Thursday 23 December 2021

Review of 2021: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions

At the time of writing these words, the prospects for live theatre again look precarious, with around half of West End shows cancelled or postponed, and more troubled times for an already beleaguered industry apparently in store. In this climate I'm grateful to have had the chance to see the amount of theatre that I have this year, in England and Poland; the 10 productions below are the ones that have stayed with me the most. 

The Normal Heart (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

The Normal Heart (National Theatre, London) 

Ryan Murphy's 2014 HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer's 1985 classic was so obvious, glossy and overwrought that it put me off the play. Dominic Cooke's bracingly direct, uncluttered National Theatre production made it look like a different work entirely. Robust, sensitive, infused with renewed urgency, and with a couple of heart-grabbing music cues (The Wailin' Jennys covering Dolly Parton plus Brian Kennedy's "Christopher Street" as exit music), the production was anchored by an exceptional ensemble including the mighty Liz Carr and Danny Lee Wynter, and crowned by an(other) extraordinary performance from Ben Daniels as Ned Weeks that dug deeply into the character's anger, obstinacy, pride, love and grief. 

Under Milk Wood (Photograph: Johan Persson)

Under Milk Wood (National Theatre, London) 

The care home setting added so much that was fresh and poignant to Lindsey Turner's beautiful, loving production as  the relationships, dreams and daily doings of the inhabitants of Llareggub became a tale told by a son to make contact with his Alzheimer's-afflicted Dad (the perfect pairing of Michael Sheen and Karl Johnson).

Śmierć na gruszy (Photograph: Agnieszka Cytacka Fotografia)

Śmierć na gruszy  (Death on a Pear Tree) (Teatr CHOREA, Łódź)

Now in its 10th edition, the international theatre festival Retroperspektywy, programmed and hosted by Teatr CHOREA at their HQ of Art_Inkubator, remains a vibrant highlight of summertime in Łódź. While several productions from the festival make it on to this year's list, no show went further in combining the dark, the comic and the absurdist than the premiere of Śmierć na gruszy  (Death on a Pear Tree). Adapted in the most radical fashion by CHOREA and director Łukasz Kos from Witold Wandurski's 1925 satire on militarism and capitalism, the result was a gleefully excessive extravaganza from its opening relay onwards. Kos's production rendered even the interval a riot,  while the second half became a full-on phantasmogoria replete with severed limbs and buckets of blood in its allusions to 20th century conflicts. Both horrifying and hilarious, this was by far the wildest ride I had in a theatre in 2021. 

Powinniśmy być… (Photograph: HaWa)

Powinniśmy być…Impresja na kilka czasowników (We Should Be...Impression on a Few Verbs)  (Teatr CHOREA, Łódź)

Directed and choreographed by Wiktor Moraczewski and Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, this dynamic one hour two-hander combining text, movement and dance seemed a deeply personal project for its talented young performers, Anastazja Bakhtyukova and Michał Rudkowski, suggesting both a portrait of a relationship and an internal dialogue with a divided self. Indelible moments of separation and symbiosis were created, as Tomasz Krukowski's lighting bathed the stage in a rich range of hues, the mood shifting from the playful to the combative to the tender. 

The Cherry Orchard (Photo: Jack Merriman)

The Cherry Orchard (Theatre Royal Windsor)

The (mostly) glowing reviews for Ian McKellen's Hamlet reflected more the current goodwill towards the actor than the merits of the endeavour, since, novelty value aside, neither production nor performance was very good. (The standout was Frances Barber's Polonius, all the more remarkable since Barber was a last-minute replacement for a browned off Steven Berkoff.) Far more accomplished was the follow-up production in Sean Mathias season. Partially cross-cast with Hamlet, this was a beautiful and insightful Cherry Orchard headed by Francesca Annis' magnificent Ranevskaya - and with the bonus of on-stage seating that made the experience an unforgettably intimate one. 

Księżniczki (Photograph: Agnieszka Cytacka Fotografia)

Księżniczki (Princesses (Teatr CHOREA, Łódź)

Uniting The Little Mermaid, Cinderella and Snow White, Julia Jakubowska's show offered a truly delicious mash-up of fairy tale figures, deconstructing archetypes in a manner at once witty, loving and provocative - and with a captivating trio of performers in Anna Maszewska, Katarzyna Gorczyca and Małgorzata Lipczyńska. 

