Top Plays of 2014

I’m positive that there are things I’m missing from early in the year, because I only have notes through April with me now. But, in chronological order, here are my top ten plays from 2014. It was harder to narrow down than I thought it would be, and so when it was a close call I went with the ones that have stuck with me, and that I’ve kept thinking about long after I saw them. It’s been a pretty remarkable year for shows like that. 

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812: This is probably cheating, since I saw it for the first time shortly after moving to NYC in 2012. I absolutely adored it then, and I absolutely adored it when I saw it again after its move from Ars Nova to a bigger midtown location. It’s a rock opera, written by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, adapted from a small slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Young, naive Natasha Rostova travels to Moscow to await the return of her betrothed, Andrey, from the wars, but finds herself enchanted by the beautiful and not wholly trustworthy Anatole. Her story eventually intertwines with that of Pierre, Andrey’s best friend, unhappily married to Anatole’s sister. Dave Malloy originated the role of Pierre (though he was no longer playing it by the time I saw it in 2014) and Philippa Soo, playing Natasha, is staggeringly talented and a name to watch. 

The music is beautiful, the performances were spot-on, the staging was inventive and made sitting through a three-hour rock opera adaptation of a Russian novel a positive delight. Oh, also, the actor playing Dolokhov gave us free wine because we happened to be sitting with someone he knew, so… all around, everything you want from an evening of theatre. 

(seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t know this show, download it at once, it’s truly great) 

2. Twelfth Night: Okay, this one is probably also cheating, because I also saw this in both 2013 and 2014. But it’s part of the reason I’m here in London now, so that’s probably important. And this production completely transformed the way I look at Twelfth Night, which I freely admit I never much liked before, and now consider one of my favorites. This production allowed me to rediscover the joy in the play, which a lifetime of watching knock-offs of the Trevor Nunn film version had almost completely sapped away. It was my first all-male production, and I found the experiment fascinating– and also that it justified my impulse that there is more than just nerdy dramaturgical interest to be gained from understanding early modern playhouse practice as deeply as possible… which in turn helped me justify the mostly completely batty decision to come to London. 

3. Cripple of Inishmaan: This play taught me that I might possibly like two things I thought I didn’t: Daniel Radcliffe’s acting, and Martin McDonagh’s writing. Blasphemy, I know– but the only thing I ever read of his was The Pillowman, and then I was too traumatized to read more. But Inishmaan was an utter delight, and I will be the first to acknowledge that I seriously misjudged Daniel Radcliffe’s talents– and more importantly, I think, his humbleness and his obvious dedication to working hard at the job of acting, not just coasting along as a movie star, as he obviously could. 

4. Much Ado About Nothing: I was terribly excited for Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing, and the show far exceeded my high expectations– mostly by completely transforming those expectations. Like Twelfth Night, this production completely changed my understanding of the essential dynamics of the play. Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater’s Beatrice and Benedick were unlike any I’ve seen in the best possible way: rather than being obviously the two smartest, coolest people in the room– so that the question of their getting together only seems to be an eye-rolling matter of when– they portrayed the quarrelsome lovers as proud and prickly, lashing out when you sense they’d rather reach out, if only they weren’t too afraid of being mocked. This is not to suggest that the pair were soaked in maudlin self-loathing, but rather that their vast intelligence and genuine high spirits were also undergirded with a strong instinct for self-preservation. Most interestingly, this had the effect of raising actual questions about their eventual union. Would they actually manage to overcome their quips and fear to get together? Their public denials in the last scene read to me, for the first time ever, not just as a silly final layover before the inevitable happy ending, but a moment in which there seemed to be a real chance that they would choose pride and safety over happiness at last. 

5. Two Gentlemen of Verona: My wish for 2015 is that more people start producing all-female Shakespeare that a) isn’t The Taming of the Shrew and b) doesn’t feel like it needs to hedge its bets with explanations, framing devices, and commentary. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Two Gentlemen of Verona was a perfect example of the power that simply presenting a play and letting women embody it can have. The gender decision spoke for itself: director Sarah Rasmussen wisely recognized that no more adornment was required.  

