London 2013: Theatre Highlights


A deliciously diverse year on the stage sees a cluster of Hollywood A-Listers flock to London's Theatreland, writes Rachel Halliburton

The arrival of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' this summer in a production directed by Sam Mendes is not the only reason this year's theatre looks like a sweetbox. Worries that London might suffer the equivalent of a cultural famine in 2013 after the theatrical and artistic glut surrounding the Olympics should be allayed by a line-up including Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Daniel Radcliffe, Rowan Atkinson, and Jude Law.

If you're looking for a challenge – the equivalent of toffee for the brain – the big classics include 'Henry V' and 'Sweet Bird of Youth'. Should you prefer the citric tang of new writing then there's 'Chimerica' directed by wunderkind Rupert Goold, or 'The Audience' by Peter 'Frost/Nixon' Morgan. And if you just want the suck-it-and-see of bold experimentalism, then a new site specific work at Somerset House 'In the Beginning Was The End' kicks off the theatrical year.

It's not just post-Olympic exuberance but post-Jubilee exuberance that's making itself felt, since an obsession with royalty forms a significant strand of West End programming. 'The Audience', which promises to be a highlight, reunites Helen Mirren and Peter Morgan after their Oscar-winning collaboration in 'The Queen'. Here Mirren reprises her role as Elizabeth II – she has confessed she was initially reluctant, but was understandably won over by the artistic team. Stephen 'Billy Elliot' Daldry directs an evening that examines the monarch's relationship with her different prime ministers – Robert Hardy plays Churchill, while Haydn Gwynne plays Thatcher. At time of going to press, it wasn't known if Blair would feature, but hopes must be high that he will, and if so that Michael Sheen will rise once more to the challenge.

Stars of the Grandage season include Judi Dench, Daniel Radcliffe, Jude Law and Ben Whishaw; 'The Captain of Kopenick' at The National

At the end of the year Jude Law becomes the latest actor to take on the challenge of playing 'Henry V', in the final play of the season launched by the Michael Grandage Company in December 2012. When artistic director Sam Mendes left the Donmar Warehouse (Off West End) in 2002 he seemed like an impossible act to follow, but Grandage presided over a golden era that saw the Donmar expand its territory into the West End. Now he in turn has handed over the Donmar, and this year will preside over five productions at the Noel Coward theatre that will reach out to young audiences by offering more than 100,000 tickets at £10. In 'Privates on Parade', which opened at the end of 2012, national treasure Simon Russell Beale plays the cross-dressing Captain Dennis. This is succeeded by Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw - M and Q respectively from 'Skyfall' - combining their considerable forces for 'Peter and Alice', a new play by John Logan. Logan imagines what happened when Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the inspiration for 'Alice Wonderland') met Peter Llewellyn Davies (ditto for 'Peter Pan') at the opening of an exhibition.

The fictional Peter Pan may never have grown up, but 'Harry Potter' star Daniel Radcliffe continues to do all he can to earn adult credentials, and in the third play in Grandage's season stars in 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'. Before rounding off the season with 'Henry V', Grandage extends what will no doubt be a lamentable British summer with 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. With tongue-in-cheek perversity, this kicks off on September 7 and will hopefully raise temperatures with the double act of 'Little Britain''s David Walliams as Bottom and the West End's 'Legally Blonde' star Sheridan Smith as Titania.

Helen Mirren reprises her role as Elizabeth II in 'The Audience';  'In The Beginning Was The End' is performed at Somerset House

Despite his disastrous 'Don Giovanni' at the Met in New York in 2011, back in London many see Grandage as the director with the Midas touch. But there's plenty of competition out there, not least from Rupert Goold, whose Headlong company continues to break boundaries with its bold intellectual leaps and stunning coups de theatre. This year he presents 'Chimerica' at the Almeida, a new play by Lucy Kirkwood whose title is inspired by the term coined by historian Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick for the prickly yet symbiotic relationship between China and the US. There's also a lot of excitement surrounding 'Anna Karenina' director Joe Wright's theatrical debut with the nineteenth-century classic 'Trelawny of the Wells' at the Donmar this February. Just to prove he's not scared of making the transition from screen to stage, he's also going to direct Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'A Season in the Congo' at the Young Vic in July.

There's no shortage of exciting female British directors either, not least Josie Rourke who is the latest artistic director of the Donmar. This April she brings 'The Weir' back to London theatre, the hugely successful Conor McPherson play which looks at Irishmen in a pub swapping ghost stories, only to be upstaged by the woman they are trying to impress. At the Young Vic, Carrie Cracknell revives her sexy, passionate production of 'A Doll's House'. And Marianne Elliott, who won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for 'War Horse' (still playing at the New London Theatre), now takes on Tennessee Williams' 'Sweet Bird of Youth', which will star Kim Cattrall as fading Hollywood star Alexandra del Lago.

