My 21st-century touchstone play: theatre stars on life-changing shows

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ere at the Evening Standard, we recently tried to pull together the 21st-century’s greatest plays (read our list and see if you agree). But what about those plays that impact us more personally, that seem to speak to us directly and leave us getting on the tube feeling like we’ve had a brilliant electric shock?

As we approach a full year of theatre closures, we asked some of the industry’s brightest stars to tell us about their 21st-century touchstone play: any play that they’ve seen or worked on in the last twenty years that has shaken them to their core and had a profound, lasting impact on them. The memories they have shared are a moving reminder of theatre’s life-affirming power, and why we’ll need these experiences more than ever in our recovery from the pandemic.

Arinzé Kene, actor and writer

Arinzé Kene

/ Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

ear for eye by debbie tucker green

debbie tucker green is one of my mentors. I went to see ear for eye in 2018 and a lot of black people were being killed by police in America. It was becoming a story, but also people weren’t talking about it all that much. So going to see this play… it’s a work of art, it’s not your traditional play. It’s an exploration into what it is to be a person of colour against authorities — the police, the law, the system. A bunch of different scenes play out — one, in particular, is about a young man speaking to his parents about how to respond if the police were to stop him. The way it plays out is incredible. As a person who has been arrested for really no reason at all — when the case got thrown out, the judge actually apologised to me — which I believe was an incident of racism, it just had an impact on me. That was, for me, hands down the most I’ve felt in a play, sitting down in a theatre. It gave me hope and courage and power.

Lynette Linton, artistic director of the Bush Theatre and Future Theatre Fund panel member

Lynette Linton

/ Matt Writtle

The High Table by Temi Wilkey

The High Table is a queer, British, black love story, and I think there aren’t enough of those on our stages.  It tells the story of Tara, whose Nigerian parents refuse to attend her wedding to her girlfriend Leah. Things start to fall apart and it’s up to her ancestors to save the day from the heavens. It’s a brilliant debut play from Temi Wilkey — an epic family drama with so much comedy and lightness despite touching on difficult issues.

Finishing the show by inviting audience members to join the couple’s first dance (to Candy, of course…) was the essence of the Bush Theatre spirit — suddenly everyone in the room was part of this family. After tears and catharsis in the play, this had everyone leaving with a smile on their face. Daniel Bailey’s production was a sell-out, and despite the fact we had to end it early due to Covid, Temi went on to win the Best Writer award in The Stage newspaper’s Debut Awards and was shortlisted for the George Devine writing award. Yes, Temi! Big up!

Denise Gough

/ Dave Benett/Getty Images

People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan

I worked on this and can honestly say it is the single most profound experience of my life so far. It affirmed everything I believe about theatre and its power to affect and transform the lives of those watching and those involved. Working on such beautiful and authentic material and being guided and supported by the recovery community meant that it became a platform for the very necessary discussion about addiction, and people’s need for connection. By placing such a play on so many stages (it was performed at the National Theatre, in the West End, on tour and on Broadway) we created a space for people to empathise, feel hopeful and connect with each other in a very deep and meaningful way. That is what great theatre does. God, I really miss it. What a renaissance we shall have when we return to these spaces, having been denied the experience for so long. The renewed gratitude we will have for something I know I sometimes took for granted. I feel so fortunate to have done this beautiful play and many others and I feel so excited by the inevitable resurgence on the horizon. It’s going to be beautiful.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, actor

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

/ Dave Benett

generations by debbie tucker green

The work of debbie tucker green is phenomenal in both the artistic and scientific senses. It can ‘happen’ but is also always exceptional. Her simple, clean writing frames dangerous depths. In generations at the Clare [Venables] Theatre in the Young Vic, directed by Sasha Wares, I saw proof of the theorem that art is a natural and functioning part of our cosmos. It starts charged with shining song work from a South African choir, humorous, smart, snapping verbals whizz and collide. Detail galore. Then, in successive passes, it all evaporates off. We lose things — moments, words, whole people —  until, after half-an-hour, the thing is complete… because it’s reduced so much. Almost exactly like radioactivity but joyously artful, quantum in its scope. I didn’t know I was so affected until much later and I’ve never been the same since, and, frankly, wouldn’t want to be.

Michelle Terry, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe

Michelle Terry

Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

Emilia Bassano came into my life as a footnote to a Shakespeare play. I had a hunch that she was a woman worth writing about, that Morgan was the woman to write about her and director Nicole Charles was the woman to gather and guide the other women who would express her story. And there was no doubt that The Globe was the theatre to house those voices. And then she made herself heard. Emilia was built on centuries worth of gut and hunch and instinct. Instinct is a grossly underestimated qualification. The roar of the audience at the end of the first preview of Emilia was the result of instinct. Emilia made me trust my hunch.

Matthew Xia, artistic director of Actors Touring Company and Future Theatre Fund panel member

Matthew Xia

/ Dave Benett

Da Boyz at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Da Boyz was a hip hop adaptation of the Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys From Syracuse, by DJ Excalibur — who was me, once upon a time — MC Skolla and the designer Ultz. Ultz had the idea that because Jay Z had sampled It’s a Hard Knock Life from Annie, you could sample an entire musical and give it a similar sort of treatment, so we did that at Stratford East in 2002. What made it profound for me was that it was delivered to the audience on the audience’s terms. We knew that it was aimed at a young, multicultural demographic in East London, so we stripped out all of the seats in the auditorium, put in crash barriers, hired security to go on the door, replaced the sound system with a club sound system and left the doors open so that people could wander freely through to the bar. We ran sticker campaigns, because at the time that was how people marketed music to the same audience. It feels like it was a really early precursor to the hip hop theatre that we now all know and love.

Robert Icke

/ Dave Benett

Jerusaleum by Jez Butterworth

I came out of the preview at the Royal Court certain it was a great play. New and at once unpretentiously ancient. A king defends his castle. A town tries to kill the dragon. A battle-hymn for a lost, magical, green-forests England, which also knew necessary change was coming. A performance by Mark Rylance so fearlessly committed that it felt like mediumship — in a flawless production from Ian Rickson and his team. I bought a ticket on eBay for my dad, who cheered himself hoarse at the curtain call. My partner saw it four times. I think I saw it three. It wasn’t enough.

Susan Wokoma

/ Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd

Faith, Hope and Charity by Alexander Zeldin

I will cross treacherous terrain to see Cecilia Noble breathe on stage, but the whole production of Faith, Hope and Charity blew me and my friend Maria’s mind. I’ve never seen a play more tender, brutal, moving and frustrating. Filled with tremendous humour, heartbreaking desperation and the best acting I have ever seen on stage, it’s a play that should be made compulsory viewing. At the end, my friend Maria — who I met as a child when she would direct me local community plays around Southwark — turned to me and said, “those strip lights, those foldable tables, those people. That was us.” Neither of us had ever seen that part of our history reflected in theatre. To this day we can’t believe how accurately Zeldin captured that.

Beth Steel

/ Dave Benett

Blackbird by David Harrower

Seeing David Harrower’s Blackbird in a production by Peter Stein made me want to write. It was one of the most exciting nights of my life. Seeing these two characters’ crashing into, and recoiling from each other, through the sheer force of language, sucked the breath out of me. Here was dialogue that was physical, that pushed and pulled. Here was complexity that eschewed pat answers. It was life sharpened to a point of bright, unbearable reality. The Greeks call that vividness enargeia, since then I’ve called it theatre.  

Blanche McIntyre, director

Blanche McIntyre

/ Dave Benett

Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley

I saw this at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005 and it was electrifying. I had never seen a modern play that created such a bold new language and such a confident and plausible alternative universe. With the immersive set, the terrifyingly committed performances (Ben Whishaw, so against his usual casting) and the shocking and eye-opening subject matter, I got a totally different idea of what theatre could be. I imagine this is what the Jacobeans felt when Webster hit the stage.

Richard Gadd, writer and performer

Richard Gadd

/ Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd

Black Watch by Gregory Burke

I saw it when I was sixteen and I can still feel it to this day. It was not just the incredible writing, or acting, or direction, it was the way they captured the humanity of the soldiers at the centre of it all. These young, innocent men, sucked into an illegal war that had nothing to do with them and the ramifications that lasted long after the guns stopped firing. Nothing in the live space has rocked me quite as hard as that first viewing. It was, without question, the first time I truly witnessed the power of theatre.

Rachel O’Riordan, artistic director of Lyric Hammersmith

Rachel O’Riordan

/ Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd

Lions and Tigers by Tanika Gupta

Tanika Gupta’s Lions and Tigers spoke to me profoundly. Brave,  fierce, and beautifully written it was seeing this that made me want to commission Tanika, and work with her [the pair worked together on A Doll’s House in 2019]. I am interested in political plays, and her voice is vital in contemporary theatre. She puts British history on stage from a perspective we don’t often see;  Lions and Tigers was inspired by a true story, and Tanika’s writing made the politics feel intimate, relevant and personal. It is funny, moving and challenging.

Tom Bateman

/ AFP via Getty Images

Sea Wall by Simon Stephens

A piece that has stayed with me for years after seeing it performed (by the brilliant Andrew Scott) is Sea Wall by Simon Stephens. A testament to his incredible writing, the one-man play was performed totally without set or lighting. Stephens writes so subtly that one moment I was laughing at a flippant family feud, the next, devastated by the loss of the character’s child. He never indulges in emotion, but paints a true, beautiful and painfully honest portrayal of the suddenness of grief. It was powerful, emotional, and beautifully performed, reminding me of the art of superb writing.

The Evening Standard Future Theatre Fund, in association with TikTok and in partnership with the National Youth Theatre, supports emerging talent in British theatre. Find out more at standard.co.uk/futuretheatrefund #FutureTheatreFund #TikTokBreakoutStar