6. Into the Woods: I’d never actually seen a live Into the Woods before this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s a hard play for many musical theatre fans to see, I think, because the filmed Broadway version casts such a long shadow. But Amanda Denhert’s production straddled the perfect line between staking an interpretive claim and sucking the magic out of the show by privileging the director’s vision above the strength of the play itself. It was, in other words, sufficiently different from the original version to shake off the specters of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, and Chip Zien, but did not feel the need to achieve this by, say, setting it in modern-day New York City.  

7. Julius Caesar: Yet another production that helped me see a play I thought I knew very well in an entirely new light. As I wrote, the trouble with Julius Caesar often seems to be that all the good bits– or at least all the famous bits– happen in acts 1-3. But Tom McKay’s beautiful, soulful Brutus so fully inhabited the heart of the play, it became not just a story of politics and assassination, but a character study that had to be followed to the bitter end. 

8. The James Plays (plus part 3): I can’t stop thinking about these plays. Weeks after seeing them for the second time, I had to go buy the script because I couldn’t stop trying to remember lines, scenes, and moments. The last time I can remember seeing a play and it having that kind of effect, the play was by Shakespeare. The opening scene of James I might be one of the best-written first scenes I’ve read, full stop. I’ve linked them anyway, but my reviews are so far from encompassing what I’ve come to think and feel about these plays, because I wrote the reviews right after seeing them, and it turns out these plays take much more time than that to fully unfold. 

9. Charles III: When I first read about Charles III last spring I was desperate to see it, and I’m so glad that I not only got the chance, but it was exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. I was worried that I wouldn’t understand the politics of it, but Mike Bartlett’s drama is much more human than that. It’s a classic Shakespearean historical tragedy, and its setting in the near future rather than the past only serves, somehow, to reinforce this feeling. As the man said, what’s past is prologue. 

10. The Knight of the Burning Pestle : How often do you feel pure, joyful delight in the theatre? Not often enough. But what’s so remarkable about Burning Pestle is that it achieves this joy without just being a confection of a play. It’s terribly silly, but it’s not shallow. George and Nell ground the play, radiating warmth and welcome. If more plays reminded people that there’s no right way to go to the theatre, maybe more people would come. 

I Must Learn English: Women’s History Plays

I’d venture that I’m in the same boat as most 20-something Americans when I say that going into Here Lies Love (I saw it at the National Theatre, though it originated at the Public Theater), the only thing I knew about Imelda Marcos was the thing with the shoes. And judging by the people I overheard leaving the show, I was also not alone in the need for some intense post-play Wikipedia searching. When you’re making a 90-minute rock musical that covers over 40 years of history, obviously things and people are going to get left out. But Wikipedia (so, you know, intensive research) revealed an omission that I found very striking, and it got me thinking about how we tell stories about history.

The introduction to Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin’s book about Shakespeare’s history plays, Engendering a Nation, talks in part about how continued study of Shakespeare’s history plays is worthwhile because he’s the one who taught us, as English-speakers, how to tell our histories. Obviously you can argue about who started the genre and who did it more and who did it best, but when talking about what we’ve come to copy through the ages, I think Shakespeare’s prominence matters more than precedence. There is no such thing as an objective history, and the things we’ve learned to take as such, as ‘correct’ or ‘neutral’ ways of narrating events are really just cultural inheritances. And a lot of them are from Shakespeare, and a moment when England was first learning how to tell its own stories in dramatic form.

So back to Here Lies Love. My favorite character (besides Imelda herself) was Ninoy Aquino, about whom I knew absolutely nothing, so of course afterwards I had to look him up. And in my ignorance, I was shocked to learn that after his death, his leadership of the liberal opposition in the Philippines was taken up by his wife Corazon Aquino, who ran for and became president after Marcos was toppled, making her the first female president in Asia. The contested election between her and Marcos was what sparked the People Power Revolution that Here Lies Love depicts. So it’s not as if we’re dealing with events outside of the musical’s purview. But instead of even mentioning Corazon, Ninoy’s death is followed by a solo from his previously-unseen mother Aurora, who then disappears as the revolution begins. The mourning mother is a perfectly moving and expected theatrical response to an assassination. The politically activated wife, less so.

There are only about four major characters in Here Lies Love, so of course I’m not complaining about the fact that figures and events had to be excised and compressed. But the nature of this omission– removing the figurehead of a revolution and recasting the movement as one that was catalyzed by a male character’s assassination and then given emotional but apolitical voice by a more stereotypically feminine character type– that, I find very interesting. 

The morning after I saw Here Lies Love, I watched a video of Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe Theatre production of Henry V, a play which features what I find to be one of Shakespeare’s strangest scenes. It’s a scene between Princess Katherine of France and her waiting gentlewoman Alice, and it takes place entirely in French. I don’t think there is any comparable scene in Shakespeare. The other French characters speak what we hear as English, even though we understand that they are in theory speaking French to one another, but Katherine and Alice comically labor to name body parts “en Anglois.” It’s the only all-female scene in the entire cycle of history plays depicting the rise of King Henry IV and his son Henry V. Women shout from the sidelines throughout the preceding plays– Lady Percy begs her father-in-law not to go to war, Queen Isabelle tries to go to prison with King Richard II– but Katherine and Alice are the first ones who get the time and space onstage to really speak. But they don’t know the language. 

The scene begins with Katherine asking Alice for an English lesson, because Alice has lived in England and “tu parles bien le langage… il faut que j’apprenne a parler.” It is necessary that I learn to speak [English]. Katherine, apparently, already knows how this war with England will end– at least for her. In his production, Dromgoole underlines the connection between Katherine’s English lessons and her inevitable political role by having the scene periodically interrupted by the sounds of cannon fire, drums, and trumpets. Alice and Katherine can play a game, but Dromgoole makes sure the audience does not forget what Katherine and Alice clearly never lose sight of: that “il faut”– it is necessary— that begins the scene. 

Throughout Henry V (and sort of dramatic history generally), good guys are manly and bad guys are girly. In the case of this play, that means that the manly ones are English, and effeminate ones are French. The English march all night in the mud and close the walls up with their English dead; the French write sonnets to their horses and boast about the shiny stars that decorate their armor. And the most feminine world of all– that of Katherine and Alice– is also the Frenchest, the only place where only French is spoken. If Katherine wants to join the men’s world, to join the winning side, to join history, she has to learn to speak English. And the English she learns is the names of body parts, a list that devolves into bilingual puns about female genitalia. What Katherine has to offer to the course of history is her body, and the sons she will ideally bear. 

Shakespeare has at least one woman who takes a more active view of her own historical role, but she appears in his first group of history plays, depicting the reigns of King Henry VI and Richard III. Like Imelda Marcos, she’s initially a trophy wife who soon realizes that her husband is too weak to handle affairs, and so takes matters into her own hands. For Queen Margaret, this includes personally leading soldiers to battle and getting her hands quite literally dirty in seeing to the death of a political rival. She is fabulous and fascinating and irresistible, but Shakespeare tends to make it quite clear that what she is doing is, at its heart, wrong. Both sets of Shakespeare’s history plays are very concerned with the legitimacy of power, especially when it is power wrested from an anointed king. But, as Howard and Rackin write, power in a woman is always illegitimate in early modern plays. For Shakespeare, debating Margaret’s right or lack of right to seize power as queen consort isn’t the point. She’s a woman. She shouldn’t be in charge. Though her claims are rooted in her roles as wife and mother, Margaret’s actual gestures of power are very pointedly masculine: she leads armies, she commands lords, she stabs somebody. She very forcefully invades the masculine sphere, and is universally loathed (at least by other characters) for it. 

