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2 January 2019

The best of 2019 on the stage

From endless Arthur Miller to the National’s sell-out Cate Blanchett vehicle, the forthcoming year in theatre.

By Helen Lewis

How do you like your Arthur Miller? Whatever the answer, 2019 has a production for you. Perhaps it’s the Trump effect: in London, the neuroses, pathologies and myths of America will be unavoidable this year. Kicking off is David Suchet’s turn in The Price at the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, a transfer from Theatre Royal Bath (opening night: 11 February). Then the well-regarded US director Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown) takes The American Clock to the Old Vic (5 February). Two months later, the same venue is producing a starry version of All My Sons, with US actors Sally Field and Bill Pullman, plus Victoria’s Jenna Coleman and Merlin’s Colin Morgan.

In May, Marianne Elliott (Company, Angels in America) directs an all-black cast in Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. It features Wendell Pierce – Bunk from The Wire – and Sharon Clarke, currently shining in the lead role in Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, plus emerging star Arinzé Kene, whose one-man show Misty was a such a hit at the Bush Theatre that he became only the second black British playwright to have a show on in the West End.

The man who beat him there is Kwame Kwei-Armah, now the artistic director of the Young Vic. He is clearly a big fan of The Wire, because his first season also features a collaboration with Idris Elba, who played the drama’s erudite drug lord Stringer Bell. It’s a music-led piece called Tree based around Elba’s album Mi Mandela.

The changing face of London theatre will be obvious, after last year’s rash of artistic director vacancies. Lynette Linton heads to the Bush after directing an all women-of-colour version of Richard II at the Globe in February. Roxana Silbert takes over at the Hampstead Theatre in late 2019, after directing a play based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns at her current home, the Birmingham Rep, in May.

At Actors Touring Company, Matthew Xia replaces Ramin Gray, who left under a cloud (and whose exit prompted the resignations of three of the board). In March, Xia directs Athol Fugard’s 1961 play Blood Knot, set in apartheid South Africa, at the teeny Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.

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Elsewhere, Lotte Wakeham joins the Bolton Octagon after eight years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Suba Das, currently at the Curve in Leicester, moves to HighTide in East Anglia. (The 2018 artistic director transfer market gave luvvies a small taste of the excitement of following football.) One of the few white men to get a big promotion last year was Michael Longhurst, the new artistic director of the pint-sized Donmar, but before he takes over there he’s putting on The Son by Florian Zeller at the Kiln. And yes, there will probably still be protesters outside, furious that it’s no longer called the Tricycle. No one else can understand that made them so angry.

Talking of men, here’s a fun fact: 2019 marks the first time that ex-National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, now at the Bridge, will direct a play by a living person without a Y chromosome. In March, he’s overseeing Alys, Always by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel about journalism and privilege by Harriet Lane.

The Bridge is undoubtedly a gorgeous venue, with great sight-lines, but it has struggled to find its feet since opening in 2017. Its plays have been dismissed as half-cooked (Alan Bennett’s Allelujah!) or fully bonkers (Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter) and it badly needs a hit. The fact that Laura Linney is returning for another go at the well-reviewed but pedestrian monologue My Name is Lucy Barton tells its own story, as does the fact that the National Theatre is also relying on some old favourites to shift tickets: Follies is repeating at the Olivier in 2019, as War Horse and Amadeus did before it. The vast auditorium is one of the most challenging stages in London, and musicals seem to be the most reliable way of filling it. 

The highlight of the rest of the National’s season is When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, starring Cate Blanchett and directed by Katie Mitchell, but if you haven’t already triumphed in the ticket ballot, bad luck. For reasons beyond understanding, it’s playing in the National’s smallest theatre, the Dorfman.

Some other highlights: Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, at the Almeida, promises to be as weird as her two previous plays there, Mr Burns and The Twilight Zone (the latter is heading to the West End this year). It’s about the US president, but expect aliens, time travel or opera at minimum. Ivo van Hove continues his reign as the Amol Rajan of theatre (he’s everywhere). Take your pick between Gillian Anderson and Lily James in All About Eve in the West End from February, or the more experimental The Damned at the Barbican in June. (He ends the year with a newly choreographed version of West Side Story on Broadway, to wind down.)

Also at the Barbican is Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Shirtlessness is surely a given as Tom Hiddleston wraps up the Pinter season with Betrayal. Malorie Blackman’s beloved YA novel, Noughts and Crosses, travels to Derby, Salford and elsewhere in an adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz. Jack Thorne is writing about politics in 1997 (sigh) with The End of History at the Royal Court in July. Plus, not one but two productions of Three Sisters: Patsy Ferran and director Rebecca Frecknall reunite in April after their five-star Summer and Smoke, then poet Inua Ellams transports Chekhov to 1960s Nigeria at the National in the autumn. 

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This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions