“David Mercatali has been at Sherman Theatre for a few months now and will soon be making his directorial debut with the theatre. It’s not however his Sherman debut. While at University in Cardiff Mercatali found himself directing Death of a Salesman in the Sherman Studio for Cardiff University’s Act One drama society. From what was from an almost accidental start, there was ‘no going back’. ”
I spoke to Sherman Theatre’s Associate Director David Mercatali about returning to Cardiff and what he’s looking forward to as part of the team at Sherman.
It’s International Women’s Day. And while there are always various political debates about it I do think it’s as good a day as any to celebrate the women who inspire us. I try to vary my lists or posts year on year, so this year I’m going with Women who have shaped my life in some way.
This year is a theatrical theme. And a mix of ‘famous’ people, and those from ‘real life’. Oh also the number is a lie. It’s technically 6/7.
First up is the Academic- inspiration/friend/mentor call her what you will (Superwoman-Mc-Awesome is catchy) cheerleader I wish I’d met YEARS ago. Kirsty Segdeman. If you’re a theatre academic you’ll probably know Kirsty. She’s a brilliant academic, and master of the gif-paired tweet thread. She works on Audience research and is kicking down doors to make theatres, and Universities listen to researchers. She’s also a fantastic champion of PhD students and Early Career Academics. And a voice for the working class/unfunded among those. Above all else shes’ a tireless cheerleader, and brilliant friend. Here’s a her twitter, give her a follow.
My article 'Audience Experience in an Anti-Expert Age' surveying approaches to theatre audience research is out now in Theatre Research International. https://t.co/QglvNq1axF
Look it’s not IWD on this blog without a reference to Gillian Anderson. If we’re talking ‘famous’ women, she is hands down the most influential woman in my life. Dana Scully as a character shaped my teenage years, and my future self in ways no other woman- real or fictional has. Indirectly, I’m a Doctor because of her. Firstly because Scully taught me that women shouldn’t hide their intelligence. Secondly, she made me want to be ‘Dr’ something. And thirdly, if it weren’t for Gillian Anderson I’d never have set foot in a theatre. More on that on is here.
I went to my first play because Gillian was in it. And I begged my Mum to take me all the way to London to see the woman I adored on stage. And while in part I was ‘just’ fangirling. I was also sat there falling in love with the theatre. I still have the notes I scribbled in the margins on the train home.
And it’s rare you can say a teen idol of yours genuinely continues to shape your life. From playing the kind of women I want to see on stage and screen, to writing books, to being an outspoken activist and advocate. Gillian Anderson is a constant source of inspiration, and motivation to be a better woman. And to lift up other women with me. I may have wanted to be Dana Scully when I grew up, but actually now I want to be Gillian Anderson when I grow up.
Elise Davison and Beth House
These ladies come as a package. In the best way. Elise Davison and Beth House They run Taking Flight Theatre company. For whom I am honoured to be Chair of the board of Trustees. Taking Flight makes inclusive theatre, and makes theatre inclusive. That is everything they make has inclusive work at the heart of it- think integrated BSL and audio description. Think disabled actors being part of every company. Think all the things everyone else should be doing.
They also campaign tirelessly for inclusive theatre, accessible theatre and all round a more open accesible arts scene. And they do it all with company built from nothing, and like so many of the women out there juggling family life as well. And again they are tireless supporters and cheerleaders of me and all I know, and I’m really lucky to know them. Every time I think none of it’s worth it any more, I look at the work they do, and remember it is.
For those who don’t know, she is a fiercely talent Broadway actress. I first saw her in ‘The Boy From Oz’ , which was also the first musical I ever saw. Formative in so many ways, for making me fall in love with musicals for also being the musical that set me on the path to my PhD research. As a 19 year old discovering musicals for the first time I fangirled HARD for Stephanie. My first fangirl-crush on a Broadway performer, I’ve been lucky enough to see her in several shows since (not bad considering I live in Cardiff!). But what started as a teen fangirl moment allowed me to follow the career of a brilliantly talented, but also wonderfully principled and inspiring woman.
Stephanie J Block may never know how seeing ‘The Boy from Oz’ changed my life. Because of that musical I went on to rediscover my love of drama/theatre. I went to RADA. I came back to that musical when starting to think about a PhD- it’s actually the core of my ‘theatre about AIDS’ ideas starting. What she also may never know is the kindness she showed a 19 year old, who was living far from home at that point, who had just lost a parent. When I fan-girled at her on my trip to the show, the kindness she showed me- listening to my no doubt ramblings, talking to me about my studies, stayed with me as a lesson on how to treat people. And that important moment of someone you admire, when you are young, taking and interest, really pushed me to do the same. For kindness and in her work, she shaped me without knowing it.
Last year I cried my face off (that’s the technical term) watching her perform in Falsettos, a musical I’ve studied, written on and talked endlessly about as an academic. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t seen this woman, in a musical once upon a time and been incredibly inspired. And that felt like such a powerful thing.
It’s rare you get to meet, let alone talk at length with someone whose work you admire so greatly- or whose work is about to impact on your life so greatly. So I feel really lucky to say that the last of my list did just that. And has impacted my life in ways direct and indirect I can’t even begin to count.
Firstly, in the abstract. As the genius kick-arse (British spelling please) theatre director she is. Like anyone with an eye on British theatre in the last few decades I’d repeatedly found myself admiring, an inspired by the work Marianne Elliott has brought to the stage. In a field where we still all to rarely have women in ‘top jobs’ to look up to, seeing someone not only at the top of her game, but also unafraid to take creative risks while there, was and is an inspiration to a generation of women in theatre.
That in itself is enough to shape a person. Little did I know when I was shouting “WAR HORSE IS INNOVATIVE THEATRE” at my PhD supervisors while defending it’s relevance to a discussion of AIDS in theatre (true story) that one day I’d be chatting to Elliott about Angels in America.
Elliott may be an genius director, whose work on Angels in America has reshaped my thoughts on the play, after a decade of working on it. But what she did for me personally by letting me have a tiny part in that, is something I still can’t quantify. It seems a simple thing, but the fact that she wanted my input. That she told other at the NT about me, and that she let me write that programme essay have had a remarkable impact on my life.
In practical ways, people saw that essay, or heard about my work on the play. And doors have opened a crack. (After years of physically trying to beat them down). But more than that, even without that. The simple fact she thought my work was worth listening to. Academia, life, theatre had all beaten me down. But that act of a woman reaching out and saying ‘yes you are worth listening to’ really did change everything. And that’s the power of what women supporting women, lowering the ladder instead of pulling it up can do.
If Marianne had chosen to ignore the person brave (or stupid) enough to email and say ‘hey I know this play better than you do right now’ I probably wouldn’t have given up before the curtain even came up on Angels. Instead I’m writing the book I always wanted to write. I’ve been commissioned to write a play. I’m writing articles about theatre again. And more importantly last summer I fell in love with it all again.
The fact that Elliott also has the company I’m most excited about (as I wrote about here) that promises to give a platform to more female creatives, gives me so much hope for women in the industry. Because I can’t think of a better woman to lead the way.
The fourth ‘Breaking out of the Box’ symposium- a series of events to discuss the issue of diversity in Welsh Arts, took place at Theatre Clwyd on 16th February. Subtitled ‘Wales: a Diverse Nation?’ An access symposium’ the focus of the event centered on the question of how diverse are we, and what can we do to change things?
As the first production from Elliott & Harper opens its doors for previews tonight, it’s worth pausing to think what this new production company means and why indeed we need more like it. Something of a ‘power house’ company formed of Marianne Elliott and Chris Harper. Both coming from the National Theatre- as Director and Producer respectively- there’s a real understanding of both the craft of theatre and the audiences that do- and don’t- come to it there. And made by and produced by in the commercial realm. That’s potentially very exciting.
Firstly, the act of two people who really love theatre, really understand it both from an audience point of view and an artistic point of view. Secondly, one of the UK’s best directors striking out on her own to make work on her own terms. Thirdly, and you bet it’s an important factor, a woman artistic director. It’s all exciting, and has the potential, we already know to produce exciting work. A company that is starting with a new Simon Stephens play ‘Heisenberg’ starring Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham is obviously a pretty strong start. When your second play is a radically re-imagined Company, with Rosalie Craig in the starring role, and a small matter of Patti LuPone also starring. Even in the most unforgiving critic’s eyes that’s a bold and strong start.
Why then is Elliott & Harper both such a good idea and an important one for? Firstly, then theatre people making theatre. As loathe as some critics are to admit it, we do have a lot of great work happening in London and beyond (and can we pause to note that already Elliot& Harper are working beyond London with their collaboration with West Yorkshire playhouse, this gives me great hope for a regional outlook in the future) The London fringes, subsidised sector and indeed a lot of regional work are brilliant, daring and pushing boundaries and audiences to the limits. And that is wonderful work. I love the West End, I love a big musical and a classic play. I even firmly believe there’s a place for Mama Mia in this world, but what we need is a balance. Performance that challenges audiences, gives something new, twists those classics but is also accessible to casual and seasoned theatre goers alike.
