The classics came calling in abundance during 2005, a London theater year in which the names on playgoers’ lips tended to be Ibsen, Lorca, Schiller and countless more dead white men. The rarefied offerings of a capital obsessed only with the past? Not at all: Time and again, these canonical works revealed themselves afresh as plays for today. Phyllida Lloyd‘s breathless production of “Mary Stuart” was a telling parable of political entrapment that rang out at a time when, more than ever, our rulers are often seen choking on their own power.
“Mary Stuart” was just one of the many potentially musty plays to find a commercial home in a season that was more hospitable to the weighty German dramatist Friedrich Schiller than to the current crop of leading scribes, many of whom went silent (Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard, Martin McDonagh). With Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter as its galvanically opposed leads, “Mary Stuart” sent out word that Shaftesbury Avenue could aim high, too, as it had earlier in the year when a fearsome Derek Jacobi took center stage as Philip II in a lesser-known Schiller play, “Don Carlos.” (Both productions have been mentioned for Broadway.)
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Henrik Ibsen was represented thrice over, each time very well. Eve Best made a fiercely witty embodiment of one of Hedda Gabler’s pistols under the acute eye of Richard Eyre, while director Marianne Elliot turned the little-seen “Pillars of the Community” into a nearly three-hour narrative epic that held the audience in thrall. The Donmar’s “Wild Duck” was true to the tragic spirit of what is possibly Ibsen’s finest play, here featuring a star-in-the-making in the bruising presence of Sinead Matthews as the doomed 14-year-old Hedvig.
Was there fun to be had? Absolutely, though one of the year’s shrewdest comic turns — Simon Russell Beale as the lovesick academic of Christopher Hampton‘s “The Philanthropist” — exposed a bleak underbelly by play’s end. On the other hand, joy was the operative word to describe choreographer Rob Ashford‘s ensemble work in “Guys and Dolls,” just as Richard Bean‘s robustly funny and moving “Harvest,” a Royal Court highlight, induced the giddy pleasure that comes from a playwright working overtime to stretch himself.
Much was made of the renaissance of the commercial West End, a fact borne out by the ability of “Guys and Dolls” and the musicalized “Billy Elliot” to keep playing to packed houses even during a London summer defined by terrorism. But however welcome Kristin Scott Thomas was in her London stage return in October in “As You Desire Me,” the Luigi Pirandello play’s novelty value paled next to an earlier National Theater entry, Katie Mitchell‘s balletic version of Strindberg’s “Dreamplay.”
Elsewhere, the National did well by the ultimately noncontentious Howard Brenton play “Paul,” starring Adam Godley as the deluded (or maybe not) apostle, and hit a glitch with a Mike Leigh play, “Two Thousand Years,” that didn’t live up to expectations.
On the other hand, there was hardly a happier place to be toward year’s end than in the auditorium of “Coram Boy,” a sweeping play given a production (from Melly Still) to match. Not every show encompasses infanticide and sex trafficking alongside abundant humanity and copious snatches from the composer Handel, who even makes an appearance in the second act. The evening ended, appropriately enough, with the “Hallelujah Chorus” and not a dry eye in the house.
On the topic of endings, this will be my final Strands column after more than 13 years flying solo in the London hot seat. It’s been an extraordinary run, starting with Stephen Daldry‘s visionary production of “An Inspector Calls” and concluding with Michael Grandage‘s no less remarkable reappraisal of “The Wild Duck.” London’s a great and unique theater capital, and it has been an enormous privilege to have been able to chronicle it in these pages for such a sustained period of time. My gratitude and thanks to all those who have taken the journey with me; the dialogue, I trust, won’t stop here.