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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Sunday, December 31, 2006 ::

Encore Review of the Year 2006

Thanks to everyone who wrote in with their suggestions for plays, productions, and theatre work in general that deserved recognition in 2006. This was an interesting year for the theatre with some of the most interesting new plays for a while, almost (dare we trendspot?) looking like a pattern, some radical new work at some very mainstream venues. It was also a pretty bad year for the critics who overruled their linesmen to ignore offsides, award penalties where there were none, and showed evidence bias to the home side.

The plays that caught Encore's eye this year took some brave risks with form. What was truly depressing about the critical response to Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? (title of the year, by the way) was the way that most critics, whether they liked it or not, discussed the play as if it were a simple broadside against US foreign policy and the moral compromises that underpinned the 'special relationship' with Britain. That is the description of a newspaper article, not a play, particularly not a play which squeezed this story through a domestic relationship, told it through shards of incomplete dialogue fragments, depicted it (in James Macdonald's beautiful production) in a light-bulb-framed showbiz-mirror, wherein we (and the Public Theatre audience to come) see ourselves and the darkness around us. We don't yet feel we have understood or properly felt the force of those formal devices and this is a play that will haunt Encore's imagination for some time to come. Ravenhill's bold two steps into new ground, The Cut and pool (no water) were treated very roughly by the theatre critics, though the latter play fared better with the more adventurous dance and performance art reviewers who are evidently better attuned to what new theatre is than the content-spotting first-stringers. Both texts were major achievements by one of our major writers and the critics really need to catch up. Simon Stephens dropped his trademark gentleness by showing us, in Motortown (pictured), Britain through the hellish eyes of a returning soldier and in doing so allowed us to imagine ourselves as others see us; the sociological accuracy of the play is far less significant that the political and ethical importance of such an act of fearless imagination, in these times of all times. Anthony Neilson's Realism at the Edinburgh International Festival did not perhaps have the weight and force of Dissocia (finally coming to the Court, thank you Dominic Cooke), but showed further evidence of the vigorous, restless talent of this writer and the creative ensemble he has gathered around him. It was hard to watch Catch without spotting the lurching changes of style, but principally because we all knew it was cowritten. The subject was fascinating and resonant, Kathryn Drysdale as the precocious girl on work experience was a great discovery, but the play didn't seem to amount ot very much, and some of its plotting was shaky (why does Claire tell her fuck-buddy it's her on the video? why keep the bloody database on a chain round her neck, rather than, say, in a safe? At least put a bloody password on it...). Elsewhere at the Court there was less to be excited about. The Winterling was entertaining but a rushed first draft. Rainbow Kiss showed promise more than achievement. Sugar Mummies, O Go My Man, and Piano/Forte were stinkers, unfortunately. Rock 'n' Roll we have already covered extensively.

Blackbird got to London this year in a stupid production with immeasurably coarsened performances; that the play's daring and beauty still came across is a tribute to the hidden robustness of this delicate and evanescent work. The Seafarer on the other hand had a sublime production that more or less entirely hid the silliness of the play. But why discount acting? This was some of the best around. The same might be said of Black Watch; a great evening, but in its toying with verbatim form it seemed gorged on having its cake and eating it. 2006 was a great year for Peter Morgan with superb drama-docs on TV (Longford), film (The Queen), and stage (Frost/Nixon), the latter making a wholly deserved push into the West End, one of the few decent shows there all year. Brenton's In Extremis was a more certain return to the stage than Paul, with more blood and spunk in the intellectual sinews. The Bush did not set Encore alight this year, even Steve Thompson's much-praised Whipping it Up seeming too boxed in by its narrative conventionalities. David Hare's new one, The Vertical Hour, opened on Broadway to mixed reviews - mainly at the expense of Julianne Moore - but in its pitting of British anti-war cynicism against American pro-war idealism, Hare seems to have hit upon an elegant structure to dramatise and complicate its audience's likely preconceptions. The play that excited us the most this year was probably Dennis Kelly's Love and Money, a full audit of the way we live and finding us morally bankrupt. The beautiful, spare, sympathetic production by Matthew Dunster (when are you going to write us another play, by the way?) was a perfect vehicle for Kelly's flinty, hilarious, edgy dialogue, his deep sense of moral decay, and the horror of how we are to each other. We hope, and if we prayed we'd pray, that this play will demonstrate to the critics that we don't have to be literal to write keenly and alertly about the world.

There were some excellent revivals this year. London finally saw Zerbombt (pictured), Ostermeier's production of Sarah Kane's Blasted, a masterpiece of subtle observation, real time aesthetics, and then a spectacular and gorgeous transformation into another world, a world of light and emptiness, the kind of death-world into which the characters at the end of Crave gratefully fall. It was a good year for Blasted, with a terrific touring revival by Graeae (pictured) in the early part of the year, about to begin a deserved London residency at the Soho. The Voysey Inheritance, under Peter Gill's direction, was a spectacular redicovery for those of us who not already made it. The opening, with its Crimp-like interrupted dialogue, was stunning enough, but then one could only watch in horrified admiration through Granville Barker's remorseless eye fixed open on the beast that erupts within us when money enters our mutual relations. The Orange Tree's The Madras House was similarly admirable. Dominic Cooke's RSC Crucible was as good as this very over-rated play could ever get, unfussy, needle-sharp, and urgent. Encore hears good things about the RSC Complete Works season, though only saw the Indian Dream, which it faintly admired. Cheek by Jowl's The Changeling was oustanding at the Barbican . Moon for the Misbegotten was unbelievably, staggeringly dull, utterly without pertinence, resonance, or interest. The set, however, was very pretty with a rich blue in the surrounding cyc that suggests a new process. We must look into that. Cabaret was idiotic; Rufus Norris, brilliant though he is, has made a tit of himself by trying to bring out the politics of this musical: that Cabaret is actually about the rise of German fascism. Oh, you think? It is worrying that this must have been, at some point, a revelation to Norris himself. The crass evocations of Nazi thuggery and a particularly egregious Auschwitz routine were grandly patronising tautologies. The sixth-form moment where a humourless Nazi pushes over some concrete Kabarett letters actually inspired giggles around us. Other damp squibs included The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Tom and Viv, the ETT Mother Courage and the Sheffield Caretaker.

There were some wonderful romps this year. See How They Run was note-perfect, a great reminder that farce, when it is done properly, is unique and sublime. The Chichester Nicholas Nickleby was romptastic, but more, it reminded us of an era of grand, generous, ambitious socialist playmaking and the final moments where the boy is rescued from the snow would stir any left-wing heart. The Life of Galileo was nothing to do with Brecht, but hell it's a good story and if you hire David Hare what are you going to get? Apart from the deeply embarrassing second-half opener (urban decadence created by people who take taxis to work), it was a good and vivid story. Patrick Barlow's retread of The 39 Steps is much funnier than the dour publicity leads you to expect. Dick Whittington was new and old at the same time and set a good tone for what will hopefully be an annual event at the Barbican.

Therese Raquin was kind of a revival, kind of a new adaptation, and for us entirely failed. The set was totally misconceived; the room is supposed to be cramped with material from the shop - the 'dull compulsion of the economic' defining and distorting the bourgeois marriage. That really kinda is the point, isn't it? Instead we got the cavernous mansion-like upstairs quarters of the Raquins and the pressure wasn't there. The attempt to make the relationship really sexy was intermittent and it takes more than passionate clinches to make us believe that two people would kill for love. Mostly one flinched at the embarassment of someone trying to hard to emulate Katie Mitchell - her favourite designer, her favourite lighting designer, her favourite leading man, a gratuitous movement sequence - when the latter would never have allowed the horrible stageyness of Grivet and Michaud, the psychological flimsiness, the sense that people were acting the way they were because that's how we do things on stage, rather than in life. We saw quite the opposite in Mitchell's own astonishing reinvention of The Seagull which got the critics' knickers in a right twist for its supposed vandalising of the text. Sadly the critics don't know their Chekhov well enough, despite having had a chance to shoot down at least five seagulls in the last few years; this was a wholly faithful rediscovery of the play, given the awkward and slightly juvenile work that it can seem in some hands, this was a rich, mature and deeply serious work, stripped of its accumulated archaisms, coming up fresh and clean and achingly true, this was one of the great highlights of Encore's year.

