With Enron, Jerusalem, The Habit of Art and Punk Rock for starters, 2009 was “one of the most exceptional years for new plays in living memory”. It was also the time of Sister Act, Priscilla, Oliver!, Spring Awakening, Jude Law, Mark Rylance and much more. As voting continues in the Whatsonstage.com Awards for the best of the year, our chief critic Michael Coveney recounts his own highs and lows.

It was the year of Enron and Judgment Day, of Sister Act and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, of Endgame and Phedre, of Spring Awakening – easily the best musical of the year – and Jude Law’s angry Hamlet, of Speaking in Tongues (and an angry Ian Hart) and Prick Up Your Ears, of the return of Oliver! with a new reality TV star in Jodie Prenger and a string of great comic Fagins (starting with Rowan Atkinson) of Kursk, Tusk Tusk and Jerusalem, and of the first-ever “virtual” crowd in a Shakespeare play at Stratford-upon-Avon.

And to crown it all, there was Alan Bennett’s first play since The History Boys at the National. While The Habit of Art was ostensibly about a fictional meeting between the poet WH Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten, it was really about the democratic, complicated process of putting on a play, and it celebrated the diurnal persistence of art despite failing reputations, loss of nerve and critical setbacks.

Screen vs stage

Both Sister Act and Priscilla had many admirers, and decent audiences; the first boasted a wonderful new star in Patina Miller, the second a fantastic wardrobe. They were both very different from their film models and so was Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though that might have been better as a musical, too, and Anna Friel, though gorgeous, was ten years too old for Truman Capote’s free-spirited young girl about New York.

The row rumbled on about the re-modelling of movies on the stage, but Peter Flannery’s re-write of the Russian film Burnt by the Sun (with great NT performances by Ciaran Hinds, Rory Kinnear and Michelle Dockery) was one of the best new plays of the year. Some critics moaned about The Shawshank Redemption (with Reg E Cathey and Kevin Anderson), but it played to standing ovations every single night.

Exceptional new writing

In one of the most exceptional years for new plays in living memory, Lucy Prebble’s Enron, brilliantly directed by Rupert Goold, opened triumphantly in the Minerva in Chichester before catching the mood of the financial crisis at the Royal Court. Enron is slugging it out at most awards ceremonies with another Court offering, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, in which Mark Rylance gave the performance of the year as Johnny Byron, the Falstaffian spirit of pleasure and resistance deep in the Wiltshire forest.

Also at the Court, there was Polly Stenham’s crucial (and phew, it was terrific) second play, Tusk Tusk, about more abandoned middle-class siblings, but with a really fresh and biting attack, as well as immensely promising work from the young writers’ group and a Wallace Shawn season including his controversial but compelling Grasses of a Thousand Colours in which Shawn meditated on his own insistent sexuality with Miranda Richardson and the luscious American star Jennifer Tilley.

Theatre of the year

Jane Horrocks played beautifully in Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon before cracking the whip as a juvenile, knock-kneed gunslinger in Richard Jones’ brilliantly bleached and deconstructed Young Vic revival of Annie Get Your Gun. The Young Vic was my theatre of the year, with its immersive Kursk set in the bowels of a submarine, Kathryn Hunter’s eloquent turn as Kafka’s Monkey, Che Walker’s striking Camden musical play Been So Long and Daniel Kramer’s stunning nightmare ballet, with a libretto by James Fenton, of Mussourgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition.

Top: Patina Miller in Sister Act, Rowan Atkinson in Oliver!, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert;
Bottom: Samuel West in Enron, Jude Law’s Hamlet, Mark Rylance & Mackenzie Crook in Jerusalem.

Jez Butterworth had announced his return to the stage at the Almeida with Parlour Song, a lovely play of neighbourly cuckoldry and suburban angst on the edge of the looming countryside (with great performances, again, by Toby Jones, Amanda Drew – who shone in Enron, too – and Andrew Lincoln). And the Almeida also hosted psychology re-runs of Duet for One and Mrs Klein, starring Juliet Stevenson and Clare Higgins, respectively.


