Review of 2012: Theatre

Nick Payne's 'Constellation' sparkled, elsewhere stars Hattie Morahan and Toby Stephens shone

 

Best new play

Though December is so nearly over, there is still just time to catch the outstanding two-hander Constellations, playing at the Duke of York's in London's West End to 5 January, a transfer from the Royal Court. Nick Payne's darkening romantic comedy (starring Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins) plays intricate games with time, toying with the notion of parallel universes, this being the fractured story of a love affair between an earthy beekeeper and a theoretical physicist. Charming, funny then intensely poignant.

Top biodramas

Farewell to the Theatre was another unforgettable, beautifully understated premiere. Would that I could see Roger Michell's production again. Staged with quiet acumen at Hampstead Theatre, Richard Nelson's biodrama about actor-manager and writer Harley Granville-Barker – who helped to revolutionise British drama pre-First World War – took a surprisingly tangential approach, developing into a Chekhovian group portrait. Adrift in provincial Massachusetts in 1916, with other expat thespians, Ben Chaplin's Granville-Barker (above, centre) concealed disillusionment and loneliness behind nonchalant wit. Melancholy, humorous and, in the end, tentatively hopeful about the restorative joys of the stage.

In a twelvemonth enriched by several fascinating biodramas, Nick Dear's The Dark Earth and the Light Sky proved to be a deeply moving chamber piece about depressive poet Edward Thomas (Pip Carter). The piece contemplated his strained marriage, his devotion to the English countryside, his budding friendship with Robert Frost, and his possibly suicidal decision to join up – dying at the front in 1917. Directed with sensitive aplomb by Richard Eyre, this production is still running at north London's Almeida until 12 January. Not to be missed.

Most brilliant actresses

If Hattie Morahan was breathtakingly good as a neurotic Nora in A Doll's House at the Young Vic, she is even better asThomas's painfully devoted wife in The Dark Earth and the Light Sky – fiercely loving, spiralling into mental breakdown, absolutely heart-rending.

Denise Gough shone as an edgy, predatory but also needy Abbie, the young second wife, in Eugene O'Neill's farmstead tragedy Desire Under the Elms, one of several excellent 2012 productions by the Lyric Hammersmith's Sean Holmes.

Most dazzling actors

Toby Stephens put in the performance of a lifetime – to date at least – in Noël Coward's Private Lives at Chichester. Scintillatingly funny and sexy, but also delightfully naturalistic and rumpled, his Elyot spent an enjoyable amount of time intertwined on chaises longues with his old flame, Anna Chancellor's Amanda.

Meanwhile, Iain Glen was terrifically funny and frustrated in the title role of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, given an intimate, off-West End staging by the Print Room's outgoing artistic director Lucy Bailey. Jonathan Pryce was a blazing Lear at the Almeida, and Paul Chahidi almost stole the limelight from Mark Rylance – as a gloriously funny, buxom Maria – in the all-male Twelfth Night on Shaftesbury Avenue. Paterson Joseph was also a superb, impassioned Brutus in Julius Caesar, in which ancient Rome's political shenanigans were brilliantly translated to modern-day Africa by the RSC's imminent AD, Gregory Doran.

Names to watch

Pint-sized actor Joshua McGuire is surely the new Tom Hollander, zipping around with brio as the precocious brat in The Magistrate, Pinero's Victorian farce at the National. As for assured, fast-rising directors, these include Polly Findlay, who staged Antigone at the NT with Christopher Eccleston, and Titas Halder who found startling humour and warmth in Strindberg's The Dance of Death, with Indira Varma, inset left, at the Trafalgar Studios.

It was also a prime year for actors morphing into impressive new playwrights. In Red Velvet at the Tricycle, Lolita Chakrabarti explored the groundbreaking career of African-American Ira Aldridge (superbly portrayed by Adrian Lester). Aldridge took over the role of Othello, from Edmund Kean, at Covent Garden in 1833, when Britain was still furiously riven over slavery.

Hot on Red Velvet's heels came Nathaniel Martello-White's debut Blackta at the Young Vic, an electrifyingly snappy, slangy and satirical play about contemporary black British actors strutting their stuff and struggling to get to the top. Stephen Beresford's serio-comedy The Last of the Haussmans – with Julie Walters at the NT – was an underrated first play, ruminating on the legacy of 1960s hippie parenting.

Nadir

It's hard to decide which was more excruciating. One contender is Forests, devised for the World Shakespeare Festival by avant-gardist Calixto Bieito. It featured a bunch of British and Catalan actors wallowing in mud and sado-masochistic abuse while reciting soundbites from the Bard, apparently unaware that half the lines were about heaths, meadows and battlefields, not woods and trees.

Or was Walking more torturous? Conceived for the Cultural Olympiad by the internationally revered Robert Wilson, this promenade through the countryside, with installations en route, should have been blissful. Indeed, the woods and beach of Norfolk's Holkham Hall estate were lovely, under blue skies. If only Wilson hadn't forced everyone to trudge, in line, at an agonising snail's pace (three miles taking three and a half hours). I remained calm only by pretending I was an arthritic nonagenarian.

Epic achievement

Globe to Globe was, by contrast, a once-in-a-lifetime marathon, hugely enjoyable and culturally expansive. As the main attraction in the World Shakespeare Festival, the timber-framed Globe on Bankside drew delighted crowds as it hosted troupes from all over the planet, performing 37 plays in 37 languages and a multitude of styles. Three dozen cheers – and then some – for producer Tom Bird who travelled from Armenia to Zanzibar seeking the best companies and co-ordinating this event.

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