New and experimental performance work was thin on the ground for us. The most exciting single performance we saw was a strange, adolescent, scurrilous and immature piece called Hitler Wrote 20 Pop Songs... Have You Heard Them? (pictured) by a theatre company with the unlovely name Theatre de Cunt. A savage political satire of a kind we have to call politically incorrect, though actually just seemed fearless. None of the pieties that throttle political discourse were observed here; the show was shapeless and overlong, the jokes were uneven, the suggestion that Tony Blair is somehow secretly in league with Adolf Hitler is absurd, but the show had energy and an iconoclastic joy that swept aside these criticisms. Punchdrunk's Faust was well realised but perhaps a bit overextended. Duckie's The Class Club was a strange event; was it really an exposé of class or just a reinforcement of it? Having wider seats in first class train compartments or the tiered pricing in most West End theatres would seem to expose and comment on class just as well. Though perhaps less enjoyably. Richard Maxwell's company had a welcome return to BITE with The End of Reality, adding stiffly awkward fighting to their repertoire of estrangement. Robert Lepage's The Andersen Project was breathtaking and full of heart as well as profound cleverness. The strangest evening of the year, as well as one of the best, was Katie Mitchell's Waves - strange only because it was so odd to see something so daring and experimental on a National Theatre stage, with a National Theatre kind of budget. This was one of the most beautiful experiences of the year.

The performers who most stood out this year were young. We've mentioned Kathryn Drysdale in Catch, and the same show's Niamh Webb had a fiery intensity as the conscience-stricken fury. Pippa Bennett-Warner was a stunning revelation in the National's Caroline or Change claiming the stage with wit and verve like an experienced Broadway hoofer though the programme notes only that she's just finished her A-Levels. The great breakthrough was probably Daniel Mays in The Winterling and Motortown, playing a pair of British misfits. The first, Patsy, a city boy lost in the country, was a strutting Pete Doherty, all flash cash, mouth and skank. The second, Danny, was a hollow-souled Iraq veteran, sickened by the moral emptiness of the country he returns to. This was an awkward and defiantly unshapely play and it was given its moral authority by Daniel Mays's haunting performance.

The great arrival of the year was the National Theatre of Scotland, which despite one or two stumbles, has planted its standard on the firmament of Scottish theatre, and, by turning down Hytner's appeal for Black Watch, has demonstrated a lively independence of spirit. Its misses (Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, The Crucible) have been more than made up for by its hits (Black Watch, Gobbo (pictured), Realism, Roam, Home). It has pushed theatre right to the forefront of the culture and in England we can only watch its creativity and imagination with envious eyes. The Young Vic returned in style, with a gorgeous new building and great bar to hang out in. We said hello to Dominic Dromgoole at the Globe, who has made some impact, and wrote one of the most bizarre books of the year. We said goodbye to August Wilson, Clive Perry, Paul Ableman, Tom Bell, Julian Slade, Benno Besson, Mary O'Malley, Maureen Stapleton, Moira Shearer and David Halliwell. We also seem likely to lose the Theatre Museum.

Nothing changed decisively in 2006 though there are signs perhaps that the vogue for verbatim is waning, that we are regaining confidence in using theatrical form, and not just content, to express our political engagement and ask our political questions. We saw a greater confidence with making connections between dance and theatre, art and theatre, radio and theatre, performance art and theatre. The writing was bold and imaginative as ever; it felt as though we have begun to find our way to take the temperature of the 21st century in the shape and texture of our theatre nights.

That was Encore's 2006. And look, we even said something nice about David Hare. We're having a facelift in 2007 but obviously we'll keep you all informed. In the meantime, why don't you tell us about your 2006?

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Agree with a lot of that, though I think you're very kind to Catch, which had some of the most ridiculous depictions of "hoody menace yoof" that I think I've seen for some time. It represented everything that is wrong with the Court. At the post-show discussion, a member of the audience asked: "Have you had any happy-slappers in to see this?" to which a member of the company replied "Well, we've got an educational matinee next week." Priceless.

