Our theatre critic Michael Billington hands out his annual awards. Some recipients will be delighted; others might wish to hide behind the sofa...
This time last year, I instituted the Billies: a riposte to the Hollywood Oscars, highlighting the best – and worst – of the past 12 months in the theatre. Thanks to an overwhelming response – well, I got one postcard – I’ve decided to repeat the experiment.
Here we go.
Best new plays
Whatever is wrong with our world, new plays keep on coming. This year saw a number of outstanding works from outside Britain: The Lehman Trilogy from Italy, The Height of the Storm from France and The Inheritance and John from America.
However, it’s not chauvinism that prompts me to split the prize between two superb new plays from Laura Wade, a native author. Home, I’m Darling, which arrived at the National from Theatr Clwyd and which transfers to the Duke of York’s in January, was a sparkling comedy that re-created a dated 1950s cupcakes-and-cocktails notion of wifeliness and then pulled off a spectacular surprise.
Miss Wade similarly upended expectations in her Chichester adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons. We thought we were in for a demure period piece, only to be confronted by dazzling argument about the right of fictional characters to determine their own future. I didn’t see two wittier or more challenging plays all year.
Stinkers of the year
Once again, the prize has to be shared between two works, both revivals of theatrical classics that left me gawping in disbelief. The first was a production by Sean Foley at Chichester of Nöel Coward’s Present Laughter in which a svelte comedy about an ageing matinee idol was played as broad-bottomed farce, complete with bellowed lines, slammed doors and uncontrollably squirting soda siphons.
Even more astonishing was a bilingual West End production of Molière’s Tartuffe that shifted, for some inexplicable reason, between English and French. Even the set, which resembled a modish art gallery, made nonsense of the fact that this is a play about a duped patriarch. Whoever the production was aimed at, the only sensible solution was to duck.
Musical of the year
I’m not an unqualified admirer of changing the gender of a dramatic character, but it worked brilliantly in the case of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, in which the unattached hero, Robert, became the bachelor girl Bobbie.
It helped that Sondheim himself endorsed the idea and that the character was beautifully played by Rosalie Craig; she suggested that Bobbie, far from being a cold fish, would adore to get married, if only she could find the right man.
Marianne Elliott’s production at the Gielgud also nimbly transposed key numbers so that ‘Getting Married Today’ became a cry of panic by a nervous male on the eve of getting hitched to his gay partner.
Most musicals usher us into a world of dreams. This one – wise, funny and tuneful – was about the eternal conflict between the dignity of solitude and the hazards of marriage.
Best Shakespeare production
Not a difficult choice. There was a lively promenade Julius Caesar at the Bridge and a provocative Hamlet, with Ruth Negga in the lead, at the Gate in Dublin. However, the clear winner is Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra at the Olivier. Ralph Fiennes memorably captured the tragedy of Antony’s decline and Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra was fiery, funny and mercurial and seemed to love Antony most when he wasn’t there.
The production reminded us that both hero and heroine exist in a state of intoxicated fantasy. It also clearly established the distinction between the kitsch grandeur of Egypt and the businesslike nature of Rome, with its military war rooms. My only regret is that Mr Godwin will soon leave these shores to become director of the Washington DC-based Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Worst Shakespeare production
Oddly, the worst Shakespeare happened on the same stage as the best. Rufus Norris’s Macbeth was a real dog’s dinner, almost literally so when the guests at the Macbeths’ feast were invited to eat out of battle-field billycans. This was all of a piece with a show set in a brutal, apocalyptic, post-civil-war Britain.
The problem with this approach is that the murder of Duncan loses any spiritual significance if the whole country is a place of ruthless, random slaughter.
The two leads, Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, did all they could but, in general, there was a shocking indifference to the rhythms of Shakespeare’s language. I am by no means anti Mr Norris, who’s had many successes at the National, but it was unwise, for only his second stab at Shakespeare, to choose this notoriously tricky play.
Performers of the year
Where to start? Apart from those already mentioned, there were so many magnificent ones. Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins touched the heart as the long-married couple in The Height of the Storm. Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley played multiple roles with élan in The Lehman Trilogy.
Tamsin Greig revealed new emotional depths in Pinter’s Landscape and A Kind of Alaska. Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke was, in a colleague’s phrase, ‘a child-woman teetering on the abyss of tragedy’; Adrienne Warren in Tina was a powerhouse of physical energy; Paul Hilton in The Inheritance actually seemed to embody the fervent humanism of E. M. Forster. It’s a sign of our theatre’s richness that I could list many more.
Theatre of the year
The Royal Exchange, Manchester. One always enters this seven-sided, steel-and-glass module with a sense of excitement and, under Sarah Frankcom’s direction, it consistently delivers the goods. This year has included a new version of Frankenstein from April de Angelis, a history play about Shakespeare’s Queen Margaret by Jeanie O’Hare and a spirited revival of the Mel Brooks musical The Producers.
At a difficult time for regional theatre, the Royal Exchange shines like a good deed in a naughty world.
This year saw the deaths of two gigantic figures from the RSC. John Barton had been there since the company’s birth in 1960 and was a scholar, a gentleman and, as he proved with his superb productions of Twelfth Night, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, the finest director of Shakespeare’s comedies in our lifetime.
Cicely Berry, the company’s resident voice expert, not only coached generations of actors, but was also a global missionary with a passionate belief in the power of language.
Hopes for 2019
More European plays, even in a post-Brexit world, and more excavation of our own incomparable theatrical heritage to accompany the gushing torrent of new plays.
John Boyega is world famous among cinema-goers thanks to his starring role in the latest Star Wars films. Michael Billington
Michael Billington chooses his favourite painting for Country Life.