The decade’s best theatre

Trey Ratcliff, "Fourth on Lake Austin" 23 April 2007, via Flickr Creative Commons License
Quick, the future is coming!  It’s nearly 2010, which means that in a matter of days we may all be living in a futuristic dystopia in which the theatre we all know and love will be entirely replaced by monstrous mechanical beastsbloodthirsty zombie actors and Hollywood stars treading the boards.  Given the impending apocalypse, I’ve been giving some thought to which productions from the last decade I will take into the bunker with me (the door presumably guarded by John Simm) to preserve for future generations and which I will leave to fend and die in the mutant-filled wasteland of Shaftesbury Avenue.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of saying that this is my list, in no particular order, of the top theatre of the last decade:

The Histories, RSC, Stratford upon Avon, 2006-8
In terms of sheer scale and ambition, there are few endeavours that can match the RSC’s epic cycle.  Running through all eight of Shakespeare’s history plays* with a common cast, this unflinching endeavour covers 118 years of English History, took almost two years to perform and was seen by over a quarter of a million people.  It all culminated in one weekend in which all the plays were run through in chronological order over the course of four days in the lovely Courtyard Theatre in February 2008 – one of the most spectacular displays of acting and technical endurance one can imagine.

The Pillowman, National, London and tour, 2003-5
Just reading this play – a superbly dark, funny and thoughtful work about the nature of creativity and the importance of art – assures Martin McDonagh as one of the cleverest and funniest playwrights working in English today. Seeing the perfectly cast David Tennant, Jim Broadbend and Nigel Lindsay bring it to life confirmed it.

Festen, Almeida and West End Transfer, London, 2004
Meticulously directed and designed (particularly the dinner scene, memorable not least for its realistic eating, which is surprisingly difficult to get right on stage, I hear) production of this bizarre and chilling dogme film.  Jonny Lee Miller led in Islington and later Paul Nicholls (of Eastenders fame, ish) took over for the West End transfer.

August: Osage County, National, London, 2008
Dark, funny and wonderfully performed US transfer. It’s length (not one, but two intervals to endure at the Lyttelton bar)
should have counted against it, but its humour and enthralling depiction of a family falling apart kept the seats full right until the closing curtain.

Masque of the Red Death, BAC, London, 2007
Not everybody loved it (“it’s not theatre, it’s too dark, it’s daft, the masks don’t fit, there’s no plot, it’s boring, it’s stupid, I thought the estate agent next door was an internet cafe because I’ve never seen a Foxtons before”) but I suppose that was never the point. Punchdrunk, claimants to the throne of Britain’s most inventive theatre company, once again brought their own brand of site specific magic to the Battersea Arts Centre, transforming the Clapham Junction venue (yeah, not really Battersea is it) into a haunted house amusement fair for theatre and dance geeks. Everybody has their own version of the night to tell and if you couldn’t get tickets (which many couldn’t, despite it running for months) then you truly missed a unique event.

Hamlet, RSC, Statford and London transfer, 2008
It’s not easy to pick just one Hamlet for the decade. Trevor Nunn made headlines and a star of Ben Whishaw (just witness the length of the returns queue to see his Cock at the Royal Court**) when he cast a bunch of 20-somethings in 2004.  And Jude Law was pretty impressive at the Donmar.  But for me, David Tennant’s intensely physical Hamlet, Patrick Stewart’s wonderfully underplayed Claudius and Robert Jones’ lustrous set take the prize.

Dr Faustus, Young Vic, London, 2002
The Jude Law show took over the Young Vic back in 2002 for a production of this rather difficult play.  Director David Lan didn’t make things easier for himself by casting only seven people for a play which requires Faustus to confront seven deadly sins and nobody who could really pass themselves off as a convincing Helen of Troy for a play which has “was this the face that launched a thousand ships” as its most famous line.  His production in the round dealt with these minor issues (through Kate Flatt’s inventive choreography and the use of a mirror, respectively) and many more with aplomb and presented Jude Law as a superb dramatic actor, as well as a movie star.


This list is, needless to say, subjective and very much skewed towards London which is unfair given the really rather good work going on in the regions.  I’m not the only one to put together a similar list, and the others are listed below (if you have one, I’d be delighted to link to it – just drop me an email):

  • The Sunday Times reckons that The Norman Conquests was the third best theatrical event of the decade.  Other than that (and God of Carnage and Stovepipe), it’s a pretty solid list
  • The Village Voice – NY focused, unsurprisingly
  • The Guardian heart Punchdrunk, the National, the Globe and, for some reason, verbatim theatre

* Henry VIII doesn’t count because it’s rubbish and has loads of stage direction and isn’t consecutive with the rest of them and nobody really thinks Shakespeare wrote much of it. Mostly because it’s rubbish.

** Geddit?