Crystalwords Theatre Highlights 2011

One of my resolutions for 2011 has been to write more and I'm pleased to have restarted my blog after a two-year hiatus and managed to write up a full review of every theatre production I've caught. Since relocating back to Singapore in September, I've joined online arts journal The Flying Inkpot as a theatre reviewer so hopefully there will be a steady stream of Singapore reviews from now onwards.

2011 has a been a very mixed year for me career-wise: it started off in London, continued on to Paris where I spent six months on secondment and finally ended in Singapore. Through all that, I've managed to keep up my theatre-going. Plays, as usual, feature predominantly on my list with a bumper crop of six Shakespeares.

Regular readers of my reviews will know that I rate all productions out of ten. My rating is based on a combination of factors - acting, directing, script, production values and the overall experience: that indefinable X-factor. For those who like statistics, you will be pleased to hear that the average production score for 2011 was 7.0/10 which indicates a solid year of theatre across the board. In particular, a record three productions scored a 9/10 - a tremendous achievement in my book.

So, with the preliminaries aside, on to my 2011 theatre highlights. I have chosen to stick to six simple categories for the year, reflecting acting, writing and production values.

Best Actor - Kevin Spacey, Richard III
It goes without saying that it was Kevin Spacey who made the show in Sam Mendes's hugely accessible production, the concluding instalment of the transatlantic Bridge Project that has mesmerised audiences around the globe for the past three years. His Richard was arresting because it brought out the dark comedy behind this most reviled of Shakepearean villains, making him a figure you somehow root for in a twisted way even as you despise his actions. Spacey has always been a vibrant stage actor (see my review of Speed-the-Plow) but the sheer energy and physicality of this role - including being suspended like a slaughtered animal almost every day for months - was awe-inspiring.

Best Actress - Siti Khalijah, Gemuk Girls
I never expected much from Gemuk Girls before catching it and this revival of Haresh Sharma's blistering play about political detention in the Sixties blew me away. The Necessary Stage's simple black-box production emerged as the best Singaporean production I've caught this year. All three actors do a fantastic job but none more so than Siti Khalijah who marries youthful pragmatism, acerbic wit and fiery activism in her matchless portrayal of political aspirant Juliana. Siti made an effortless transition between three languages and was able to extract the best possible performance from every scene she was in, drawing out both laughter and pathos.

Best Ensemble - Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado was an absolute hoot from beginning to end. The entire ensemble cast pull their weight and come together to conjure up a lively world of laughter, boozing and games where there is a steady stream of action all around the circular set. Adam James's Don Pedro strikes the right note of avuncular jocularity, Tom Bateman and Sarah Macrae's Claudio and Hero are both amusing and tender as the perfect couple blown apart by a misunderstanding and John Ramm's superb constable Dogberry has the audience eating out of his hands with his swarthy, Rambo-esque bravado and comic malapropisms. A delightful team effort.

Best Script - Nick Dear, Frankenstein
We all know the horror story but Nick Dear's script was the first version I encountered that sought to humanize the Creature and chart his emotional growth rather than focusing on the scientific doings of Victor Frankenstein. There are beautiful, tender scenes where the Creature learns about language and nature and we realize that it is ultimately circumstance that results in him turning out the way he does: it is telling that when asked what he likes about Milton's Paradise Lost, he replies that he identifies less with Adam and more with Satan, the fallen angel. The plot is developed in a rich, evocative manner and even as Frankenstein and the Creature stand facing each other in the bitter wilderness, we realize that they are two sides of the same coin - men who just crave acceptance in the world.

Best Set - Mark Tildesley, Frankenstein
The 1100-seat, fan-shaped Olivier Theatre is a grand space to begin with and Danny Boyle's lavish production somehow made it even grander. All the stops are pulled out and Mark Tildesley's set conjures up effects such as rain, snow, revolving sets and steam engines bursting through the stage. Yes, it may have been too grand and awe-inspiring at times compared to the elegiac script but kudos is most certainly due for the sheer wow factor that dazzles us from the very beginning. 

Best Director & Best Overall Production - Josie Rourke, Much Ado About Nothing
I have decided to combine these two awards as the director's vision and approach to a play is ultimately what gives it its entire flavour. I've enjoyed a very mixed year of theatrical offerings and there have been quite a number of contenders for the top prize. Ultimately though, it was Josie Rourke's whimsical take on Much Ado that scored the winning hand for me. The sets were a veritable burst of Eighties kitsch, David Tennant and Catherine Tate turn in their best comic performances (the image of a paint-splattered Tennant and comically flapping Tate is not something I will forget anytime soon) and the attention to detail in all the scenes is superb. A wonderful production all round and certainly one of my most enjoyable Shakespeare experiences.


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