Older was better on the London stage during 2019, a year in which many a veteran took deserved – and in some cases long-overdue – pride of place. It had been 12 years, for instance, since Maggie Smith last trod the London boards in an unduly neglected production of Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque that, rather shockingly given the star casting, was not a commercial hit.
But here was the Dame, 84 at the time, appearing as someone a decade or more older than she is in the Bridge Theatre premiere of A German Life: telling of Joseph Goebbels’s onetime stenographer, Brunhilde Pomsel, who herself only died in 2017 at age 106. Christopher Hampton’s solo play encouraged Dame Maggie to shed her audience-grabbing trademarks – the familiar Maggie-isms available for free on Downton Abbey – to chart with unsparing candor one woman’s direct embodiment of the very real banality of evil. As the play's set slid imperceptibly forward, Jonathan Kent’s cunning production slowly engulfed its seated performer in darkness. I saw the play three times, including closing night, and Smith’s Evening Standard Theatre Award-winning performance remains one for the ages.
In an octogenarian league all his own was Sir Ian McKellen, who took to the stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a two-act solo reminiscence of his life and work that, at the matinee I caught, extended to nearly three hours, so busy was Sir Ian in the foyer afterwards rattling a bucket for various charities and profiting not a dime himself from his thespian heroics. Reminding any tourists who may have wandered in off the street that this exemplar of the English classical stage also played Gandalf on screen, McKellen soon left behind his lightsaber to remind us of his own coming of age as a gay man and, after the interval, as a Shakespearean par excellence who cajoled the audience into calling out the titles of the entire Shakespeare body of work. Sean Mathias' staging was inspiring, rejuvenating stuff from a talent who truly deserves the adjective “ageless” even if I don’t quite understand McKellen's professed resistance to Troilus and Cressida, but perhaps that’s just me.
Few playwrights, too, have stayed the course with the sustained brilliance of Caryl Churchill, 81, whose decades-long affiliation with the Royal Court bore renewed fruit with the autumn premieres of four new plays on a single, unforgettable bill – three short ones and, in the second half, the longer and disturbingly funny Imp. Centering on two ageing cousins brilliantly played by Toby Jones and Churchill veteran Deborah Findlay, the play pushed toward Alan Bennett territory in its emphasis on the tragicomedy embedded in the mundane. And yet, there was nothing ordinary about such images in the evening’s first half as a girl made of glass or a cloud-capped Tom Mothersdale holding forth on Greek myth in all its manifold absurdity. As directed by an unerring James Macdonald, the quartet of writings showed a maverick talent at her undiminished best, prompting one to wonder only where Churchill will lead us next.
Nicholas Hytner, the twice Tony-winning director, may be 20 years younger than some of the names cited above, but the onetime head of the National Theatre surpassed himself at his self-created new home at the Bridge with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that with time is sure to rival Peter Brook’s legendary account of the same play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the production annals of this play. Coupling a major TV name in Game of Thrones lead Gwendoline Christie alongside Hytner regular Oliver Chris, the production invited those who were up for it to follow around on foot, as Bunny Christie’s characteristically ingenious set sprang one or another surprise out of the stage floor. Glancing at Cirque du Soleil here and The Handmaid’s Tale there with bursts of Beyoncé for good measure, this was by some measure the Shakespeare staging of a none-too-invigorating year for the Bard. Hytner is now batting two for two with this writer at this address (a starry Julius Caesar the season before was itself hugely exciting), in the process implicitly challenging all his canonically minded colleagues to up their game.
Not that all directors needed a cue from Hytner or anyone else. Robert Icke, who wins awards the way some people have cups of tea, took the town late-summer with his Almeida Theatre farewell: a self-penned adaptation of a little-known Schnitzler play retitled The Doctor and starring Juliet Stevenson in her best performance in years. The play was challenging in both its themes and its optics. When it came to pairing actors and characters, such verities as gender and race were up for grabs. Much the same was equally true of Nadia Latif’s splendid British premiere at the Young Vic of the Jackie Sibblies Drury Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview in which the same story was told several times over, refracted through the ceaselessly revelatory, perception-shifting lens of race.
Diversity onstage and off was more evident and welcome than ever, whether in the actress-turned-writer Jasmine Lee-Jones’s whiplash-smart Royal Court premiere seven methods of killing kylie jenner, or in the playwriting debut at the Bush Theatre of slam poet Zia Ahmed, whose I Wanna Be Yours found freshly revealing hues in the potentially familiar confines of a mixed-race love story. Keep an eye out for Ragevan Vasan, whose open-faced appeal onstage surely indicates far more to come. The same west London venue devoted to new writing was the site of Richard Gadd’s unclassifiably brilliant, New York-bound Baby Reindeer, a true-life story whereby a generous gesture is seen to reap grievous returns.
Keeping his name on arts pages throughout the year, the director Jamie Lloyd rocked the boat to electric effect during 2019 three times over, capping a productive year with a modern-dress, microphone-heavy Cyrano de Bergerac that located in Rostand’s flowery classic an unexpected heir to Hamilton. The same director oversaw a singularly exciting Evita at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, that replaced the through-sung 1978 musical’s traditional iconography with a visual aesthetic that spoke directly to our Kardashian-inflected age. Don't cry for what's not there and embrace the intelligence of the contemporary critique that Lloyd has gone for instead.
Best of all was a Betrayal from Lloyd, later seen on Broadway, that turned Harold Pinter’s triangular drama into a racially mixed dance of desolation, grounding its cryptic unfolding in a degree of heartache I wouldn’t have thought possible. Utilising a stripped-back stage on which none of the three principal actors (there’s also a waiter) were ever far from view, Lloyd’s Betrayal laid bare more meanings in that play’s title than there are pauses in all of Pinter. Might the dual, and dazzling, presence of costars Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox, alongside a wistful Zawe Ashton as Emma, mean that the production lives on in some way on film? Now there’s something to wish for as we all move hopefully, if sometimes hesitantly, into this new year.