10 plays to see before you die

By Alex Davies, Ben Willows, Imogen Marchant, and Emerson Shams

For this edition, here at Stage, we bring you the fruit of an ongoing collaboration of a number of our writers to list some of their all-time favourite plays and shows. We hope you agree or are inspired to some new reading or viewing…

By Alex Davies:

1. Hamlet: by William Shakespeare

This inclusion wasn’t intended to sound pretentious or boring. There’s a reason in 1953 Richard Burton almost lost a $7 million contract because he opted to play the Prince of Denmark in the dank West End rather than shoot ‘pictures’ in glistening Hollywood. There’s a reason so many lines have seeped into the public vernacular, despite having been written in early modern English. To go or not to go, isn’t really a question. I was fortunate enough to see Ian McKellen’s performance at the Windsor Theatre in the Summer. After the first ten minutes, you don’t see an eighty-two-year-old man, you see a petulant, smart, depressive who captures everything good and bad about being human. The soliloquies are enchanting, the protagonist is captivating, and the plot builds to almost the perfect tragic conclusion. Some plays are part of the canon for a reason.

I’ve never seen a film or stage production with such powerful chemistry across the cast

2. The History Boys by Alan Bennet

Everything about this play is clever: the characters, the wit, the plot, the homoerotic themes, even the classroom debates about his- tory. manages to write a play with a political message about a group of young working-class pupils at a school in Sheffield battling for places at Oxford without detracting from the fullness of the characters or strangling the audience’s enjoyment of the performance. This is an achievement in British theatre. Naturally, this play relies on its characters as the principal vehicle for the entertainment rather than the plot: Posner’s infatuation with Dakin, the co- medic interjections of Lockwood, Scripps and Timms and the pedagogical tussle between Mr Irwin (young and pragmatic) and Hector (elderly and flamboyant) are of particular note. I’d recommend watching the film from 2007, directed by Nicholas Hytner no less because the cast (including Dominic Miller, James Corden and Frances De La Tour) had performed around the world as a tight-knit cohort for two and a half years prior to the filming. I’ve never seen a film or stage production with such powerful chemistry across the main cast.

As an audience member, you bind yourself to the most intruiguing personalities

3. Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

Dead before his time. Good thing Dylan Thomas wrote this “play for voices”. The play follows a Welsh town and its characters, in every sense of the word, for a day.

There is no discernible plot. As an audience member, you bind yourself to the most intriguing personalities. They may include Mr Pugh, who fantasises about poisoning his overbear- ing wife with “weedkiller biscuits”, the lovers of Myfanwy Price and Mr Mog Edwards who communicate in letters and their dreams, and, of course, blind Captain Cat and his melancholic memories of dead sailors. Under Milk Wood has an ear for a kind of cosy, melodic poetry which captures one’s attention and never lets it go. Even Shakespeare can be frustrating every now and then with his rambling metaphors about “blushing pilgrims” or never-ending “tomorrows”. Thomas keeps things down to Earth (or in this case Swansea): “Wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fish-boat-bobbing-sea.” Michael Sheen’s performance and the production at the National Theatre earlier this year lived up to Dylan Thomas’ poetry. It transports you to a land of words and people so rich you leave in the daze of South Walian fantasy.

By Imogen Marchant:

4. Beginning by David Eldridge

I was seventeen when I saw David Eldridge’s Beginning at the Dorfman, and it has stayed with me ever since. It is a masterclass in small-scale, high-magnitude theatre, so sweet and delicate that too heavy a touch would break it. It is also hilarious, heart-breaking and tentative, and entirely apt for a world now waking up to reconnecting. It is a play that stands up to reading – a viewing would be wonderful, but even on paper, it fizzes with brilliance.

It is bold, brave and gritty – ambitious… with harsh realism balanced with surreal reimaginings of the process of recovering from addiction

5. People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan

At the other end of the scale, there is People, Places and Things. Macmillan’s gutsy work will try to rip your insides out with its refusal to compromise and then put them back in with such tenderness that you’ll almost want to thank it. It is bold, brave and gritty – ambitious in scope, scale and content, with harsh realism balanced with surreal reimaginings of the process of recovering from addiction.

By Ben Willows:

6. Constellations by Nick Payne

Constellations is a love story. It’s far more than that, of course. It deals with everything from quantum physics to the waltz. But at its fragile, beating heart, it is a love story. The play tells the story of Roland and Marianne, a beekeeper and a cosmologist, and the faltering development of their relationship.

The play approaches the minutiae of the human heart with such delicacy and warmth that it is impossible not to fall in love with the characters and the play

Reflecting Marianne’s interest in multiple universes, the play is told through the ingenious conceit of displaying different timelines; in the opening meet-cute, we see multiple failed attempts of flirting, before we find a timeline where both are available and interested in a relationship. While this structure is unique and provides pitch-perfect humour, there is a risk that it could overwhelm the central love story.

But it never does. The play approaches the minutiae of the human heart with such delicacy and warmth that it is impossible not to fall in love with the characters and the play.

It’s unequivocally universal – to the point that its recent revival was able to ignore the original casting of a heterosexual white couple in their thirties (such an underrepresented group), and instead showed different portrayals of love, whether the older couple of Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker or the young black couple of Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah. The production I saw had Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey as an interracial gay couple, and I now cannot see the play as anything other than queer. Constellations spans multiple universes, and in doing so, touches all of our hearts.

By Jodie Sale:

7. Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Her Naked Skin was the first full-length play to be performed on the Olivier stage that was written by a woman. Set when the Suffragette Movement was reaching its climax, the play rocks between the personal and political as its central characters push for their emancipation. Placing powerful themes of female oppression and violence at its core, and portraying female lesbian suffragettes in a nuanced fashion and at centre stage – this play deserves a place on this list.

8. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennesse Williams.

In my opinion a masterpiece, a classic, that holds such power over its audiences from its opening until its end. Set in New Orleans in the 1940s, this modern tragedy beautifully combines illusion with reality; Williams’ writing is both poetry and theatre. His central characters are flawed to the core. Blanche is both victim and victimiser. We watch her world crumble in steamy New Orleans amongst the dynamism and unforgiving nature of her brother-in-law. It is morally ambiguous, radically explicit for its time, and definitely a play to put on your bucket list.

9. Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

A breakthrough moment in history for representations of blackness on the stage, Raisin in the Sun is still pertinent in discussions of black identity today. Staged in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Hansberry takes us into the younger family apartment (cramped, claustrophobic and oppressive) and in Arthur Miller style exposes the generational tension between Mama and her children. Deeply concerned with the past whilst seeking to create a new age for the next generation; this play reveals the trauma of the black experience before its audiences.

By Emerson Shams:

10. Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder by Robert L. Freedman, the music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak

The show gives a mixed vibe between the gore of Lemony Snicket and the humour of Oscar Wilde to create a masterfully mad performance

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is by far the best broadway production I’ve ever seen in my life. While a little lesser-known, the co- medic musical by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman, it is worth much more recognition. The show gives a mixed vibe between the gore of Liminey Snicket and the humour of Oscar Wilde to create a masterfully mad performance that takes you through the deaths of many aristocratic people at the hands of a distant relative who is determined to become an Earl, due to ‘love’. I wish there was a movie but, alas, I’ve not seen the Tony-winning production since 2015. But even then, when I think of all of the shows I’ve read, seen, and been in over my life, nothing stands out as much as A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

Image Credit: Flickr

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