Somehow – though I'm not quite sure how – it's already that time of year when theatre critics start ploughing through their archives and picking their highlights of the last 12 months. We're also in the thick of awards season, with the Evening Standard Awards already out of the way and WhatsOnStage's own Awards launched last Friday. While I could easily spend several paragraphs quibbling over the (often rather arbitrary) guidelines by which we all define our theatrical high points, there's one Awards category that I find particularly fascinating: Theatre Event of the Year.
How do you even begin to choose one event that's somehow representative of the entire year in theatre? In one sense, it's an almost impossible task – just as difficult as it is to decide on one show or director or actor deserving of an award, or one production that is deemed "the best" of the year's crop. But as a way of focusing reflections on the year, it can also be a useful exercise. Because perhaps more than any one show or individual, the idea of a somehow defining "event" might say a lot about where we think we are at the end of another 12 months.
For me, there were plenty of memorable theatrical moments this year, most of them fleeting and unconnected. Sometimes, as with Zawe Ashton's brilliant off-key rendition of "Where Are We Now?" in Narrative or the unapologetically silly re-enactment of the Kate Bush music video in Peter McMaster's Wuthering Heights, it was a simple snapshot of joy and surprise. Other highlights were images: the glorious, muddy anarchy at the end of the RSC's As You Like It, or the stunning opening of Secret Theatre Show 1. Staying with the senses, it could also be sounds, like the violent shattering of glass at the start of Caesarean Section.
What the notion of an event of the year does, however, is force you to pin your colours to a certain spirit or impulse that speaks to the wider landscape of the country's theatre. Looking at this year's nominations, each implicitly says something about British theatre and where it is now. The presence of Punchdrunk and the excitement surrounding their new show is testament to the current ubiquity of immersive theatre, while the work that has been programmed in the National Theatre's temporary Shed space underlines shifts that are beginning to impact upon even the biggest of the UK's theatrical institutions. Also trying to do things differently, though this time with inspiration from Europe, is the Lyric Hammersmith's ensemble-based Secret Theatre project; the Michael Grandage season, by contrast, has pledged its allegiance to star casting, though at the same time attempting to ensure affordable ticket prices. Then there's a nod to the past, with the National Theatre's 50th anniversary gala saying much about how we understand our own theatrical history.
If a choice has to be made, I think Secret Theatre just about edges it for me. As much as I'll miss the Shed and the youthful shot of excitement and experimentation that it has injected into the National Theatre, the major structural shifts that the Lyric Hammersmith is attempting to kick start indicate a spirit of change that could have potentially far-reaching consequences. It's not entirely disconnected from the work of the Shed, however, nor from Vicky Featherstone's Open Court season, which received an honourable mention in the nominations. In several different quarters, things seem to be slowly changing, which is perhaps what I'll take away from this year more than anything else.
What defines the mood of the year's theatre for you? See the full list of nominations and place your vote on our dedicated Awards page.