Competition has been fierce. Tears, wine and blood have been spilt. Not necessarily in that order. All that remains, with votes cast, arguments played out, and money in brown paper bags tallied and accounted for, is to dust off the golden envelopes and announce the hotly anticipated (umm, by who? – ed) results.
If you are under the suspicion that these awards don’t have any real meaning and are just another internet blog’s attempts to round off the year in a show of unnecessary and undeserved self-importance then, well, you would be right.
However I rest happy knowing these are the views of someone who has seen, and written, a lot about theatre in 2014. And that has a meaning above and beyond those offered by a certain awards ceremony funded by a bearded Russian billionaire whose questionable wealth accumulation tactics enabled them to buy an entire newspaper for seemingly the sole purpose of indulging twin fantasies of being a cultural impresario and being photographed with an arm around attractive celebrities.
So mea culpa over, follow the link to check out the winners.
It is only fair to begin with a disclaimer: this reviewer does not like Tennessee Williams. It is not for want of trying and it is also appreciated that Civilian Theatre is very much in the minority with Williams being held in the highest esteem by a great many people who know a great deal more about the theatre.
However the point stands and after spending close to three and a half hours watching the Young Vic’s current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and quite a bit longer letting opinions slowly ferment in the darkest recesses of the brain, it can only be concluded that we are faced with a conundrum – and that is how far a production can be even-handedly reviewed when the play itself is not personally held in particularly high regard.
Benedict Andrews’ stunningly visual and sumptuously performed version of Tennessee Williams’ most famous (and possibly greatest) play wonderful demonstrates the edge that theatre has over other narrative mediums; for in general every piece of cinema is seen as a new piece of cinema, even when a character – such as Frankenstein – is returned to we do not recognise it as the same film produced differently.
Perhaps only, outside of films that began life as stage plays, Gus Van Sant’s almost shot-for-shot remake of Psycho could be considered a genuine replica, and a 37% Rotten Tomatoes rating tells a story all of its own. Literature, that other narrative medium, is tied to its form and could never bear complete repetition of language even as it continually retraces its steps over stories passed down across generations.
It is only theatre where audiences are satisfied by directors going back to the same well – to Shakespeare, to Euripides, to Chekhov, to Williams – and seeing what can be made from the same materials. This desire allows a director to try and breathe new life into familiar conceits and allows the audience to revisit their favourite plays or continually challenge themselves against work that doesn’t appeal to them.
And so begins Civilian Theatre’s obsession with Tennessee Williams (and was there a more appropriate playwright to develop an obsession about?) Regarded as one of the great American dramatists, and with an undoubted flair for writing memorable characters, Williams’ stock is such that he is part of a very small band of playwrights that the commercial West End will take a chance on. As a result over the years this reviewer has watched (or perhaps endured) Night of the Iguana, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll, The Glass Menagerie, The Fat Man’s Wife and now, finally, A Streetcar Named Desire. With the exception of The Glass Menagerie they have proved mainly dispiriting affairs where the southern melodrama successfully manages to match the ripeness of the language with equally ripe performances.
That production of The Glass Menagerie, at the Young Vic in 2010, was built on the back of an exciting new director in Joe Hill-Gibbins, two breakout performances from rising stars, Kyle Soller and Sinead Matthews (everything from Master and Margarita, The Changeling to Blurred Lines in the last couple of years) and a wonderful score. It demonstrated that no matter what you think of a playwright, or his style of writing, it is possible to extract excellence; for even the biggest critics of Tennessee Williams would never deny that the man could write (unfortunately he writes so well he sometimes seems to forget to know when to stop).As it happens A Streetcar Named Desire not only has an exciting director in Benedict Andrews, two breakout performances from Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby (brilliantly taking more than she was given as Isabella in Edward II, and doing a similar job with Stella in Streetcar), and an interesting musical score. It also gives us an ingenious set design and a crackerjack lead performance from Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois.
So the judges have ill-met by moonlight, the runes read, the die cast and the Oracle consulted. Bribes have been counted, tallied and sent to the accountants to be stored in one of Civilian Theatre’s numerous tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. And so, without further ado, here are the winners in the inaugural Civilian Theatre Awards: The Civil Awards
In the most hotly-contested category of the year we see the usual array of brilliant Shakespeare performances. The difficulty in choosing between them is that they take such different routes into interpreting the Bard for a modern audience. James McAvoy may not be the greatest Shakespearian but he put body as well as soul into a hugely physical performance in the intimate Trafalgar Studios. His was a magnetic Macbeth that may have offended the purists but did make this GSCE-favourite come alive.
There is a notable contrast in David Tennant’s Richard II; Tennant’s quick-silver tongue has made him the most fluid verse speaker of his generation and he reveled in Richard’s fascination with words and language, showing flashes of interpretative genius to draw out the subtleties from the text’s formidable complexity. The final Shakespere on the list was Rory Kinnear’s Iago. Civilian Theatre felt that he edged out Adrian Lester in the Othello double-hander; his Iago was brought into the present as a credible presence in the modern world, immediately recognisable to those watching.
