Production: (clockwise, from top left) Kristin Scott Thomas, Leah Williams, Juliet Stevenson and Hattie Morahan in ‘The Changeling’
Paapa Esiedu as Hamlet, Kristin Scott Thomas and Leah Williams in ‘Old Times’, Juliet Stevenson in ‘Happy Days’ and Hattie Morahan in ‘The Shift’
Theatre is about reinterpretation. The revival is a “remake”. Why be decisive with something so tentative? Let’s be clear that what follows is not an attempt to list the “greatest plays of all time.” Instead, it’s a collection of rewarding pieces.
This list reflects the art that is performed, appreciated and studied in the UK; it is western. There are more men than women and more white writers than people of color, but limiting us to one work by each author—dead white person or not—should help broaden the scope. If you don’t find a performance, read the text.
Calderon’s play is a masterpiece of the golden age. Segismundo’s predicament recalls the Chinese sage’s account of the man who thinks he is a butterfly and wakes up to wonder if he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man. This boy has been locked away from infancy since the horoscope said he would usurp the throne. When he has concerns about the inheritance, his father drugs him, takes him to the palace and treats him like a prince. A dramatic poem that explores philosophical and political issues.
Breakthrough game. Elizabethan drama had many monologues. No one ever spoke like Hamlet. The best portraits make you feel soul to soul with that character. Hamlet’s contemplation disqualifies him as a hero for revenge; he is gloriously wrong. Hamlet masterfully explores his own theatricality. Hamlet tries to mislead the court by adopting an “ancient temper” that borders on madness. The piece is a meditation on the conflicting connotations of ‘action’ – pretending and interfering. Endless.
Sophie Treadwell’s mechanized, dehumanizing city combines feminism and expressionism. We feel the nerve-wracking force of modern life—characterized as “this purgatory of noise”—as Everywoman descends toward disaster. She is a stenographer whose mother blackmails her into marrying her boss, whom she later kills. Treadwell’s tedious dialogue foreshadows Harold Pinter and David Mamet. “I will not give in” is her rallying cry against institutionalized misogyny.
In Gogol’s famous phantasmagorical farce, a St. Petersburg clerk is mistaken for an inspector by the corrupt mayor and authorities. Paranoid villagers falsely identify a foreigner out of fear. That was a joke. Gogol’s twist is inspired. His penury is driven by fear of failure. When he realizes their mistake, he interprets their ridiculous praise (and bribes) as confirmation of his true worth and becomes grandiose. The intertwining craziness in this Russian masterpiece creates a comedic frenzy.
Caryl Churchill is away
Caryl Churchill has been called the modern Picasso. The British playwright continues to reinvent herself at 80. Far Away is a twisted tale that combines apocalyptic and supernatural elements. That’s three steep episodes. Joan, a young girl who cannot sleep, questions her aunt about what she saw. The older woman pulls like she’s witnessed ethnic cleansing. The drama develops into a darkly funny depiction of a space battle through strange leaps. Animals and minerals are now victims of partisan violence. Someone says, “The cats have joined the French.” “You can feel the inherent sweetness of deer in their lovely brown eyes,” says another. This extended sequence is typical of Churchill, who uses absurdism to expose the destructive illusion that virtue and evil, “them” and “us,” are simple opposites. Brilliant.
Sarah Kane is cursed
This play blew up. Sarah Kane’s debut features a cruel tabloid journalist who sexually exploits a much younger woman. A soldier enters the play, bombs explode, and brief scenes of grim horror ensue (stage instructions include “he eats the baby”). According to reviewers, Blasted was a devilish attempt to shock and a typical example of theater in the face of the nineties. It’s canon now. Kane’s prose has a terrific vividness, and the tragedies he depicts have a new meaning for every generation.
Sophocles’ play is the best for the dilemma between state and family duties. Antigone defies her uncle Creon by burying Polyneices. Creon wants his corpse left to the dogs as an exemplary desecration in these politically sensitive times. Hegel understood this as a battle between right and right, not good and evil. Antigone’s self-sacrificing implacability is preferred in modern presentations. Northern Ireland and South Africa have adapted the play.
August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
This 1927 play is part of the playwright’s cycle exploring the African-American experience in 20th-century America. “The Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey is with the gang killing time sparring. The script is light but scathing about ambition and race. Ma Rainey has a huge, contemptuous presence when she enters. The ending twist and superb music add to the charm of the game.
Sherman’s game is terrifying. Max and Rudy are a decadent gay couple in Berlin in 1934, but they run away after the Night of the Long Knives and are transported to Dachau. Max’s quest to survive causes a terrifying betrayal. He pretends to be Jewish instead of gay, but in the camp he meets Horst, who teaches him the value of being himself. They have word sex in an amazing scene. Richard Gere and Alan Cummings also star as Max in this iconic LGBT text that reveals that truth and love can blossom in dire, hopeless situations.
Nikolai Gogol State Inspector
In Gogol’s famous phantasmagoric farce, a St. Petersburg official is mistaken for an undercover inspector by the corrupt mayor and officials. Paranoid locals project a false identity on a stranger to avoid detection. That was a joke. Gogol’s twist is inspired. His penniless nothingness stems from fear of becoming a loser. When he realizes their mistake, he interprets their ridiculous praise (and bribes) as confirmation of his true worth and becomes grandiose. The intertwining craziness in this Russian masterpiece creates a comedic frenzy.
Harold Pinter’s Old Times
An eerie and disturbing composition by Pinter. Kate and Deeley play power and possession games with Kate’s former roommate Anna, who visits them after 20 years. The play is terribly focused on using selective—and possibly fabricated—memories as a weapon or advantage. “I remember things that maybe never happened,” he said. Anna’s young relationship with Deeley’s wife both threatens and attracts him. The awkward comedy of the girls who live as secretaries and borrow panties is fatal.
Marilouise Fleisser, Purgatory in Ingolstadt (1924/28).
Bertolt Brecht’s lover, protégé and sufferer wrote these forgotten plays about her hometown. She had keen insights into urban pack mentality and conformist claustrophobia. In Purgatory, she recalls the suffocating Catholic spirit: two rebels (one girl vainly seeking an abortion) must crawl back to the pack. Brecht stole her play The Pioneers (about the contact between the residents and the visiting band of bridge builders). Fleisser was a traitor to German womanhood because of his anti-militarism and sexual sensationalism. Stephen Daldry and Annie Castledine staged these plays at the Gate Theater in 1991. When? Fleißer deserves recognition.