It was a year of high drama: political turmoil, financial upheaval, the energy crisis, runaway fears about the climate, the end of a reign and war in Europe. Upstaged by world events, how has British theatre responded? Not, it has to be said, with the greatest distinction. Its sluggishness has been particularly perplexing in relation to Ukraine. There were exceptions – west London’s tiny but committed Finborough Theatre staged work by Ukrainian writers – but, given the scale of the nightmare, it feels like British theatre has given a collective shrug of helpless concern.
The Donmar’s Henry V opened in March, within days of an invasion by Russia that had been anticipated for months. Kit Harington lent Shakespeare’s hero toughness of intellect and body, but there was an emphasis on homegrown nationalism – a decent effort, but hardly attuned to the moment; nor did the RSC’s Richard III rise to the occasion of dictatorship run rampant. In general, Shakespeare in 2022 was more ebbing than flowing.
Some blushes were spared with the premiere of Patriots, by The Crown’s Peter Morgan. The play gave a smart précis of Putin’s rise to power and his corralling of the oligarchs, with Boris Berezovksy, his regretful kingmaker (played by Tom Hollander), thrust centre stage. But you can’t help wondering what the state of play will be by the time the Almeida production transfers to the West End next May. As a talking point, it was as if the cavalry had finally arrived – only to face an onslaught from tanks.
The pandemic was, of course, a body blow. Work in the pipeline had to be realised, and new ideas take time to gestate. Still, it beggars belief that a sector that fought so hard to justify its survival has been so behindhand in responding to high-stakes events.
The Royal Court exemplified this failure, whether in Alistair McDowall’s bamboozling, time-hopping piece The Glow, about a woman with supernatural powers, or the underwhelming meta-theatrical “thriller” That Is Not Who I Am, pseudonymously written by Lucy Kirkwood. Its most enthralling offering was Ryan Calais Cameron’s glorious account of troubled black masculinity today, For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy.
Tellingly, that was brought in from a London fringe theatre, the New Diorama. That venue’s inspiring artistic director, David Byrne, boldly halted productions this year, ploughing resources instead into fresh thinking. “It feels like the aristocracy going back to their stately homes after the First World War, expecting everything to be the same,” he told me. “But the world has changed. We need to excite audiences again. You often go to see work, and know exactly what it’s going to say.”
Predictability could prove as much an existential threat to theatre as the pandemic. Yes, there is talent coming through, but there’s also a growing weariness of plays that feel like platforms for ideological positions, rather than test labs for competing views.
In Baghdaddy, her Royal Court debut, playwright Jasmine Naziha Jones delivered, in character, a diatribe about prewar sanctions against Iraq. It felt didactic, not dramatic. And however laudably bold I, Joan, by Charlie Josephine, which imagined Joan of Arc as non-binary avant la lettre at the Globe, the script had the tub-thumping tone of a pious Twitter thread (“Trans people are sacred”, “Man tricked woman into hating trans...”).
If theatre leaves nuance by the wayside, the cash-strapped younger generation will steer clear. If you don’t guard against what the late, great director Peter Brook called “the deadly theatre”, won’t it kill off the entire art form?
In Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel, his King Lear-derived show at the Edinburgh Festival, Tim Crouch turned the prospect of theatre’s demise into a potent provocation:
This is a morgue. This is like some obscure corner of arcane anthropology now. No one speaks this language any more… We’re like soldiers in the jungle and the war’s over and we weren’t told – and we lost. The soul of this place transmigrated years ago into that flat screen in the middle of our living rooms... “It’ll come back stronger after the —” No it won’t. It hasn’t.
To counter that gloom? Well, the West End triumph of Jodie Comer’s solo tour de force in Prima Facie, as a barrister in psychological freefall, was matched by the unprecedented success of its NT Live screenings.
And it’s impossible to argue that British playwriting is truly breathing its last, when we’re seeing pieces as beautifully modulated as David Eldridge’s Middle, a heartfelt comedy of middle-aged marital break-up, at the National, or Tyrell Williams’s sharp and fresh Red Pitch, about a trio of footballing south London lads, full of hope and fraternity, while gentrifying bulldozers intrude on their dreams. That was at west London’s Bush Theatre, now the prime spot for new writing, but there was equal finesse in Hampstead with Nell Leyshon’s wonderful Folk, about Cecil Sharp’s song-collecting, and Blackout Songs, Joe White’s blistering two-hander about addiction.
In Sheffield, Chris Bush boldly scripted three concurrent plays – Rock, Paper, Scissors – set over a single day in a dying Sheffield scissor factory, painting a picture of the postindustrial city. In Bristol, departing Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris premiered Dr Semmelweis, by Stephen Brown, with Mark Rylance as the 19th-century Hungarian physician who led the way on hand washing but was thwarted by the establishment (and his own ego). At Bristol, too, Giles Terera did something scholarly and inventive with a woeful chapter of the British slave trade in The Meaning of Zong.
Even so, we need plays – and I do mean plays – that can sit on the biggest stages. It feels like a sign of the times that Operation Mincemeat, about a bonkers but brilliant stroke of Allied wartime deception, is coming to the West End as a musical, just when theatreland is stuffed with glitzy singalongs. It’s ingenious, but you shouldn’t need to be all-singing, all-dancing to draw a crowd.
In June, I seized on Stephen Beresford’s The Southbury Child, at Chichester, as a precious specimen of what seemed like a vanishing breed: a play of ideas, rich in character. Superlative Alex Jennings was the anguished model of tested self-belief as a Devon vicar who refuses to yield to touchy-feely woke sentiment and let garish balloons festoon a child’s funeral.
“I am pleading for nothing less than an experience which is worthy of God. And if that doesn’t matter… then nothing matters,” he cried. His censorious community piled in on him, like a real-life social-media mob. Deep down, I realise I loved it so much because he was making an argument for keeping our faith in old-fashioned stage drama.