REVIEW OF THE YEAR: Best arts events from 2020
Gill Sutherland, Herald arts editor
Who knows if the rest of the Bear Pit Theatre’s season could have topped their brilliant epic production of The Norman Conquests in March, but as live theatre stopped just as its run ended it stands untoppled for me – a blinding achievement for the small but always punching about its weight non-professional theatre.
Wind in the Willows brought some much-needed theatrical magic when Tread the Boards refused to be downtrodden to bring its toadally fun family socially distanced show to outdoor venues over the summer.
I loved the spontaneity of the RSC’s seemingly impromptu miscellany of music and verse performed by the retained company of actors from the stump of an old tree regularly on summer weekends in the theatre gardens – what I wouldn’t give for a bit of stump action now.
Zoom is a curse and a blessing – its limitations are maddening but it’s also a great resource in these trying times.
For the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations last April, it was an absolute pleasure to join in with other Bard enthusiasts from around the world on a Zoom broadcast chat hosted by the Birthplace Trust to mark the playwright’s 456th birthday.
Telly and lots of it has kept many of us saner than we might otherwise be through lockdown.
The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, Fargo, Tiger King, Schitt’s Creek and Sex Education have all rightly been widely applauded.
For me my top two favourites have been Normal People, a brilliant Jane Austen-esque-but-with-naughty-bits love story; and Shtisel.
On paper the latter seems an unlikely choice – the tale of an ultra-orthodox Jewish family living in Jerusalem, but it is utterly compelling and strangely relatable. It rather wonderfully proves how humankind is connected by our experiences no matter what our beliefs are.
Stewart McGill, consultant director, Playbox Theatre
Being asked to write the arts highlights of the year is often a difficult task…riches abound.
This year is very different but it did have some very memorable moments.
The Seven Streams of the River Ota is the monumental top of my list. Robert Lepage took audiences on an eight-hour journey exploring the ripples across the ages since Hiroshima. Total theatre and a magnificent company Ex Machina from Quebec. My last glorious National Theatre outing.
As lockdown moved across our summer I lamented the loss of both making and viewing work. Cheers abound for the circus industry who under Big Tops restored entertainment. Giffords Circus dinner and performance in Stroud was a lovely break from the empty new normal.
Also in the same neck of the woods, Cirencester’s Barn Theatre put others to shame by mounting a pretty full on programme including a beautiful Sondheim Marry Me A Little in the autumn. A really superb musical theatre event.
I worry about the effect of this pandemic on young people and their artistic passions. It was heartwarming to be part of the Playbox Phoenix Project getting things up and running. The installation Dreaming brought many together again and made us all long to return to normal.
I revisited Hamilton (on Disney+)… yep, it’s a great show.
Looking ahead I long for a year to see a range of theatre,opera,dance and music once more. Longbrough promise Monteverdi under the Big Top… how exciting is that?
Peter Buckroyd, Herald arts reviewer
Had I been told a year ago that most of my 2020 highlights were to come in the first ten weeks of the year I wouldn’t have believed it. As it turned out every live event was a highlight for me and the longer the year went the more miraculous it seemed that there were any live events at all.
I was sad to miss Orchestra of the Swan’s fascinating all Sibelius programme in January but enjoyed the playing of Lauren Zhang in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.
The Night Owl event, live music for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, was fascinating, but I’m afraid at this distance I remember more about the film than I do the music.
That was it for live classical music for me. I wasn’t brave enough to go to the socially distanced event in early autumn, just as I hadn’t been brave enough to go to the year’s greatest Covid-spreader, the Cheltenham Festival.
The Bear Pit had a splendid start to the year with some imaginative touches in guest company's Second Thought's production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and with a really splendid production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests.
It was all the better for seeing all three plays and has to be my theatre highlight of the year.
I enjoyed the complexities of the RSC’s The Whip, that company’s only new live play of 2020, but from this distance I find myself struggling to remember much about it.
The same cannot be said of the two outdoor performances by Tread the Boards Company, surely the most imaginative, persistent and creative of Stratford’s arts providers.
Perhaps it is something about the perilousness of their ability to survive at all which makes them so brilliant.
It is surely high time that they got some funding.
The summer saw an outdoor, socially distanced, performance of Wind in the Willows which we saw at Cox’s Yard. Full of ingenuity, it charmed the audience and delighted them with the cutest of Ratties, memorably played by Joe Deverell-Smith.
And then there was Cinderella. What a treat and what a triumph over adversity, showing that with determination live theatre can be done without all that streaming and video stuff.
Maybe there are things for the RSC to learn from Tread the Boards’s example.
Steve Sutherland, arts journalist, picks the films that got him through 2020…
I’m Thinking of Ending Things: A road trip from hell, parents from hell, memories of schooldays from hell, not exactly a romcom, more an it’s-all-gone-wrongcom… I’m Thinking’s a characteristic mind-warper from director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind). By turns creepy and confusing and keeps you guessing to the end. Available on Netflix.
Spree: Joe Keery – Steve in Stranger Things – is Kurt Kunkle, a kind of psychotic teen Uber driver driven to extremes to attract an online audience. Lots of blood, laughs and very neatly done in a tik-tok style. Available on Amazon Prime Video.
Da 5 Bloods: Spike Lee’s Apocalypse Now, beautifully soundtracked by Marvin Gaye with an ensemble of actors doing Vietnam Vets to die for. Delroy Lindo steals the show (if not the treasure). Available on Netflix.
The Lighthouse: Director of The Witch Robert Eggers’ twisted two-hander came out in the States in 2019 but reached us in 2020. Pitching hoary old sea dog Willem Dafoe against spunky novice Robert Pattinson, it’s moody, black and white and utterly Shakespearean. Available on Amazon Prime Video.
Uncut Gems: As stylish and stunning as peak Scorsese, the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems stars a gone-superbly-dramatic Adam Sandler as a pathetic, no-mark dealer in precious stones. Pacey and always gripping. We should also mention Sandler’s more typically delightfully dopey Hubie Halloween - just the daft kick up the pants 2020 needed. Both available on Netflix.
Soul: One for all the family from Pixar. Much like Up and Inside Out, it’s kooky, philosophical and warm at heart. Jamie Foxx voices the school teacher wannabe jazzer who inadvertently messes with the fabric of the universe. Best have a hankie handy. Available on Disney +.