My landmark productions for the year must start with Tom Morton Smith’s Oppenheimer, the tragedy of the scientific genius who as the “father of the atom bomb” realised that “now I am become death” and changed our world. Angus Jackson’s innovative production in Stratford’s Swan Theatre had all the power of the RSC’s house dramatist’s great tragedies, with John Hefferman’s memorably tortured portrayal of a man, trapped in the cross-currents of history, who’s driven to create his own Frankenstein monster.
Death of a Salesman, the company’s commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Arthur Miller, was as starkly relevant today as in its 1949 opening. Its message — “the only thing you’ve got in the world is what you can sell”— captures the essence of a system which at the same time deludes and destroys its universal victims. At the centre of Gregory Doran’s painful and superb production was a towering performance from Antony Sher as Willy Loman, a gravelly voiced walrus hiding from his fears and recognition of business and family failure behind a carapace of words.
Equally powerful in its exposé of a dehumanising world was the London Old Vic’s bold revival of a 1922 work by another master of US drama, The Hairy Ape. Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist portrayal of the alienation of modern man trapped in the industrial machine of modern capitalism left the audience exhausted but strangely elated by Bertie Carvel’s explosive Yank, whose pride in his own brutal energy as the dominant stoker on a cruise liner blinds him from understanding his role as no more than a disposable cog in that machine. Credit for this production of O’Neill’s “comedy of ancient and modern life” was shared by director Richard Jones and his choreographer, Alette Collins.
From Complicite Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival came Simon McBurney’s amazing The Encounter. In his one-man theatre treatment of an epic journey into the unknown, the audience was taken into a polyphonic world of shifting reality in which McBurney recounted and performed the experiences of the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre.
In 1969 he found himself lost in the Amazon with a primitive tribe seeking the “beginning,” which he realises is death. As he finds an uncanny ability to communicate subliminally with the headman the audience — equipped with multiple-messaging headphones — were led to question many of the basic individualistic assumptions of Western culture.
Immediately before the disastrous general election, Bristol Old Vic’s well-worked revival of David Hare’s The Absence of War, based on Neil Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat, captured all the wheelings and dealings within a Labour Party machine struggling to present a plausible alternative to the Tories while futilely trying to manage the ubiquitous right-wing media. At least Jeremy Corbyn offers more hope than Hare’s despondent leader, whose answer to defeat is “Let’s all join the Tory Party. And then let’s all fuck it up.”
Trevor Nunn’s updating of Ben Jonson’s Jacobean comedy Volpone at the RSC’s Swan Theatre featured Henry Goodman’s tour-de-force portrayal of the dying magnifico, gulling his avaricious neighbours into believing themselves his lone beneficiary.
Master of disguise, he easily transforms into an opera-singing snake-oil salesman in order to seduce the wife of one of his willing victims. Nunn uses Ranjit Bolt’s free-wheeling adaptation of the script to go for the jugular in a production which left the audience with uncomfortable recognition of our present day, even while they laughed.
Finally, Welsh National Opera’s delightful production of Stephen Sondheim’s opera-cum-musical Sweeney Todd again revealed how theatre can make us think about our state of affairs. None more so than when the demon barber preparing the fillings for those tasty pies poses the question: “It’s man devouring man out there. So who are we to deny it in here?”
This article first appeared in the Morning Star.