Cultural highlights of 2016

Michael gives a month by month overview of his favourite cultural events of 2016…

2016_Cultural_round-up

I know my opinions aren’t any more valid than anyone else’s but I find it a useful exercise to recap my year and, if I’m going to do that, I might as well post it in this journal. So here’s my subjective list of the cultural events that thrilled me in 2016…

Hits…

January

Ching-Ying Chien, photo © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Until the Lions – Roundhouse

The world-premiere of Akram Khan’s production was on a circular stage, making perfect use of the Roundhouse setting. Mixing kathak and contemporary choreography, three dancers ‘tell’ the tale with four musicians playing traditional instruments around them. Ching-Ying Chien was otherworldly as a princess, abducted and raped, who invokes the gods to seek revenge. A brutally physical show that left me marvelling at the flexibility of the human body.

Macbeth – Young Vic

There was much to admire in Carrie Cracknell’s bleak, sparing direction and Lucy Guerin’s spiky choreography. Anna Maxwell Martin was a mesmerising Lady to John Heffernan’s Macbeth and this was a worthwhile experiment even if it didn’t produce the results everyone wanted.

February

Red Velvet publicity image © Hugo Glendinning

Red Velvet – Garrick theatre

This felt like an anomaly in Kenneth Branagh’s season of West End shows (not least that Brannagh didn’t appear) but it was my favourite. Adrian Lester was superb in (his wfe) Lolita Chakrabarti’s telling of the story of Ira Aldridge, a 19th Century black acting pioneer. Most of the story centres on Aldridge’s performance of Othello. It was fascinating to see Lester tackle the performance and compare it to his starring role in the previous year’s production at National Theatre.

March

Tricot – Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen

Rolling Stone described Tricot as “adrenalized math rock sped up and given pop’s candy coating”. I’ve no idea what that means but it was thrilling to be in their presence. This three-piece band from Kyoto (plus ever alternating drummer, tonight it was Miyoko Yamaguchi from garage rock band detroit 7) sang, screamed, swapped guitars, jumped from stacked amps and played such unusual rhythms at such a frenetic pace that I was exhausted just watching.

The Encounter – Barbican

This is Simon McBurney’s masterwork, a perfectly crafted new performance experience. With the audience wearing headphones, McBurney weaves deft live performance (via a binaural microphone) with extraordinary sound effects and recordings. The story starts as an anthropological expedition but meanders off track into the rainforest, taking us on a trip beyond our perceptions and into the hallucinatory. An extraordinary encounter from every direction.

April

Until You Hear That Bell – Albany, Deptford

Through the timed ’rounds’ on a boxing clock, Sean Mahoney tells the tale of his growth into adulthood. This was a moving show from a young writer and performer who seemed to physically grow as the show went on. Wonderfully written, tenderly performed. Full marks to Albany who provided a BSL interpreter who shared the small black box space. I’ve written a full review as it was a Cog Night.

Don Quixote – Swan Theatre

My family and I timed a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (which was in the same year as the death of Cervantes). We spent a lovely day wandering around the town, visiting the sites. In the evening we saw David Threlfall as a brilliantly funny Don Quixote, egged-on to tilt at windmills by Rufus Hound as a perfect Sancho Panza.

May

Radiohead – Roundhouse

I’ve seen Radiohead in all sorts of venues, over the years, but I was particularly thrilled to get to see them at the Roundhouse. The gig tied in with the release of their ninth studio album, Moon Shaped Pool which they played to an appreciative crowd. To be honest they could have played almost anything and I’d have enjoyed it.

June

People, Places & Things – Wyndham’s Theatre

I was very late to this party. Everyone had been telling me that Denise Gough gave a career-defining performance as an addict spiralling out of control and into rehab. They were all right. The writing, the staging, the sound, the rest of the cast were also exceptional. I loved everything so much that I tried to book on-stage seats for a repeat performance but I’d left it too late.

