When the­atre ripped up the rule­book

Bri­tish stages fizzed with new life as those on the mar­gins seized the lime­light, says Do­minic Cavendish

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FRONT PAGE -

‘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.

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