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Theatre Review of the Year and What to See in 2018

2018

After the political surprises of 2016 it was easy to assume that 2017 would be defined by the fallout. For those in the liberal London bubble, the direct collision of old and new Britain, demonstrated at the ballot box last year, caused a shift in the way we see ourselves, a rethink that put concepts of nationalism, power and societal influence back under the microscope, Naturally, facing what felt like a significant and unbreachable rift, instability and economic downturn was the likely outcome, which for the arts, could only mean one thing –  cultural depletion  – as audience seek safety in comfort and nostalgia.

What actually happened in 2017 theatre couldn’t be further from that prediction, and while the revival of great American dance-led shows continued apace, looking back at this year’s very best productions, they were strikingly new. It has been an outstanding year for fresh, and predominantly political, writing with a West End transfer for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, an ambitious technical accomplishment if not entirely emotionally satisfying play about the encroaching effect of the 1980s hunger strikes on a rural Irish family that opened at the Royal Court in May, before making it to the Gielgud shortly afterwards, where its changing cast has led to two run extensions so far.

Just a tad more fulfilling was the first UK production of Oslo, arriving with its Tony Award winning headline from Broadway and a new British cast. Opening at the National Theatre in September before a prompt move to the Harold Pinter the following month, Oslo is a superb and very human examination of the personalities that created an unlikely peace process, dramatizing the complexity without undermining the entertainment value, an exceptional piece of writing by J.T. Rogers.

Undoubtedly, and for productivity and consistent quality alone, this year has belonged to James Graham with two new plays in neighbouring theatres, and a third announcing a transfer in the Spring of 2018. Labour of Love is one of the few new plays to open cold in the West End this year, premiering to much acclaim at the Noel Coward Theatre in September and innovatively charting the history of the Labour Party since the mid-1980s to the present day through the eyes of grass-roots membership, using a reverse then forward chronological structure.

Unpicking established historical scenarios and carefully controlled construction are Graham trademarks, both perfectly demonstrated in his biggest hit, and, personally my favourite show of the year, Ink, establishing the tabloid newspaper’s current powerbase rooted in its quest for populism in the sales war of 1969. A wonderful and unexpected surprise in its first outing at The Almeida in June, Ink promptly arrived at the Duke of York’s in September cementing Graham’s influence on modern political writing and paving the way for his next big show, and my first 2018 recommendation, Quiz, which is heading to the Noel Coward from April after a successful Chichester try-out, focusing on the power of the television media and the nature of modern justice, framed by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire coughing-Major scandal.

Another stand-out piece of new writing this year was a personal examination of the impact of suicide on three generations of the same family that placed women’s experience front and centre. Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide opened at the Royal Court in June and ambitiously reimagined traditional narrative approaches by telling the three separate but inter-related stories side-by-side, upping the emotional investment, while The Barbershop Chronicles at the National was an invigorating examination of black male experience around the world distilled through a visit to the local hairdresser. And finally, The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios arrived in the West End from the Bristol Old Vic just in time to be crowned this year’s best new musical, reimagining Victor Hugo’s dark tale of mutilation and injustice. Genuinely magical, it swept the audience up with its heightened fairy tale quality, charting the story of a tragic outsider to quietly devastating effect.

Emotional and quietly devastating also describes 2017’s best revival, the Sondheim classic Follies that united Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee at the National Theatre. From the very first night of previews, the show ached with regret, disillusion and nostalgia for lost youth that filled the sizeable Olivier auditorium and never has a production suited the awkward space so well. Twice this year, the National has arguably produced definitive productions that will certainly preclude other major revivals for at least a decade, and joining the genuinely heart-rending Follies was the epic Angles in America (Part 1 and Part 2).

Tony Kushner’s two-part 1990s ‘gay fantasia’ was much trailered this time last year, and when it finally opened in a mammoth seven and half hour production it more than lived-up to expectation. Director Marianne Elliot balanced the multiple narratives and hallucinatory elements convincingly, while leads Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in particular gave the performance of their lives as men ravaged by HIV.

Andrew Scott also gave a career-best performance in this year’s superstar Hamlet, opening in February at the Almeida before transferring to the Harold Pinter. Robert Icke’s production was a modern, strongly conceived production that despite a few loose ends and some underpowered interpretations of Claudius and Gertrude, gave its leading man the space to deliver one of the most heart-breaking Hamlets of the 21st century.

Another former Hamlet returned to the stage this year and having established a devoted fan-base as a much-loved TV character and a respected Shakespeare performer, blew it all up to play a dastardly lothario with only his own pleasure in mind. David Tennant’s performance in the revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho divided critics and audiences alike with its crude and gleeful take on an unrepentant wastrel. But Tennant’s joyous interpretation, perfectly matched by Adrian Scarborough’s put-upon servant proved irresistible, making it one of my favourite and most uproarious nights in a theatre this year.

