Adelphi. Best of all was first-time Director Maria Friedman’s forensic take on a later Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, that the actress-singer knows first-hand, having starred in it 20 years ago. Under her watch, a problematic piece emerged both intact and enhanced, with Jenna Russell, Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley doing protean work on both the singing and acting fronts.
 
But it was the Royal Court to which one returned with the utmost anticipation, across a half-dozen or more premieres from writers both new (Luke Norris' terrific Goodbye to All That) or established (Caryl Churchill’s typically audacious Love and Understanding). First among equals was Jez Butterworth with his first play since Jerusalem, The River, a piece as elliptical and poetic as the earlier three-act epic was raucous and rude. Ian Rickson’s peerless production reopens on the West End in the new year, at which point one can savor anew a star performance from Dominic West that defines this play much as Mark Rylance did its predecessor. And on the culinary front, West each performance served up a freshly prepared sea trout whose smells wafted tantalizingly into the house. World-class writing and cooking smells as well? Some nights in the theater really do have it all.

 


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