Mark Ludmon picks his theatre highlights of 2020.
In spite of the odds, theatre continued to be made in 2020 despite the buildings closing in March. Nothing can replace the live shared experience of being in a performance space but, through ingenuity and adaptability, many shows were successfully streamed into our homes.
Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester scored streaming successes with two very different shows. Maureen Lipman gave a phenomenal performance in a revival of Martin Sherman’s solo play, Rose, directed by Scott Le Crass, mixing humour with deeply moving compassion as it charted the journey of a Jewish woman through persecution and turmoil across the 20th century. In contrast, Jonathan Larsen’s classic musical, Rent, was given new life in a vibrant production with a cast of 12, directed by Luke Sheppard with fantastic choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves that nearly leapt off the screen.
Jermyn Street Theatre in London staged an impressive series of monologues in 15 Heroines, each created by a different actress and writer. Split into three sections, it re-told or re-invented the stories of women featured in Ovid’s classical Latin poetry collection, Heroides. These intimate plays were perfectly suited for streaming online, offering an incredible variety of strong performances and perspectives.
Roy Williams and Clint Dyer followed up their acclaimed play, Death of England, which opened at the National Theatre in February, with a companion, Death of England: Delroy. It managed to reach an early press night just before lockdown in November and was fortunately filmed for streaming later. With a magnetic performance by Michael Balogun, it told the story of a young black man whose outlook on life is changed forever when his easy-going existence is undermined by injustice and racism.
Ian Rickson’s superb new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, adapted by Conor McPherson, was also cut short at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre by Covid-19 and it too was filmed. Broadcast on BBC4, it was mesmerising and full of energy, humour and a heart-breaking poignancy, with a brilliant ensemble of performances including Toby Jones, Richard Armitage, Ciaran Hinds and Rosalind Eleazar.
This was the first time in nearly 20 years that I didn’t spend at least a few days of August in Edinburgh at the festivals. Theatre-makers took shows online but one highlight was a beautiful short film, Ghost Light, made by the National Theatre of Scotland as part of My Light Shines On –Edinburgh International Festival’s online celebration of the city’s performing arts. Drawing on the work of Scottish writers from JM Barrie to Rona Munro, it featured many leading Scottish actors and was filmed in Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Scotland has maintained its commitment to producing new work online, from daily videos featuring the local community to pieces by internationally renowned playwrights. This summer it was due to premiere David Greig’s new play, Adventures with the Painted People, part of the theatre’s Shades of Tay project and inspired by the locality of the theatre by the River Tay. Ahead of its stage production in 2021, artistic director Elizabeth Newman instead directed it as a BBC audio drama, proving it to be a compelling story about a Roman soldier and a Pictish woman – traditional enemies who learn to respect each others’ different perspectives. It’s no longer available on BBC Sounds but it was reminder that, with the theatres closed, brilliant drama can be found in audio as well as streaming.
Audio drama was at the heart of Simon Stephens’ adaptation of José Saramago’s novel, Blindness, at the Donmar Warehouse in London. It was one of the first UK theatres to reopen its doors since March when the production debuted in the summer, although it used only the recorded voice of Juliet Stevenson. She played a woman who is the only sighted person in a country where everyone has suddenly gone blind – commissioned before the global pandemic but very timely in its tackling of isolation and fear. It was made all the more immediate by plunging the audience into pitch darkness, with Ben and Max Ringham’s binaural sound design letting us feel as if Stevenson was moving around us and whispering in our ears.
One of the highlights of 2020 was my last show before the theatres shut on 16 March. After several weeks of exciting new work at the Vault Festival in London, I was lucky to catch Out of the Forest’s show, The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria: Part The First, in what turned out to be the festival’s final week. Mixing drama, music and storytelling, it was a stunning demonstration of what live theatre can achieve, transforming a gloomy empty space with its fascinating, funny and poignant tale of a Bulgarian king who defied the Nazis during World War Two. Still supposedly in development but already in sparkling form, the show is one to look out for when theatres can once again open normally.