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Michael Coveney: Standard awards play safe and surprise a few

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All theatre awards create interest and publicity around the art form, which is the point of them, after all, though this year's Evening Standard awards have been kept off today's front pages by the Rolling Stones' fiftieth anniversary concert at the O2.

And not even the Standard itself can now claim exclusivity of prestige in the awards game as they could twenty, or even ten, years ago. The Oliviers attract more media coverage and those of Whatsonstage.com involve the public much more and therefore reflect popular taste and a much broader field of theatrical endeavour. They're also the most fun.

Half the Standard awards now are not even decided by its judging panel of critics, but are gifts from the editorial and sponsors. The first ever Burberrys emerging director is Simon Godwin of the Royal Court, so presumbaly he gets a nice scarf to drape round his statue. Fashion seems to have entered the fray with American Vogue editor Anna Wintour leading the charge at the newspaper where her father, Charles Wintour, was once a highly distinguished editor and indeed founder of these awards.

The judges' choices are all fair enough, though the nomination of Constellations as best play looks dodgy after the West End transfer has exposed its frailty a little. And although it's admirable that the judges hark back to their early cut-off point last year and include Collaborators (which opened at the NT in November 2011) in the list, it's hard, really, to concur that Simon Russell Beale's performance as Stalin was either his best, or the year's.

This year's November openings that should, by right, figure in next year's Standard awards might include Alan Bennett's People, Lucy Prebble's The Effect and Nick Dear's Dark Earth, Light Sky, any one of which might easily eclipse Constellations in other awards ceremonies coming up soon.

The special Standard awards also recognised Danny Boyle - "Beyond Theatre" it was called - for his Olympic Games opening ceremonies and gave all due recognition to the overall contributions of Judi Dench, Nicholas Hytner, and David Hare.

This smacks of too much kow-towing. One such award is quite enough. And it's peculiar that the really outstanding achievements of the year go competely unnoticed: the trilogy of Tom Murphy plays at Hampstead, for instance; or the extraordinary output of Simon Stephens, which included the controversial Three Kingdoms at the Lyric, Hammersmith and the brilliant adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the National; or Simon McBurney's version of The Master and Margarita, the first time I've seen that great novel wrestled to the ground in the theatre; or Joe Hill-Gibbins' The Changeling at the Young Vic.

The Changeling opens again tonight at the Young Vic, moving from the Maria into the main house, with some interesting cast changes: Sinead Matthews succeeds Jessica Raine as Beatrice-Joanna, Harry Hadden-Paton takes over as Anselmero while Zubin Varla comes in as De Flores. That looks like an up-grade all round, to me.

The Evening Standard best actress Hattie Morahan will return next year as Nora in another Young Vic revival, A Doll's House (in that same new quicksilver "version" by Simon Stephens!), though I felt a bit giddy first time round with a continuously revolving set.

And seeing A Doll's House yet again is not really as interesting as seeing an unknown Ibsen. In the interval of last Thursday's matinee of Ibsen's rarely seen Love's Comedy (though it was one of the author's favourite plays) I received an unusual text from Ben Clare, the Orange Tree's press officer, in which he apologised for the late start; a bus bringing the group from the care home had been delayed in traffic.

In fact, the old dears filed in only about seven or eight minutes behind schedule and behaved impeccably throughout. It was rather touching watching Ibsen's satirical comedy of young love and old marriage in their company, and the delay had allowed time to read some damned good programme notes by Whatsonstage.com's Simon Thomas and the play's translator, Irish poet Don Carleton.

It was pleasant being in Richmond for lunch, though I was surprised at how generally un-busy the shops and the High Street were. One can only conclude that the recession is beginning to bite, even in the more prosperous enclaves of the city. The Richmond Theatre on the Green was very quiet, too; no matinee, but not much of a buzz around the pantomime box office, either.

I know I'm always going on about front-of-house and presentation in the ATG theatres, but Richmond is a terrible mess, with some half-hearted poster displays and a lack of pride in itself inappropriate for a venue so beautiful, one of Frank Matcham's finest. Last week's show was the Headlong touring Medea with Rachael Stirling; no Thursday matinee, so cast member Paul Shelley, an Orange Tree regular over the years, was free to join me and the care home group for a little light Ibsen.

We get so little visiting foreign theatre that it always seems a shame that awards ceremonies fail to recognise it, though the Standard did shortlist Cate Blanchett for her remarkable performance in Botho Strauss's Big and Small at the Barbican.

The Catalan director Calixto Bieito has shaken us up this year with his Shakespearean meditation, Forests, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival - and surely the Globe should have had a nod from the Standard for their amazing season of all 37 plays in 37 different languages? - and his production of Carmen for ENO, which I saw on Friday night, is right up there with the best of the year.

Set in a border town occupied by the Spanish military, and marking the end of the Franco period, Bieito's Carmen re-defines the social milieu of the opera in terms of Almodovar, black market smugglers on a car lot where all sorts of things are going on, and the best ever realisation of the final scene as a human bullfight: that great symbol of Spanish advertising, the cut out black bull on every mountainside, has been systematically dismembered and replaced in the ring by Carmen taunting Jose.

The crowd scenes are fantastic, and the performance of Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose in the title role - unexpectedly blonde, physically charged and emotionally expressive - quite exceptional. I loved the headlong, jazzy rush to the music provided by the band under Ryan Wigglesworth, a rising star on the circuit. A fitting occasion for an awards weekend, even if Bieito's production (which originated in Barcelona) has won every prize going throughout Europe and none, so far, here.


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