A decade of theatre – the 2010s on stage

The ‘best of the decade’ lists, ubiquitous at the end of 2009, are not nearly as popular this time round. The idea of a canon sealed with the nod from a small group of mostly white, male journalists seems much less influential. The 2010s have seen changing expectations over whose voice matters, and who sets the cultural tone. On stage, it has been a time of inspiring diversity and energy, despite the predominant mood of the 2010s as a time when everything was disrupted but nothing solved. I started reviewing theatre for Londonist in 2010, and now do so on my own blog. In that time I’ve seen, counting back, 528 shows – a sensible rate of one per week – including many stunning evenings, and a number of properly formative experiences. A ‘best of’ is not a helpful way to analyse what all this amounts to because, apart from anything else, there is so much to write about. Instead I’ve chosen a few areas for reflection. These are the people, places and shows that stay with me after roughly 1000 hours sitting expectantly in varying levels of comfort, waiting for something to happen – divided into sections in the hope no-one will realise just how long this is.

My first show of the 2010s was the rarely performed A Yorkshire Tragedy at the White Bear Theatre, Kennington. As a Shakespeare completist, I grabbed the chance to see one of the most obscure plays attributed to his part authorship. It was a crude play with little to suggest the Bard’s involvement, but the White Bear’s record of reviving lost theatre above a Young’s pub is a minor miracle of London theatre. We don’t know how lucky we are to be able to take this stuff for granted. 

My last show of the 2010s was Sh!t Theatre’s Sh!t Actually at the Camden People’s Theatre, an absolute delight. The rise of Sh!t Theatre has definitely been a highlight of the decade. Letters from Windsor House, Dollywould and Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum with Expats have all focused the many powers of fringe theatre into a powerful, illuminating beam. No-one else could have made these shows, which are as personal as they are political. No-one bemoans the lack of political theatre anymore, but during the 2000s it was a constant theme. Now, for better or for worse, the personal and the political can no longer be separated and Sh!t Theatre reflect the times perfectly with their engaged stagecraft. 

The show I can’t forget is Edward Bond’s last play to date, Dea, which premiered in 2016 in Sutton, on the south-west borders of London. Few people saw this sequel to Medea, which remains the most furious and extreme thing I’ve seen on stage. Bond was a hero of 1960s post-censorship theatre, but his writing felt desperately out of time and place by the 2010s and played to virtually no-one, at the soon-to-close Secombe Theatre. It felt like the death throes of an entire stage culture, Bond railing against the establishment like an exploding sun as the regional theatre collapsed in around him. While I would struggle to recommend the show on any rational basis, it has left a permanent mark and this is perhaps the most important measure of all.

The venue that made my 2010s was, without a doubt, Summerhall in Edinburgh. I have been to every Edinburgh Fringe since 2004, drawn again and again to its never-ending variety. However, by the end of the 2000s it was feeling a little stale. Comedy was in charge, and weird theatre didn’t seem to be the priority for any of the big Fringe venues. All that changed when Summerhall emerged from the abandoned Royal Dick Vet School complex to supercharge the Fringe. In 2011 its staged just three events, but I remember very well the excitement of wandering around the strange, institutional spaces and seeing the amazing possibilities of the place. Since then it has become the undisputed centre of the Fringe, with an extraordinary programme of avant-garde performance from around the world. Theatre owes more than it can repay to Robert McDowell who, in an extraordinary act of generosity and foresight, bought the Royal Dick in the depths of the austerity years and conjured it into an arts centre. By contrast the Forest Fringe, which provided the Festival with a major experimental element for years, has finally succumbed to a lack of funding and a stable venue, highlighting the importance of the Summerhall spaces.

My top Shakespeare of the 2010s is a milestone in my theatre decade. I went to school in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Shakespeare has worked his way into my system. I am fascinated by the mutability of his work, and the way it carries as much weight as ever, apparently able to adapt to every social change. One show from the 2010s exemplified this above all: Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar, first staged at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012 with an all-female cast. All subsequent gender-blind casting in classical theatre stems from this astonishing production, which showed with absolute clarity that the best actors, regardless of sex, should play the best parts. Harriet Walter’s Brutus was vivid, conflicted and real and the production was thrilling. Cush Jumbo (a star in the making, whose 2020s I am looking forward to) was vulnerable and ruthless as Mark Antony. I had a cheap and lucky front-row seat, and therefore appeared on a video monitor looking alarmed as Frances’s Barber’s Caesar was assassinated on the seat next to me, a bottle of bleach forced down her throat. The show worked on its own terms, and opened up the thrilling possibility that the lack of roles for women in the classics could be turned on its head. Charles Spencer’s obnoxious, misogynistic review symbolised the end of an era, just as Lloyd showed us that the future had been staring us in the face all along.