Harold Pinter's 'Old Times' stars Rufus Sewell; 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic; Rowan Atkinson returns to the stage in 'Quartermaine's Terms'

Will there ever be a Shakespeare backlash? Not imminently it would seem - last year new research commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Council proved that he is the world's most studied author. As well as the appearances of his work in Grandage's season, there will be a high-profile production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the Old Vic, reuniting James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave following the success of 'Driving Miss Daisy'. Adrian Lester, who formerly played the first black Henry V at the National Theatre (spot that royal theme again?) will also play 'Othello', again at the National.

If there's a theatrical obsession with power in the form of royalty, there's an equal obsession with the satirisation of power. In April, Cheek By Jowl – arguably one of the world's most influential theatre companies – brings its production of Alfred Jarry's excoriating 'Ubu Roi' (loosely based on 'Macbeth') to the Barbican. Antony Sher, who was such a defining theatrical villain in 'Richard III' at the Barbican in 1985 takes on the role of a much more minor dictator in German writer Carl Zuckmayer's 'The Captain of Kopenick'. This is at the National, which also revives its highly successful 'This House', a new play by James Graham that puts the microscope on the Palace of Westminster during Britain's winter of discontent in 1974.

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' transfers to the Apollo Theatre; Sam Mendes directs Willy Wonka et al at the Theatre Royal

As if to remind us of the power that might have been, 'The Book of Mormon' (main picture) – by 'South Park' creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and 'Avenue Q' writer Robert Lopez – finally arrives from Broadway. This promises to be that Holy Grail for West End producers, the musical for people who don't even like musicals. Not that there's a shortage of those who do – and there's plenty to keep them happy too, not least 'A Chorus Line', which director Bob Avian is reviving in the West End for the first time since the original in 1976. 'Once: The Musical' based on the Oscar-winning film of the same name also transfers from Broadway. It's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' though which promises to be the major attraction, and with Sam Mendes at the helm, fresh from breaking UK box office records with 'Skyfall', hopes will be as high as the potential sugar rush.

There's no shortage of display and spectacle in many of these productions, but an equally important function of theatre is to provide a public space where you can experience private, intimate emotions. This January former Royal Court director Ian Rickson will direct a cracking cast - Kristin Scott Thomas, Rufus Sewell, and Lia Williams - in Harold Pinter's achingly erotic 'Old Times'. In April Krister Henriksson – who plays Wallander in the lauded Swedish TV series – plays the title role in 'Doktor Glas', a play about a doctor who falls in love with the wife of a corrupt clergyman. The revival of Peter Nichol's devastating drama about infidelity, 'Passion Play', allows director David Leveaux and actress Zoe Wanamaker to collaborate for the first time since their award-winning 'Electra' in 1997. And in January Rupert Everett and the rising Freddie Fox remind us of what happens when private emotions are forced into the public arena, as they play Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in David Hare's 'The Judas Kiss'.

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde in 'The Judas Kiss' at the Duke of York's Theatre; 'One Man, Two Guvnors' continues its run at the Theatre Royal

Casting a comedian in the lead often acts as a magnet for people who don't normally go to the theatre. So 2013 promises plenty of initiates, starting in January with Rowan Atkinson's appearance in 'Quartermaine's Terms' by Simon Gray, directed by Richard Eyre. Lee Evans and Sheila Hancock star in gangster comedy 'Barking in Essex' while Felicity Kendal graces the West End in Alan Ayckbourn's 'Relatively Speaking'. The play that kicked off at the National in 2011 with James Corden in the lead - 'One Man, Two Guvnors' - continues to be seen by many as the funniest play in the West End. A rather more subtle comedy, 'The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time' makes its transfer from the National to the Apollo Theatre in March.

The huge importance of site specific theatre in London over the last decade means that any survey of what's on in 2013 would be incomplete without looking at what's happening in less conventional spaces. From April, during the refurbishment of its Cottesloe space, the National has announced that it is opening 'The Shed' at the front of its building, a temporary structure to celebrate new and challenging theatre. In January it is also backing the extraordinarily accomplished dreamthinkspeak theatre company, as it creates an apocalyptic installation piece at Somerset House 'In The Beginning Was The End'. This promises to combine Leonardo-inspired hydraulics with a blend of film, installation, and live performance. If it's only half as beautiful and ingenious as the works they've created in the past, it will still be a great way to whet your appetite for an infinitely varied year.

Felicity Kendal stars in Alan Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy 'Relatively Speaking'; 'War Hourse' continues at the New London Theatre
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Sophie Wallace


Sophie Wallace

30th September 2023


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