LONDON — 2006 was the year theater found itself on the news pages. The slew of musicals doing boffo business in the West End became a media talking point in the U.K. and beyond.
Commentators will, therefore, be surprised to learn that the most exhilarating and unanimously well-reviewed production of 2006 contained neither singing nor dancing. Instead it was a scorching drama about fundamentalism.
The play was Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in Dominic Cooke’s scaldingly intelligent re-examination for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Leaving the text untouched, he nonetheless revealed the play to be frighteningly contemporary. The equivalent of a terrifying pre-credit sequence of illicit dancing in the woods grabbed audiences by the throat and Cooke never let go.
He has since left the RSC to run the Royal Court, where Cooke will announce his inaugural production slate at the end of January. But he’s already commissioned a new work from Nina Raine, 2006’s most promising playwright for “Rabbit.” That play will hit Manhattan in June as part of the 2007 Brits Off Broadway season.
Part of Cooke’s triumph was due to designer Hildegard Bechtler, who followed “The Crucible” with a remarkable set for “Therese Raquin” (in rep at the National until Feb. 21). Her architectural creation of barren rooms above a shop, with a giant fireplace making the space even more chilly, was masterly. When a wall unexpectedly swung back to reveal Ben Daniels’ tormented lover/murderer, there were audible gasps in the audience.
Bechtler’s 2007 is already packed with designing sets and costumes for “The Seagull” at the Royal Court and the film of the Antony Sher solo show “Primo,” and designing sets for Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque” starring Maggie Smith at the Theater Royal Haymarket in March.
The double bill of “Therese Raquin” and a sensationally hot-blooded “Much Ado About Nothing” (at the Novello through Jan. 6) made Marianne Elliott 2006’s most distinguished director. Both productions achieved a rare depth of telling emotional detail within a painstakingly constructed narrative framework.
Next year, Elliott will helm Shaw’s “Saint Joan” with Anne-Marie Duff and a new adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s classic “War Horse,” which looks at WWI through the eyes of a horse. Both are for the National, which staged Morpurgo’s “Jo-Jo the Melon Donkey” 15 years ago, an inaugural outing from then tyro producer Sonia Friedman.
Producer Matthew Byam Shaw also had a strong year; he switched between an insanely funny revival of “See How They Run” (with actor Douglas Hodge revealing himself as a faultless comedy director) and Peter Morgan’s punchy “Frost/Nixon,” now readying for an April Broadway transfer.
Also on the new play front, Samuel Adamson’s deliciously painful “Southwark Fair” achieved a Chekhovian balance of comedy and sadness. Adamson is currently juggling numerous commissions, with his adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” tipped to land at the Old Vic in September.
The Old Vic provided the performance of the year from an incandescent Eve Best as Josie in “A Moon for the Misbegotten” opposite Kevin Spacey. Her conviction was all the more astonishing given that Josie describes herself as “a fat cow” and Best is 5 foot 9 inches tall and almost gaunt.
The actress is about to start rehearsing Rosalind for Samuel West’s “As You Like It” at Sheffield’s Crucible Theater, previewing from Jan. 31. That also will play four nights in the RSC’s Complete Works festival, after which Best returns to “Moon” for the Gotham run, previewing from March 29.
High among the best new plays of the season was David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” an arrestingly mature drama about an immature past relationship; it will receive a new production by Joe Mantello at Manhattan Theater Club in the spring.
Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City,” a quietly assured, unpreachy play about aftershocks of the Iraq war, dealt in emotional undertow rather than political platitudes. James Macdonald’s exquisitely rendered production is being redesigned by Anthony Ward and Pat Collins for Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater in February.
In the tidal wave of tuners, few were home-grown. Jeremy Sams’ well-crafted “The Sound of Music” aside, the new British productions disappointed. Yet outclassing the blockbusters with sheer musical majesty were two gloriously unclassifiable masterworks for the newly rebuilt Young Vic.
“Tobias and the Angel” is a spine-tingling biblical fable about a magical journey with a cast of hundreds; “The Enchanted Pig” is a fairytale show that holds both children and adults spellbound. Theatrically, they’re both wildly imaginative, not a phrase often used about operas, which is what they really are. Both were composed by Jonathan Dove. Anyone yearning to commission and produce top-flight music-theater should beat down Dove’s door in 2007.