Theatre in 2009: Entrances, exits, and Judi disguised as a Walnut Whip

Weisz was a wow, Mortimer bowed out – and Ian Hart made a dramatic gesture offstage too

By Kate Bassett
Sunday 27 December 2009 01:00

This has been a bumper year, offering an array of contenders. These included Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar, with Rachel Weisz as a subtly raddled Blanche Dubois.

Corker of the year

Then there was Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge with Ken Stott as the covertly incestuous Eddie, like a seething pitbull. But the prize must go to Jerusalem, which premiered at the Royal Court with Mark Rylance's tour-de-force performance at its heart. Jez Butterworth's darkening comedy was a weird and wonderful modern pastoral, set in the woods of the West Country. There Rylance's Johnny – an ageing daredevil biker-turned-gypsy drug dealer – lolled around, spinning yarns for all the idling youth and local nutters drawn to his den.

Rylance's comic timing was priceless and his first entrance was unforgettable, lurching out of his caravan like a hungover hobgoblin, spliffs sprouting from his boots. He had a touch of the Pied Piper and Peer Gynt, and his yarns were wonderfully surreal, modern folk tales, not least when he boasted of chatting with a giant just off the A14. Jerusalem is back in January 2010, when it transfers to the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue.

The megaflop

The Donmar's star-studded West End season, at Wyndham's, was mainly greeted by wild applause. But Madame de Sade was a bewildering anomaly, an absolute stinker. Yukio Mishima's costume drama – penned in 1960s Japan, set in 18th-century Paris and cruelly rescued from obscurity by Michael Grandage – proved to be flabbergasting garbage dolled up in lavish frocks. A handful of ladies stood around, blathering about the sexploits of the Marquis de Sade, and the notorious sadist never even showed up. Think Les Liaisons Dangereuses without any actual liaisons. Playing his incomprehensibly adulatory wife, Rosamund Pike spouted meaningless purple prose ("He is a threshold between me and the impossible, or perhaps between me and God" etc) while our diminutive national treasure, Judi Dench, was all pursed lips. Rigged out in a pyramidical wig and ruched silk, she looked like a morally outraged Walnut Whip. Torture.

Face of the year

Being electrifyingly brilliant twice, in quick succession, the rising actor Andrew Scott was one of this year's hottest theatrical properties. First he was riveting, alone on stage in Sea Wall at the Edinburgh Fringe. A monologue written by Simon Stephens, it seemed like a stand-up routine at first: an affable piece about settling down with your girlfriend and having a kid. But then Sea Wall suddenly spiralled into harrowing tragedy. Scott's performance was minutely, unnervingly detailed in its naturalism, slipping quietly from the comical to the chilling. At the Royal Court Upstairs, he was thrillingly paired with Ben Whishaw in Mike Bartlett's painfully funny chamber play, Cock. Playing Whishaw's jilted lover, Scott was scorchingly intense: sardonically witty and ultimately bruised, as the duo circled each other like boxers, verbally punching below the belt.

Surprise of the year

The West End show Speaking in Tongues – a murder mystery where you're unsure if a psycho is on the loose – went haywire one Monday night in November. John Simm's co-star, Ian Hart, instead of taking a bow, bounded off into the wings in a blind fury and re-emerged in the auditorium to scream at a gobsmacked punter. Only a few weeks earlier, in a platform talk, Hart had alarmingly declared that he found theatre audiences abhorrent and considered them an intrusion. On the evening in question, said punter had supposedly been talking while Hart was in mid-flow. Prevented by Simm from leaping directly into the stalls, Hart bolted round through a pass door and had to be physically restrained by the ushers. Now that's dramatic.


British theatre waved a fond farewell to the veteran barrister, playwright and, from 1990 to 2000, chairman of the Royal Court, John Mortimer. A splendidly genial fellow, he was much loved for his droll tales of Rumpole of the Bailey, but also for his more poignant autobiographical drama, A Voyage Round My Father, which starred Alec Guinness at the Haymarket in 1971, and then Laurence Olivier in a television version. Keith Waterhouse also bowed out, aged 80, having been celebrated for Billy Liar, his great comic novel which became a stage hit in 1960, starring Albert Finney as the titular compulsive fantasist. More shockingly, Natasha Richardson – daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, and wife of Liam Neeson – was snatched away at only 45, following a skiing accident. She was last seen on the London stage at the Almeida, in 2005, playing Ibsen's haunted heroine, Ellida, in The Lady from the Sea.

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