Theatre Review of the year: Stallions take the laurels from Shakespeare

It's been a fabulous year for blockbusters with brains but a nadir for Francis Coppola. Pop producers fought to stave off panic as cheap technology let everyone have a go. Dance said farewell to Darcey Bussell and hello to Hofesh Shechter, while Bob Dylan finally found himself ... on the radio. The 'IoS' critics give their overview of 2007

I didn't expect to begin a paean about the year's theatrical highlights by lavishing praise on a handful of puppets. However, the full-scale animal puppets in question were truly spectacular in the National Theatre's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's First World War saga, War Horse. These magnificent creatures (designed by the company Handspring) looked like wonders of engineering made by Leonardo da Vinci, constructed from curved wood and gauze. Moreover, the sense that you were in the presence of living, breathing animals was uncanny. Right down to the rise and fall of the ribcage, the twitch of a leather ear and the slow muscular swish of a tail, this was puppetry of astonishing sophistication, taking the art form to a new level and all admirably done in the name of children's theatre.

The site-specific troupe, Punchdrunk, also pulled out all the stops for The Masque of the Red Death in Battersea. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, this adventurous young fringe company transformed the BAC's vast Victorian edifice basement, attics and all into a haunted mansion-going-on-Gothic madhouse, with fantastic detailing in the decor and visceral dancers in dark corners. Left to wander around this maze on your own, you could stumble into a candle-lit chamber lined with animal skulls or grope you way through a musty wardrobe, suddenly emerging into a grand parlour through its fireplace. Or you could get yourself locked in a lumber room with a ghoulish vamp who clasps you in her ice-cold fingers. A thrilling theatrical nightmare.

By way of light relief, it's been a wonderful year for comic performances, not least Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wanamaker as Benedick and Beatrice, pretending they're not smitten with each other in Much Ado About Nothing. Paul Ritter was priceless as the sardonic bureaucrat, Lush, in Pinter's The Hothouse, also at the NT. Acting the innocent dimwit in the West End's improbably hilarious air-hostess farce, Boeing Boeing, Mark Rylance was pure delight coupled with Michelle Gomez as an insanely zany dominatrix. Nicholas le Prevost was a joy as well, maintaining the manner of a squadron commander while being ridiculously scatty in Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves (which toured for the Peter Hall Company).

Brilliant dramas focusing on black experience notably flourished in 2007, especially at the vibrant Young Vic. These included Debbie Tucker Green's highly poetic Generations, Ikrisma Kherol (A Christmas Carol poignantly relocated to South Africa) and The Brothers Size. The last was a riveting chamber piece about two African-American brothers written by a talented new US playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney. He combines chatty naturalism and Brechtian games quite brilliantly. The production's incisively superb director, ATC's Bijan Sheibani, will go far as well.

The Almeida brought us Theodore Ward's forgotten gem, Big White Fog, a family tragedy about racial discrimination, clashing ideals and political protest in Chicago during the Great Depression. The ensemble acting, with Danny Sapani among others, was excellent. The Almeida likewise contributed to a wealth of fine productions of Russian plays, rediscovering Nikolai Erdman's banned anti-Stalinist satire Dying For it (aka The Suicide), a wild felo de se farce. Along with that we had Gorky's Philistines at the National; Declan Donnellan's delicately traumatised Three Sisters for Cheek by Jowl (with an all-Russian cast), and the Maly Drama Theatre bringing their bewitching Platonov, by Chekhov, to the Barbican staged around and in a pool of glimmering green water.

It was a somewhat thin year for new British plays, but Dennis Kelly's pretend-docudrama about infanticide, Taking Care of Baby, was a powerfully disturbing exception (playing at Hampstead Theatre), and so was newcomer Polly Stenham's dysfunctional family drama, That Face (at the Royal Court).

More worryingly, London's commercial Theatreland seemed to be overrun with cruddy musicals. Desperately Seeking Susan, with the old hits by Blondie grafted on, was really just desperate, and Kismet was unbelivably awful tat at the English National Opera. That was surely the gobsmacking nadir of the year. Still, Hairspray was bouncy fun and, furthermore, Shakespeare made a distinct West End comeback, with director Rupert Goold's ingenious Stalinesque Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, and with Ian McKellen in Trevor Nunn's RSC King Lear (respectively transferring from the Chichester Festival and Stratford). Kate Fleetwood gets my vote for Actress of the Year for her Lady Macbeth, an electrifyingly fierce femme fatale with suppressed vulnerability. McKellen's Lear was unforgettable too, like an imperious tsar with a rough Cossack side, blended with the doddery sweetness of a Chelsea pensioner.

Finally, for several regional theatres it has been a rocky twelvemonth and now there's a new furore about swingeing cuts by the Arts Council of England. The Bristol Old Vic, the Exeter Northcott (having only just opened after a 2.1m redevelopment), Guilford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and Derby Playhouse are all in jeopardy. Alas, this is not a happy ending.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum