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Features Published 27 May 2014

Ode to Joy

Our writers pick seven of the most joyful moments in theatre.
Exeunt Staff

Maria Aberg’s As you Like It

Catherine Love: As you Like It, Stratford-upon-Avon

Maria Aberg’s As You Like It for the RSC was, from beginning to end, one of the most joyful theatre experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have, but it was the production’s brilliantly anarchic conclusion that really left me grinning from ear to ear. As rain falls and the earth of Naomi Dawson’s design is churned underfoot, we are suddenly in Glastonbury territory, itching to leap out of our seats and join the performers dancing ecstatically on stage. Paired with Laura Marling’s euphoric, folk-inflected soundtrack, it’s a near-perfect finale for a play about transformation, shaking off the last stifling vestiges of the court and getting gleefully dirty.

Mary Halton: Mission Drift, The Shed, London

Almost a year later and ‘Finale’ from The TEAM’s Mission Drift soundtrack still sends a tingle down my spine. Ironically for a musical about latter day capitalism (antithetical in itself), The TEAM’s labour of love is oddly uplifting. In the midst of festival production at the time, I hadn’t managed to mentally unbury myself from work for weeks and was in no mood to be wowed when I went to see it. So it was that Mission Drift came as somewhat of a pleasant smack in the teeth. Somewhere amidst the lizard masks, deck chairs and scattered sand emerged… joy. Actual joy. Braced, mind you, by a significant deal of bafflement, but it’s a production that you need to allow yourself to be carried along by (see also: David Lynch), which isn’t easy at the best of times. It’s impossible, and perhaps unneccesary, to pinpoint which particular aspect of the alchemy of Heather Christian’s bluesy vocals, the vivid world of the Las Vegas strip and the utter abandon of the cast as they embrace the often bizarre themes that emerge as The TEAM take on the decay of their country, allowed this completely (yes!) transporting production to send me floating out of the NT Shed into an excessively stuffy June evening. But for two hours I forgot myself – a regrettably almost unattainable yet impossibly refreshing joy when seeing three shows a week.

William Drew: Midsummer, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The one that sticks in my mind is the final scene of Midsummer by David Greig. Helena decides to run away with Bob to Belgium (albeit only for a few days). There’s a conceit that’s been established throughout whereby Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) interprets for Helena (Cora Bissett). She’ll say something and he’ll turn to the audience and say “…but what she meant to say was…” and then she’ll say an entirely different line which is what Bob is reading into what she’s saying. It’s a conceit that really comes off because it feels like it comes from the characters. Helena is always trying to be sensible and reasonable, while Bob is delightfully optimistic. The final exchange is the ultimate pay off for this though. Helena tells Bob she’s coming with him while explaining the various conditions and caveats to which Bob, who is planning on going busking playing The Jesus and Mary Chain songs, interprets this as her saying: “Do you need a backing singer?” It’s hard to explain what makes something joyous but, for me, the play was describing the beginning of love coming through into lives that are suffused with trepidation, cynicism and irony. It’s a non-saccharine rom com for people who probably don’t normally like rom coms. It’s an ode to a beautiful city, where you can have some pretty random nights and where it’s probably going to rain all weekend. It’s also got some bloody great songs.

Devawn Wilkinson: Sports Play, CPT, London

I don’t think I tend to actively seek ‘joy’ in the theatre, but I suppose it’s better to stumble on it accidentally, which I did in the final moments of Elfriede Jelinek’s Sports Play, adapted by Just a Must at Camden People’s Theatre in July last year. Sports Play is this really fierce, knotty and exhaustingly verbose text. It was a really hot day, the studio was a tiny sweltering black box – an endurance test in many ways. The last image we saw was of the six performers on-stage, naked, knee-deep in the fluff that covered the stage. After such immersion in the merciless commodification and dehumanisation of bodies in commercial sports, it was a starkly beautiful statement. Nudity on stage can be so startling for all the wrong reasons, but the ‘joy’ here that it wasn’t startling – neither was it embarrassing or even vaguely erotic, it didn’t invite crude scrutiny or pose any aggressive challenge – they were just bodies, reflecting our own vulnerable, familiar bodies back at us. Maybe it wasn’t joy exactly, just a kind of simple communion.

