Fearful and timid playwrights left the theater fighting for their lives

Tackling the Darkness: Prima Facie was a West End triumph with Jodie Comer as a lawyer in psychological freefall – Empire Street Productions/ Helen Murray

It was a year of great drama: political turmoil, financial turmoil, energy crises, fleeing climate fears, the end of a kingdom and war in Europe. Staged by world events, how did British theater respond? Not, it must be said, with the utmost distinction. Its slow pace has been particularly puzzling in relation to Ukraine. There were exceptions – West London’s tiny but busy Finborough Theater staged plays by Ukrainian writers – but, given the scale of the nightmare, it seems British theater has given a collective shrug of helpless concern.

The Henry V of Donmar opened in March, just days after an invasion of Russia that had been anticipated for months. Kit Harington lent Shakespeare’s hero toughness of intellect and body, but there was an emphasis on homegrown nationalism – a decent effort, but out of tune with the moment; nor did the RSC’s Richard III rise to the occasion of rampant dictatorship. In general, Shakespeare in 2022 was more in decline than in flux.

Some blushes were spared with the Patriots premiere, by The Crown’s Peter Morgan. The show provided a clever summary of Putin’s rise to power and his locking up of the oligarchs, with his repentant king Boris Berezovksy (played by Tom Hollander) taking center stage. But you can’t help but wonder what the state of play will be when the production of Almeida moves to the West End next May. As a talking point, it was as if the cavalry had finally arrived, only to face a tank assault.

The pandemic was, of course, a blow to the body. The work in the yard had to be done and new ideas take time to manage. However, it is incredible to believe that an industry that has fought so hard to justify its survival has been so late in responding to high-risk events.

The Royal Court exemplified this failure, both in Alistair McDowall’s time-hopping piece The Glow, about a woman with supernatural powers, and in the rousing meta-theatrical “thriller” That Is Not Who I Am, written under a pseudonym by Lucy Kirkwood. Her most compelling offering was Ryan Calais Cameron’s glorious account of troubled black masculinity today, For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Tonality Gets Too Heavy.

Peter Morgan's Patriots hit the Almeida with Tom Hollander as Putin's rueful remaker Boris Berezovsky - Marc Brenner

Peter Morgan’s Patriots hit the Almeida with Tom Hollander as Putin’s rueful remaker Boris Berezovsky – Marc Brenner

Significantly, it was brought in from a fringe theater in London, the New Diorama. That venue’s inspiring artistic director, David Byrne, has courageously stopped productions this year, investing resources in new ideas. “It seems like the aristocracy returns to their stately homes after World War I, expecting everything to be as it was,” he told me. “But the world has changed. We have to excite the audience again. Go to see the work often and know exactly what it will say.

Predictability could prove to be as much an existential threat to theater as the pandemic. Yes, there is talent on the way, but there is also a growing weariness for works that feel like platforms for ideological positions, rather than testing laboratories for competing viewpoints.

In Baghdaddy, her Royal Court debut, playwright Jasmine Naziha Jones acted out, in character, a diatribe about pre-war sanctions against Iraq. It felt didactic, not dramatic. And as commendably bold as Charlie Josephine’s I, Joan, which envisioned Joan of Arc as a non-binary avant la lettre at the Globe, the script had the hammering tone of a pious Twitter thread (“Trans people are sacred,”” The man deceived the woman into hating trans…”).

If theater leaves shades on the street, the cash-strapped younger generation will stay away. If you don’t guard against what the late and great director Peter Brook called “deadly theatre,” wouldn’t that kill the entire art form?

Didactic, not dramatic: Jasmine Naziha Jones's Royal Court debut with Baghdaddy - Helen Murray

Didactic, not dramatic: Jasmine Naziha Jones’s Royal Court debut with Baghdaddy – Helen Murray

In Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel, his King Lear-inspired show at the Edinburgh Festival, Tim Crouch turned the prospect of the end of the theater into a powerful provocation:

This is a morgue. This is like a dark corner of arcane anthropology now. No one speaks this language anymore… We are like soldiers in the jungle and the war is over and we weren’t told – and we lost. The soul of this place transmigrated years ago to that flat screen in the center of our living rooms… “He’ll come back stronger after the…” No, he won’t. It is not so.

To counter that darkness? Well, the West End triumph of Jodie Comer’s solo tour de force in Prima Facie, as a lawyer in psychological freefall, was matched by the unprecedented success of her NT Live screenings.

And it’s impossible to argue that British drama is truly drawing its last breath, when we see wonderfully modulated pieces like David Eldridge’s Middle, a moving comedy of a midlife marital break-up, at the National, or Tyrell Williams’ edgy and fresh Red Pitch, about a trio of South London footballing boys, full of hope and fraternity, as ennobling bulldozers intrude on their dreams. That was at the Bush Theater in West London, now the leading venue for new writing, but there was equal finesse in Hampstead with Nell Leyshon’s wonderful Folk, on Cecil Sharp’s collection of songs, and Blackout Songs, the fierce two-handed by Joe White on addiction.

Game of ideas: Alex Jennings (right) played the role of a Devon vicar David Highland in The Southbury Child at the Chichester - Manuel Harlan

Game of ideas: Alex Jennings (right) played the role of a Devon vicar David Highland in The Southbury Child at the Chichester – Manuel Harlan

In Sheffield, Chris Bush daringly scripted three simultaneous comedies – Rock, Paper, Scissors – set in a single day in a dying Sheffield scissors factory, painting a picture of the post-industrial city. In Bristol, Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris premiered Dr Semmelweis, by Stephen Brown, starring Mark Rylance as the 19th-century Hungarian doctor who pioneered handwashing, but was thwarted by the ‘establishment (and its own ego). Also in Bristol, Giles Terera did something erudite and inventive with a painful chapter on the British slave trade in The Meaning of Zong.

Even so, we need comedies – and I do mean comedies – that can fit on the biggest stages. It seems a sign of the times that Operation Mincemeat, about a mad but ingenious coup of Allied wartime deception, is coming to the West End as a musical, just when the theater is filled with lavish chants. It’s brilliant, but you shouldn’t need to sing and dance to draw a crowd.

In June, I caught Stephen Beresford’s The Southbury Child, in Chichester, as a precious specimen of what seemed to be a dying breed: a play on ideas, rich in character. Superlative Alex Jennings was the angst-ridden model of proven self-confidence as a Devon vicar who refuses to give in to a touchy-feely awakening feeling and lets gaudy balloons festoon a child’s funeral.

“I ask for nothing less than a god-worthy experience. And if that doesn’t matter…then it doesn’t matter,” he cried. The censoring community of him has piled up on him, like a real-life social media mob. Deep down, I realize I loved him so much because he was arguing to keep our faith in old-fashioned stage drama.

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