Another Almeida premiere was given to Australian playwright Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling (his earlier Speaking in Tongues was effectively, if not all that excitingly, revived in the West End with Hart, John Simm, Lucy Cohu and Kerry Fox), but its claims as a climate change epic were eclipsed by those of Steve Waters and his great double-header of The Contingency Plan at the Bush, where Josie Rourke staged a good recovery programme.

The Contingency Plan, in which the annoyingly spelt Geoffrey Streatfeild was outstanding with Susan Brown and Robin Soans (himself a playwright for Out of Joint this year with Mixed Up North, a “rehearsal” play, like the Bennett, about racial tensions and arranged marriages in Burnley), was certainly the most unjustly over-looked play of the year.

Another was probably Simon StephensPunk Rock at the Lyric Hammersmith, where Sean Holmes launched a new regime that meant business, following the Stephens – in which newcomer Tom Sturridge shone as a troubled Stockport sixth-former in a copy-cat re-hash of the Columbine School Massacre – with a superb revival of Trevor GriffithsComedians.

Personal bests

Mark Rylance’s only best actor rival in my book was Matthew Kelly, whose Eddie Waters in Comedians was his fourth great performance of the year following his best-ever George in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , his rampaging roisterer in Howard Barker’s Victory at the Arcola and his bitter old Pandarus, in Hilda Ogden hair curlers, in an excellent Troilus and Cressida at the Globe.

My best actress was at the Globe, too: Naomi Frederick as a gorgeous, dimpled, leather-clad Rosalind in As You Like It, although many will plump for the more obvious claims, perhaps, of Rachel Weisz as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse or Helen Mirren on stately but subdued parade in Racine’s Phedre at the National. NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner directed Phedre and The Habit of Art, as well as Richard Bean’s rumbustious history of immigration England People Very Nice which ruffled a few feathers in its portrayal of Muslim bad boys.

Also at the National I admired Anastasia Hille’s neurasthenic Dido in James Macdonald’s soberly hypnotic revival of a rare Christopher Marlowe, Rufus Norris’ colourful staging of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman and David Hare’s documentary The Power of Yes, though his cards on the financial meltdown table were already trumped by Enron.

Major events, hot tickets

The Tricycle presented one of the great events of the year in The Great Game: Afghanistan, a crash course in history and polemics from a dozen playwrights, which it followed later in the year with its Not Black and White season of three premieres by leading black British playwrights, Roy Williams, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Bola Agbaje. Hampstead Theatre celebrated a 50th anniversary with plays by Michael Frayn, April de Angelis and, best of all, 21-year-old Ahita Sen Gupta, whose What Fatima Did… discussed an unseen young Muslim girl’s sudden decision to wear the hijab.

I loved Hello, Dolly! with Samantha Spiro in the Open Air, Regent’s Park (their Much Ado was pretty good, too, Spiro paired with Sean Campion); the Almeida revival of von Horvath’s Judgment Day, a truly great play, in Christopher Hampton’s translation; Jonathan Pryce in Dimetos, en route to Pinter’s The Caretaker in Liverpool, at the Donmar; the National Theatre of Scotland’s Peer Gynt at the Barbican; and the West End revivals of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (with its pairing of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart making it one of the year’s hottest tickets), Alan Bennett’s Enjoy, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, with Ken Stott as the best Eddie Carbone since Gambon’s and Debbie Allen’s all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, led by Broadway’s James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan and Briton Adrian Lester.

The Royal Shakespeare Company launched its new ensemble company with The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It in the Courtyard at Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar with the “virtual” crowd and a slightly undercast Brutus and Cassius. But Greg Hicks was splendid as both Leontes and Caesar (with the best accidental first night trip ever on “But I am constant as the northern star”) and the troops are massing promisingly if the Russian season of The Drunks and The Grain Store is a fair indicator.

Many of the above productions have been nominated in the
2010 Whatsonstage.com Awards, covering the 2009 theatregoing year.
Voting continues until 31 January 2010.