By Simon Fearn
Now that it’s January once again, it’s more or less obligatory to come up with a few ways to make the coming twelve months somewhat more enjoyable than the last. This, for me, is nothing that a few trips to the theatre can’t solve. For those of you looking to venture out of the Durham bubble in search of your theatrical kicks, I have trawled the internet in search of the major trends for the coming year. In short, your average 2016 play looks to be a Shakespearean sci-fi adapted from a French farce with dour Scottish musical numbers.
It’s 400 years this year since the great man kicked the bucket, so the nation’s theatres are collectively going Shakespeare-mad. Expect old favourites like Hamlet, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to become virtually inescapable.
The ever-reliable RSC are staging a touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is coming to Newcastle’s Northern Stage from 16-26 March—perfect for an end of term treat. Their USP of having amateur thespians playing the ‘mechanicals’ (including Bottom) may, however, be a bit of a gimmick. RSC, Stratford, 17 Feb-16 Jul. UK Tour, 16 Mar-4 Jun.
For those who want to skip to the good bits, The Complete Deaths offers a whistle-stop tour of all 74 Shakespearean deaths, which makes the 61 fatalities in Game of Thrones look pale in comparison. Premiers at the Brighton Festival in May, followed by a UK tour.
Also worth a look, Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet recounts the true story of Ira Aldridge, a 19th Century black American actor who controversially took over the role of Othello at last minute. Hustle’s Adrian Lester stars as Aldridge. The Garrick, London, 23-27 Feb.
Edgy New Writing (That’s Surprisingly Sci-Fi)
Probably the most hotly anticipated new writing this year is Escaped Alone from Caryl Churchill (The Skirker, Cloud Nine), a writer known for non-naturalistic pieces with feminist overtones. Ostensibly about some people drinking tea, it has been described by the Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone as “one of the most challenging things you will ever read”. It’s also noteworthy for offering four leading roles for women in their sixties and seventies, which will hopefully encourage other playwrights to take note and stop snubbing older actresses. Royal Court, London, 21 Jan-12 Mar.
And now for something completely different, next up in the Royal Court’s celebration of its 60th anniversary is Alistair McDowall’s X. McDowall’s last play, Pomona, was a darkly surrealist thriller about a concrete island in Manchester, and was universally praised. This time, McDowall turns his attentions to Pluto, where a downbeat British research base have lost contact with Earth, and struggle to hold on to their sanity. Not your average theatrical set-up. Royal Court, 30 Mar-7 May.
Science-fiction unusually seems to be on the minds of more than one playwright, with Nick Payne’s Elegy. Payne has had his head in stars since 2012’s Constellations, and his latest play picks up the theme of the conflict between free will and scientific advancement, envisioning a world in which the workings of the brain are wholly understood. Sure to be thought-provoking stuff. Donmar Warehouse, London, 21 Apr-18 Jun.
Discover Your Inner Frenchness
For reasons unknown, 2016 promises a bumper crop of star-studded adaptations of French plays.
The ever-fabulous Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat) and Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) star as murderous domestics in The Maids, an update of Jean Genet’s 1947 psychological drama. Trafalgar Studious, London, 20 Feb-21 May.
Kenneth Branagh is paired unexpectedly with Rob Brydon in The Painkiller, Sean Foley’s adaptation of a French farce by Francis Veber. Brydon is a suicidal photographer; Branagh the hitman stuck in an adjacent hotel room. The Garrick, London, 5 Mar-30 Apr.
The Donmar Warehouse has also turned Francophile with Welcome Home, Captain Fox—another update of a French farce, this time Jean Anouilh’s Le Voyageur Sans Bagage. The story of an amnesiac soldier claimed by 23 families is transposed to 1950s Cold War America. Expect plentiful Gaelic high-jinx. Donmar Warehouse, 18 Feb-16 Apr.
Finally, The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! offers a not-entirely-serious take on Flaubert’s famous novel from comedy theatre troupe Peepolykus (pronounced ‘people like us’ bizarrely). 5-27 Feb in Everyman Theatre, Liverpool , followed by a UK tour.
Scottish Musicals about Death
You may laugh, but this is actually a thing. To counteract the ceaseless run of bland musicals with vaguely famous people in them on the West End (case in point: Pixie Lott in a new musical adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s), this year the National Theatre of Scotland brings you two offbeat sing-alongs.
First up is I Am Thomas, the blackly humorous tale of Thomas Aikenhead, the last man in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. From celebrated theatre company Told by an Idiot, and featuring lyrics by Simon Armitage, the production’s upcoming tour this spring ventures as far as Salisbury for the more southerly amongst us. UK Tour, 19 Feb-16 Apr.
Olivier Emmanuel and Gareth William’s The 306: Dawn promises to be less tongue-in-cheek, a new musical focusing on the stories of three court martialled British soldiers in the First World War. Probably a far cry from Grease then. Perth Concert Hall, Scotland, 24 May-11 Jun.
I was looking for the strangest show of 2016, and in Hand to God, I think I’ve found it. Described as a cross between Sesame Street and The Exorcist, the show centres on a Satanic sock puppet called Tyrone causing havoc in smalltown Texas. It’s just transferred from Broadway and the humour is meant to be largely similar to The Book of Mormon. For those looking for something out of the ordinary. Vaudeville Theatre, London, 5 Feb-11 Jun.
Image: Faye Chua