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Year round-up Best of 2018: Performance

THE NATIONAL Theatre production of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy, directed by Sam Mendes, was remarkable.

It traces the development of US capitalism through the fortunes of the emigre German-Jewish Lehman brothers, whose mid-19th century enterprise in cotton trading evolved over the next century and a half from a family business, mutually beneficial to farmers and traders, into the ruthless banking empire which collapsed in 2008, throwing the world into financial crisis.

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley are superb. Portraying a gallery of characters, they give the play an intimacy that complements the national and international corporate power-play at the heart of current global chaos. It'll run in the West End from May onwards.

Still running at the RSC Stratford-upon-Avon Swan Theatre, Iqbal Khan’s sparkling production of Tartuffe translates the play from 17th century Paris to Birmingham’s present-day Muslim community.

An almost entirely Asian cast carry this remarkable piece of theatrical alchemy, which remains true to Moliere’s comic genius while engaging acutely with a contemporary scene as weighted with religious sensibilities and tensions as they were in  Louis XIV’s France.    

In the company’s newly refurbished Other Place, an updated revival of David Edgar’s 1985 Maydays charted the journey of many from far left to far right after the defeated hopes raised by 1968. In tandem with Edgar’s autobiography Trying it On, the play provided vivid memories for an older generation and lessons for present-day youth engaged in new battles.

Lev Dodin’s St Petersburg Maly Theatre  brought a stunning dramatisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate to the Haymarket Theatre in London. Just as in the novel, the production moves with flexible ease from the Stalingrad domestic scenes to the battlefront of the Soviet struggle for survival.

Dodin devised the production with his actors, resulting in a total commitment which conveys depths of hope and despair beyond the merely theatrical.

Grossman’s novel is seen as a 20th century War and Peace and mention must be made of the Welsh National Opera’s adventurous production of Prokofiev’s momentous and rarely performed opera of Lev Tolstoy’s great classic.

Director David Pountney’s swansong for the company marshalled all its strengths, while projected scenes from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 film convey a sense of the power underlying the music. Like Dodin, Pountney makes history speak to the present.

Wise Children at The Old Vic in London, now touring, is joyfully full of director Emma Rice’s characteristic inventiveness that theatregoers have come to know from her years with her Kneehigh company.  

It abounds with colour and vitality and with plenty of Shakespearean quotes for the knowing and lots of pantomime and music-hall moments for the groundlings, her treatment of Angela Carter’s novel has been rightly described as a love letter to theatre. There’s plenty of food for thought in it, too.

Another adaptation of a classic, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is also touring. The quirkily named Imitating the Dog Company creates a vivid kaleidoscopic collage-theatre experience to marry Conrad’s dark tale of the rape of the Congo by Belgian’s Leopold II, part of the colonial powers’ dash to divide up the continent, with the current global capitalist exploitation endangering our world.

Coupling extensive video images with live performance, this graphic production engages with racism and sexism and trans-casting, interspersing discussions among the cast on why and how they are attempting to interpret Conrad’s seminal text for a modern audience — an example of how the best theatre, in many different ways, always holds a mirror up to the world we inhabit.


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