When theatre ripped up the rulebook
British stages fizzed with new life as those on the margins seized the limelight, says Dominic Cavendish
‘He has a story to tell – it is banging around inside him, aching to come out. But how does he begin?” So starts The Inheritance, by the American playwright Matthew Lopez, the one show you really “had” to see this year.
By the end of this devastating two-part play, which also contains much uproarious humour in its seven hours, we’ve been drawn into the gay romantic entanglements of present-day Manhattanites, and we’ve been forced to remember those lost to the Aids epidemic a generation ago. Driving it forward is the revenant, repressed figure of EM Forster, whose novel Howards End, with its tale of a thwarted inheritance, lurks like a ghost.
What sounds like something niche turns out to have universal scope – speaking not least to gay men today, survivors of that era among them, and anyone impelled to share a buried trauma. When it opened at the Young Vic in March, I called it “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”. That’s a bold claim, given just how much remarkable work has emanated from the US of late, yet I stand by it. Its impact is second to none. I’ve never heard sobbing in an auditorium like it – Aristotelian “catharsis” in action.
It’s not just that everything locked into place on stage, Stephen Daldry directing with finesse. It’s as though the moment was ripe for propelling the piece into being. Such was the homophobic reaction to the epidemic at the time, something huge still needs to be confronted.
“Inheritance” also gave the year its unofficial motif. Remodelling old stories is what theatre does as a matter of course, but in 2018 there was an acute emphasis on asking how far we have come, what can be carried on and what discarded. It’s as if we’re belatedly bidding adieu to the 20th century, collectively daring to look at what’s ahead.
A revolutionary spirit is abroad – very obvious in another mega-hit from the States, which opened late last year: Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the American War of Independence. In its deployment of pump-action rap music and a racially diverse cast, it flies the flag for the nation that Alexander Hamilton, its undersung founding father, aspired to bring into being. Though broadly faithful to the facts, it tries to identify deeper truths. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” runs the chorused finale.
Those on the margins are pushing in towards the centre. In The Jungle, an evocation of life in the Calais migrant camp, from genesis to demolition, scripted by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, the fact that the cast was multi-ethnic (some refugees) was integral to its benign artistry. In Misty, writerperformer Arinzé Kene broached, in a teasing, street-poetical fashion, questions about “black plays”, making the devising process itself the “story”. Debbie Tucker Green’s Ear for Eye shackled questions about the legacy of slavery to a debate about the efficacy of protest movements like Black Lives Matter, voiced in a staccato urban lyricism.
A similar disruption was found in feminist writing. Ella Hickson’s entertaining, provocatively self-involved The Writer questioned how a female playwright, fighting free of the patriarchy, could express herself. By contrast, Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling (premiering at Theatr Clwyd, before moving to the National, soon in the West End) felt deceptively conventional. A play about a former career woman trying to live a simpler life as a Fifties-style housewife, it looked at the ability of women today to reject a Seventies feminist template. In its warm, breezy, sitcom-ish style, it at once sent up and celebrated the nostalgic impulse to retreat from today’s ills.
Women, as a rule, came out on top. There was spellbinding work from director Rebecca Frecknall, re-imagining Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke (1948) to incorporate a semi-circle of pianos, and spotlighting the mercurial talents of Patsy Ferran as lovelorn heroine Alma, the performance of the year in “straight” theatre. In musicals, that accolade surely belonged to Rosalie Craig as Bobbie in director Marianne Elliott’s Oh yes, there was a “Brexit” play, a comedy of friendships souring written by journo Julie Burchill; it clunked from start to finish. world-class, gender-switched revival of Company, Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 classic.
There was terrific work, too, from Carey Mulligan as a grieving mother in Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys, and Anna Deavere Smith in her own verbatim collage Notes from the Field, about the American (in)justice system, both at the Royal Court; and Laura Linney, making her UK stage debut, wowed in a solo adaptation of Elizabeth
Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton.
What was missing? Sustained help for the embattled regions. For every cause for applause – David Greig’s adaptation of Joe Simpson’s mountaineering memoir, Touching the Void, at the beautifully restored Bristol Old Vic; Mark Gatiss’s star turn in The Madness of George III at the Nottingham Playhouse – there was cause for concern. News that the Liverpool Everyman has had to pull the plug on its laudable repertory company, after a tough two years, confirms the fragile state of play outside London.
What else was lacking? A memorable major response to the political crises engulfing us. People Like Us, a shoddy comedy from Julie Burchill, and the leaden satire Brexit by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky ranked as the most notable fresh attempts this year to grapple with the big talking point of our day. David Hare, our most eminent political playwright, stumbled at the National with I’m Not Running, which looked at the Labour Party’s direction of travel, without grappling with Corbynism.
Two classic revivals best caught the turbulent mood. At London’s new Bridge theatre, deluxe but not always dependable, Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar gave a visceral flavour of a state collapsing, while Michael Boyd at the RSC delivered a chilling Tamburlaine that chimed with the barbarous age of Assad and co.
Our playwrights need to rally themselves, and perhaps Stefano Massini’s 2013 The Lehman Trilogy, as adapted (and contracted) by Ben Power at the National, pointed the way forward. It went right back to the 1840s to trace the Lehmans’ twisty capitalist adventure up to the financial crash. The script plodded at times, but it reinforced the impression that to make sense of the here and now, we need to keep going back and evaluating the exact nature of our inheritance.