With another cracking Imelda Staunton performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter, Daniel Radcliffe impressing in the Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and charming returns for An American in Paris and 42nd Street, 2017 has been a cracking year for top-quality theatre. But as we say a bittersweet farewell to one of the strongest years for mainstream theatre in a long time, we can take comfort in knowing that 2018 is already filled with possible treats.

The new Bridge Theatre opens the year with an all-star promenade production of Julius Caesar – one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – starring Ben Whishaw as Brutus and David Morrissey as Mark Anthony which should be an interesting take on well-known tale of power and corruption. The National follows suit in February with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in a new Macbeth that could be the best stage version in years, while more must-see Shakespeare is planned for September with a much anticipated version of Anthony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo also at the National.

Another early highlight is the much acclaimed transfer of Long Day’s Journey into Night starring Jeremy Irons and the wonderful Lesley Manville pitching-up at the Wyndhams in January, while in the same month Kathy Burke directs Lady Windermere’s Fan, the second in Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville, and soon after Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins take the lead in Bryony Lavery’s thriller Frozen, opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.

The late spring and summer months also promise much, with a revival of Red starring Alfred Molina also heading to the Wyndhams, while, following the London run of James Graham’s Quiz from April, all eyes will be on the Noel Coward Theatre in July where Martin McDonagh’s the Lieutenant of Inishmore will mark the West End debut of Poldark star Aidan Turner, timed to coincide with the next series of the hit show.

And that’s not even the half of it; later in the year Jim Broadbent will star in Martin McDonagh’s new play about Hans Christian Andersen at the The Bridge Theatre entitled A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the National has announced a version of Brian Friel’s Translations with Colin Morgan, the first London run of the trilogy of plays about Lehman Brothers directed by Sam Mendes who follows his wonderful control of The Ferryman with more new writing, while there is a new play from The Flick writer Annie Baker, who returns to the National with John, and the Royal Court welcomes Carey Mulligan in a new show Girls and Boys, while the Gielgud hosts a gender-swapped version of Sondheim’s Company from September.

So, it may be sad to leave a year of really great theatre, but 2018 has plenty to offer, and looks set to continue the investment in new writing that has been such a feature of the last 12 months. With a constantly shifting governmental landscape and ongoing uncertainty, it’s comforting to see mainstream theatre responding with sophisticated political writing and greater attempts at diversity – that some of the approaches that have long been a feature of the Fringe are finally filtering up. It’s far from perfect and there’s still a long way to go, but with the work of 2017 setting a high bar, the theatre year ahead looks full of promise.

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Don Juan in Soho – Wyndhams Theatre

David Tennant in Don Juan in Soho by Helen Maybanks

‘Satan in a Savile Row Suit’, Patrick Marber’s leading man is devious, debauched and morally bankrupt, without a single care for anything except the pursuit of his own pleasure and without a single scruple of conscience for all the people he hurts along the ways. He is all these things, a man we are warned right at the top of the show not to love, a man with no soul and seemingly no heart to save even himself. But he’s also irresistible, living, by his own admission, as a man in his purest natural state, away from the façade of modern life, driven entirely by instinct and want and desire. He is Don Juan.

We are fascinated by villains, by people who live to extremes in a way none of us would dare. We baulk at the outrageousness of their lifestyle while inwardly admiring the sheer bravado of their choices. And deep down it’s all about our relationship with morality, where it comes from – either socially constructed or religiously imposed – and how it changes as society evolves, which explains the continual revivals of plays about Don Juan and his counterpart Faustus, and it is no coincidence in our more than troubled modern times that both have been seen in London’s playhouses numerous times in the past couple of years.

Marber wrote Don Juan in Soho a decade ago and has updated it slightly for this wonderful new production which has its press night at the Wyndhams Theatre tomorrow. Before we meet the man himself the audience is offered a none-to-flattering character sketch by his Butler/ Chauffeur, Stan, who waits in the lobby while “DJ” is in the penthouse with a Croatian model. Cheating on his wife of only two weeks, this is a man whose appetites are rapacious, having worked his way through three women a day for twenty years, what follows are a series of comic scenarios as Don Juan pursues his need for wine and women. But high on drugs in Soho one night he thinks a statue has come to life warning him he has one more day to live. Will he repent at last?

This new production, which Marber also directs, is a riot, full of life and full of fight. This Don Juan is not a man who apologises or kowtows to social influence but fights every second for his right to do whatever he pleases, and between scenes Marber fills the stage with swirling projections, light, music and colour, with images of Soho flashing onto the screens. For Don Juan this is his life, a constant sensory experience, the only thing he craves to keep him alive.