The ‘no photography’ sign on the door of the Menier Chocolate Factory

My Family: Not the Sitcom – Menier Chocolate Factory

In his follow-up to the deeply personal, Fame: Not The Musical, David Baddiel explores deeper into places that are rarely discussed inside or outside the family. The open secret of his late-mother’s affair, and his father’s inappropriate Alzheimer outbursts, are spoken of with such frankness and affection that we laugh and cry along. He navigates the tricky path between exploiting them and celebrating their lives, and he turns to us to ask if he’s chosen the right track.

July

Stephen Dillane photo © Johan Persson

Faith Healer – Donmar Warehouse

A stunning stage design by Es Devlin (now more associated with Kanyé’ and U2 than small theatrical affairs) revealed characters through the rain, caged them in downpours and allowed ‘impossible’ changes between their three monologues. Frank, a man with ‘the gift’, menacingly understated by Stephen Dillane. Gina McKee is Grace, his wife or mistress, depending on whose stories you believe. And the third wheel to their charabanc is manager Teddy, played by Ron Cook. A wonderfully disturbing revival of Brian Friel’s play.

We’re Here Because We’re Here

I was on the Eurostar (travelling back from a trip to Disneyland) when my Twitter timeline began filling with sightings of silently standing men, the ghostly apparitions of fallen soldiers from the first day of the Somme. Created by conceptual artist, Jeremy Deller and National Theatre Director, Rufus Norris, We’re Here Because We’re Here was an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of ‘art’ to move people. I wrote a bit about that at the time.

Henry V – Regents Park Open Air Theatre

It felt so totally natural that Michelle Terry should step up to take the title role that I didn’t particularly notice the gender neutral casting that had so divided critics. This was a great production that gave context and meaning to what can be a drawn-out and uneven play. Although I did have a bit of a rant afterwards at a woman who’d been playing with her phone throughout, and that made me wonder about ways we could get audiences more engaged.

August

Edinburgh Fringe and International Festival

My August was dominated by my first Festival and Fringe since the early 1990s. I crammed in several shows a day and I’ve written about most of them elsewhere in this journal. Highlights for me were the hilariously inappropriate humour of Kate Lucas, Jonathan Holloway’s retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, Compagnie du Hanneton’s acrobatic The Toad Knew, James Rowland’s Team Viking and of course the brilliant Daniel Kitson with his show Mouse: The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought.

September

Ride – Concorde 2, Brighton

In the late summer heat I took a post-work train to Brighton to see one of the most exciting bands of my youth. Packed into a tiny seafront venue (that I’m sure they could have sold out a dozen times over) we were treated to wave after wave of crashing guitars and drums. Ride were once lauded as the schoolboys who led the shoe-gazing scene of the late 1980s, we’re all a lot older now but their sound is still ringing in my ears. I wrote a review at the time.

October

BFI London Film Festival

My October was dominated by the BFI London Film Festival. I’ve written about my favourites elsewhere, including Ben Wheatley’s impeccable Free-Fire which I’ve been to see several times since. But the stand-out film for me was Manchester By The Sea. Casey Affleck delivered one of the most beautifully acted performances I have ever seen.

King Lear – The Old Vic

Also in October I was lucky enough to get tickets to see the mighty Glenda Jackson give an unforgettable performance as King Lear. The experience wasn’t without its faults (as I’ve written about elsewhere in this journal) but her return to the stage was faultless. And at 80 I have no idea how she had the stamina to take on the role – I was shattered just sitting through it once as I wrote in my review.

November

The Red Barn publicity poster © National Theatre

The Red Barn

Mark Strong, Hope Davis and Elizabeth Debicki led the cast in the most visually arresting play of the year. The scale and cinematic ambition of the staging, created by Robert Icke with design by Bunny Christie, blew me away. So did the script, the acting and the directing. It was the most complete theatrical experience of my year. I’ve written a review elsewhere.

The Dresser

Having seen a production of King Lear a few weeks before, it felt particularly appropriate to revisit this Ronald Harwood classic, set in the dressing room of ‘Sir’ (played by Ken Stott), as Norman (Reece Shearsmith) attempts to support, cajole and bully him onto the stage as Lear. Stott and Shearsmith drew out the pathos and majestic misery of their codependence  brilliantly.

