I doubt many will have noticed but I’ve been mostly AWOL online since September 2016. This time last year I’d just finished my MA – a time of spectacular highs and terrible lows which ended in several nasty anxiety attacks on dissertation deadline day. To cut a very long story short, I didn’t actually fail my degree and now, after something of an annus horribilis working in retail and feeling very isolated living outside London for the first time in four years, I’m back doing what I love having secured full funding for my PhD research.
Sitting in my first induction session of the term, pencilling exciting things into my 2017/18 diary, I found myself thinking about 2016/17. It was my first academic year outside of the education system since 1999 and something of a culture shock. It wasn’t the endless, soul-crushing job application process that got me down so much as no longer having a satisfying answer to the question “so, what do you do?”
But 2016 was famously the year of “just realising stuff” and one of my most important realisations was just how far I’ve changed paths since I set off for London to spend hours close-reading poetry and devouring literary history. If I had studied anywhere else I would probably have ended up specialising in fascinating, bookish topics like “the Victorian Gothic” or “women in early modern drama”. Spending four years in the capital, however, opened my eyes to the wonders of the stage and now here I am about to embark on a huge theatre research project exploring Shakespeare and Global Festival Cultures.
I started this blog as a way to record all the great shows I was seeing but have rather abandoned it recently, all too often finding it hard to dredge up the motivation to put fingers to keyboard. But now, in the name of getting in to better writing habits, I am planning to jot down something (anything, even if it’s just a few lines) about every show I see – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And so, to begin, here’s 2016/17: my year in review. Going through my diary I found a lot of things I’d forgotten. While October, November and December were mostly spent ceaselessly drafting and redrafting various applications, in January there was Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre, which left me (already quite broken by all that drafting) really broken. In February there was a terrible production of The Cherry Orchard at the Arcola, which we escaped at the interval in favour of strong G&T’s in the bar. In March I caught Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale at my local theatre, the Mercury, which was a timely reminder that I wasn’t actually living in cultural exile and my hometown does, in fact, have a lot to offer. Several more trips to London followed, all Shakespeare-themed, for Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s spectacular, 6-hour Roman Tragedies at the Barbican, Dickie Beau’s brilliant mix-tape Hamlet Re-Member Me, and Rob Icke’s Hamlet at the Almeida (which I actually didn’t love as much as everyone else did).
April brought a change in season and fortunes (this was the month I discovered that I’d won my funding). But some things never change, and of course I saw more Shakespeare, including the National’s Twelfth Night which was as aesthetically pleasing as an Oliver Bonas catalogue but not nearly as groundbreaking as it tried to be, and Joe Hill Gibbins’ muddy and miserable Midsummer, which I was lucky enough to catch on its final night. I also saw an east-Asian reclamation of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (which I’m ashamed to say I fell asleep in, exhausted by a day of being shouted at by angry customers for things that really weren’t my fault) and a screening of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead live from the Old Vic – these screenings really are a lifeline for those of us out here in the sticks. April also brought two more pilgrimages to the Barbican, one for a second look at that excellent Winter’s Tale and the other for a bizarre van Hove flop, Obsession, which featured an underwhelming Jude Law, some gratuitous female nudity, and the loudest treadmill ever used onstage to simulate running on the spot…
In May, another unbearable show without an interval to escape in: Yaël Farber’s Salomé at the National. The most interesting thing about it was Salomé’s obvious, awful merkin. The Mercury Theatre provided a fun family night out with Spamalot! and I travelled to York for a few days of exploring during the city’s second International Shakespeare Festival. In June I spoke about various Hamlets at my first academic conference and, while in Stratford-upon-Avon, caught shows in all three of the RSC’s theatres: another befuddling Salomé, an exhaustingly outdated Antony & Cleopatra (which resulted in another interval escape mission to the pub), and some new writing at The Other Place – two really interesting productions, even if a show about oil spills looks a little hypocritical coming from a theatre heavily sponsored by BP. Back in Essex I caught a wonderful little homegrown, Made in Colchester production of David Grieg’s The Events before another two-show day in London – and two of my favourites of the year – the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet (whose aesthetic can be best summed up by Shea Coulée from season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race lip-syncing a sexy, sassy rap wearing an orange neon wig and brandishing a baseball bat) and Alice Birch’s really clever Anatomy of a Suicide, directed at the Royal Court by the inimitable Katie Mitchell.
July started with an epic Angels in America two-show day and a screening of the new Hamlet opera from Glyndebourne and finished with a production of As You Like It in a forest (which is, to be honest, exactly how I like it). August brought with it the end of the summer, another trip to Stratford for the RSC’s Titus, a lovely, simple Romeo and Juliet in one of Cambridge’s private college gardens as part of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, and a guilty-pleasure trip to The Phantom of the Opera in the West End.
And so to September – a new academic year and a time for looking back as well as forward. Perhaps that’s why the National’s gorgeous production of Sondheim’s Follies, shot through with the bittersweetness of nostalgia and the bitterness of regret, really hit me in the heart (and the tearducts). Here’s to 2017/18, to more adventures, and, above all, to more theatre.