My London Theatre Season Highlights, 2016-17 Edition

Last year I’ve moved back to London after living eight years in Asia.

No Man’s Land

(2016 December) I was reading a few volumes of Pinter’s collected plays, and was feeling very envious of New York, that they had Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen putting a dual production of Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land on stage there. But then I was lucky enough to catch  No Man’s Land in London, and that was a really intense kick-off for my theatre season.

Stage shot of No Man's Land
Let’s change the subject, for the last time

Theatre of the absurd is maybe my favorite, and this one makes a really good watch. The play is not perfect, though, the long monologue towards the end made me switch off, regardless how good the delivery was. But it was superb setup, superb acting (though Sir Ian had the better part), and very memorable. I think it’s a pretty good introduction to British culture as well, I’m definitely drinking much more since (alcoholism is one of the central elements).

Art

(2016 December) For a long time I wanted to check out the Old Vic. The second play of the season was Art by Yasmina Reza (whose God of Carnage I’ve also seen many-many years ago in London), a French playwright who seem to be extremely playful and have really interesting insights into human nature.

Just some old friends

The characters were great, Rufus Sewell and and Paul Ritter are really bringing out the worst (and in some way the best) of each other. Great stage and visual design, that will become the theme of this year too, subtle things that add up to a lot more in their overall effect. I was really amazed how much they could make simple colours, simple spaces work.

The play is also very enjoyable, examining the ways friendships work. I’d highly recommend to anyone who’s wondering about adult friendships, I took home some interesting thoughts about dealing with the (perceived) shortcomings of friends. (That’s how plays should be, making us reflect about our world, right?) It seem the play’s also online in PDF form, which is pretty fortunate…

Woolf Works

(2017 January) After drama, the new year brought a bit of exploration and expanding my comfort zone by ballet and dance at the Royal Opera House. The first one was Woolf Works, a three-set piece by Wayne McGregor inspired by the writing and life of Virginia Woolf.

Woolf Works, part I

Not sure how much I’ve missed by not having read Virginia Woolf myself (shame), but this performance was pretty intense and creative on its own. Again amazing stage and visual design, how sets, lighting (including lasers), projectors were used. Great choreography (saying it as someone who’s not familiar with dance theatre in general), and creative use of dancers that created powerful emotional effects – for example in the last part that deals with her drowning, how the all the other dancers turn out to represent the waves of the sea in subtle but intense way that one realizes when it’s pretty much “too late”.

Sleeping Beauty

(2017 February) After modern theatre and dance, switched back to classic ballet. It was quite a switch, watching Sleeping Beauty, again at the Royal Opera House.

Mice, mice, baby…

The feeling of watching what was actually the popular taste of the 19th century – I feel like I was taken back quite a bit. It’s grandiose, it’s different, it’s somewhat interesting, but also a lot of “filler” and “what’s the point” sections for my 20th/21st century taste. But when I could get out of that mindset it was nice… They still managed to pull of some very 21st century visual effects, the way they represented the forest in Act II, and how they created an immersive lake & willows environment was a sight to behold…

Hamlet

(2017 March) Already had tickets for the following play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which is a twisted view on Hamlet, so I was very happy to find that there was a Hamlet playing in town, a very new one. Except, there were no tickets, since everyone wanted to check out Andrew Scott. Thus as a first, I was queuing for a day ticket at the Almeida Theatre on a grey Thursday morning, the one day when I could try to get a ticket before the following play, and managed, by a hair….

Andrew Scott as Hamlet

It was totally worth queuing for, a superb modern take, where most of the shock and awe is still coming from the original play, but plenty of opportunities for the creators and actors to shine through. And of course, Hamlet will leave you thinking as well, a lot to discuss about the world after one leave the theatre. This production was very well received in London, and continued on in another, larger theatre afterwards for quite a while.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

(2017 March) Following Hamlet, went to see the characters who follow Hamlet around, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, again in the Old Vic.

So you are Rosencrantz and I’m Guildenstern? Or the other way around?

It’s a really sharp, witty, and in it’s sarcasm very insightful play indeed. Daniel Radcliffe was very good (and was interesting to see him in person), as was Joshua McGuire who just never stopped, but somehow quite a bit of the attention was stolen by David Haig as the Player. It was definitely a highlight and a play that I’d love to see a few more time…. In the meantime it seems like it’s also available on the (grey) net to read.

The Human Seasons / After the Rain / Flight Pattern

(2017 March) Next back to the Royal Opera House for a mixed ballet program of three independent pieces. The style probably couldn’t be more different between them, which made it a great eye opener evening.

Flight Pattern

The highlight for me was Flight Pattern by Crystal Pite, which I think was premiered as part of this programme. It deals with the plight of refugees, and it felt like the most developed, most thoughtful choreography I’ve seen so far. A lot of dancer but they were superbly working together, and could create amazing atmospheres just by motion (I can’t even describe…) One piece this year that left me quite literally breathless and aching.

The Glass Menagerie

(2017 Apr) Back to drama with The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. If the previous plays were superbly English and French, this is so clearly American.

Oh, Mother..

Maybe falling on the side of the melodramatic a bit more than I’ve expected (since I didn’t expect too much, haven’t really read anything from Tennessee Williams yet). The characters and their execution was pretty good, and here too they managed to bring in some great visual design, how the flat level of the stage could act convincingly as a top-story apartment with all the space (and stars, and Moon) around it.

Travesties

(2017 April) Another Tom Stoppard play, Travesties, that worked out just as well, or in some sense even better than Rosencrantz… I kinda wish I’ve checked out the play beforehand, since as Rosencrantz is a swipe at Hamlet, Travesties incorporates the Importance of Being Earnest, which, I’m ashamed to say, haven’t read before. I guess I would have gotten more of the jokes and references if I had.

Zürich memories

As opposed to Hamlet, which I’ve caught before it went big, Travesties was in its extended run after being moved from its original, smaller theatre. Looking at the pictures from the earlier run, there were some changes, and it feels like that was for the better. So I guess there’s no universal lesson whether it’s better to catch a play in its early or in its extended stage (I wish I could say “well, see it in both stages”, which would be my ideal world:).

It’s a smart and entertaining take on what (and who) is real, similar to the Oscar Wilde play that it works with. Not as deep as Rosencrantz, probably, but maybe has more breadth. Would be great to see the actors from this production in other plays too on one hand; as well as learning a bit more about the early 20th century expat intellectual world. It seems mighty interesting.

Obsession

(2017 May) Obsession was a theatre adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 movie, starring among others Jude Law and Halina Reijn. Barbican is quite a different theatre compared to the other ones so far, a lot more spacious, lot more experimental.

Aria

There was a lot of play around making certain parts very cinematic in a theatrical environment, with sound effects, lighting, a treadmill for a very intense run scene and so on, and it works well, though also makes the play somehow a collection of views with quite sharp transitions (not sure if that’s how the film was). The personal drama is in center, and the Italian style complex (or rather complicated) relationships do come to life to a very painful extent… Relationships and the mistakes made, but which one of us doesn’t?

The Mentor

(2017 July) The last of the season was again a new nationality, a peek into the German psyche in The Mentor by Daniel Kehlmann. F. Murray Abraham is the star of the show, and this is also an extended run, originally put on stage in Bath.

Scotch whisky enthusiast

Very modern, and playful while does provoke some thoughts self-examination. It’s fun to see that the characters thinking are clearly different from the British, French, American, and Italian approach to the world as in the other plays. It was a pretty short one, though, maybe it was more of a sketch, though I’m guessing it could be made more impactful. At the moment it’s more entertaining though with a pretty big dose of cringe.

Epilogue

I’m really happy to have caught up a bit with theatre, because unlike movies, once you miss a performance, there’s not going to be a repeat (though I’m surprised that theatres are not recording more of the plays and releasing them, I wonder why, copyright?) There’s never enough, though, there are venues to check (looking forward going to the National Theatre again, haven’t been to the Globe before, and know very little about the Off-West end theatres…), great actors to see on stage, and experience plays that I’ve read & admire.

From tips and tricks this year: the back-of-theatre seats are usually pretty good already, no need to really fight (pay an arm-and-a-leg) for more forward seats – though I can see how it can make a decent difference in the experience;  I do not read the reviews before the play, and very rarely afterwards, that usually do not add much value and I just end up second-guessing my choices of plays; for the best productions by the time you hear about them they are already nearly or entirely sold out, so prepare for some disappointments, but also when it’s worth it try to hustle for a day ticket;

For the next season I have a few things booked, hopefully the review next year will be just as rave, or hopefully even more.

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