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Ten of the Best New Plays of 2013

Martin Bowley gives us his annual report on the best new plays he saw in London in 2013:

If 2012 was notable for the number and variety of its Shakespeare productions (I saw no less than 25), 2013 (when I saw only 15) was remarkable for the quality of its leading Shakespeare performances. They included Mark Rylance’s wonderfully funny Olivia (for which he ought to have won the Olivier Best Actress award, so long as Harriet Walter won the Best Actor prize for her Brutus at the Donmar), James McAvoy’s very youthful and very bloody Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios, and Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in the finest “Othello” for very many years. Of course there was also the Old Vic’s geriatric “Much Ado About Nothing” which was quite the worst professional Shakespeare I think I have ever seen. But at the end of the year within 5 days I was fortunate enough to see David Tennant as Richard II at the Barbican, Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar and Jude Law as Henry V, ending the Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward.

Possibly because of the reduced Shakespeare list, or the closure of the Cottesloe, or even 22 days of international cricket (the less said about Melbourne and Sydney the better) I only managed a total of 132 productions during the year. 67 of these were new plays, and partly I suspect a result of the change of helm at the Royal Court, my “10 of the best” list comes from a rather wider range of theatres than in previous years. As always I have listed them strictly in the order in which I saw them.

1. “UNTOLD STORIES” by ALAN BENNETT – 3m 3f and 8 musicians – These two short pieces were originally staged individually on Sunday afternoons in the Cottesloe before transferring together to the Duchess in April. Entitled “Hymn” and “Cocktail Sticks” they allow Bennett to explore his relationships with his father and mother with all his warmth and wit and wisdom. They also allowed Alex Jennings to give a delightfully accurate portrait of the author. They are published by Faber and Faber.

2. “MY PERFECT MIND” by KATHRYN HUNTER, PAUL HUNTER and EDWARD PETHERBRIDGE – 2m – In 2007 Edward Petherbridge flew to New Zealand to rehearse and perform King Lear. Within a couple of days he had suffered a massive stroke which left him partially paralysed but still able to remember every line of Lear. Petherbridge played himself “with a wonderfully distracted air that pricked actorly vanity – and occasional insanity – to deliver a masterclass in human resilience”. It played at the Young Vic in April.

3. “CHIMERICA” by LUCY KIRKWOOD (author of “NSFW”) – 10m 7f – The play follows the attempt by an American photo-journalist, who had snapped the anonymous Tank Man in Tiananmen Square in 1989, to discover what had happened to him since then. In the process it explores the developing and changing relationships between China and America, between East and West. Brilliantly designed by Es Devlin with a revolving cube which provided over 40 different locations, it opened at the Almeida in May before transferring to the Harold Pinter for a sell-out run in August. It has already won a clutch of best new play awards, and is published by Nick Hern Books.

4. “DISGRACED” by AYAD AKHTAR – 3m 2f – won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was first produced in Chicago in January 2012, transferred to the Lincoln Center in New York, and opened at the Bush in May. A play about ambition culture and faith, it concerns a corporate lawyer in New York about to land the biggest career promotion of his life. It revolves around a dinner party between four liberal Americans, with different racial identities, who discuss the Koran, terrorism and tolerance, cultural stereotypes, American paranoia and the global influence of Islam. It is published by Bloomsbury.

5. “IF ONLY” – by DAVID EDGAR – 2m 2f – Through two acts – the first set in April 2010, the second in August 2014, – Edgar explores the politics of modern coalitions. The first sees three young politicos – a Labour special adviser, a Lib Dem staffer and a Tory candidate – coming home for the general election campaign and debating the possibility of a hung parliament. In the second UKIP is rising and the Prime Minister is trying to appease his right wing with a range of policies on Human Rights, immigration, law and order and welfare. It opened in the Minerva at Chichester in June and is published by Nick Hern Books.

6. “A SEASON IN THE CONGO” by AIME CESAIRE – 9m 6f – all African – Written as long ago as 1966 this Young Vic production in July was the English language premiere. Cesaire, using music song dance and puppetry, explores the development of the Congo (later Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) into independence, – after decades of disastrous and disgraceful Belgian colonisation. After the brief leadership of Patrice Lumumba (a truly great performance by Chiwetal Ejiofor) its first elected prime minister who was assassinated in February 1961 after less than a year in office, it charts the decline into violence and civil war which followed.

7. “HANDBAGGED” by MOIRA BUFFINI – 2m 4f – The cast list includes Q, T, Liz and Mags! The play examines with great wit the relationship between the monarch and her most powerful subject – one believed there was no such thing as society, the other had vowed to serve it. The two male actors are required to play a range of parts from Enoch Powell, Neil Kinnock and Kenneth Clarke to Dennis Thatcher, Arthur Scargill and Rupert Murdoch by way of Prince Phillip, Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe and both the Reagans! It is an infinitely better and more revealing piece than Peter Morgan’s The Audience. It opened at the Tricycle in October and is published by Faber and Faber. It transferred to the Vaudeville in April.

8. “THE DJINNS OF EIDJAH” by ABBISHEK MAJUMDAR – 6m 3f – all Indian. The play explores the political and religious tensions which have bedevilled Kashmir ever since the sub-continent was partitioned. At its heart is the story of a young Muslim brother and sister, the one a talented footballer who dreams of international fame, the other who had been traumatised and emotionally arrested by the violent death of their father. The author “interweaves true stories and testaments with Islamic storytelling” and “paints a magical portrait of a generation of radicalised children and a beautiful landscape lost to conflict”. It opened at the Royal Court Upstairs in October, and is published by Oberon Modern Plays.

9. “JUMPERS FOR GOALPOSTS” by TOM WELLS (whose second play The Kitchen Sink was in my 2011 list) – 4m If – Barely Athletic is a five a side football team who play in the Hull gay and lesbian league. The other sides include Lesbian Rovers, Man City and Tranny United. Wells has a real gift for both character and dialogue -especially very funny one liners. My favourite this time was from the “token straight” after a rare win against the Trannies – “I was expecting skirts. I wasn’t expecting heels!” It opened at Watford in April and after a national tour came into the Bush for Christmas. It is published by Nick Hern Books.

10. “DRAWING THE LINE” by HOWARD BRENTON (it’s been very good to see Brenton emerging as a major writer of history plays in recent years. His Anne Boleyn was in my 2011 list and his 55 Days about Charles I and Cromwell was in last year’s list) – 13m 4f – Brenton tells the story of Cyril Ratcliffe’s efforts to redraw the map of India in five weeks before independence in 1947. The cast list includes Clement Attlee, Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wife Edwina, Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi. One of the best lines has Jinnah saying “The British will always favour the Hindus. They think their religion is pretty. But the British see Islam as frightening.” It opened at Hampstead in December and is published by Nick Hern Books.

As always there were a number of others which only just missed the final list. They include Paper Dolls at the Tricycle, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at Hampstead, Blue Stockings at the Globe and The Herd at the Bush. And at the time of writing – early February – the Royal Court’s The Pass is already a serious contender for the 2014 list!