Lyn Gardner's top 10 theatre of 2016

Phyllida Lloyd’s storming all-female Shakespeare trilogy is saluted by Lyn Gardner who, in no set order, chooses other essential productions of the year

Shakespeare Trilogy
King’s Cross theatre, London

Phyllida Lloyd’s wonderfully spare and engagingly rowdy productions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, set in a women’s prison and performed by an all-female cast lead by a magnificent Harriet Walter, were remarkable by any standards. The reinvention illuminates the plays in surprising, sometimes heartbreaking, ways.

The productions have an extraordinary ability both to completely make you forget that you are watching an all-female cast and yet also subtly refocus Shakespeare through the framing device, with the prisoners performing the dramas and working through their own issues in the process. Children’s toys are brought into play throughout, both hinting at the family lives these women have lost through incarceration and reminding of the ways that boys love to play with the toys when it comes to war.

One production or even a trilogy cannot singlehandedly transform the world, particularly a theatre world still so oddly hesitant about fully embracing diversity. But Lloyd’s production and the depth and breadth of talent displayed – in a cast of different ages, shapes and skin colours – means that never again will anyone be able to sneer that the girls aren’t up to the job when it comes to Shakespeare. There are no weak links in a cast who play each and every character with thrilling distinctiveness and a mix of delicate emotion and joyous swagger. It’s a game-changer and should be held up as one of the moments when British theatre realised that diversity isn’t a tick-box fad but the powerful engine that genuinely drives creativity and invention. Read a full review.

The Hamilton Complex
Unicorn, London

The Hamilton Complex
Charged … The Hamilton Complex Photograph: Fred Debrock

Thirteen 13-year-old girls own the stage in a piece devised with director Lies Pauwels. They strut, they scream, they dance, they dress up as Little Red Riding Hoods, air hostesses and beauty queens as if trying on identities – particularly those thrust upon them in a sexualised culture – and discarding them. “Are there any paedophiles here today?” one asks, as the others eyeball the audience as if waiting to see us flinch. The act of watching becomes charged in an hour that is sometimes uncomfortable, often alarming and ultimately irresistibly joyous. Read more.

Us/Them
Summerhall, Edinburgh

Bronks Theatre’s Us/Them.
Deeply moving … Bronks Theatre’s Us/Them. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Heading to the National Theatre in January 2017, Cary Wijs’s two-hander for Belgium’s Bronks Theatre is an account of the 2004 Beslan school massacre told entirely from the point of view of two children. Made for young audiences –aged nine and over – it’s an astonishingly playful and deeply moving show. With the lightest of touches it raises all sorts of questions about truth, media representation, myth-making and how we see ourselves and others. Read a full review.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala
O Reilly theatre, Dublin

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s adaptation Swan Lake / Loch na hEala.
Depths of the mind … Michael Keegan-Dolan’s adaptation Swan Lake / Loch na hEala. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

Forget Tchaikovsky. Michael Keegan-Dolan draws on Irish and Nordic folk songs to create this quite extraordinary piece of dance theatre that relocates the dark fairy tale to the Irish Midlands. It’s not just the geographical bogs but the depths of the mind that are excavated in a show in which Siegfried becomes Jimmy, a depressed loner still living with his mum, and Odette is Finnola, whose wings are broken when she is abused by the local priest. Rich, brutal and ultimately gloriously redemptive. Read more.

Iphigenia in Splott
NT Temporary Space, London

Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott.
Blistering … Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott. Photograph: National Theatre

I was stupidly late to this party – Gary Owen’s heartbreaking, angry monologue was first seen at the Sherman in Cardiff in 2015 – but better late than never. Owen cunningly draws us into the story of Effie, challenging our assumptions about this hard-drinking, lippy young woman. It’s such a clever, politically engaged piece of writing, staged with stylish minimalism by director Rachel O’Riordan and boasting one of the most scorching performances of the year. Sophie Melville was blistering as the girl who describes herself as a “nasty skank” but turns out to know the real price of austerity and personal sacrifice. Read a full review.

Men and Girls Dance
Attenborough Centre, Brighton

Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance.
Brave delight … Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance. Photograph: Karen Robinson

Fevered Sleep’s almost recklessly brave participatory dance project brings together a group of untrained young girls to dance with five trained male dancers. The result – which can be seen at the Place in London in April 2017 – is an utter delight: sometimes comic, often tender and frequently exuberant. But it does something more, asking questions about who trusts who, who holds the stage, and who leads and who follows. A show that challenges the idea that contact between young girls and adults, particularly adult males, must be suspect and which celebrates children and grown-ups playing and dancing together with giddy abandon. Read more.

Yerma
Young Vic, London

Brendan Cowell and Billie Piper in Yerma.
Obsession … Brendan Cowell and Billie Piper in Yerma. Photograph: Johan Persson

This merciless reinvention of Lorca’s 1934 rural tragedy relocated the play to contemporary London. As the young journalist and blogger whose apparently charmed life turns barren, Billie Piper was mesmerising. Simon Stone’s production puts love, vanity and obsession on stage as if within the glass walls of a museum showcase, constantly reminding that we all want to leave our mark on the world, and that for most of us it’s only through having kids that we achieve it. Read a full review

People, Places and Things
Wyndhams, London

Denise Gough (centre) in People, Places and Things.
Slippery … Denise Gough (centre) in People, Places and Things. Photograph: Johan Persson

Another show that I missed last year. I arrived with impossibly high expectations but every single one was fulfilled in this story of Emma, an actor addicted to drink and drugs who is unreliable in every way. Duncan Macmillan’s script was intelligent, slippery and very funny, the supporting cast superb, and Jeremy Herrin’s production playfully tinkered with our sense of reality. Oh, and that performance by Denise Gough It really was as good as everybody said – and then some. Read more.

The Flick
National Theatre, London

Matthew Maher and Jaygann Ayehin The Flick.
Authentic … Matthew Maher and Jaygann Ayehin The Flick. Photograph: Mark Douet

Few plays this year were as touching or thoughtful as Annie Baker’s play about the low-paid workers in a failing Massachusetts movie house that is being left behind by digital. There was an almost Chekhovian quality to a drama that utilised the rhythms of daily life with long passages where nothing appeared to happen but everything changes. It played with quicksilver lightness on ideas about what is real and authentic in both art and personal relationships. Read more.

Right Now
Ustinov, Bath

Dyfan Dwyfor, Sean Biggerstaff and Maureen Beattie in Right Now.
Uncomfortable … Dyfan Dwyfor, Sean Biggerstaff and Maureen Beattie in Right Now. Photograph: Simon Annand

Some evenings at the theatre make an instant impact, others lurk in your unconscious and won’t go away. Catherine-Anne Toupin’s disquieting, uncomfortable comedy – inspired by the death of a sibling during her childhood – falls into the latter category. There is something uncanny about the way it plays mind games in an ever shifting scenario about a couple who move into an apartment and soon become embroiled with the neighbours. Nothing is quite what it seems and Michael Boyd’s production deftly kept you guessing. I still am. Read a full review.

Contributor

Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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