The drama of 2017

Written for Everything Theatre

There are a lot of adjectives we could possibly use to describe the year 2017, but one that surely no one would argue is ‘turbulent’. And as one of theatre’s functions (at least, according to Shakespeare) remains to ‘hold up a mirror to nature’, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this was reflected on the London stages. Indeed, our theatres have been the scene of plenty of, ahem, drama this year, both on stage and off. Join us for a quick recap of the ups and downs.

The year started off on a low for The Print Room, who made national news in early January with the announcement of an all-white cast for their production of Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love, which is set in ancient China. Matters were certainly not helped when their press release went on to claim that casting white actors was acceptable in these circumstances, as Barker’s piece ‘is in fact a very “English” play’.

February saw the St James Theatre reopen its doors as The Other Palace, a theatre now dedicated to showcasing new and reimagined musical theatre shows. It was a bold move by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group in a period when the West End is dominated by jukebox musicals and revivals. Whether the gamble will pay off is yet to be seen, but after a fairly sluggish start things seem to be moving in the right direction.

In April, after 187 years in business, theatre bookshop/local institution Samuel French was forced to close its doors due to the rising rent prices. With the vast majority of book sales now taking place online, keeping the shop open proved to simply be too expensive. The publishing and licencing arms of the company are still in operation, but the closure of the shop is undeniably both a sign of the times and a loss for London theatre fans.

That same month, theatregoing London collectively lost its mind over the opening of Jez Butterworth’s first play in five years. The Ferryman did brisk business at the Royal Court before transferring to the West End. After the hit that was Jerusalem, everyone was keen to be impressed and the reviews could not have been better, with Metro calling it ‘easily the best play of the year’.

In July, the artistic team of the Tea House Theatre managed to anger young theatre professionals across the country by addressing an ad on Artsjobs to ‘Dear Millenials’. The listing, which questions readers’ ability to exist ‘in the real world, where every penny counts’ was met with a backlash, not in the least because of the low pay the job was advertised at.

Later that month, the Globe finally put an end to many months of speculation by announcing that Michelle Terry is to take the reins after Emma Rice leaves the theatre in April 2018. Terry’s appointment was met with enthusiasm across the board, although more than a few theatre critics also pointed out that she is by no means a safe bet.

September saw another exciting appointment as Kwame Kwei-Armah was announced as the new Artistic Director of the Young Vic. Given his track record, this will almost certainly mean less focus on European theatre, which was the main fare for the 18 years that David Lan was in charge. Kwei-Armah has also been an outspoken critic of the lack of diversity in British theatre, so we’ll probably see some major strides in that area being made by the Young Vic after he takes over in January 2018.

Critics and members of the public alike also debated the pros and cons of ticketing ballots, in this month which saw highly oversubscribed ballots for Punchdrunk’s new show Kabeiroi (only available to 800 people for its entire run) and RADA’s fundraiser Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Tom Hiddleston as the Danish prince. As no exception was made for theatre critics, the theatregoing public was suddenly very much reliant on the reviews of the lucky bastards who managed to score a golden ticket.

In late October, Buzzfeed news published an interview with Anthony Rapp in which the actor accused Kevin Spacey of making sexual advances towards him when he was 14. This would set off a chain of accusations, first against Spacey, followed by other big names including Out of Joint Artist Director Max Stafford-Clark. An enquiry was launched at the Old Vic, where Spacey served as AD for eleven years, while London theatre professionals came together to launch an industrywide code of conduct.

This month also saw the opening of the Bridge Theatre, the new venture by ex-National Theatre exec team Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr. Reviews for their opening show, Young Marx, were generally positive, and with a season full of big names lined up, we have high hopes for this new addition to the theatre scene.

In November, Purni Morell announced that she is leaving her position as Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre after six years. The first woman of colour to lead one of the Arts Council’s top funded venues, Morell leaves a legacy of creating and championing challenging theatre for young people. The search for the theatre’s new AD is ongoing.

Fortunately, we are finishing the year on a high note, with the much-anticipated opening of Hamilton in the West End. More news on that… probably next year!