Henry Goodman’s wonderful Arturo Ui was a marvel, blending an ability to move seamlessly between slapstick and seriousness, and proving once again of the fertile life of plays outside London. But the winner comes from even further afield and demonstrating that language is no barrier to great performance. Playing the everyman is often seen as one of the hardest roles to recreate on stage, and Bérenger is presented as the archetypal everyman. Maggiani beautifully captures Bérenger in all his contrarian frailty and gives to the audience a momentary insight into what it is to be truly human on stage. It is a performance that achieves a rare transcendent universalism and makes Maggiani a worthy winner.
And the Winner is… Serge Maggiani as Bérenger in Rhinoceros (Barbican)
The year started off with fireworks as critics, for no obvious reason, got flustered by the idea of all-female Julius Caesar; however Harriet Walter proved why gender should not be a barrier by giving us an utterly spell-binding Brutus. It showed that given the chance a great actor (male or female) can find a depth and subtlety to Shakespeare’s leading roles, which are full of rich texture and fascinating new interpretations.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge finds herself nominated twice over, with both Mydidae and Fleabag superbly showcasing her skills. Both challenging parts that required both emotionally and physical intimacy, Waller-Bridge proved herself as an actor unafraid of taking risks and a star to watch rise over 2014. It is rare for a musical to generate a nomination but Hannah Waddingham (Kiss Me, Kate) combined a wonderfully vocal performance with solid acting and superb comic timing that lifted the whole production, whilst effortlessly stealing the show from those around her.
Neve McIntosh’s Claire in The Events was the threat that held this powerful work together. It was the sort of performance that was laced with a quiet grief, an understated emotional core that supported rather than threatening to overwhelm the whole. It was the kind of performances that are rarely noticed because by playing small you allow the play itself to take centre stage, and that is a rare enough skill in an actor.
Ruth Wilson’s performances in The El Train came just in time for nomination and proved once again that few British actors do American better. She has developed the rare skill of stillness that cannot help but draw the audience to her. Wilson’s performance in The El Train was an acting masterclass in the art of the monologue and in building a full realised character out of the smallest of scraps.
And the Winner is… Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar (Donmar Warehouse)
After the tremendous disappointment of Peter and Alice it was a relief to see, in Mojo, what an electrifying actor Ben Whishaw can be. His presence onstage ramped up the wattage by some degrees and he once again undercut his somewhat fey persona with a dangerous malevolence. Jonathan Slinger’s Parolles in the RSC’s All’s Well That Ends Well continues his fine run of form for the Company. Growing in presence and with a Hamlet under his belt, Slinger is continuing his rapid rise through ranks.
Two supporting nominations for the uneven but often entertaining Edward II at the National; Kyle Soller is a clear rising star and has become a go-to for beefing up a supporting presence over the last couple of years but it was Vanessa Kirby’s Isabella who takes even more praise. Gaveston is a clear supporting role but Kirby carved out a weighty role for a part that could have sat far more in the background. Her role as one of Lear’s daughter in the upcoming Sam Mendes’ production should be one to watch.
However the award must go to the old guard and William Gaunt’s fabulous Dogsborough in Arturo Ui. It’s not easy play Brecht – Gaunt must represent the entire failure of the German establishment seen through Hindenburg as refracted the role of a southern gentleman. Gaunt gives the role a tragic grandeur – of a man who betrays his principles and realises far too late how far he has been outflanked.
And the Winner is… William Gaunt as Dogsborough in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Duchess Theatre)
All the directors on the list deserve acclaim for rich and involving productions. It is no surprise that only one failed to make it to Civilian Theatre’s Top 10 shows of 2013 (and even then Doran’s Richard II only missed out by the most slender of margins).
Each brings something different to the table but in the end the prize must go to the formal inventiveness of Katie Mitchell’s Fraulein Julie. There are many British companies pushing boundaries but Mitchell does more than this. She seems less concerned with the question of what theatre is and instead is wholly focused on how to deliver greatest truth to the audience. Her blurring of traditional mediums reached its greatest coherence to date in Fraulein Julie; a grueling but stunning reinvention of the Strindberg classic.
And the Winner is… Katie Mitchell for Fraulein Julie (Barbican Theatre)
The Harold Pinter Theatre is a surprise entrant on the list but it has shown impressive diversity for a West End theatre; Old Times, Mojo and Merrily We Roll Along all proving to be canny acquisitions and audience hits. The Barbican and the Young Vic continued their traditionally strong programming with a mixture of plays to suit every taste at prices that remain, just about, on the affordable end of the spectrum. However the prize goes to the Trafalgar Studios for their audacious Trafalgar Transformed season and for giving Jamie Lloyd free-run of their main space. It was a move that could have potentially backfired spectacularly but The Hothouse, Macbeth and The Pride proved that there is life for serious drama in a more commercial setting.
