2016 in theatre – female performances

“As an actor you spend all your life trying to do something they put people in asylums for” – Jane Fonda

From Peake to Walter, Jackson to Piper, it’s been a year of stunning performances from female actors. I can’t imagine how the Olivier panel is going to make its choices come the spring. Here are a few performances that really stood out for me this year.

Maxine Peake, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Manchester Royal Exchange

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I first saw Maxine Peake on stage as ‘Hamlet’ back in 2014, and caught her at the Royal Court some months afterwards in the little gem ‘How to Hold Your Breath’, which I find myself thinking about more frequently as the refugee crisis has escalated into what will surely be deemed a humanitarian disaster. She is utterly magnetic, with real stage presence, so I didn’t surprise myself when I rushed to see her as Blanche.

Peake never disappoints, and in her version of Blanche, there was none of the calm, no nonsense spirit that she exudes in normal circumstances. Clearly an alcoholic, she simpered and floated across the stage, clinging to the trappings of her past life of comfort and luxury on a deliberately bare and depressing stage. I particularly enjoyed her interaction with lace-clad spirits who emerged at times of particular psychological pressure, and who, in a neat twist, became her nurses for the final scene. Fragile, beautiful, and utterly compelling, it’s time Peake was recognised for the powerful stage actor that she is.

Denise Gough, ‘People Places Things’, Wyndham’s Theatre

 

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There’s always a danger, isn’t there, of going to see a play based on the kind of rave reviews that Gough attracted at the National. There’s always that nagging fear that Gough might be sick that day, or somehow not quite as stunning as you have been led to imagine. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the visceral, pulsing, terrifying spectacle of Gough just smashing out of the park (as the kids would say) in a tour de force performance.

It was one of those theatre moments where you are so moved, so repulsed, so desperately sympathetic, that your whole throat and upper chest aches. I wanted to moan aloud when Gough’s character, Emma, goes home and tries to heal the many wounds that her addiction has opened in her family life, but finds her attempts to find resolution dashed by her exhausted parents. I was up in the cheap seats, which at Wyndham’s can feel like miles from the stage, but I was so engrossed that stepping out into the light at the end of the show felt like an affront rather than a welcome escape. Gough disappeared so entirely into Emma, invested her with such life and vigour and selfishness and empathy, that her Olivier felt undisputed. This website has  lots of fascinating resources about issues raised in the play.

Rachael Stirling, ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Shakespeare’s Globe

 

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I admit – I am a huge fan of Stirling. I first came across her in an episode of ‘Lewis’ a few years ago and found her to be an actress of remarkable emotional intensity, all while exuding a sense of moral certainty and integrity. The combination of her Hermione and John Light’s Leontes was too good to miss.

I found myself sitting in the pit in the Blackfriars theatre, on a seat that was right next to the stage, so I had to tuck myself in to allow actors full access to the steps onto the stage. This felt like such a privileged position: the gorgeous cloaks and dresses of the actors swept over my left arm and leg, and I could observe each facial movement, each physical reaction, in fine detail.

Stirling’s Hermione was as close to perfect as I can imagine. Stately, queenlike, and noble to her core, Stirling’s low and melodious voice beautifully captured Hermione’s joy, and later her anger and sorrow, in rich and believable detail. Her appearance for her ‘trial’, in a gown stained from recently giving birth, was a harrowing scene, and her blend of fear and righteous anger was perfectly judged. The statue scene, always deeply moving in its redemptive power, relied on her conveying power and mercy while saying very little, and once again she matched John Light’s intensity. A glorious performance.

Billie Piper, ‘Yerma’, Young Vic 

 

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When I was a teenager, Billie Piper was touring the UK with a play (the name of which I have now forgotten) which happened to co-star Laurence Fox, whom she later married. I was so excited to see her, but on the day, I was struck down with a vile bug, and ended up missing it. So, when I walked into the remarkably cool environment of the Young Vic to see ‘Yerma’, I felt a ridiculous sense of triumph against the many viruses and bugs lurking in the London air that had failed to prevent me from seeing Piper perform live.

Thank goodness I made it. ‘Yerma’ is a play that got under my skin years ago when I read it (in the original Spanish, cough cough), and this version felt more like a nod to Lorca than an updating of the text, but Piper’s performance was truly outstanding. At first somewhat grating (and deliberately so) with her picture-perfect home, beautiful clothes, and great career, the way in which she became more vulnerable and desperate until that final, shocking conclusion was remarkable. The fish-tank staging made the audience uncomfortable voyeurs, and I was struck by how the play drove home how biology has an unquantifiable hold on our sense of self. I would watch her in anything now, and I can’t wait for her return to the stage soon.

 

 

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