So on one side, we have a woman who grabs power with both hands, who is compelling and intoxicating and ultimately vicious… that is, Imelda Marcos. And on the other, we’ve got the woman who lives in a different world, who speaks a different language, and who recognizes that while she will have a role to play, it is one that will be predicated not on violence or politics, but on her place as a woman and mother… so, Aurora Aquino. And Corazon Aquino falls somewhere in between. 

It would be nice to dismiss this female in power=bad/female as mother=good dichotomy as a remnant of a backwards, pre-feminist culture, of which Here Lies Love is only an accidental echo… but the more I thought about it, I realized that these poles of depicting female power are everywhere, in history and fiction. Look at Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister basically is Queen Margaret, Danaerys Targaryen’s reckless conquests crumble; Margaery Tyrell, Catlyn and Sansa Stark, and Talisa Maegyr know that their best bet is to stay safely within the boundaries of wife, daughter, mother. In what seems to be an obvious and major exception to this dichotomy, everyone loves Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth (myself included!), who both very pointedly adopt masculine clothes and lifestyles. But they are also nowhere near positions of power. In fact, only one woman in the book series comes close to legitimately seizing what seems to be well-deserved rulership, and that storyline is showing all signs of being excised from the television show (plus, she doesn’t actually succeed).

Look at another large-scale HBO drama, Rome: when major female characters Atia and Servilia (the lovers of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, respectively) face brutal downfalls, it is not because of their casual cruelty or their sexual promiscuity or their relentless manipulation of their own children: they are crushed when they attempt to actively intervene in politics. 

Heck, look at The Lord of the Rings. The evil, titular ring seduces elf-queen Galadriel with the promise of power; she wins and “remains Galadriel” when she accepts the idea of retreating to the lands beyond the sea and fading away. When Eowyn (who previously yearned for a glorious death in battle and disguised herself as a man to achieve this) finds peace and happiness, she must first, in her own words, “no longer desire to be a Queen.” 

(Those were all rather nerdy examples. But I struggled to think of recent examples of films or shows based on history that included women in or near power in the first place.) 

The model of depicting history that we’ve inherited from Shakespeare makes it very difficult to accommodate legitimate power in a woman. It’s one of the things that’s so interesting about Rona Munro’s recent Scottish history play James III: its depiction of a woman legitimately, peacefully taking control, to universal acceptance and even acclaim– though, of course, we don’t actually see her doing any ruling. 

The idea that women are tangential to history is one that seems to make perfect sense. After all, women were subjugated and excluded from participating in the sort of decision-making and empire-building that we recognize as the narrative of history, at least in our western European tradition. In Henry V this is made very literal: the women actually cannot speak or understand the words that the men use to shape events (this is even basically true of Mistress Quickly, the only English-speaking woman in the play, who speaks mostly in malapropisms and never understands her fellow clowns’ sexual jokes). But it’s easy to forget that even in the most ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ histories, we choose which stories to tell, and how to tell them. History is not inherently defined as ‘war and treaties and things that men do.’ But we have a lot less practice learning to value women’s contributions. They’re off to the side– in French, because we don’t understand their relevance, or quietly replaced with a model of woman that’s more emotional, more maternal, more ordinary. 

My point is not to say what David Byrne and the creative team of Here Lies Love should have done, but only to take notice of something that none of the reviews I’ve read or word-of-mouth that I’ve heard seems to talk about. Maybe because it fits so neatly into the kinds of histories we’ve learned to tell. 

Review: James III

The subtitle of James III is The True Mirror, which is taken rather more literally than you might expect. There is an actual mirror, of– as King James III explains– special Venetian make, more accurate than any mirror ever created before. It sets off one of the most striking sequences in the entire play, a series of characters seeing themselves clearly, literally, for the first time. What one is capable of doing with this knowledge seems to be the root question of the third and final installment of the National Theatre’s James Plays. 