Natasha Tripney: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Ghillie Dhu, Edinburgh

It had been a particularly soggy Edinburgh Fringe: an Edinburgh of sodden shoes and slate skies and persistent, piercing rain. One of the very last shows I saw that August was David Greig’s verse play for the National Theatre of Scotland, a playful tale of an uptight academic’s encounter with the devil which doubled as a celebration of the Scottish border ballad. Performed in the atmospheric Ghillie Dhu to an audience warmed with whisky and the infectious foot-stamp of the ceilidh, it was a play of many pleasures. But those last few minutes – when Madeline Worrall’s Prudencia begins to sing Kylie’s ‘I Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ in her gloriously lilting voice – was pretty much the perfect pay-off, then the disco lights kicked in and the beat picked up – and it was just wonderful, brilliantly uplifting and mood-altering stuff – all this and there was room for one last pun, and I do love a pun.

Rosemary Wagg: Borges and I, Brewery Theatre, Bristol

Alfie and Annie Rose; Meg and Mog; Mr Benn and, most of all Sophie.

Children, we keep getting told, are not being read to enough and this is bad for their vocabularies, their grammar and their punctuation. Whether or not the amount of ‘mummy, let’s read this one again’ before bedtime is actually deceasing is undecided, but if it is then it is not just grammar, punctuation and vocabulary that children are missing out on, but a world of sympathetic friends. Children bought up on Judith Kerr and Shirley Hughes, don’t just become English graduates because they can deal with syntax, they become wooly-jumper wearers drawn – inexplicably, they think – to the cutsey prints of Cath Kidson and the homely crockery of Emma Bridgewater.

The books we read as children stay in a little butterfly cocoon in our insides. We would love to return to them, enter in to them, but we cannot. So instead, as adults we sigh over Tim Walker and take comfort from Orla Kiely retro prints or the rural Italian motherliness of Leon.

Borges and I, by Idle Motion, pushed its fingers deep into that butterfly cocoon and did a better job than Freud of connecting with childhood. This is the single play that I have seen that made me weep, firstly during the show and later at home. The crisp, simple beauty of tenderness between lovers in the face of impending trouble and ill health, felt peculiarly genuine.

I am just sitting down for tea, and I hope that Tiger rings the doorbell again.

Dan Hutton: Matilda, Cambridge Theatre, London

I just have to go with ‘Revolting Children’ for this one. I know, I know, it’s a cliché to talk about musical theatre when talking about things being uplifting, but I honestly struggle to think of many other moments in theatre which have made me feel so alive as when, after the children have hounded Trunchbull out of her classroom, a kid stands on a desk with a microphone to shout “Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oahoah” and dozens of children start singing – basically – about the idea of revolution. How gorgeous, how utterly beautiful, is that?

OK, I have to admit something: I’ve seen Matilda four times. Yup. It’s the thing I’ve seen most out of all theatre, ever. I just can’t get enough of it. And yes, this might just undermine the tiny amount of credibility I’ve built up for myself over the last few years, but I don’t care. And why do I keep going back for more? It’s for that final song, plain and simple. Watching a group of kids overthrow their oppressor and coming to terms with the fact that they have control makes me feel giddy with joy and anger every single time. Even listening to it gives me goosebumps.

And those lyrics. Quite aside from the paper aeroplanes, the pulsing music and the infectious dance moves (I know the whole routine, and what?), some of Tim Minchin’s phrases in this song are just fucking genius. Listen to the line “We can S-P-L how we like/ If enough of us are wrong, wrong is right” and tell me you don’t want to “pick up your hockey stick and use it as a sword”. I dare you. It’s just one of those moments that just makes you feel so alert to possibility, that makes you want to take to the street and chant, to storm the stage and join in. It’s a song that I could sit through again and again, and every time it’d leave me grinning like an idiot.

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine