All change at the top

Macbeth - Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart in Rupert Goold's Production

Excellent news this week as Rupert Goold was announced the new artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, following Michael Attenborough hugely successful tenure. Now firmly established as one of the most influential theatres that bridge the gap between the West End and the regions, it is difficult to remember that 11 years ago the Almeida was running a sizable deficit and that Attenborough not only turned this on its head but did so whilst also almost doubling the number of new productions.

Rupert Goold has a challenge on his hands but the freedom of the role, and his own prior knowledge of the space through working on Headlong co-productions, allows him to enter on a firm footing. His own uniquely stylistic flair, as recognisable in theatre as Tarintino is in film, make the possibility of creative control over an entire programme a most enticing one proposition for the audience.

Goold’s Macbeth was praised to the heavens by critics on both sides of the Atlantic; brilliantly designed, blessed with the stand-out performance from Patrick Stewart’s illustrious career and one more than equalled by Kate Fleetwood’s splendid Lady Macbeth. Goold’s production manages to maintain the golden thread that so often eludes directors of style; every element contributes something to the whole enabling the sum to be so much greater than the parts. Most pleasingly, it is also available for anyone to see as it was expertly captured for the BBC; rather sickeningly Goold proves himself to be equally at home in this medium, and the transfer retains a spirit and vitality that was sadly lacking in the televised version of Hamlet with David Tennant.

The extent to which I think this is seminal viewing is the fact that I am prepared to suggest buying something from Amazon in order to do so – boycott be damned, it is just too good.

Rupert Goold is only the latest in a line of seat-swapping that has amounted to a seismic shift in the theatrical landscape. The last couple of years have come to feel like a pivotal moment for the next generation to pick up the baton from their predecessors. Coinciding with a new political landscape, we are seeing the emergence of a new wave of directors and producers who will be charged with guiding British theatre through the murky quagmire of reduced funding and a more oppositional approach to politics.

It is too early to say but it could mean a return to more overt political dramas. One of the problems of the Labour regime is that they remained difficult to criticise following the experience of almost twenty years of EnronConservative power – and even more so when they pumped more money into the cultural landscape than it had seen in years. Where Labour were criticised, most excoriatingly by David Hare, was on foreign policy, or more accurately their foreign policy in Iraq – less was said about interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

During the Labour years it is hard to think of many plays that really sought to tackle domestic policy until the financial meltdown made everyone realise how far the country had sleepwalked into inequality under the watchful eyes of a supposedly centre-left government. One can only hope that the shake-up can also dislodge the art of the politics and reveal a new generation of dramatists less concerned with the ‘I’ than the ‘We’.

Doran

The most high profile, and contested, position up-for-grabs was that to succeed Michael Boyd as Artistic Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Whilst the National Theatre has more power and money, it is hard to dispute the RSC still carries the most prestige – flying the flag for Shakespeare and under Boyd’s leadership emerging from the mire with a reinvigorated sense of self. It is questionable whether anyone other than Gregory Doran had a look in, and the press release is rather telling ‘‘Greg Doran is a perfect choice for the RSC and is well known to all our audiences. His long history with the Company[…]’. It contains every impression of wanting to promote from within and maintaining a sense of continuity in a company that has too often lost its focus. Gregory Doran is without doubt an exceptional director but could well be seen as a safe pair of hands. However is this a bad thing when dealing with Shakespeare? Every year there will be attempts to reinvent Shakespeare for the modern age, most will be terrible and a few will not. In many ways it is much harder to breathe life into more traditional staging that are more interested in the text than in assuming what Shakespeare may have meant the text to mean.

Continuing outside of London, but yet further North, the National Theatre of Scotland has announced that Laurie Sansom will take over from Vicky Featherstone – herself off to the Royal Court to keep the merry-go-round spinning. The National Theatres’ of Wales and Scotland are probably the most important, and successful, developments in British theatre over the last 15 years. Vicky Featherstone was a hugely influential part of that culture of success, and was instrumental in bringing the widely acclaimed Black Watch to the stage, and the hugely entertaining Alan Cumming one-man Macbeth.

Vicky Featherstone

It is a shame that her departure was partly overshadowed by claims of a parochial attitude among the Theatre’s management but one hopes that they Royal Court will be the chief beneficiary of the time that she has spent outside of London. As an added intrigue, the poaching of Lucy Davies from the National Theatre of Wales to be an executive director at the Royal Court means that both have suffered a significant loss of leadership and one hopes that a firm hand is kept on the rudder of both organisations.

And the final move, and probably the most written about, is that of Josie Rourke taking the reigns at the Donmar Warehouse. Already a year into the programme we have seen an interesting array of productions that, if not setting the world alight are at least suggestive of a non-confirmist mindset. Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is not a play that has aged gracefully but it is still good to see it revived, whilst an all-female Julius Caesar may have caught some predictable flak but it provides challenge and most importantly provides new insight into the group dynamic of political leadership that a traditional cast production cannot achieve. It does feel like we are still waiting for Rourke to stamp her authority on her tenure but it also feels like that production is not far away.

Furious speculation and petulant snubs

The Evening Standards are almost upon us, so it is time to cast eyes over the shortlist. Harrumph over those missing from the list and make pointlessly futile predictions over who might be coming out on top. As usual we see the usual suspects vying for position.

This year the National leads the way with nine nominations, squeezing out the Royal Court with eight. Most disappointed must be the Donmar with just two nominations and a complete shut-out in both Best Actress and Best Actor catagories despite a number of barnstorming performances from Derek Jacobi, Jude Law and Ruth Wilson.

As usual the commercial sector is poorly represented and even in the musicals category they are squeezed by a National and a RSC production in London Road and Matilda respectively. However it is possible to see the faintest glimmer around the edges as Theatre Royal Haymarket managed to sneak a nomination for Sheridan Smith in Flare Path and a number of other nominations that never quite made it off the longlist. While it is far too early to say, it could be the start of a private theatre that plans to lead with serious, if understandably traditional and crowd-pleasing, drama.

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Best Actor

Bertie Carvel Matilda RSC Stratford and Cambridge Theatre
Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein National’s Olivier
Charles Edwards Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare’s Globe
Jonny Lee Miller Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Well the most interesting thing about this year’s Best Actor category is the double-header of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller being nominated for Frankenstein. It would have been cruel to have nominated one without the other but the question is whether they will pull votes away from each other and allow a sneaky victory for either Bertie Carvel or Charles Edwards to slip through in the ensuing mayhem. Either way looking at the shortlist it feels that it may have been a slightly weak year for male leads – with certainly no standout performance to stand alongside Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet of last year and the England-sized shadow of Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.

There are some notable omissions from the shortlist and James Corden in particular should perhaps feel most put-out by the lack of inclusion. He received universally rave reviews for One Man, Two Guvnors and the play had a host of 5* reviews and earned a nomination in its own right for Best Play. No space either for the Hollywood A-list of Spacey, Fiennes and Law; with Law perhaps producing the most transformative performance of them all in Anna Christie and re-establishing his right to be called a credible actor.

Will Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein (successfully holding off the split vote)

Should Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

James Corden – One Man, Two Guvnors / Jude Law – Anna Christie

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Natasha Richardson award for Best Actress

Sheridan Smith Flare Path Theatre Royal Haymarket
Samantha Spiro Chicken Soup With Barley Royal Court
Kristin Scott Thomas Betrayal Comedy Theatre

The formidable Kristin Scott Thomas looms large over the Best Actress category; bringing a stately grandeur and the imperious air of a known winner to proceedings. A handsome, well-acted Pinter play has awards written all over it but it hasn’t caught the eye in any of the other catagories so it is possible that it doesn’t quite have the legs to deliver the prize to Kristin.

It is entirely possible that the mass of goodwill that Sheridan Smith generated in Legally Blonde may transfer over to her first major lead in a straight play. And we are in a Rattigan centenary year as well. So as the stars seem to align for one double S, it appears the other, Samantha Spiro may be leaving empty handed despite an immensely powerful performance in Chicken Soup with Barley.

In a double blow for Anna Christie and the Donmar, Ruth Wilson joined Jude Law in failing to make it off the shortlist. Looking at the plays, we have a Rattigan, a Wesker, a Pinter and no room for any Americans. Perhaps as uncertainty swirls all around there has been a reward for those choosing Britain’s great 20th century playwrights to reflect on the modern psychology of the nation.

Will Win

Sheridan Smith – Flare Path

Should Win

Samantha Spiro – Chicken Soup with Barley

Should Have Been Nominated

Ruth Wilson – Anna Christie

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Best Play

The Heretic Richard Bean Royal Court
One Man, Two Guvnors Richard Bean National’s Lyttelton
Becky Shaw Gina Gionfriddo Almedia
Tribes Nina Raine Royal Court

Following my previous point about American plays, I suspect that we can count Becky Shaw out of the running. Undoubtably a strong play, I feel its previous history running off-Broadway may count against it in the final reckoning. Richard Bean can count himself unlucky to be nominated twice for Best Play but failed to even make it to the shortlist for Best Director. If people vote for the man rather than the play, we may see both The Heretic and One Many, Two Guvnors miss out on a split vote.

If this logic means Tribe picks up the award then justice may well have been done, as it would be just reward for a young writer’s elegant handling of the contentious topic of disability. Whilst not containing the full liberating freedom of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, it manages to free the topic from its normal parameters in order to confront the traditional Royal Court audience with a painful dose of reality. After last year’s win for the hugely successful Clydebourne Park, it appears the Royal Court may have found a rich vein of form in forcing its liberal supporters to reassess their underlying beliefs and prejudices.

Will Win

One Man, Two Guvnors – Richard Bean

Should Win

Tribes – Nina  Raine

Should Have Been Nominated

Wittenberg – David Davalos

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Ned Sherrin Award For Best Musical

Betty Blue Eyes
London Road
Matilda the musical

Not having seen any of these makes it difficult to comment. However it is hard to see past Matilda the musical sweeping all before it. Rapturous reviews at Stratford for the acting and singing, alongside Tim Minchin’s inspired lyricism; possibly one of the few individuals who would be able to capture Roald Dahl’s imagination. London Road is undoubtably a powerful piece of work but was it so good that you can convince voters to go for such a dour work in traditionally sunny category? Betty Blue Eyes? Reasonably reviews but will  people vote for something that is closing early? I think not.

Will Win

Matilda the musical

Should Win

Matilda the musical

Should Have Been Nominated

Nothing really stands out in what feels like a particularly weak year for musicals despite what the Evening Standard may say on the matter.

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Best Director

Rob Ashford Anna Christie Donmar
Dominic Cooke Chicken Soup with Barley Royal Court
Edward Hall Richard III & The Comedy of Errors Propeller At Hampstead
Mike Leigh Grief National’s Cotteslow

As much as I would love to see Edward Hall pick up a reward for the virtuoso vision that drives Propeller and their all-male Shakespeare productions, it feels like a very big ask for a company that doesn’t have the catchy celebrity names and longstanding reputations of the Donmar and the Royal Court. I think Mike Leigh can be ruled out as well, as loved as he may be this does not feel like a Mike Leigh year and Grief passed me by with little more than a whisper.

Coming down to Rob Ashford and Dominic Cooke we have two plays that highlight the differences in writing on either side of the Atlantic. O’Neill vs Wesker is a mouth-watering proposition. It is shaped up to be an extremely close run race that I supect will be decided by the fact that we appear to be in a period of re-evaluating Wesker,  Chicken Soup… at the Donmar and the The Kitchen at the Nationa. This extra name recognition and a seeming favouring of British playwrights should be enough to swing the judges towards Dominic Cooke.

A lot of big names have missed out. There is no space for Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle for their interepretations of Richard III and Frankenstein. It’s a shame to see Declan Donnellan has not made the cut for The Tempest, although Russian language plays are always going to be a tough sell.

Will Win

Dominic Cooke – Chicken South with Barley

Should Win

Edward Hall – Richard III & The Comedy of Errors

Should Have Been Nominated

Declan Donnellan – The Tempest

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Best Design

Bunny Christie Men Should Weep National’s Lyttelton
Lizzie Clachan Wastwater Royal Court
Adam Cork Sound designer of Anna Christie and King Lear Donmar
Mark Tildesley Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Not much to say on this other than if Mark Tildesley doesn’t win for Frankenstein then I shall eat my hat. The Olivier is a famously difficult to space to work with and while Danny Boyle’s production may have had its problems, the design was not one of them. Visually stunning and a replica steam train on stage; whatever beats it must be out of this world.

Will Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

Jon Bausor –  Lord of the Flies

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Charles Wintour Award For Most Promising Playwright

E.V. Crowe Kin Royal Court
Vivienne Franzmann Mogadishu Lyric Hammersmith
Penelope Skinner The Village Bike Royal Court

Not having seen any of these its hard to comment. However based purely on word of mouth I suspect that Vivienne Franzmann is out in front for Mogadishu. A deserving win could be on the cards for the Lyric Hammersmith that has championed new writing but has often been overlooked in favour of the reputation of the Royal Court.

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Milton Shulman Award For Outstanding Newcomer

Phoebe Fox For her performances In As You Like It (Rose, Kingston) and The Acid Test (Royal Court) and There Is A War (National’s Paintframe)
Malachi Kirby For his performance In Mogadishu (Lyric Hammersmith)
Kyle Soller For his performances In The Glass Menagerie (Young Vic), Government Inspector (Young Vic) and The Faith Machine (Royal Court)
David Wilson Barnes For his performance In Becky Shaw (Almeida)

In one of the more interesting developments across the nominations, we saw husband, Kyle Soller, up against his wife, Phoebe Fox, in the battle for Outstanding Newcomer. Out of the two my money is on Kyle Soller, if in part for an outstanding performance as Khlestakov in the Young Vic’s version of The Government Inspector and an extremely strong follow-up in The Glass Menagarie.

I feel Malachi Kirby will struggle to match this with just Mogasdishu behind him and there will be no justice in the world  if David Wilson Barnes walks off with the award – as any quick glance at his C.V suggests ‘newcomer’ maybe laying it on a bit thick.