My number two Shakespeare of the 2010s was Robert Icke’s 2017 Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre, with Andrew Scott. I feel I have a personal stake in the Hot Priest who, in 2004, won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Fringe Theatre as an unknown actor. I sat on the judging panel as a member of the public (you could apply in those days) and got to see just how good he was, in a low-key production upstairs at the Royal Court. He’s even better now. His epic performance in an insane production of Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean (2011) at the National Theatre, directed by the late, lamented Howard Davies, was something else (the Telegraph hated that too). Icke brought a clarity to Hamlet that I have never seen before, and Scott’s ability to make Hamlet’s behaviour seem inevitable was a massive achievement. His Hamlet was, for me, definitive and it’ll be some time before I’ll be ready for another one.    

My least favourite show of the 2010s was Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman (2018). I am not usually interested in tearing shows apart. It isn’t my motivation for writing reviews at all, and I think the amount of unseen work that goes into any stage show deserves respect, whether it comes off or not. However, I absolutely can’t ignore The Ferryman, a play with serious influence widely accepted as one of the decade’s best. I saw it in the West End, and was astonished at how bad it was. It was nothing to do with the acting or the production, all of which were absolutely fine – it was the writing. As far as I could see, it was nothing more than a parody of the ‘Irish play’, full of bizarre stereotypes perpetuating a strangely romanticised vision of Ireland, that has nothing to do with real Irish life or writing (The Guardian hated it too). Was it so popular because it gave audiences and critics exactly what they expected? Its status is a depressing reflection on the inward-looking conservatism of mainstream British writing. In contrast, Enda Walsh’s Arlington, staged at the same time at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin was uncomfortable, experimental and difficult and the audience gave it a standing ovation. English theatres writers should learn from the ambition across the Irish Sea.

My stand-out 2010s fringe theatre was a trilogy of shows by Ridiculusmus. I first saw their work 20 years ago, but The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland at Summerhall in 2014 was the start of something special. It was followed by Give Me Your Love and Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!, both of which I caught at Battersea Arts Centre (the resurrection of which after the 2015 fire has been a huge relief). Turning rigorous research into cutting edge mental health treatment techniques into theatre sounds impossible, but Ridiculusmus made it seem natural. The precision of their performances, heavily influenced by physical comedy, is breathtaking. They have forged their own path and used their performance skills to create something completely original. And I loved their  dark and hilarious The World Mouse Plague

More shows I can’t forget from the last ten years. For lots of different reasons, these have stayed with me. 

  • Tim Crouch’s performance in I, Malvolio at the Traverse Theatre in 2011, when the audience was genuinely unnerved by what he might do next.
  • Daisy Campbell’s anarchic show 2017 Cosmic Trigger, the spirit of her father Ken Campbell glorious reborn for all the freaks to enjoy.
  • Jess Thom’s 2018 performance of Not I, her Tourette’s Syndrome giving Beckett new dimensions.
  • Two productions by Lost Dog Paradise Lost and Juliet & Romeo – which merged dance and experimental theatre as though they’d been the same thing all along.
  • Ian Rickson’s 2018 production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party with a gloriously perfect cast, including Zoe Wannamaker and Toby Jones.
  • Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season, 2018/19, which reminded me how much I love Sir Harold’s work and re-established him as writer who still matters. I saw The Lover / The Collection, Moonlight / Night School and A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter. David Suchet… wow!
  • David Harrowver’s Knives in Hens (2017) at the Donmar – such an unsettling play.

The National Theatre took a lot of criticism during the second half of the 2010s, after Rufus Norris replaced Nicholas Hytner in 2015. Much of this I felt was unjustified. Norris avoided the easy route and staged more new work than the NT had before, and proportionately fewer classics, with a lower success rate. During a time when new writing became much more relevant to the national dialogue, he was trying to define a new role for the theatre – surely the only possible response in a time of turmoil. He delivered a number of essential shows, including Helen McCrory’s triumphant performance in Deep Blue Sea (2016), Ivo van Hove directing a remarkable Ruth Wilson in Hedda Gabler (2016), Annie Baker’s era-defining plays John (2018) and The Antipodes (2019). Hytner presided over some defining shows too, not least great work by the sadly missed Howard Davies – Bulgakov’s White Guard (2010) and Gorky’s Children of the Sun (2013) – and Norris’ own London Road by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork (2011), the astonishing verbatim Ipswich serial killer musical. 

The Royal Shakespeare Company (my affection for them goes back to Derek Jacobi’s Prospero, in 1983) have had an inconsistent decade. I feel they have been at their best with shows that have broken free of the predictability that can hang around the company. For example, scene-setting montage sequences filled with actors running around trying to look busy, are a house style trademark that make me cringe. The risk is always that the RSC will settle firmly into the comfortable middle ground, where tickets can be easily sold and audiences given mostly what they expect. Some of this is inevitable for an organisation that needs so much money to operate, but too much is deadly. When Gregory Doran moves on, his successor will have the toughest challenge in theatre keeping the RSC where it belongs, at both the pinnacle and cutting edge of the art form, never mind sorting out the mess that is their London presence. Nevertheless, the best productions were as good as anything I’ve seen. They included Dunsinane, David Greig’s remarkable 2010 sequel to ‘Macbeth’; Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale in Rupert Goold’s 2011 Romeo and Juliet; Greg Doran’s 2012 Julius Caesar with its all-black cast starring Paterson Joseph as Brutus, which showed the way much as Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female version did; Doran’s 2014 Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 with the fine lead trio of Antony Sher as Falstaff, Jasper Britton as Henry and Alex Hassell as Hal; Doran directing Sher and Harriet Walter in 2015’s Death of A Salesman; Sher and Doran yet again in a top notch King Lear, 2016; Maria Aberg’s 2016 lead-swapping Doctor Faustus, the leads decided by a burning match; and Michael Boyd’s 2018 Tamburlaine, where Jude Owusu handled the massive role with thrilling assurance. 