On the one hand, there’s King James III, who has taken from the violent death of his father and his over-protective mother the inflated sense of his self worth and God-given right to rule that rarely ends well for kings. Then there’s his queen consort, Margaret of Denmark, who probably deserves to be the title character. The third in Rona Munro’s line of foreign Queens of Scots finding their way amongst a suspicious people and occasionally feckless husbands, Margaret is faced with the most extreme version of this situation: an utterly hopeless, useless King and the opportunity to prevent civil war between father and son by seizing power for herself. 
Much more deliberately paced than the previous two parts, the action doesn’t really kick in until the second act here. James III’s indolent court looks like that of so many bad kings through history: lavish, broke, littered with favorites with whose relationship with James may or may not be entirely platonic. If James I and James II had to learn to sacrifice their souls, James III has avoided the problem by deciding to seize all the perks of being a king and none of the responsibilities. It is, frankly, a less interesting question than that posed by the previous two plays. 
The title points to James, but the real story arc seems to lie with Margaret, resulting in what feels like torn loyalties in the creative team between telling the real story here (Margaret’s, or perhaps her son’s, heir apparent Prince Jamie) and staying true to the “James Plays” conceit. Director Laurie Sansom departs sharply from the aesthetics of the previous two plays with a flashy, modern look– I wished at times that Munro had been equally willing to depart structurally from the preceding plays as well. After all, Shakespeare named a play Henry VI even though the titular monarch doesn’t appear until halfway through. 
The ending is very exciting, though, and it contains some of the most visually arresting moments of staging in the entire trilogy. The final scene was moving, and I can easily imagine that it would be an utter gut-punch coming at the end of a three-show marathon day.  
I’m excited about the sudden prevalence of history plays here (and also with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions project, which seems to be supplying most of the American history plays that are appearing in New York City and elsewhere). Obviously this is partly because of my own tastes– I just love historical fiction– but I’m also happy that the theatre seems to be re-embracing a genre that is uniquely suited to our capabilities. It’s very difficult for a play to be as timely as a newscast or a sketch show can be. But a history play can be thoughtful, slow to create, and incisively political all at once, as long as it’s in the hands of a clever playwright. The murmurings and mumblings that each James Play would occasionally provoke seem good proof of that: the audience was plainly alive to references and allusions and ideas in a way that I, admittedly, could not be, as neither a Brit nor someone well-versed in Scottish history. 
So, I’m excited in turn by the James Plays’ success: because they’re history plays; because they’re long, dense, political works that have found commercial and popular acclaim; because I hope they are only one stop in a much bigger trend. 

Review: James I and James II

For the record, the title of the first two parts of The James Plays at the National Theatre are The Key Will Keep the Lock and Day of The Innocents, respectively. I could not for the life of me remember either of these all day, and in fact misremembered the second play’s title the first time I typed it out. But you’re in good shape when the only uninteresting thing about your play is the title. The first two of the three James Plays are sharp, exciting, and moving contemporary versions of a Shakespearean history play. 

It’s quite exciting to see, for once, a history play in which I knew absolutely none of the history. Admittedly, this came to result in some missed moments (is a lord furiously declaring to his king that his people will hate him forever prophetic, or ironic?), but it also made it easy to accept Rona Munro’s plays as the exciting dramas– I would even go so far as to say tragedies– that they are. 

Some of Shakespeare’s history plays, including Richard III and King John, were variously billed as histories and tragedies, which reflects the uncertain place this emergent dramatic form held in the early modern period. But it also draws attention to how often a history play– especially a history play centered around a single figure– can look very similar to a fictional tragedy. At least in the first two parts of the James Plays, Munro seems to be suggesting that you cannot tell a story about a king that is not a tragedy. As Shakespeare himself explored before her, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that becoming a good king (or a good political ruler of any kind, for that matter) means selling part of your soul. 