Akram Khan’s Giselle – Sadler’s Wells

In a year where we launched sites for both Akram Khan Company and for English National Ballet (ENB), it felt good to book-end the year with his two big shows, although I did sneak in this ENB production of Giselle, as a Cog Night (and wrote a review), in November. Utterly mesmerising, monumental, confident; this was one of the best dance pieces I’ve ever seen. The disturbingly aggressive music, composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, was worth the admission price alone.

December

Ruth Wilson as Hedda Gabler © National Theatre

Hedda Gabler – National Theatre

I’d happily watch Ruth Wilson or Rafe Spall in just about anything. Throw in a Patrick Marber reworking of Ibsen and I’ll queue for tickets (as I did in the online waiting room of the National Theatre). It was well worth the wait. Ruth Wilson is the perfect Hedda Gabler – determinedly nihilistic, magnetic and capable of great cruelty to those drawn toward her. It’s not a perfect production, the use of Joni Mitchell just reminded me of Love Actually, but it is wonderful.

Near hits…

Amongst the outstanding shows were a fair few other great events…

I enjoyed Robert Newman‘s return to comedy, The Brain Show, despite seeing it in a room above a noisy street of bars, in Maidstone, and Stewart Lee was exhaustingly funny in a 4hr back-to-back marathon of his Comedy Vehicle shows at Royal Festival Hall. Amadeus was a superb show although the performance I saw was scarred by a 30 minute gap after someone fell between the staging at National Theatre (she was fine after an ambulance trip to A&E); Lyric restaged Mark Revenhill’s Shopping and F*cking in an interesting and disturbing way; LIFT had lots of great stuff, including Mike Bartlett’s new play about Victorian socialite Ernest Boulton AKA Stella; a double-bill of Daniel Radcliffe premieres at O2 (you know, the Millennium Dome) featured the darkly funny Swiss Army Man and the darkly disturbing Imperium; Two Gentlemen of Verona was fun at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as was Pericles but their tortuous plots made it clear why neither are staged very often; Björk Digital was a good exploration of early VR but wasn’t as good an exhibition as the excellent Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick, both at Somerset House; Groundhog Day was well worth seeing at The Old Vic, as was the all-star The Spoils at Trafalgar Studios with Jesse Eisenberg that bloke from Big Bang Theory and Alfie Allen from Game of Thrones; also from GoT (as well as Stephen Dillane in Faith Healer) I saw Kit Harington’s bum in a raucous retelling of Dr Faustus in the West End; Pixies were, as always, brilliantly loud at Academy Brixton, as were Godspeed You Black Emporer at the Coronet. Matthew Herbert‘s experiments with edible music provided a fun Cog Night. And the read-through of Stuff Happens at National Theatre felt very special on the day the Chilcott Enquiry was finally released.


Misses…

The pop-up Kings Cross Theatre, venue for Lazarus.

Nothing’s perfect and there were a few events that I was disappointed by…

I wasn’t a huge fan of The Vaults Festival when we went on a Cog Night to see Hysterical although I know I’m not their target audience; I tried to enjoy the usually excellent Rosalie Craig and Rory Kinnear in Threepenny Opera but the deliberately pared back staging underwhelmed me; all the elements were in place for Bryony Kimming’s A Pacifists Guide to War on Cancer to be amazing but it still felt like a work in progress when I saw it (they had great programmes, designed like hospital records, though so that redeemed it in my eyes); I was befuddled by much of the staging of Kenneth Brannagh’s season at the Garrick, especially The Entertainer, but maybe that was because I was in the cheap seats at the back; I liked the idea of Oil at Almeida, Anne-Marie Duff was great but the plot felt too disjointed; and I so wanted the Bowie musical, Lazarus to be a fitting epitaph – the cast was great, the songs are great, Ivo Van Hove directed it (as well as Hedda Gabler) but their combined efforts and the venue (a soulless pop-up theatre beside King’s Cross Station) made for a pretty dismal evening.

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