It’s the time of year where you can’t so much as sneeze without infecting someone’s Top Things Of The Year List. Or, if you’re really lucky, those hypothetical germ-laden droplets might land on someone else’s thinkpiece, dissecting the politics of a third List’s inevitable partialities. To limit the spread of the infection, we’ve decided to contain Exeunt’s dangerous canonical impulses into one handy Top Ten (ish), chosen by collective vote.
Exeunt’s writers listed their five favourite shows of 2015, supplemented (most unscientifically) by input from avid theatregoers who chipped in on Twitter. The resulting list is horrendously London and big venue-centric. But individual writers looked much further afield, reflecting a huge theatre landscape stretching to Dublin, New York, Theatertreffen, to tiny venues and to hoary old touring shows as well as fresh blood. (We got tons of votes for Exeunt fan-favourites This Is How We Die, View From A Bridge and Men In The Cities, but had to leave all three out of our main list).
What’s left are the productions that came the closest to setting our collective hearts aflame this year. We’ve chosen eleven Exeunt writers to explain why each of these shows has earned its place on our list: but there are so many more reasons to love them.
Honourable Mention – Here We Go (National Theatre, London)
Verity Healey: From Michael Billington’s appreciative review to audience members stalking through the NT’s foyer shouting “outrageous” or “how dare they!” Here We Go is divisive. It’s not why it was amongst my personal top 5, though when a play causes such conflicting emotions, something’s terribly right.
Instead, I really enjoyed Here We Go for its sheer audacity. For its ambiguity (it’s about life of course) and ambivalence. Because it is deceptively simple. And as it is open to such varied interpretations, it can be read merely as a realistic play, as an article in the Guardian recently revealed, or a deeply metaphorical one. In fact, it holds a big mirror up to its audiences. It is also by a playwright who, having had such a long and successful career, is still asking questions and what’s more, experimenting with form in order to explore those questions. After decades, she is still deeply engaged with her art and I challenge anyone not to find that unrelentingly inspiring.
10 – The Beanfield, theSpace, Edinburgh Fringe
Kate Wyver: The Beanfield is a look behind the scenes. Breach Theatre’s on stage documentary is about the casts’ path to staging a re-enactment of the police attacks on visitors to Stone Henge at Summer Solstice in 1985. Interwoven with the actors reliving their experiences of going to Summer Solstice last year, The Bean Field weaves the past and the present, looking at what has changed and what celebrations and prejudices remain the same.
The piece is so full, so tightly packed with information, ideas and passion, curated in a way that means it never seems too much at once. It is storytelling that is deeply complex and intelligent yet still feels scratchy and open. It is like a scrapbook, a visual explanation of all the research they did. It embraces technology in a way that British theatre, and particularly theatre straight out of University, rarely engages.
Above all emerges their determination to tell this story. This company’s eagerness to discover is clear. Energy, integrity and strobes spill out of The Bean Field, leaving me breathless as the lights go dark.
9 – RoosevElvis, Royal Court, London
David Ralf: RoosevElvis hit me really violently on an emotional level, even as I felt bits of it didn’t work. With distance, it has only improved – its form illustrates many loosely related ideas about idols, gender, sexuality and worth in different ways: some within a single line, and some within a texture that runs through the whole performance. Its disparate elements are still working on me after the fact, connections being made and meaning grown – because the central story was told very clearly: at its core RoosevElvis is about a lonely woman who goes on a first date with another woman, an experience which goes very badly, but which spurs her to go on an adventure, to visit Graceland, the home of her idol Elvis, the furthest from home she has ever gone.
In the theatre itself the TEAM’s presentation of the brutal drudgery of Ann’s life, the repeated vision of her return home from the meat processing plant to dull herself with a downed beer and a morose conversation with Elvis, mingled with the snatches of Thelma and Louise to create a sense of thoroughgoing depression and foreboding. Libby King’s Ann is so very stuck, so very closed-off, hurting and helpless. RoosevElvis is partly, and importantly, a coming-out narrative, and a harsh and difficult one. It’s also about a middle-aged woman who works a shitty job and has no one, asking life for something more, and realising that she’ll have to risk being hurt more to get it.
When I walked out of the theatre I remember saying that I didn’t know what Roosevelt was doing there, but that I loved it anyway. Slowly the function of Kristen Sieh’s wiry ‘wrestle a bear into submission and teach it economics before breakfast’ Roosevelt – and her non-fantasy equivalent, Brenda the taxidermist, became clear. They are not tempting Ann with better things, but ‘things’ at all. Roosevelt is the embodiments of adventure, which by its nature involves danger and probable failure, as well as the chance of success. Escaping stasis sometimes involves risking a bad date. Sometimes it involves getting on the road, and sometimes it involves driving a car off a cliff. But it’s better than being stuck.
