Dec 31 2013

Theatre highlights of 2013

My standout of the year was Chimerica at the Harold Pinter Theatre, transferred from the Almeida Theatre.

Lucy Kirkwood’s fast-paced thriller, produced by Headlong, hung a mystery around the famous image of the man standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square while skilfully showing us the shifting power balance between China and the US in the 20-plus years since the massacre.

A play with heavy themes that never seemed heavy, Chimerica was an object lesson in snaring the audience’s attention with the plot so the play can perform its deeper work almost unnoticed. With really sharp dialogue that’s always going somewhere, Kirkwood struck the perfect balance between entertainment and enlightenment.

Another Headlong production, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of 1984, toured during 2013 and will begin a run at the Almeida next year. The two author-directors have created a new way to access this well-worn text by placing the novel itself as an historical object at the heart of the play, picking up on hints in Orwell’s appendix.

Some ingenious use of multimedia techniques successfully makes us question the nature of reality, as the stage space is first subtly and then radically transformed. Even though we may be familiar with the story, the shock of the torture scenes is immediate and visceral, and the disturbing power of Winston’s demise becomes more pertinent than ever.

Meanwhile, Theatre 503 upheld its reputation for developing new writers with two first-time plays, Land of our Fathers by Chris Urch and Mucky Kid by Sam Potter.

The first of these told the story of a group of Welsh miners stranded underground, forced to confront the things which drive them apart while seeking togetherness through choral singing. Brothers by name or by deed, they can neither escape nor accept their situation, which leads to an emotionally overwhelming climax.

Where Land of our Fathers is an inexorable juggernaut, Mucky Kid is more devious and hard to pin down, showing us various, often contradictory scenes in the last 24 hours of a young woman escaped from prison. The structural invention is no mere trickery though, as it helps us to understand a personality constantly on the run from the painful truth of a violent crime.

Buried pasts, hidden identities, confined spaces and confined choices. All the ingredients of great drama were present in abundance in these plays. I’ll hope for more of the same in 2014.