And the Winner is… Trafalgar Transformed
Three very different plays united in their complete unexpectedness. Between them they made three of the top four places in Civilian Theatre’s Top 10. It proved once again that you just need to scratch the surface to find innovative, powerful and challenging theatre. In the end Hamlet de los Andes edges it purely because nothing about it seemed promising. The Events had the weight of David Greig and The Scottsboro Boys had Kander & Ebb; Hamlet de los Andes was an unknown– in the UK – Bolivian company that had the audacity to rip apart Hamlet for their own ends. The result was brilliant.
And the Winner is… Hamlet de los Andes
Even despite the disappointing season that was offered, Michael Grandage must be applauded for the amount of affordable tickets – and not all in rubbish seats – that were on sale for his plays. If the Stalls seats are going to be extravagantly priced then at least it was used to subsidise others. The Shed looks exciting but the prize goes to Rupert Goold taking the reins at the Almeida. Our most innovative director in charge of his own theatre, and one that blends public and commercial sensibilities at that; it should be an interesting few years and this move positions Goold perfectly for something even high-profile the next time the roundabout turns.
And the Winner is… Rupert Goold at the Almeida
Well on a personal level it was being too lazy to see Chimerica. Clearly one of the plays of the year and it was through indolence alone that it was missed by Civilian Theatre. However the out and out winner is the Michael Grandage season. Having bought into the hype, and into the tickets, it produced disappointment after disappointment. Peter and Alice was dross on every level, The Cripple of Inishmaan did scrape over average and then an immediate downturn into a boring baby boomer A Midsummer Night’s Drum before a dull as ditchwater Henry V rounded things off.
Any of the three above are more than worthy of winning the prize. However a late entrant steals the show for being both terrible, and for being so unexpectedly terrible. Mark Rylance. James Earl Jones. Vanessa Redgrave. Shakespeare. The Old Vic. Nothing in those words suggests anything other than a production of the highest calibre and undoubted interest from audience and critics alike. However the unmitigated disaster that was Much Ado About Nothing led all that saw it to attempt to blank the experience from their mind. It was a catastrophe of the like that is rarely seen on the London stage and although it gives no pleasure to do so, it must be awarded the prize of: worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013.
Well the plays have been revisited, the little grey cells put back into action and the oracle consulted. In short and without further ado, Civilian Theatre is proud to present the runners and riders in the inaugural shortlist for The Civil Awards. [Cue much fanfare, fireworks and underhand, dirty trick campaigns].
Bribes, whilst having little effect on the outcome, will still be gratefully received. Your comments and opinions are also welcomed.
Winners will revealed next week following a countdown of the Top 10 plays of 2013.
Best Actor – Male
Best Actor – Female
Best Supporting Actor
Theatre / Theatre Company of the Year
Surprise of the Year
Best thing to happen in theatre in 2013
Biggest disappointment of the year
Worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013
Much of the critical reaction to the National’s production of Marlow’s Edward II has been withering, and for generally mild-mannered reviewers, bordering on the vitriolic. Leading the charge is, inevitably, Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail who suggests the ‘the only thing murdered in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s puerile, inept production is the play itself’ (ouch) and is followed, perhaps rather too stridently, by Tim Walker in The Telegraph who found ‘In almost 10 years of reviewing theatre, I doubt I have been confronted with a bigger load of indigestible old tosh’ and couldn’t help but the boot into the subsidised sector while he was at it; ‘the kind of production that simply could not happen in the commercial West End.’
Many people would doubtless agree with Mr Walker’s final sentence but the despair being aimed less at the National and more with eyes turned pointedly north of the river at the risk-averse nature of the private sector behemoths; happy to suck up the most profitable of the tried and tested subsidised productions before reverting back to a steady rotation between Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and A.N Musical complete with X-Factor star.
If the overt agenda setting of Mr Walker’s column can be ignored– and the reference to‘comrades’ at the National rather says it all – it makes an important point in reminding us that the licence to put on a production this lavish ultimately comes from the public purse.
Joe Hill-Gibbin’s is a talented director who had great success at the Young Vic but his career trajectory is taking a worrying turn towards the excessive. A bright start led to a stint at the Young Vic where he created a stunning yet simple revival of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant Beauty Queen of Leenane and directed the only Tennessee Williams production I have ever managed to enjoy (The Glass Menagerie).
He scored an unexpectedly huge hit with the fun but rather too hyper-kinetic The Changeling, which showed a suffusion of talent but equally there were times where a restraining hand might have been called for. It is troubling that on the grandest stage of all Hill-Gibbin’s has not only failed to adjust his style but that the flaws, rather than being flattened in the vast space of Olivier, have only been magnified.
Whilst we must allow artistic companies the freedom to make mistakes, watching Hill-Gibbin’s exuberant production reminded me of the wisdom of Bob Balaban’s protective mother in A Mighty Wind justifying the use of a Shetland pony to play polo on the grounds that ‘if he has to fall, he shouldn’t fall from so very high’.
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#AreTheyIn - The Absent Reviewer
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