Also, no mention of Howard Barker's 'The Seduction of Almighty God' (a far better title than 'Drunk Enough...') which, despite the French actors who had no chance of getting their heads around the language, was one of Barker's most interesting plays for some time and featured an astonishing central performance from Leander Deeny.
Thankyou, and great that you lot think so highly of Drunk Enough - in my own little review of the year I tag it as about the special wotsit, which is a bit like saying Godot is about a pair of tramps, which of course it is, but... Oh you know what I mean. Have good years, won't you.
I think sometimes Encore is seduced by the idea of a play, rather than by the play itself. "Drunk enough to say I love you' was an intriguing, disconcerting sketch that ran out of new ideas after fifteen minutes. 'The Cut' might have been a stylistically bold play centred around a striking metaphor, but it was terribly theatrically inert - the dialogue was lifeless, the scenes lacked tension, and the narrative didn't make very much sense, literally or metaphorically. 'Motortown' was full of anger and vitality, but the play's scattergun approach and unfinished quality made the anger lose focus, and left both the violence and the caricatures looking irresponsible rather than pointed. 'Love and Money' had a sharply written central narrative that managed to be both waspishly satirical and strangely touching, but the odd touches of lehrstuck were just embarrassing. I agree about 'Blackbird', though. The play of the year, even through the rolling on the floor.
Agree on 'Drunk Enough...' Not as enthusiastic as Encore about The Cut, which struck me as a very old-fashioned sort of play dressed up as urgent and contemporary. Motortown though was both of those things in content and in style. It told the story of a man finding his place in the world and in the process spoke about modern Britain, about the war on terror, about the war on the war on terror more concisely and eloquently than anything this year. Blackbird (like David Grieg's brilliant The American Pilot) was a 2005 play.
This is pithy stuff but seems a little hypocrytical. If you criticise the critics for lacking attention to process, then reducing plays to such subjective one line whimsy seems a bit much. Like christmas turkey, there's so much of this stuff around at the moment. Bring on the new!
We haven’t criticised critics for lacking attention to process. It’s their lack of attention to what’s happening on stage and in the world that is the problem. Who cares if critics know what happens backstage or not? Second, we haven’t reduced the plays, we’ve described them. We don’t think theatre criticism is an impossible thing to do. We think it’s difficult and a few of our more longstanding critics aren’t very good at it, that’s all. But we agree with your final sentiment. A new year’s, new plays, new shows, new writers and actors, new experiences and new disappointments, these are always exciting prospects for the theatre (even if it doesn’t get going for a couple of months!).
American Pilot is still my Best New Play of the past Two years.
And a lot to look forward to: Katie Mitchell's production of Attempts on Her Life at the National; The Wonderful World of Dissocia at the Royal Court; Debbie Tucker Green's Generations and the Brecht double bills at the Young Vic; a revival of David Greig's Europe, Dodin's Platonov and the astonishing Ronnie Burkett at the Barbican; Rupert Goold's revival of Angels in America. But, for all that, we can only hope that by the end of 2007, we'll all be talking about directors, writers, actors and companies that we haven't heard of yet!
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re: Catch - I found the depictions of the "hoody menace yoof" rather accurate- perhaps you should hang around in carparks more often :P However, I do think the final plea for identity would be lost on an audience of happy slappers, probably wondering why she didn't just take the money and buy herself some new bling (street cred!) - only to watch the issue swallowed up by Claire's maternal angst. Tut, I would have loved to have been present at the educational matinee...

I'll be fascinated to hear more about what's "wrong with the Court" but in the meantime,

Happy New Year everyone!
What's wrong with the Royal Court? Well, there is an aspect of the Royal Court's output (which I freely admit is more varied than it is often given credit for) which is very much founded on the grounds that you should present something about contemporary working-class life and by the mere act of representation, you somehow address or even solve the social issues on which you are focusing in the eyes of the overwhelmingly middle-class audience. These plays tend not to go beyond representation and avoid metaphor entirely.
Though I tend to agree with you on Drunk Enough... I thought Faust was utterly magnificent and deserves more of a mention as a perfectly pitched piece of site-sympathetic work. Again, as with the waves, the fact that the national are backing it says a lot of good things about Hytner and co.

Also a nod for Roam - Gridiron are a super company and though the show didn't totally come off for me, just the effect that it had on the bemused travellers passing by was enough to get in my top five. That and the double-decker bus full of feathers that took us to the airport.
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