December 31, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Top Ten of 2008

Happy new year! As 2009 dawns, here’s a look back at my theatregoing in 2008, via my top ten productions. Without further ado:

10. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare’s Globe, August)

A close call between this and the Globe’s other standout production, Timon of Athens. While the inventive Timon flagged in its second act, however, Merry Wives showcased the Globe at its absolute peak, combining intelligence and slapstick to create a thoroughly enjoyable performance. The kind of production which forces you to ask why a play is revived so rarely.

9. The Brothers Size (Birmingham Rep, The Door, December)

A beautiful exploration of male love and the bonds of brotherhood. Raw, powerful and poetic, Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s excellent text provided the basis for a physical and emotionally bruising studio piece.

8. Endgame (Liverpool Everyman, April)

A production that passed with relatively little notice in Liverpool, where focus was ill-advisedly on October’s abominable King Lear instead. Matthew Kelly headed a tremendous cast who provided a bleak but often hysterical straight reading of a Beckett masterpiece.

7. Boris Gudonov (Warwick Arts Centre, May)

Cheek by Jowl’s outstanding Russian ensemble returned to Coventry with Pushkin’s Boris Gudonov in a production that oozed class. A difficult one to explain; it’s the images that have remained with me, but a fantastic cast and clear storytelling were the highlights at the time. It says something that I barely remember it was in Russian – this was theatre at its clearest.

6. Macbeth: Who is that Bloodied Man? (National Theatre, Square2, August)

Macbeth liberated from words. This Polish production provided unforgettable images of apocalyptic carnage: motorbikes, witches on stilts, a drum full of skulls and the final, searing visage of Macbeth burning on his throne. Deep and detailed, the experience was heightened by being played on a balmy summers night on the bank of the Thames.

5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Warwick Arts Centre, June)

I’m slightly surprised to find this one so high up my own list, particularly as I know it wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, but I can’t help it. Played in Footsbarn’s own travelling tent, the company created a magical environment for a surreal performance rooted in folklore and fairy tales. Not just for kids.

4. The Glass Menagerie (Royal Exchange, May)

My first Tennessee Williams, and a fantastically staged production. The performers gave the characters the richness and complexity they deserved, while the design was possibly the best of the year, particularly in an exciting use of lighting that continually brought out different features in the play’s single set.

3. Hamlet (Tobacco Factory, April)

As much as I wanted to get the RSC’s very good Hamlet onto this list, it didn’t make the cut. Jonathan Miller’s in Bristol, however, was the best Shakespeare I saw last year. A studio-sized production in period costume, this was an almost effects-free production, instead relying on detailed performances and fantastic readings. Jamie Ballard finally got the role he deserved, and even small parts had their moment to shine.

2. Black Watch (Warwick Arts Centre, April)

The production which was actually as good as the hype suggested. A powerful script, impressive technical wizardry (I can still hear the fighter planes screaming overhead) that stretched Warwick Arts Centre, top-notch performances and a timely message combined to make this a proper piece of event theatre. Funny, moving and unmissable.

1. The Revenger’s Tragedy (National Theatre, June)

My choice for play of the year is the production that finally gave Middleton the treatment he deserved. A revolving stage allowed for impressive dumbshows filling in the backstory, a live DJ score and dancers created a seedy nightclub atmosphere and Middleton’s language had never sounded so contemporary. Triumphant, and one of the best adverts for Middleton’s relevance and playability today.

And some bonus prizes:

Academic Highlight of the Year: Play Without a Title (Fail Better/ CAPITAL Centre)

This performance of a new translation of Lorca’s unfinished play was perhaps the most important production I saw this year, and impressive direction and design complemented an accomplished student cast. Needs to be seen beyond Warwick, urgently.

Student Production of the Year: The Skriker (WUDS)

VERY narrowly missed out on my top ten. The most professional student production I’ve ever seen, the most accomplished use of promenade playing I’ve ever seen and an absolutely stellar cast. Deservedly won several awards at NSDF.

Scene of the Year: The drinking scene from Twelfth Night (Filter)

Described in detail on the blog, this scene effectively turned into a full-on midnight party in the Courtyard Theatre. The pizza was great, and the time taken to create the party made Malvolio’s interruption all the more effective.

Cute Moment of the Year: The Bunny in Rapunzel (Kneehigh)


Honourable Mention 1: The RSC Histories Cycle

Honourable Mention 2: Brief Encounter (Kneehigh)

These two honourable mentions would both have made it into the top ten (The Histories would probably have occupied several places), were it not for the fact that I first saw them in 2006 and 2007. Nonetheless, the performances of these productions that I saw in 2008 were wonderful, the plays continuing to represent the best of the RSC and Kneehigh.

So, a good year! Not a vintage one for Shakespeare, but not a month has gone by without a couple of very decent productions. Now, roll on 2009!

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