8 – hang, Royal Court, London
Andrew Haydon: Weighing in at only one hour ten, the genius of hang by debbie tucker green was that it often told you next to nothing about what you were watching. A woman, only “Three” in the script – played with astonishing clarity and fury by Marianne Jean-Baptiste (beautifully counterpointed by Claire Rushbrook and Shane Zaza) – is being asked to decide the fate of a man who attacked her home, mutilated her husband, and maybe killed one of her children. Without spelling out where we were, the audience was left to reflect on Britain, race relations, violence, revenge, justice and the way in which institutions treat individuals.
Besides being one of 2015’s most important pieces of political theatre, it was also searingly human and impeccably theatrical. A main-stage show that fulfilled all the claims often made for far smaller venues, of intimacy, immediacy and irreplaceability. A piece which, in a year more dominated by length and spectacle, reminded us of the virtues of simplicity and minimalism.
Designed in shades of black and beige by Jon Bausor, lit by Tim Mitchell, and enveloped by Christopher Shutt’s sound design and Luke Sutherland’s composition, debbie tucker green’s production of her own play was singular, uncompromising and unforgettable.
7 – Sparks, Old Red Lion, London
Duncan Gates: I’ve always quite enjoyed cynicism. It’s like pessimism with greater commitment. Since I discovered social media I’ve been like a pig in shit, because I can be openly cynical in a format I know will accept me. To be fair, this isn’t because I’m awful, it’s because (I guess) I’m still developing as an artist, and I find it difficult to have things like ‘favourite ever pieces of theatre’ in that situation.
And then Sparks happened, and a lifetime’s work got unpicked by two long-separated sisters binge drinking in a West Midlands flat. I cannot imagine any part of it being better-done than it was. It was elegiacally desolate, but also had the guts to be a bit flippant with itself. Comprising its heart was Jess, one of the all-time great theatre creations, compelling and agonising in how lost she was to herself. Sarah was the brain, capable of understanding but eternally at a distance, furiously upset with itself.
Buy the script. Revive it. Send it into space scene-by-scene. You need Sparks in your life. Everything does.
6 – The Skriker, Royal Exchange, Manchester
Alice Saville: When I say that Caryl Churchill’s 1994 had me under its spell, I really literally mean it. I was drunk on the magic of a production that designer Lizzie Clachan had made heady with grime and feasts and fountains.
It’s about an ancient fairy that feeds on language, regurgitating peoples’ words in a dense mix of speech and nursery rhymes and muddled nonsense. The resulting text is a dream for an English student *raises hand* to pick apart. But even if I was sometimes itching for the flood of language to stop so I could make sense of it, Sarah Frankcom’s direction made it brilliantly digestible, just a few hard bones left in the feast. And Maxine Peake’s astonishing performance as the shapeshifting Skriker stole my heart, as well as lord knows how many identities, with her wild elemental power.
5 – The Mikvah Project, The Yard, London
Catherine Love: Often it’s the explosive theatre that makes its mark, its impact still resounding in the dying days of the year. The Mikvah Project, on the other hand, haunted with its tenderness. Josh Azouz’s quiet two-hander, directed by Jay Miller at The Yard, was amongst the first shows I saw in 2015, yet I’ve thought about it on an almost weekly basis ever since. It squeezed my heart and never quite let go.
The eponymous Mikvah refers to the Jewish bath used for ritual immersion. It’s synonymous with cleansing, with rebirth, with tradition. In Miller’s production, it was as central to the play as it is to the title. It’s where the two male characters – hesitant 35-year-old Avi and cocksure yet anxious teenager Eitan – are brought together, but at the same time it represents the forces that pry them apart. In Cécile Trémolieres’ brilliantly simple design it was oppressively ever-present: a massive great pool plonked in the middle of the stage, impossible to ignore or escape.
Immersing its audience by stealth, The Mikvah Project managed to do a lot while seemingly doing very little. It was all in the delicacy of the direction and the astonishing performances from Jonah Russell and Oliver Coopersmith, both vibrating with longing. This show may have been small and simple, but it was exquisitely bittersweet.
4 – Carmen Disruption, Almeida, London
Annegret Marten: Two of my favourite shows this year have been produced by the Almeida which seems to have its finger on the pulse. Both Icke’s Oresteia and Stephen’s Carmen Disruption have at their centre amnesic characters who fall in and out of touch with two distinctly European types of moral debauchery. The one, Oresteia the story of a family breaking itself apart because the glory of victory in war, absurdly still deeply entrenched in our democratic system, is opposed to acting with morality and kindness.
The other, Carmen Disruption, is not just a wickedly sharp rewriting of the Bizet opera, it’s also somehow a bitter snapshot of all our crumbling cities at once. These cradles of Enlightenment which now bow to the golden calf of financial success are full of lonely people searching for their very own flavour of misery. Stephen’s monologues are thrilling by themselves, soaked as they are with sex, passion and a romantic notion of the old continent. Through the cracks in the glorious veneer of the past the challenges of old age, gentrification and commodified and fetishised love show through and director Michael Longhurst’s excellent cast mold the piece into an unforgettable aria (of the sounds and words and blood) of a crumbling Europe.
