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Ten of my favourite shows in five decades as a theatre critic | Michael Billington | Stage


1 Ken Dodd’s marathon celebration of comedy, Ha-Ha, at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1973: one of many happy nights – sometimes stretching into the following day – watching a master at work.

2 Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at the Old Vic in 1975: the first sight of an enigmatic theatrical poem dazzlingly performed by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.





John Gielgud (left) and Ralph Richardson (centre) in No Man’s Land at the Old Vic, 1975



John Gielgud
(left) and Ralph Richardson
(centre) in No Man’s Land at the Old Vic, 1975. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Rex/Shutterstock

3 Peggy Ashcroft in Happy Days at the Lyttelton in 1976: this Beckett performance heralded the opening of the National Theatre.

4 Macbeth at the Edinburgh festival in 1985: Yukio Ninagawa’s production, filled with cascading cherry blossom, turned this dark play into a poem on human transience.

5 The Mahabharata at Avignon festival in 1985: Peter Brook’s production of the great Sanskrit epic unfolded over 11 hours in an all-night production in a stone quarry.

6 The Cherry Orchard at the Berlin Schaubühne in 1989. Anton Chekhov’s symphonic realism has never been better caught than in Peter Stein’s production, with Jutta Lampe as Ranevskaya.

7 The Weir in 1997: Conor McPherson’s tale-spinning spellbinder was unveiled by an exiled Royal Court in a room over the Ambassadors theatre to general astonishment.

8 Julius Caesar at the Royal Shakespeare theatre in 2012: an all-black British cast injected new life into this Roman tragedy and provided an object lesson in verse speaking.





Paterson Joseph (Brutus) and Cyril Nri (Cassius) in Julius Caesar, 2012



Paterson Joseph
(left) as Brutus and Cyril Nri
(centre) as Cassius in Julius Caesar, 2012. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

9 The Masque of Anarchy at Albert Hall, Manchester, in 2013. Maxine Peake performed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s response to the Peterloo Massacre with such vigour that it felt like a call to political action.

10 The Watsons at the Minerva, Chichester, in 2018. Laura Wade’s version of an unfinished Jane Austen novel was a miracle of wit, invention and intelligence.

Five things I won’t miss





An audience giving a standing ovation



Much too much … Photograph: Alamy

1 The ritual standing ovation – a filthy habit imported from the US – for even the most modest piece of theatre.

2 The sense of being pushed and shoved in cramped West End foyers by air-kissing, B-list celebrities on fashionable West End first nights.

3 The sound of plastic glasses being crunched under foot at the most crucial moments of a play by spectators who will apparently expire if they are not allowed to drink.

4 The growing use of mics, even in medium-sized theatres, to compensate for the failure of actors to learn how to project.

5 The delay in turning off mobile phones until the first words of a play have been spoken or the first bars of a musical score have been played.

Michael Billington will be talking to Arifa Akbar at a Guardian Live event at Kings Place, London, on 3 February

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