And you know what, I think Elliott Harper are the ones to brings us that. Theatre people who understand both theatre as a craft, and audiences. That’s what our theatre needs an intelligent alliance at the head of a production company, one that understands and wants to challenge but excite audiences. The Harper in ‘Elliott&Harper’ will drive a production company that’s business savvy, but also doesn’t lose sight of the.We have a lot of business savvy producers, and we have business savvy producers who do I’m sure care about the work. But I fear a lot of them have lost touch with that. In a difficult market, when a proven commodity or safe bet is easier it feels like ‘why?’ is a question only answered by ‘money’. We need money in theatre, we all know that but a producer relationship with an artistic director that drives that question ‘Why?’ with a more complicated answer is far better for us all in the theatrical world. And having a director like Elliott then answering those questions for you with the productions is possibly a recipe for theatrical gold in every sense.
Elliott’s directing work has always been both risk taking and accessible. Proof that you don’t have to alienate an audience to challenge them, that you can be bold to engage an audience not put them off. Proof also that visuals and spectacle and turning theatre on its head work only when engaged with the heart of the matter: human storytelling. The National, where Elliott &Harper have both honed their craft, is as a rule good at this kind of risk taking. Of pushing boundaries with form or taking a risk on the kinds of stories told. Any of Elliott’s ‘big hits’ could have ended in disaster, and in interviews she’s far too modest to say so, but in other hands they likely would have. From the ‘let’s tell this children’s story but with puppets, giant horse puppets’ to the Scottish fairy tale with a floating princess and Tori Amos music, to the inside of an Autistic boy’s mind to, yes, Angels crashing through ceilings. These were pushing theatrical boundaries in one way or another.
But in their final execution were so well put together that it becomes almost too easy to forget that element. As a personal example, the most vicious argument I had with my PhD supervisor was about War Horse as an innovative piece of theatrical storytelling, because it’s so easy to miss just how clever, innovative and important it was. (Given my PhD itself was 3 years of arguing that Angels in America is an important theatrical work I can’t help but be amused, and wonder if I could now persuade Elliott to shout at my supervisor for me)
Known for big storytelling, and big visuals- from Angels crashing to Rosalie Craig floating for an entire performance, to yes, those horses again. But what perhaps goes unnoticed in the bigger picture is that all of Elliott’s work is at its heart about people, the human stories. And that’s what makes her directing not just good, but something special. Anyone can throw together big visuals with the right team, and the right budget. What distinguishes Elliott’s work is that underneath all those big images is a story driving it.
Angels in America proved that once and for all, the biggest most sweeping spiraling narrative you could ask for, writ large on the Lyttleton stage and some full on Brechtian Epic staging, but what came through are the people. In ten years, while the Angel crashing to the stage will be a memory, it’ll be how you cried for Prior or the affinity you felt with Harper (or Louis….no just me?) that you’ll remember. When I think of Curious Incident I have a general memory of the slick, brilliantly realised staging. But really, I think about Christopher and his story (ok and the dog). Elliott’s work is big and risk taking, but the thing that always guides it back is an innate instinct at her heart as a director for stories. That she’s also one of the most conscientious and through directors working today also helps.
Too many productions seem a little ‘thrown together’ a ‘best fit’ or ‘will do’ which leaves glaring gaps obvious to, and ultimately off putting and insulting to audiences. Not in Elliott’s work- no research stone, or exploration of staging or performance seems un-turned until it fits together. The work always feels like it gives credit to the audience’s intelligence and investment, and repays that with a sense of authenticity to the work.
And yes, it’s important that it’s a woman at the artistic helm. Not just because we need more women visible in what is a male-dominated industry. But we need more women visibility taking charge and running things. That Elliott has used the status and freedom that being at the helm of the National Theatre’s biggest hitters not just to pick and choose what she directs, but to take more artistic charge with a production company, is exactly the steer the industry needs. Elliott could well have gone on directing for the National, or the Old Vic or frankly any other major theatre company who would a) be lucky to have her b) probably bite her arm off to have her direct for them. But in choosing to break out alone Elliott has taken back control, and is able to steer not only her career but in a broader sense the theatrical landscape in directions she chooses. And my goodness does it make a nice change to write ‘she’ in all these sentences.
This isn’t about quotas, or a numbers game. It is also about getting women’s voices heard. And that is on stage and off. Off stage it’s about the sense of hope a woman in charge brings, the idea that the person running this show (in the literal and figurative sense) understands the challenges women face- firstly to get a foothold in a room of noisy men, but then as we get older and it gets harder to be heard, as we juggle children with career, still playing catch up from before and often fade further into the background. And it’s not about saying women will automatically give other women opportunities (though that’s what men have been doing since the dawn of time) it’s saying women will recognise those struggles. The women who end up working with Elliott will still be the best of the best, because they’ll need to be, but the difference is that elsewhere those women might have been overlooked.
And then there’s telling women’s stories. Putting women’s stories at the forefront. That doesn’t mean telling only stories about women or written by women (though obviously that is something we all need to keep pushing for) but it means not pushing the women to the back in the stories we have. Looking at how Elliott directed Angels we already see that- in a story that is filled with men, the voices of the women still rang out strong and for once I felt Harper’s story was as much at the centre. Now in Heisenberg we have a woman in Simon Stephen’s play sharing equal footing with the male character- that’s a woman’s story on stage. We aren’t asking for it to all be about women, we just need stories, and directors who get that voice heard.
And a part of that of course is Company. That deserves its own analysis just for existing. But the fact that people (men) are already complaining that it won’t work, exactly proves why it’s a story begging to be told. As a 33-year-old single woman, honestly the thought of Company told through a woman’s lens makes me want to cry- because it feels like my voice is being heard. Because I’ve heard all the things thrown at Bobby a hundred times, and because as a musical theatre nerd I want a woman at the heart of something not just to fall in love with the man. And because well who doesn’t cry a bit at the thought of Rosalie Craig in anything right? But in all seriousness, maybe the piece has started to age with Bobby as a man but put a woman’s voice at the heart and it feels like that answer to a question I hadn’t thought to ask. And that’s why, that’s why we need women like Marianne Elliott taking charge, making work.
And if your opening move involves re-writing Sondheim…well I can’t wait to see where you go from there. So, Elliott & Harper, break a leg as Heisenberg opens its doors. And from there…who knows but it looks like it’s going to be something worth watching in every sense.
Elliott & Harper continue their first season with ‘Company’ later this year. Meanwhile their co-production of Angels in America opens on Broadway in March.
Angels in America opens on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre New York on Feburary 23rd. Tickets availble via Ticketmaster .
Almost a week ago now, Prior Walter bid the Lyttleton theatre ‘More Life’ one last time. Twenty-four years earlier it had opened next door in the Cottesloe. And some 14 or so years earlier they Angel first crashed into my life. Since then it’s been a labour of love, of 100, 000 words of PhD thesis and thousands more words in blog posts, message board comments, emails, tweets and arguments with wanker academics who obviously know better. And finally, this year, hours of conversation with my favourite director, hours of talking to an audience at the NT, kind words with the cast (and hugs!) and words committed to the programme. It’s been one hell of a ride, it hasn’t always been easy, but finally all the work to this point feels worth it.
I keep coming back to Harper’s final monologue, ‘In this world there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what’s left behind, and dreaming ahead.’ And as much as I’m already longing for it what this production also gave me is a chance to dream ahead again. To that end people keep asking if I’m sad or broken. And I have to keep saying no, I’m incredibly happy. Happy that it happened, that I was a part of it, and that I got back a thing that I loved. Like Harper’s ‘souls rising’ towards the ozone layer, I feel like I absorbed this production, and was repaired. And like Harper, I am finally after what feels like an eternity stuck in a far less fun place than a Valium induced daydream, I’m finally dreaming ahead again.
A lot of people do wonder why this play means so much. Honestly there’s no easy way to answer other than to explain how it’s woven into the fabric of my life. From not to over-romanticise, a snowy night in Montreal, where we rented the DVDs because we didn’t have a TV that worked. To that film becoming one of those ‘comfort blanket’ films you watch over and over again. I don’t remember exactly when I then read the play, but it must have been around then. I was 19, living 1000s of miles from home, my Father had either just died or was about to die, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest psychiatrist to work out that Kushner’s big sprawling play of love, loss and politics was something that would speak to me. But, the bigger themes and ideas washed over me at first, who knows how many times, but it was the characters, the humanity of the piece I latched onto.
Flash forward ten years, and I’m meeting a friend who I speak to every single day, who lives on the other side of the world to walk to the Bethesda Fountain, because it’s our ‘favourite place in the park’ because we only know each other because of this play. Leap to another moment and I’m throwing coins in that fountain the first time I went there after finishing my PhD. I greet her as Prior does in the film, an involuntary tic by now. Another time I’m telling someone ‘That was an editorial you’ mid-argument, insisting that ‘the world only spins forward’ or unable to hold in a smile if someone mentions a night flight to San Francisco. In short, this play like Prior’s Prophecy, is in me.
I spent years wrestling with the PhD, much like that Angel. Creating versions of it out of archive dust and still absorbing it. Learning every scene, in every version (thanks Tony!) by heart and backwards. Fighting for it, fighting against PhD supervisors who couldn’t, wouldn’t see its value. Who wouldn’t even read this thing that I loved so dearly. Being told by academics this thing I’d written wasn’t good enough, that nobody cared, that I wasn’t good enough. The fierce love of it dragged it through the PhD, but I had nothing left at the end of it. I don’t remember consciously falling out of love with it, I just feel like it was somewhere in a dusty cupboard in my mind. I had the confidence, but more importantly the love of it all beaten out of me by academia. I lost it and I barely noticed, I was so tired.
“Oh how I hate Heaven, but I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.”
And so, I ran, retreated into failure rejected that part of my life. And tried to become someone else. I let myself forget the thing I love, because I had to in order to stay sane. Lose the passion, because I got knocked back, knocked out by academia and theatre so many times, I had no choice but to run and preserve myself. Angels and the rest of it had become a part of an old life, and an old me.
And somewhere…somehow…on the bank of the Thames in that concrete bunker…I started to find it again.
There are of course wonderful special things about the production that will stay with me- some big some small. Some a part of it, some little quirks I noticed on seeing it multiple times (the time Andrew Garfield accidentally threw his sunglasses at James McArdle, but styled it in real Prior Walter style is a great one). If someone asks me in 10 years what was the thing I remember I’ll probably say: The Angel, Snow, Rain Machine, House Lights. Those specifics are for another blog, just snapshots of what I loved, what made it special for me. Those actors, what can I say about those actors? That while Andrew Garfield seemed to grow into Prior over the run, that James McArdle flipped what Louis is on its head, that Nathan Stewart Jarret was just too damn perfect, that Denise Gough ripped out her heart and the audience’s every night and the Susan Brown was doing quietly brilliant work. All of it has, and will be catalogued in different ways. That’s not what this is about.
But all that aside, at different points in the performance, the run I have sat open mouthed in awe, laughed so deeply, sobbed to the point I squeaked, walked out of a theatre shaking so much I had to sit down and smiled with such joy that I thought I could do anything- ‘More Life’ indeed Tony. Something odd happened in the last performance that I’ve never personally experienced- due to always seeing it in ‘analytical’ mode- I was just swept away in Prior’s story, I’ve never been so completely ‘with’ him watching it, always some jigsaw puzzle of theatrical analysis. But for eight hours, for the first time I just sat and lived it. It was like someone giving you a gift of the thing you missed most in the world.
This production snuck in and re-wrote what I thought I knew. There are so many thoughts to write on how why, and who in that equation and again, I’m not being artistically or academically blind, I can and at some point, will have critical thoughts (in the ‘editorial’ use of the word critical). But stepping aside from that, in the most honest way, who care when a production gives you magic. As much as I could, and will dissect performance choices and staging and set ultimately these are so insignificant in the personal sense.
“But still….bless me anyway”
Because I don’t want to talk here of imperfections and choices and things others would do differently. I’m capable of doing that but right now I say ‘Bless me anyway’ the spirit of that line is ‘so what, keep going anyway.’ This was ultimately “My” production, the version of the play I will forever keep in my heart. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? The works that change us, not the ones that are technically, artistically brilliant (though this one is both) but it’s the ones that latch onto a part of our soul and refuse to let go.
And that’s why, when Andrew Garfield/Prior stood and declared ‘More Life’ at the final performance, I didn’t crumple and cry I soared with joy. I was on my feel celebrating what they had achieved over the run, but also what had happened to me. And in all this, I kind of feel, and hope that indirectly that’s what Kushner had intended for all of us; change in whatever form. The real purpose of Kushner’s play, after the eight hours of emotional labour, is to push us as an audience out in the world to make that ‘Great Work’. We can’t do that if we are left in despair, if we feel it was all for nothing. For Prior’s innovation to the audience to work we must be propelled forward with a sense of purpose. And for me, finding that purpose again that I thought I’d lost. My love for it, and over that last year a little bit more of who I was.
The day the revival was announced I was sitting at my desk, in possibly the worst job I have ever had (which frankly, is saying something). Sitting in that office, I was in the worst place imaginable (I mean literally, it was in Pontypridd…). I’d finished my PhD after disaster upon disaster, I’d taken a job in research support after knowing I’d always fail to get an academic job. I hated that job. My colleagues hated me. And I felt like the biggest failure. All that work, all the years of trying all for nothing. And to go from having such passion for my work, to feeling like nothing would ever matter again, and that there was no point to any of it. In my flurry of twitter excitement, I half-jokingly said ‘Do you think they want some help’ to which a friend (to whom I’m very grateful) said ‘No seriously, email Elliot’s agent’. I’m grateful to that friend (I introduced her to Elliot on closing night so I feel my debt is repaid) But most of all I’m so grateful to Marianne herself, for not ignoring that email when it made its way to her.
I set myself four ‘secrets dreams’ when I heard Angels was coming back: I wanted to give research to the production, I wanted to sit in on a rehearsal, I wanted to run an education event and I wanted to write something for the programme. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance. If I got 2 out of 4 it would be something. I got all four. Another story, Hugh Jackman is the reason I got into musical theatre and AIDS theatre (don’t ask) there’s a story of how he asked his Mum to take a picture outside the National Theatre, saying ‘I’ll work there one day.’ And he did. I did the same thing, about 10 years ago. It might have only been for a blink of an eye. But it’s a damn good start. Likewise, my 4 things might be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a damn good start. Sheer force of will and tenacity played a part, but for once, for once in my life I went after something and I damn well got it.
Having spent nearly a decade being knocked back from everything I tried- from theatre, to academia and back again I can’t begin to articulate what it’s like to have someone finally, finally listen to you. Of course, when that someone also happens to be one of the best theatre directors in the country…well even I in my most Louis-esque verbal incontinence don’t actually have words for that. The point (the point dear the point) being that someone finally looked at me and said ‘Yes, you do have something to contribute’ it’s that simple. Instead of knocking me back, knocking me down, criticising, dismissing, taking someone else whose face fit better or the million other reasons there might be, someone finally listened. And even more importantly for myself, I proved myself. If I’d sent that email and been utterly appalling, a complete charlatan who really knew nothing I’d have deserved to get laughed right out of the National Theatre foyer. Instead, I picked myself up went in there and showed what I could do.
In part, all of this has been about getting that external validation. Of course, of course that Marianne Elliot and Andrew Garfield said how much they loved something I wrote and that I helped them create this…thing…of course that means the world. To look at that stage and think, a tiny tiny microbe of that came from me. Of course, I’m proud. But it’s more than that. In having people who know what they’re talking about say that you make a valuable contribution, after being so beaten down, so discouraged and having every last ounce of confidence drained from me. Even given my Kushner-esque powers of sheer volume of writing, I don’t think I can find the words. Except to say thank you, which is, to quote Prior ‘So much not enough’.
“I’m almost done”
It’s not just these ‘important’ people, it’s all of the people- all of you out there reading this (if you’ve got this far) it’s every single tweet complimenting my programme essay, every question anyone asked me- every one of you who came up to me in the NT foyer. I don’t know how to explain how much I thought the work I had done was nothing, and by association, that I was nothing. To find people interested, in the thing, and what I’ve got to say about the thing. And not just the compliments (though those are nice!) but the finding likeminded people, who want to talk and share this thing (ok and share amusing pictures of the cast with me). In getting this play back, I no longer feel like the werido alone in the corner, liking the play that you dare not mention because it’s weird and about AIDS and gay people and your office colleagues will laugh and talk about you behind your back. I found what theatre is supposed to give you: community.
So, to anyone, and everyone who stopped and said what I spent four years of my life working on was worth it, meant something, from Andrew Garfield, to old friends, anonymous online visitors and new friends:
“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”
And what now? It’s hard not to let doubt creep in and think ‘this was a one off that’s it now’. But as Harper says, ‘nothing’s lost forever’ and there’s work to do with a renewed sense of …something. I’ve a book to write at last on Angels, and I feel I can finally do that. And I’ve got my love and drive for theatre back. And I have to believe that this is just the start of…something. My academic career might have ended, but maybe all of that was for something else.
“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind. And dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”
Here it is a list of the 10 shows that for various reasons made a mark in 2017. Some commentary being naturally longer than others…
Here are my ‘top 10’ in sort of order but sort of not…
Far Side of the Moon- Robert Le Page- WMC
I’m including in part for the experience of seeing a Robert LePage work in the flesh. It’s a rare opportunity in the UK and rarer outside London. So, in a theatre nerd sense the ‘experience’ as much as the performance motivates this ranking. However, ‘Far Side of the Moon’ was such an engaging fascinating experience, and really unlike the rest of the year’s theatre going that it had to be included.
Yank! – Hope Mill Theatre/Charing Cross Theatre
Musical theatre is my theatrical life-blood. It’s what I fell in love with, and I love when a show comes along that just captures your heart. Yank! Is a deceptively simple piece of musical theatre writing- a short and heart-breaking love story- but it’s a brave, and beautifully written piece of work. The music is beautiful, again deceptively simple that just sneaks in, takes hold and sweeps you away. I’m so glad it got the reception it did in London and Manchester this year and the small cast really were exceptional. Yank! Rode in and stole a piece of my heart.
My Body Welsh – Chapter- By Steffan Donnelly
This was a show early in the year. A fairly quiet one man show, telling stories about growing up in Wales. When I scanned down my list of shows for the year it just gave me a warm feeling remembering the show- often funny and almost poetic in the writing. It was one that stuck with me, and a worthy mention in the top 10.
Our Town- Royal Exchange Manchester
I was very lucky to be going to the Exchange for a meeting, and to be invited to a matinee at the same time. My first time up there seeing a show, and what a show. A brilliant adaptation/updating/call it what you will of the classic American play. The Exchange is masterful at working their unique space and this worked brilliantly. From the incorporation of audience on stage in Act 1 to the ‘lights up’ approach to much of the play that meant looking the audience and actors in the eye. Despite all these innovations it was the strength of the actors that really elevates this. In act 2 when everything else is stripped back to a virtually bare stage, it was simply one of the most moving experiences in the theatre all year.
The Busy World is Hushed- Finborough
Sometimes you see a play at the right moment for it to work its way into your head and heart. Busy World is Hushed did that. More than this though it’s an example of an excellently crafted play in both the writing and production. It’s written in the way that great plays are, in a way that it tackles big questions through smaller moments. It may be, on the surface, three people in an apartment talking for much of the play. But what it asks of the characters, and of the audience is far more. From sweeping questions about life, death and faith. To seemingly smaller ones about the choices and attitude we adopt to our lives, Busy World is Hushed covered a broad spectrum. But the setting felt real enough, honest enough for it not to be a play ‘about’ these but one that was honest to these fascinating characters instead. For me that’s the kind of play I love, the kind of play I hope to write. It was also an example of how to craft a production- the intimate setting of the Finborough working perfectly with the setting in a crowded New York apartment. And a three-hander handled impeccably by a trio of excellent actors. It was, in short, an evening of what a damn good play should be.
It struck a few chords with me- from life past and present, and for that had a real impact emotionally and intellectually. From the fact one character is an academic struggling with a book project (amused me more as I was interviewing one of the actors that weekend for my own book project). To the line that (to paraphrase) as an only child, all the responsibility is on you. It’s a play that I just ‘clicked’ with and one that a couple of months later still pops up in my thoughts.
Holding the Man- Above the Stag
A little play in a little theatre, but one that moved me as much as any of the ‘big hitters’. I adore this play, and this production more than does Conigrave and Murphy’s work justice. It’s obviously one that speaks to my ‘sensibilities’ being an ‘AIDS play’. But I’ve always had a soft spot for this story- the ‘Coming of Age’ story cut short by the epidemic. The one set outside the usual parameters of New York and San Francisco. The one that has a peculiarly Aussie aporach to things that is refreshing.
I love this play for it’s sheer theatricality too. It’s simple in many ways- doubling, lots of use of props and wigs and the odd silly voice. But it’s effective. It’s damn funny, it’s sweet, it doesn’t make a fuss about sexuality while also addressing it head on. If you asked me ‘how to write an AIDS play’ this is actually the one I point to- it’s the one I can watch over and over. And that doesn’t mean it isn’t packing an emotional punch. I actually cried buckets more tears at this than some of the other more ‘famous ones’. In short it’s my ‘little play that could’ and I will always adore a chance to see it again. As my review (here) talks about this company truly got to the heart of it and I love them for it.
Hamlet was once my most loathed Shakespeare play, so that I saw this twice in one summer is testament to how much I loved this production/Andrew Scott’s performance. Like two other productions further down this list, Robert Icke’s production did that thing of building it up from the ground up again. As did Scott. It’s a feat to say, ‘To be or not to be’ as if nobody has uttered those words before you, but he managed it.
The sheer raw emotion of Scott’s performance took it away from ‘The Danish Prince’ and back to the young man struggling with grief and life. It was masterful, understated and a wonderful two fingered salute to anyone who ever under-estimated Scott as just ‘Moriarty’.
This is one of those productions I actually have little to say about, because I can’t actually articulate it. I think with Hamlet we all connect with different versions of him at different times, and for me that version really struck home. Something about the raw power of grief- the anger of grief and the confusion in life that it creates just really came to life in the play for the first time, and touched a raw nerve somewhere inside me. I fell in love with Scott as Hamlet, his vulnerability as a n actor but also the sheer intelligence of it. Really though these are just words failing to articulate what is intangible. Which is really the magic of Shakespeare done right.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
My final theatre outing of the year, and it was a gem of a production. I cried with happiness within the first 10 minutes. It just felt like one of those magical musical theatre moments that grabs hold of you and just soars. It’s a beautiful high-energy production that leaves you grinning and full of love for it’s camp fabulousness. More importantly it’s also a diverse, inclusive and working-class without going the full Oliver. It feels real underneath the glitter and heels. There’s such heart to it.
To see on stage somewhere that resembles where you grew up shouldn’t’ be underestimated. I feel like I went to that school. It felt real. So, thank you for that, for a world on stage that looks like the one I grew up in. Yes, this is all in musical theatre land, it’s the fairy-tale version. But it’s a fairy tale that felt like it had enough truth to it to be honest. To see also a musical that unapologetically and matter of factly embraces LGBT characters is frankly where we should be in 2017 (or 2018 now). That it’s simply not an issue for Jamie or his family that he’s gay, that he’s accepted and supported sends a powerful message. Yes, it might be a fairy tale for some still, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power and importance of having characters, and stories like this on stage, even in 2018.
We often lament the lack of musical theatre writing in Britain, this shows we do have the capability, if only theatres could invest more in developing the work.
The last two of this year really couldn’t have been anything else really….
Rent- Theatre Clwyd/St James/Tour
Technically this production began in 2016 but as it was the first thing I saw in 2017 I’m counting it. (and as it toured for a good chunk of the year). And anyway, how do you measure, measure a year…
What to say about Rent? It’s like having an old friend back. It had been long enough since I last saw it for Bruce Guthrie’s production to really work it’s magic again. It was like coming home.
And yet it wasn’t. Because this production felt like it built it again from the ground up. Having spent far too much of my life as both a fan and academic looking at Rent, I know the tendency to enshrine it in the infamous ‘Xerox production’ of a musical. And so, I applaud Guthrie for his wiping the slate clean approach. These were no longer echoes of the original cast- and perhaps because now enough time has passed for it to be so- but they were their own characters again. Seeing it so intimately from row B in the St James’ was so powerful an experience it too me back to the first time I saw it. Afterwards I sat on a freezing cold bench texting the two people I knew would understand until I could get myself together enough to walk to the Tube.
When something is that ingrained in you, so much a part of you, to feel it re-written and given back to you, that’s something special.
I saw Rent twice more on tour. Someone asked me after my feelings about it, and I said something like
‘Rent will always be a part of my life I’m sure, but if that was the last time I see it I can’t think of a more perfect way to remember it’
Angels in America- National Theatre
I should have no words left for this by now…but I am a child of Kushner and I’m sure I’ll find some. I can’t separate the production, and the experience I had with/around it. But I’ll try for a moment.
The production, like Rent re-wrote what I thought I knew (and as an aside, if theatre ever stops doing that, it’s time to stop). It looks and feels different to any other incarnation I’ve seen- as well it should, what’s the point in a ‘landmark revival’ that keeps things static. I’ll be shouting about Perestroika in particular the Brechtian Epic staging that Elliott took literally and then some. I’ll be cursing the lights going up while praising the genius of it for years to come. And now when I hear the birds in Central Park for real, I’ll also hear and see that stage. Which is exactly as it should be. The beauty of the neon, the almost balletic quality of the design…and that Angel crashing in. It was everything I never thought it would be, everything I wanted it to be. Even in it’s imperfections, which I grew to love too. It was falling back in love with the thing I thought I’d lost.
And those performances. These characters I know better than my own friends. I’ve lived with them for so long, and I’m incredibly fussy about how they get brought to life. But boy did this team do them proud. It’s unfair to pick favourites as it’s a team effort, but my dear ‘Mother Pitt’ Susan Brown (along with all the others she takes on) is a tour de force of a performance. Denise Gough ripped through Harper and the audience with a force of a tornado but then quietly sat down and broke everyone’s heart. Andrew Garfield screeched so high that only dogs could hear him, but underneath it was a Prior who was sweet and vulnerable and so very strong. Amanda Lawrence flapped those wings and gave us unhinged Angels by the whites of her eyes, Nathan Lane gave us the evil of Roy Cohn, with a mischievous and dangerous comic timing. Baby Joe by Baby Russell had a darkness too him that was painful to watch (and yes that arse). And Nathan Stewart Jarrett could command an audience with the snap of a finger. And finally, in the nicest possible way, I still want to slap James McArdle in the face and say ‘You bastard, that’s it! That’s what I’ve been waiting for.’ (I mean I probably won’t actually slap him. Probably).
And as for the experience, what more can I say? (wait that’s the other AIDS musical). I said a lot here, but really Angels gave me so much this year. Some of you are probably tired of hearing it. But I can’t under-estimate how much the experience meant, and what it will (hopefully) mean. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book about Angels. Nearly 10, 000 people saw my essay in the programme. I met Tony Kushner and talked on the phone with him. I connected with so many people via this play, so many people who cheered me on, who thought what I had to say was interesting and gave me the confidence to go forward and chase after those things I wanted.
When Marianne Elliott thanked me for my help, when she said I helped make it. Or when Andrew Garfield hugged me and did the same. It’s not because they are ‘famous’ people that it meant so much. It’s because they had made that thing I describe above, the thing that meant so much. They gave me back the thing I loved, and let me be a part of it. And for that, 2017’s theatre will never leave me.