2016 in theatre – male performances

“Know your lines and don’t bump into furniture” – Spencer Tracy

Fortunately I have been lucky enough to see some stunning performances by male actors who did so much more than just learn and not bump! It was hard to pick a few, but the men below really blew me away this year.

Paapa Essiedu, ‘Hamlet’, Royal Shakespeare Company

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Paapa Essiedu (photo from RSC website)

I’m always really gratified when a production helps me to see a play that I think I know really well in a completely new light. The RSC’s 2016 ‘Hamlet’ has utterly changed the way I see the dynamics of the play, and teased out some threads that I had not appreciated in the original text. This production was set in Ghana, and featured the very young Paapa Essiedu as a charismatic, sarcastic, energetic, thoroughly modern ‘Hamlet’, who is thrown back into a world that he last inhabited as a child, and who struggles to blend the two worlds of Elsinore and Wittenberg. Essiedu was dynamite on stage, speaking those famous soliloquies with a new breath, a new sharp focus, and the death of this notably young and bubbling Hamlet was all the more distressing at the end. He was since gone on to play Edmund in the RSC’s ‘King Lear’, and I’ve no doubt that his name will be one on everyone’s lips in a few years.

Ben Batt, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Manchester Royal Exchange

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Ben Batt and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (photo from Royal Exchange flickr)

As a rather reluctant student of Tennessee Williams at school, I have made efforts in my adult life to see more of him, and while I am yet to revisit ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, I have seen two ‘Streetcars’, starting with the Young Vic’s thrilling revolving version a few years back. This time, I travelled up to beautiful Manchester mainly to see Maxine Peake (I want to be her when I grow up) as Blanche, but found myself thoroughly engaged by Ben Batt as Stanley. As we have come to expect, his Stanley was all muscle, a brooding physical presence given to sharp and violent outbursts, but most astonishingly, Batt excelled when revealing Stanley’s deep insecurities as a recent immigrant, and as a man trying to establish his position in the world.

George Mackay, ‘The Caretaker’, Old Vic

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Timothy Spall and George Mackay (photo from West End Theatre website)

Once again, I found myself booking to see one actor (Daniel Mays, who was quite superb, as ever), but came out speaking only of another – this time, George Mackay. I hadn’t seen any of George’s films or plays before, but have since remedied that with a sneaky school night trip to see ‘Captain Fantastic’, and more recently, finally seeing ‘Pride’ thanks to iplayer. Mackay played Mick, the fast-talking ball of intimidation who memorably scares Davies with a hoover, a role that seems far removed from Mackay’s more frequently exhibited sweetness and delicacy; here, Mackay was like a leather-clad blade, slicing his way through Davies’ bluff and bluster, and creating an air of menace that frequently cut through the dark humour of the piece. For me, his performance, and the production as a whole, quite banished the memories of struggling through the play for GCSE, and there is no higher praise than that.

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