There is something really striking about seeing such self-consciously Shakespearean plays telling Scottish history in the same year as an independence referendum. The ghost of Shakespeare is, in some ways, addressed head on in the first scene of James I, where the first king to enter and speak is not James himself, but King Henry V (Jamie Sives, who returns as James III), here portrayed as a blustering, swearing bully who nevertheless makes good use of his short reign. It’s also a useful warning shot: the titles and structures may suggest Shakespeare’s histories, but this is a place where his heroes are turned upside down, the saviors and villains of the history of the British Isles inverted.  

At the beginning of James I, King James I has spent 18 years as a captive in the courts of Henry V and Henry IV, and has passed the years studying history and writing love poetry (some of which is used as lyrics in the very lovely songs– performed by  ensemble member Fiona Wood and composed by Paul Leonard-Morgan– interspersed throughout the play). The tremendously good James McArdle is stammering, unassuming, and easily cowed by the forceful Henry, who humiliates him in front of a band of aristocratic Scottish prisoners, then orders him to return to Scotland for the first time in his adult life to secure English interests there, including forcing peace on the borders and raising the money for his own ransom. 

Aside from various modern stylistic choices, and of course a modern vocabulary of expletives, one of the ways Munro diverges most strikingly from a Shakespearean model– and indeed, from the pattern of historical films and plays today– is her dedication to creating a place for female characters. A sequence in which a battlefield and childbed are simultaneously present onstage exemplifies Munro’s insistence that the devalued roles of women are equally historically important as the battles and treaties guided by men. In James I, this is displayed primarily by her sensitive portrayal of Joan (Stephanie Hyam), James’s 17-year-old English consort. 

From King Henry’s opening attempts to instruct James on how to be a ruthless king like himself, to the gradual revelation of the real reasons behind James’s imprisonment, Munro expertly weaves James’s life story in and over on itself, each incident and episode echoing alongside what we’ve heard and learned and seen and been warned until it culminates at last in a truly moving final battle against an unexpected enemy I have no wish to spoil. It was in this sequence that my lack of knowledge of history was most exciting: I had no idea what was going to happen, and only Munro’s excellently crafted framework to guide my expectations. 

James II moves at a blistering pace, feeling rather shorter than James I, even though it clocked in ten minutes longer at our performance. Though no Englishmen appear, I couldn’t help but think about Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, as it too tells the parallel stories of a prince and a nobleman’s son, one learning to come into his own and the other apparently destined to be a disappointment. But unlike Prince Hal and Hotspur, King James II and William Douglas are best friends from childhood– which we learn through a fascinating flashback/dream sequence that mixes light, dance, and puppetry to tell the blood-soaked story of James II’s childhood and accession to the throne at age 6. 

James II (Andrew Rothney), marked by a vibrant wine-stain birthmark on his face and still controlled by a regency government at age 19, is lively but unstable, plagued by violent nightmares of his past and unable to control the acts his regents undertake in his name. Meanwhile, William (Mark Rowley) is a drinking, raiding, high-spirited disgrace to his physically and verbally abusive father, whom we have seen connive his way from the simpering, landless Balvenie in James I into the Earl of Douglas (Peter Forbes).

James II is less tightly constructed than its predecessor– the fascinating nightmare sequences drop away, and in the second act overall it feels as if important steps on James and William’s emotional journeys have been elided. But it all ties together in the end, if not quite as perfectly as James I, as resonantly and in a more viscerally shocking way. 

Munro and director Laurie Sansom draw neat lines between the first two parts, both in lines that echo each other across plays and in clever double-casting– Henry V and James III, as mentioned above, but also Stephanie Hyam as both James’s foreign wives, Andrew Rothney as a rebellious lordling in James I, and Gordon Kennedy as a pair of very different regents. I expect more will emerge in part three. 

Judging by other critics, who insist that the plays be taken as a trilogy, it seems inappropriate to say anything conclusively until I’ve seen James III. So all I will say is that I’m looking forward to it very much.