3 – People, Places and Things, National Theatre, London
Natasha Tripney: Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things is a beautifully crafted and astute bit of writing, not just about addiction – though it is about addiction – but also about the performance of life and the costumes people wear every day. On that level alone it would be a Very Good Thing but thanks to the extraordinary Denise Gough it’s lifted to a whole new level. She’s off the map in this – totally brilliant. It’s a flooring performance, an exercise in total control. Over the course of the play she goes through huge transformations. At first she pulses with nervous energy. It’s such a physically intricate performance. She does this thing with her jaw, all these tiny little shifts, and, later, when her character unravels in every sense, when she falls apart, it’s a difficult thing to watch – but you do watch – you can’t not watch her: she’s mesmeric.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction, admittedly, feels a bit flashy at times (the throbbing, cliched night club scene a case in point) but his production also includes some incredibly striking moments, particularly the scenes of Gough’s initial detox, which are rendered fittingly uncanny through the use of doubling. There’s a hallucinatory quality to this episode, a queasiness.
Macmillan has written a fascinating and complex role, a truly great role – one of those roles that don’t come along that often, for men or women – and Gough clearly understands this. She pounces upon it with undisguised glee, she flings herself into it, bodily and emotionally. She knows full well what a gift this part is and she makes it count, she totally owns it. And as emotionally draining as it was to watch her, it’s an experience I’ll gladly go through again when it transfers to the West End in the spring.
2 – Iphigenia in Splott, Sherman Cymru, Wales; Pleasance, Edinburgh Fringe
Stewart Pringle: Iphigenia hit late, in the last week of a long and hard Edinburgh Fringe. My faculties were close to burn-out. It hadn’t been a vintage month. Lots of good work, lots of great experiences, but outside of solo shows by Luke Wright, Jo Clifford and Jamie Wood, and Forest Fringe, of course, there wasn’t much to write home about. And when writing home about stuff is literally your literal job, that can be a bit of a drag.
God Bless Gary Owen then, and God Bless Sophie Melville, who we rightly plastered with an award, and God Bless director Rachel O’Riordan and Sherman Cymru, because Iphigenia in Splott was an agonising, brilliant wake-up call. A sneer of defiance that bled into a cry of pain and then somehow, magnificently, shape-shifted back into a bellow of anger directed at the forces of old and evil that shred the lives of the young and the weak.
A year after Men in the Cities transformed the deepest pain into the purest and truest rage, Owen’s story of blasted opportunities and the jagged edges of the poverty line under capitalism. Melville’s performance was a strutting, fighting, roar of a thing, and those unbearable scenes in a stalled, snow-bound ambulance won’t leave anyone who saw them anytime ever. A furious masterpiece of inescapable poignance and pain.
1 – Oresteia, Almeida, London
Tim Bano: When Justin Timberlake told Mark Zuckerberg to drop the ‘the’ from ‘The Facebook’, he ensured that social network’s global reputation, virtual ubiquity and multi-billion dollar worth.
Aeschylus’ fifth century tragi-trilogy has had three major incarnations this year: Manchester ‘s HOME had The Oresteia translated by Ted Hughes and directed by Blanche McIntyre. Shakespeare’s Globe had The Oresteia translated by Rory Mullarkey and directed by Adele Thomas. But at the Almeida, kicking off their mighty Greeks season, was Robert Icke’s adaptation: Oresteia. Not THE Oresteia, just Oresteia.
I’m not saying that the definite lack of definite article is what made Icke’s version soar head, shoulders knees and toes above the other two tragedy triunes, but it sealed the deal.
No, seriously. It’s emblematic of what Icke’s done to the millenniums-old drama: modernised it, streamlined it, completely re-authored it. There’s an essential message of revenge and justice in there that Icke has transplanted into a relevant and contemporary setting against a backdrop of political machination and neverending war. On the other end of the scale is the intensely personal family drama that plays out in full and frank dysfunction.
And Icke is always asking rather than telling: what is the function of religion, of gods, of sacrifice in society today? When the country is becoming increasingly religiously plural, and increasingly secular, from what authority do we derive a system of morality?
“There isn’t one story,” claims Orestes, “a line of truth that stretches start to end.” Icke’s Oresteia, article-free, makes no claims to being ‘the’ definitive version. In fact, the opposite: by radically rewriting the plays – and by accidents of programming, having his adaptation appear alongside two vastly different alternatives – Icke provokes the ambiguity and openness of text. There can never be any such thing as a definitive version. Just stories. Told and told again by different people for different people, pointing towards an end. ‘An’ end; but not ‘the’ end.