The top shows from a decade at the Edinburgh Fringe are hard to choose. Despite the reputation of the Fringe, there are very few shows I regret seeing, but a few have really stood out. Flemish company Ontroerend Goed were responsible for three of them: Fight Night (2013) which actually goaded audience members into storming out; the astonishing post-apocalypse World Without Us (2016); and the mind-blowing technical achievement of show-in-reverse Are we not drawn onwards to new erA (2019). Also from the Flemish talent banks, I liked Maxim Storms’ and Lobke Leirens’ unclassifiable show Another One (2018) so much I went to Ghent to catch their next work, which did not disappoint. Elsewhere, Ellie Dubois’ all-female No Show (2017) reinvented circus at a stroke. David Ireland’s Ulster American (2018) was the funniest show I’ve seen for years but Gina Moxley’s The Patient Gloria (2019) took it very, very close. Nassim Soliemnampour’s 2014 White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, performed sight unseen by a different actor every night, was an unforgettable statement against oppression. Olwen Fouéré’s performance of part of Finnegan’s Wake – Riverrun (2015) was acting of the highest class. And performance artists Julia Croft has produced two pieces which, with their own irrefutably strange logic, drew me in completely – Power Ballad (2017) and Working on My Night Moves (2019).

Endings and beginnings during the 2010s included the death of one South London venue and the birth of another. The last show I saw at the Warehouse Theatre in Croydon, the closest venue to my home, was the mysterious Cardenio in 2010 – a mirage of a play perhaps partly by Shakespeare. It was staged on a shoestring, costumes and set from the local department store, and pre-empted the RSC’s big budget version. The closure of the theatre, which had staged the ambitious annual International Playwriting Festival, was a huge loss to the area. It disappeared as Croydon Council cut funds to all its arts venues, as austerity arrived. On the upside, Streatham finally regained a theatre in 2018 when the Streatham Space Project opened. A theatrical black hole since the 1960s, the arrival of a new studio theatre as part of a development agreement brought something fresh and exciting to my neighbourhood. I really hope it finds a way to keep going on a sustainable basis.  

Favourite 2010s people

Caryl Churchill, bestriding the decade with new plays including Love and Information (2012), Escaped Alone (2016), and Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. (2019), not to mention revivals of her best work such as Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (2010). We were still looking to her to explain our ever-confusing decade as it ended, and she was still delivering. 

Rupert Goold is the artistic director the RSC were never going to choose. He’s far too individual a figure, and his vision has instead been transmitted uninterrupted from the Almeida, which he has run since 2013. Keeping the theatre’s identity intact, he has constantly challenging the well-heeled audiences with a string of clever, non-traditional productions. These have included his Las Vegas Merchant of Venice (2014) a declaration of intent, revived from the RSC who failed to transfer it; his Richard III with Ralph Fiennes (2016); American Psycho (2013) – Charles Spencer hated it; Robert Icke’s stunning Mary Stuart (2016); James Graham’s 2017 Ink; and Rebecca Frecknall’s excellent Three Sisters (2019).  

Daniel Kitson’s decade-long journey from stand-up comedian to theatre innovator with a string of shows that, at their best, held back the sentimentality and experimented with form from ‘it’s always right now until it’s later’ in 2010 all the way through the decade with ‘This Show Has No Title’, ‘Analog.ue’, ‘Tree’, ‘Polyphony’ and ‘Mouse (The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought)’.

Simon Russell Beale, who has been a constant pleasure to watch as he ascends into the pantheon of classical actors. His return to the RSC as Prospero in The Tempest (2016), and his National Theatre starring roles in Timon of Athens (2012), King Lear (2014), Lehman Brothers (2018) were masterclasses, but perhaps the most exciting was his 2019 Richard II at the Almeida directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins. Russell Beale can choose his parts, so his decision to play a radically reshaped Richard was important, and a big success (The Guardian hated it). 

Joe Hill-Gibbins was also three of my favourite productions of the decade, all at the Young Vic – The Changeling (2012), with Beyoncé on the soundtrack; Romola Garai in a dark, sex-obsessed Measure for Measure (2015); and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017) in a field of mud. Each played a part in changing expectations of the classics. 

Small, exceptionally clever company By Jove Theatre, who rework classical myth. Their 2017 shows Medea and Here She Comes were staged in the tiniest of venues, but made a big impact on me and anyone else lucky enough to see them.

 

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