Yet Anna Fleischel’s multi-purpose set brings out a battle between old and new, tradition and modernity, tapping into a single melancholy moment as Don Juan half regrets that Soho is not the decadent place it once was. The worn marbled effect of the tomb-like rooms reflects Don Juan’s moral decay and the ultimate journey to the grave that awaits us all. Even in the park scene he is surrounded by mildewed benches and cold grey statues. His experiences may be explosively colourful but when they stop, all that’s left is a dark emptiness – a truth about himself Don Juan never wants to face but also accepts.

Tennant’s glorious performance leaves us in no doubt that Don Juan is not a man to feel any sympathy for, someone who will do anything to anyone so long as he has a good time – no regrets, no guilt and absolutely no shame. This is an interesting role for Tennant because one of his hallmarks as an actor is finding the humanity and sensitivity in his characters, creating a layered understanding of why they behave as they do. But Don Juan is without those kinds of depths, he is a lothario living entirely on the surface and has no moral compass of any kind, which is a different kind of challenge for actor who usually conveys depth so well. Instead he revels in the gluttony of Don Juan’s sexual escapades with some beautifully timed comic moments, particularly in a notorious but shockingly hilarious scene in a hospital waiting room which has to be seen to believed.

And there’s lots to admire in the pure certainty of Tennant’s leading man; he doesn’t swagger artfully so much as stumble from each lust-fuelled incident to the next, often looking wrecked from his activities but unable to stop himself or others from pursing the next opportunity however immoral or inappropriate. And Tennant lures you in before pulling the rug from under you – as Stan warns us he would – with some deeply dubious games like attempting to bribe a devout man to sully the name of his God. There is some nuance of course and Don Juan clearly fears his foretold death but not enough to go against his own nature and change his lifestyle – however unpleasant, he is always entirely conscious of what he is and unyieldingly true to it.

But best of all is the complete blankness with which he receives the opinions of others, particularly his wife and father, who tell him in detail how badly he has behaved and the pain he has caused. Lesser actors would have to prove they were reacting with a head shake or eye roll, but Tennant receives each lambast without expression and perfectly still, as if every word were flowing right over him without making the slightest ripple. It’s very skilled work to convey so much without a flicker, but none of it touches him and it speaks volumes about his lack of morality.

Marber has added some great up-to-date references to Trump which get several knowing laughs, while Tennant has a couple of fabulous comic monologues to rant about the state of the world and people’s need to be seen and heard at all times doing the most mundane things. These are few, and perhaps are not entirely plot centred, but they are an excoriating indictment of modern life and when Tennant is in full flight you don’t want to be anywhere else.

Adrian Scarborough is the perfect foil as Don Juan’s long-standingly exasperated companion and documenter of his many amours. Stan is our way into the production and in some sense its moral heart as he tries to extricate himself from Don Juan’s employ. Overwhelmed by his Master’s deceits. Scarborough shows us that the marriage, contracted merely for seductive purposes and then cast aside, feels like a final straw but that Stan is more than a cipher for Don Juan’s story, having his own frustrated desires and demands, unable to retrieve the £27,000 in owed wages or start a family. Stan talks directly to the audience on a couple of occasions warning us not to be drawn in, but at the same time Stan is us, repelled and annoyed but endlessly fascinated by Don Juan’s seductive charms.

The surrounding cast taking on a number of roles is more mixed and at times quite stagey. There are plenty of women who pass through Don Juan’s life during the play, none of whom really make their mark, which seems to be a deliberate choice, reflecting his own lack of engagement with them. Danielle Vitalis as DJ’s wife Elvira has the difficult task of playing earnest and innocent in a world of louche so can seem a little stilted, but Gawn Grainger has a small, enjoyable role as Don Juan’s buffoon parent disgusted by his son but as easily fooled by his entreaties as everyone else in a very fine comic scene.

Marber’s production feels like the cousin of Jamie Lloyd’s Faustus from 2016 with Kit Harrington that tackled similar themes about morality, death and the individual in modern times, but with a deliberately distinctive visual style that was hugely divisive. It’s probably reasonable to say if that wasn’t your cup of tea, then this might not be either and it’s likely to split the critics. As a health warning there’s lots of swearing, drug-taking, sex, violence and fantasy elements including a surprising rickshaw moment that anyone who’s seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on stage might appreciate. It was clear from the interval chat that some people found the content difficult but if this sounds like a perfect recipe for a night at the theatre then this is the show for you.

Don Juan in Soho is crude, lewd, shocking, morally skewed, vicious and frankly lots of fun. At times genuinely hilarious, innovative and exuberant, it’s a show that zips along with its protagonists need to keep moving, but there is a shadow of nostalgia, of a happier past that cannot be reclaimed that keeps this from being all farce and fluff. Tennant’s Don Juan may be repugnant and unsalvageable, and despite all the warnings you don’t want to love him… you just do.

Don Juan in Soho is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 June and tickets start at £10 for standing seats. An age recommendation of 16+ has been added to the show and most seats at the Wyndham’s offer a good view. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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