Rockets and Blue Lights

 (Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

 Rockets and Blue Lights (National Theatre, London) 

Turner's legacy, slavery, art, historical representation... Winsome Pinnock's play came stuffed with big themes, and sometimes looked set to sink under their weight. But Miranda Cromwell's atmospheric staging transcended the flaws as it placed past and present in dialogue with elegant expressiveness. 

Schulz: Pętla (Photograph: Agnieszka Cytacka Fotografia)

Schulz: Pętla (Schulz: The Loop (Teatr CHOREA, Łódź)

Expanded from last year's intense and distilled performance Schulz: Skrawki (Schulz: Scraps)  director Konrad Dworakowski's production returned to several motifs from the earlier show but emphasised the power dynamics at the heart of the Bruno Schulz material; the sexy, surreal and unsettling ambience gradually moved into more obviously political terrain.  

JA JESTEM PAMIĘCIĄ (Photograph: Agnieszka Cytacka Fotografia)


Wojciech Faruga's JA JESTEM PAMIĘCIĄ (I AM MEMORY) evoked the culture and history of the Lemkos - the Carpathian highlanders who lived in the Beskid Niski mountain area for four centuries, until a 1947 decree was issued to resettle them- in a way that was both expressionistic and attuned to lived, daily detail, giving the piece the haunting quality of a requiem. 

Twelfth Night (Photograph Krzysztof Bielinski) 

Wieczór Trzech Króli albo Co chcecie (Twelfth Night) (Teatr Narodowy, Warsaw )

Twelfth Night as opera buffa: the musical elements added to Piotr Cieplak's fragrant new production gave some pleasing fresh textures to the most lyrical of Shakespeare's comedies. 

Saturday 11 December 2021

Review of 2021: Cinema - 10 Favourite Films (+ Extras)

All the individual Top 10 Films of the Year lists by Sight and Sound contributors can be read here. My list as submitted is below... along with a few honourable mentions and extra categories. 

 1. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)

2. Annette (dir. Leos Carax)

3. Leave No Traces (Żeby nie było śladów) (dir. Jan P. Matuszyński)

4. The Souvenir: Part II (dir. Joanna Hogg)

5. The Tragedy of Macbeth (dir. Joel Coen)

6. Mosquito State (dir. Filip Jan Rymsza)

7. The Lost Daughter (dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal)

8. Never Gonna Snow Again (Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie(dir. Małgorzata Szumowska)

9. Everyone Has a Summer (Każdy ma swoje lato) (dir. Tomasz Jurkiewicz)

10. My Wonderful Life (Moje wspaniałe życie) (dir. Łukasz Grzegorzek)

Honourable Mentions (or seen after submitting the Top 10):

Nowhere Special (dir. Uberto Pasolini)

Hyacinth (dir. Piotr Domalewski)

Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall)

Ammonite (dir. Francis Lee)

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (dir. Celeste Bell, Paul Sng)

Drive My Car (dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)


90th Birthday interview with Claire Bloom at BFI

Festival coverage: New HorizonsPolish Film Festival in Gdynia

50 Years of Sunday Bloody Sunday (A Conversation with Michał Oleszczyk at Cineaste)

Baffling Acclaim Awards: IWOW: I Walk on WaterBeginning, Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn, Last Night in Soho, Ultraviolence 

So Bad it's Good Award: Diana: The Musical (rather this than Spencer, any day) 

Favourite Scores: The Power of The Dog (Jonny Greenwood), The Lost Daughter (Dickon Hinchliffe)

Favourite Credit Sequence: Mosquito State

Cinematographer Heroine: Weronika Bilska (Everyone Has a Summer, Bo we mnie jest seks, My Wonderful Life, Songs About Love, Simple Things

TV: Uprising (BBC, dir. Steve McQueen, James Rogan), Stephen (ITV, dir. Alrick Riley)

Unexpected Crush: Adam Woronowicz (My Wonderful Life, Zupa Nic)

Thursday 9 December 2021

Sight and Sound Winter Issue 2021-22


The Winter issue of Sight and Sound is now availabe. It includes the Top 50 Films of the Year list (individual Top 10s are online here), and interviews with Joanna Hogg, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Paul Thomas Anderson among lots of other features. I wrote a tribute to Melvin Van Peebles and a piece on Nigel Finch's The Lost Language of Cranes for this issue. More details here